Relevance conference 2017 – Are we trying hard enough?

In October 2017, the Relevance conference was held at the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace in partnership with CECA and DEMHIST. Here’s a round up of some of the sessions and topics discussed over the course of the five days. Find out more about the Relevance conference and read the full selection of blogs here.

The future of museums will no longer be found within museums but rather outside of the museum. This provocative message by Franklin Vagnone kicked off Relevance 2017. Hosted by Historic Royal Palaces, DEMHIST and CECA, Relevance 2017 brought together a host of exciting international speakers to share their knowledge and find out if enough is being done to keep heritage relevant in the 21ST Century. Multiple sessions ran throughout the three day conference with topics ranging from engaging local communities, measuring impact, working digitally to conservation learning.

Day one, session 1D focused on working with contemporary arts and artists and had research papers presented by Anne-Marie Emond, Gina Wouters and Carol Lo-Yun Chung. First to present their research was Anne-Marie Emond from University of Montreal on contemporary art and visitor self-awareness. Emond firmly believed a museum to be a place where visitors can express themselves and went on to outline a comprehensive conceptual framework identifying moments of self-awareness. Following on from Emound, Gina Wouters, Curator of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, focused on contemporary art commissions in historic houses. Wouters argued that stagnation occurs when historic houses are presented as time capsules. Contemporary creation can of course be an antidote to this and that heritage sites should challenge the white cube as a space where contemporary art is presented. The last paper presented in this session came from Carol Lo-Yun Chung, an independent researcher specialising in museum education and visitor studies. Chung discovered that parents and teachers become an integral influence on interests in early development. Late development for arts interest often occurs through volunteering and collecting. But does any of this matter? It is important to realise how people view the value of museums and the role it can play in leisure and social lives in order to understand how to be relevant.  This theme followed through into the next day of talks.

Day two, session 3D focused on measuring impact and learning with research papers from Polly Richards, Emma Morioka and Naomi Haywood. Polly Richards, Creative Programming and Interpretation Manager at Historic Royal Palaces shared her findings on building relevance at the Tower of London. Her work on developing the Tower Core Story came because of visitors not leaving with an understanding of why the Tower was important. The Tower, in visitor’s views, was merely a visitor attraction. The Tower Core Story framework became a great way for visitors to understand the sites 1000 year history at speed and help deliver the key message of it being a fortress, palace, prison. The framework is to be implemented over the next 20 years and will inform on how diverse stories can be shared and embedded into a permanent offer. Following on from Richards was Emma Morioka, Audience Champion from Historic Royal Palaces. Morioka presented on measuring learning impact in the heritage environment using two years of data collected from adult learning programmes. Morioka based a visitor’s learning journey of discovery, participation and transformation on the organisation’s cause. All learning activities offered at Historic Royal Palaces incorporate these elements. It was also identified that measure, reach, quality and value needed to be in place for effective evaluation to take place. Time is yet to tell how the learning offer compares to the general visitor offer as larger sample sizes are needed to investigate the foundations of a successful learning offer. Naomi Haywood, Science Museum London, presented the final paper in this session. Haywood focused on the relevance of collections for underrepresented local communities. The Building Bridges project at the museum aimed to collaborate and work with families from under represented visitor groups. The focus was on what families do in their everyday lives rather than not what they do such as, visiting museums. Haywood’s key finding discovered that connectivity was an essential part of a young person’s life and it was something the parent was excluded by. The Building Bridges project not only gave the museum insights into their under-represented communities but it also provided an insight into how they are viewed, primarily as educational rather than fun. Once again, this highlighted that by being relevant to your audiences, a constant dialogue is needed.

The second session of day two, session 4a, focused on knowing your local communities with research papers presented by Aniko Miszne Korenchy and Lisa Leblanc. Korenchy, from the Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism, explored the idea of mapping communities. Often museum workers do not realise the language they speak within the sector can alienate those outside of it. A common language should be used between communities and those working within museums, which is definitely one way to keep relevant! Lisa Leblanc, Director, Creative Development and Learning, for Canadian Museum of History shared her knowledge on how to be relevant to those living on the other side of the Atlantic. The museum used over twenty years of visitor service information as well as consulting Canadians across the country on what they wanted an exhibition about Canadian history to be. The unanimous view was that people did not want a colonial view of history, they wanted to see the good and the bad and were able to handle the truth of dark periods of history. What becomes apparent is that museums should not under-estimate what their audiences have an appetite for, do not be afraid to take risks and do not be neutral.

The final session of the day, session 5c, saw delegates enthusiastically take part in a workshop that involved dot painting and object handling in order to learn about art intervention strategies for special educational needs and disability students. Sarah Allen, Learning Officer from Leeds Museums and Galleries, shared her key findings from using objects with SEND students. Flexibility is key and it is always important to offer alternatives, repeating objects can increase a student’s confidence and participation. It is also integral to slow down and allow students to lead their own learning. It’s hard to ignore the transformative power museums can have on people and why this work should be valued. This is also something picked up by Maria Balshaw, director of TATE, in her keynote speech on the final day of presentations.

Balshaw stated that access to art, culture and heritage can change the world. It is our social and ethical responsibility to strive for relevance for our communities and people must feel at home in our spaces. How can we make audiences interested in history in a new and exciting way? This question presented in session 7c of day three saw Adam Sibbald, Historic Royal Palaces, Katherine McAlpine, Royal Museums Greenwich, Becky Brown, Specifiq, and Dr Joanna Bucknell, University of Birmingham on a panel discussing ways they have bought heritage to life. Speaking about their immersive programming at their respective sites, Sibbald and McAlpine focus on what their audiences will enjoy first. Audiences are given agency and choice, their decisions effect the outcome of the programme. Collaborating with different organisations can only benefit programming. Becky Brown from Specific worked closely alongside museums to find hidden secrets of a space and capture it in a way that does not disrupt form or damage integrity. Repeating immersive experiences is also a risk as audiences would like to see something fresh and new, how can sites sustain expectation? Throughout this discussion, it was stated that programming should be reactive to what audiences want and their needs. But how do we approach audiences that are not engaged with our sites?

Starting with Paola Araiza Bolanos from the Taller Colectivo in Mexico, the last session, 8a, of the day (and the conference!) focused on heritage as a community resource. The National Museum of Popular Culture currently has on display ‘The Milpa: Space and Sacred Time’. This project aimed to share, promote, reflect upon and show the bio cultural diversity of Mexico through milpa, a crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica. The project used the idea of milpa contributing to the conservation of cultural and symbolical representations of identity in Mexico. The collective aimed to value traditional Mexican food and teach participants about a healthy and balanced diet. The Milpa Collective Workshop made use of multi-disciplinary teams to develop and deliver activities. They used collaborative and participatory methods, such as photography workshops to capture creative compositions and to highlight differences between manufactured machinery with a natural process. Following on from this, Rosalind Croker, Endeavour Learning Project Manager from National Maritime Museum Greenwich discussed the importance of changing perceptions within communities. Perception is often seen as the biggest barrier to engagement, a theme that has been regularly highlighted throughout the conference. Croker discusses that national museums can become central to local life and partnerships and collaborations are key to making community programmes work, a sentiment also echoed by Kim Klug, Learning Producer at Historic Royal Palaces. Presenting on a community programme for adults that face barriers to engagement, Build Your Own Discovery empowers group leaders and makes them the expert at Kensington Palace. If people are to find meaning within heritage sites, the site must relinquish control. The closing statement of the session, which summed up how heritage can remain relevant identified; “it’s not what matters to us, it’s what matters to our audience.”

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