Tuesday, 4 September 2012

International Work | Let's Share What We Know

In May 2012, the National Museums Directors’ Council (NMDC) published a short paper, World Collections, which illustrated the breadth and impact of our members’ international work [see image 1]. We wanted to show that working internationally has become business as usual for many museums, and that there is a huge variety and depth of engagement taking place. You might be aware of the high profile loans which attract headlines but there are hundreds of projects beyond those. There are scientists at the Natural History Museum (NHM) working with colleagues across the world to study specimens to learn more about disease-bearing insects. Teams from the British Museum spend weeks in Nigeria and Kenya providing training on how to pin coins, fold textiles and re-build storage facilities. At any time within the walls of UK museums there are worldwide visitors from museums, universities, arts organisations and specialist organisations (like archaeological societies), leading workshops, studying collections, giving lectures, assisting with exhibitions and community programmes and being trained in collections management. Similarly, people from UK museums are visiting colleagues across the world to take part in the same sort of activities.

Some of this I knew already.  Between 2008 and 2011 I was the International Manager at the British Museum and part of my job was to run the World Collections Programme. This was a £3m DCMS-funded project to developing long-term projects in Africa and Asia using six of the UK’s largest collections: the British Museum, British Library, Tate, Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), NHM and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

1. Science Museum re-developed its popular hands-on interactive gallery Launchpad in 2007, the exhibits were donated to the Unizul Science Centre in South Africa. Following the success of the Launchpad Outreach Programme in the UK, the Science Museum entered into a partnership with the Unizul Science Centre.
Image courtesy of NMDC World Collections publication.

At the British Museum I found that getting to know colleagues who were working on similar projects was crucial when working somewhere new or trying to do something particularly tricky. For example, when I was working on negotiating the loan for Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World I used the network created by the World Collections Programme to make contacts and pick the brains of those who had worked in Afghanistan [see image 2]. I met helpful British Embassy staff and found someone in the Afghan Embassy in London who could help me translate letters into Dari. It was a mutually beneficial group. For quite a while I knew exactly how much it cost for an Iraqi curator to get a UK visa (78 Jordanian dinar), the best flight route from Basra to London (via Amman) ad what to write in a letter to persuade the relevant Iraqi Ministry to let a museum director come to the UK. Unless these were likely to be the answers to my million pound question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, it was pointless keeping this information to myself. We would co-host visitors with the British Library – Iraqi, Kenyan and Ethiopian scholars and curators who we knew would be interested in each other’s collections. These sorts of experiences have influenced the second aspect of NMDC’s international project: to find ways to better share knowledge and experiences across the museum sector.

2. This object is one of the illicitly traded Begram Ivories which the British Museum helped repatriate to the National Museum of Afghanistan (they very recently have been shipped back to Kabul). 
The picture is "Begram Ivories: Duck Walking to the Left" from Begram, Afghanistan. 
Image courtesy of the National Museum of Afghanistan

International work is, by nature, complicated and any step that can be taken to make it less so is surely a good thing. So, in these straightened times, if a museum wants to develop a partnership in China or apply for EU funding, doesn’t it make sense to talk to someone who has already done it? If a museum spent 18 months being the first UK institution to mount a large touring exhibition to Indian venues (as the V&A has) then they are likely to have learnt a great deal about the most effective ways to negotiate, the best couriers for that environment and where the decent hotels are in Mumbai. Thankfully the V&A are keen to share the answers to these sorts of questions.

Developing international partnerships is no longer the preserve of the very largest London-based cultural institutions. There are hundreds of international partnerships involving museums of all sizes across the UK. For that reason, the V&A and NMDC are organising a session at this year’s Museums Association Conference (Thursday 8th November, 12.20pm – 13.20pm) to discuss the practicalities of developing partnerships with museums in India. We have participants from the V&A, National Museum of Scotland, the British Library, Indian museums and the British Council, and the focus of the session is on sharing good practice and steering clear of trouble. Given the large Indian community in London, the opportunities for working with Indian museums and the wonderful Indian objects in London museum collections, we really hope it will be helpful to London museums whatever their size.

In the meantime and in the spirit of sharing, I thought I’d finish with a list of five things I learnt – some of it by luck rather than judgement:

  • Sustainability - No-one likes to have a project done ‘to them’, so forming long-term partnerships in which you can invest will probably yield the greatest success;
  • Do something achievable - Don’t start big – work up to something. Get to know people and how they work with something smaller;
  • Ask for advice - The British Council is a great source of in-country guidance and there are many other organisations who work in specific countries or on different art forms and academic subjects. Look up from your project and think who else would be keen to know you are doing this;
  • A little tip - Blue is a neutral colour for wrapping diplomatic gifts; books relating to your collection, museum or London make good gifts...
  • Shopping - almost every delegation or visit I arranged wanted time off and directions to Primark. I decided this was one part of the trip they could do unaccompanied!

If you have any questions about international work, please see my offer on the Share London website.

Author: Katie Childs, Projects and Policy Officer, NMDC and LMG member.