Latest Blog Posts
- Evaluating Evaluation
- Memory, learning and museums
- Using historical memory in museum learning and interpretation
- Museum of Liverpool Review
- GEM conference - day 3
Is evaluation working?
That’s a big question, and one that needs to be asked. I recently spent a day with a group of like-minded people at a colloquium designed to address exactly that issue. ‘Evaluating Evaluation’ is a project led by King’s College, London and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Wellcome Trust. Its brief is to assess the impact of summative evaluation in the museum sector and come up with recommendations for how the millions of pounds the sector spends on evaluation can have a greater impact.
I got involved earlier this year when I read a piece by Maurice Davies and Christian Heath in the Museums Journal entitled ‘Why evaluation doesn't measure up’. In it the authors outlined their views on what’s wrong with evaluation and asked for responses. Evaluation has been a big part of my workload for the past nine years as an independent consultant, and before that as a museum employee, and I’ve long had concerns about how evaluations are commissioned, delivered and used (or not used). I wrote to Maurice outlining some of my thoughts and was subsequently invited to speak at one of the panel discussions at the colloquium on 3 December.
It was an interesting and thought-provoking day, with a high level of consensus about what’s wrong with evaluation but a lot less clarity on what the sector needs to do about it and who should take responsibility for key actions.
I was asked to comment in my panel about how evaluation could be improved. These are some of my thoughts.
I’ll be looking out for Maurice and Christian’s report early next year and hope that it sparks some more debate within the sector on how we can collectively improve this crucial area of work.
Last week I was asked to give an interview for Berria, a publication based in the Basque Country, about the Sharing European Memories in Schools project I've been working on for the past 18 months. The interview was supposed to happen via Skype, but due to technical issues we did it by email instead. I've copied the interviewer's questions and my answers here.
Aranxta Elizegi (interviewer): Preparing this interview I found a 2009 survey, according to which one in 20 children in UK think Hitler was a German football coach. Do we need better education of society? How we could do it?
Emma King: I agree a lot of people have a very low awareness of history, though I don't think that's unique to the UK! I do believe we need better history education both in schools and beyond, because our knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the past shapes our understanding of the present and influences how we shape the future. For example, the Europe we live in exists both politically and geographically as a direct result of the Second World War. That itself was a product of the First World War, and so on. We need a rounded and multi-dimensional understanding of all these events that goes beyond the familiar glib one-sided accounts.
How we achieve that is a more difficult question. Schools evidently have a role to play. Our curriculum in England is being revised, and there are concerns that time available for history teaching will be squeezed and that we might revert to a 'names and dates' version of history rather than focusing on understanding. This is worrying. In wider society I think museums and the media have a key role to play. In the UK we are gearing up to commemorate the centenary of the First World War in 2014 and it is encouraging to see funding for museums and archives to develop participatory projects that involve people in researching and exploring their own communities' history. I think getting people actively involved in the process of history is key.
AE: How do memories shape our understanding of the past?
EK: That's a big question! It's a very complex process. In the SEM@S project we looked at different types of memory. There are individual memories, which are your own memories, and social memories. All of these memories are constantly being made and forgotten, and can be manipulated and changed. Social memory, where you share a common history with a specific group of people, is crucial in creating and maintaining a sense of individual and community identity. Communities (and even nations) reinforce their own identity through the stories they tell themselves - and the memories that they suppress - about their past.
AE: Could you explain your project of the SEM@S?
EK: We worked with a group of 14 year old History students at the Co-operative Academy in Leeds to explore the history of D-Day and the Second World War through the memories and experiences of individuals who experienced it first hand. A key part of the project was training students in interview skills so that they could interview a group of five people with memories of the Second World War. Meeting the veterans made a big impact on the students. They developed a more empathic understanding of the past that took them beyond facts and figures. One of them told us, "You can't really get emotions of World War Two out of books. You can read about the emotion but you can't feel the emotion. Interviewing the people, you felt the emotion and you took the emotion with you". We also visited the Royal Armouries Museum where students handled Second World War weapons and uniform and did a critique of the way the museum displays and interprets the history of the Second World War.
After the interviews students compared the veterans' memories with the 'official' history they study in school. We also explored how the war has been remembered and reinterpreted by later generations, looking at ideas of heroism, remembrance and the way in which politicians and the media use Second World War imagery to manipulate public opinion.
AE: Why it's so necessary to insert historical memory in teaching?
EK: I think there are two main reasons. One is that it engages students with learning about the past. If they can find out about real people's lives, and particularly if they can meet those people and talk to them, they become active learners and can ask the questions that really interest them. The second is that it makes history relevant to the present day. Our students were most interested and engaged firstly when they were able to meet the veterans, but also when they realised how much the imagery and social memory of the Second World War is used in the present - it directly influences the way we think today. The media use historical imagery all the time to manipulate people's feelings and opinions. Young people need to understand how and why that happens so they become critical thinkers, challenging the messages they are given by politicians and the media rather than taking them at face value.
AE: In history there are many sensitive issues that are difficult to talk, What we should do in these cases?
EK: I think that using historical memory as a framework can help talk about difficult and contested histories. If you recognise that every individual's memory of an event is different you then understand why there are often multiple narratives of an event, and you can start to explore why those stories are different. Recognising the process through which social memory is created, and the social and political factors at play, helps us understand why and how one version of events starts to take prominence. However, it's a very difficult area and requires a willingness to accept other people's thoughts and feelings as valid even if you don't agree with them. Artistic and creative approaches can also help and museums and galleries have done some very interesting work in this area.
I could have said a lot more! This is a subject that really interests me. My previous blog post also covers issues to do with history and memory, and I'm currently working on an article for the Oral History Society Journal with my colleague Dr Tracy Craggs. Comments welcome on either post!
I'm working on an EU partnership project at the Royal Armouries Museum that explores the concept of historical memory in the secondary history curriculum. Partners from six EU countries are developing and testing a methodology that uses sites and collections to engage students with the idea of historical memory and broaden their understanding of how history is created, constructed and used. The project website is http://www.memoriesatschool.eu/. This article summarises a workshop I ran with my colleague Tracy Craggs for the Social History Curators' Group conference in July 2012.
We began with a brief discussion of the definitions we’re using for the project. These are somewhat simplistic, but in a multi-partner project it's important to have a common starting point and framework.
Our EU project has developed a four-step process to work through these ideas with students. There is a more detailed description on the project website but essentially the stages are:
1. Students researched the history of a particular event (in our case D-Day), comparing history and memory sources and learning about the event from different viewpoints. This included a visit to the Royal Armouries Museum
2. Students met and interviewed people with their own memories of the Second World War, including D-Day veterans
3. The students explored how D-Day and other events of the Second World War have been remembered (or forgotten), commemorated and interpreted in social and historical memory
4. Finally, students created their own interpretations based on their research by making digital stories.
Our workshop questioned what these ideas mean for museums, linking in with conference discussions on co-creation and the politics of interpretation. We asked, can the concept of historical memory help us engage audiences more effectively with museum interpretation outside of formal learning programmes? Can it bring a different dimension to interpreting collections? How can museums be more transparent about our processes and encourage visitors to understand how history ‘works’? How can we be more open to challenging, and encouraging visitors to challenge, our interpretations of the past?
Museums are moving towards more openness in their interpretation, for example through co-creation of exhibitions with community groups. This brings with it questions about curatorial ‘voice’, ownership and control. It is still the convention to structure an exhibition around a theme or narrative rather than explore how histories are constructed. Museums frequently present memory as history, particularly when oral histories are used in exhibitions, without acknowledging that the point of view they are presenting is partial and incomplete. Sometimes this can lead to conflict. Perhaps the best-known example is the dispute over the Enola Gay exhibition put on by the US National Air and Space Museum in 1995 to mark 50 years since the bombing of Hiroshima. Historian Susan Crane wrote of the controversy, “Personal historical memory met institutional memory head on, and the collision was catastrophic”. The issue is well documented at http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/enola/
A comparison of the Enola Gay with a different object on display at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum illustrates how two objects in different locations can evoke radically different memories of the same event. Clearly the interplay between objects and memories in these different exhibitions - the process of interpretation - is crucial to visitors' understanding of the event. We questioned whether an approach that uses historical memory as a framework, asking how certain events are remembered, why and by whom, might help museums interpret contested histories more effectivly and help visitors understand that history is an activity constructed in the present, not a set of objective facts about the past.
Workshop participants raised the practical and methodological challenges of using historical memory as a framework for approaching exhibitions. We discussed the difficulty of the concepts – clearly the relationship between history and memory is not straightforward, and ‘historical memory’ is both a contested term for historians and a very difficult one to unpick. There are also questions about whether potentially ‘navel-gazing’ exhibitions that examine historical interpretation are really what visitors want.
However, I’d argue that social history curators already work in the field of historical memory. Museums increasingly now collect memories and stories about objects, which can be as important as the objects themselves. We collect individual memories in the form of oral history collections. We operate a process of selection, deciding which objects and memories are worthy of being part of our collections and which are not. We curate memories by using objects, and the memories attached to them, to create interpretations that contribute to the creation of social and historical memory. None of this work is neutral. I’d like to suggest that museums could concentrate less on communicating information and more on engaging people in a dialogue about how historical interpretations are formulated, and consequently how they are used (and abused) in the present.
From our project, we learned that:
Our EU project is due to finish in December by which time we’ll have a final methodology that will be available on the project website. We’re also considering further funding bids to explore the relevance of historical memory in the context of museum interpretation rather than formal learning and would love to hear from anyone with an interest in this subject.
I’ll start with a confession. I've never really got on with Liverpool. I lived there for four years between 1998 and 2002 while I worked at what is now World Museum Liverpool, and despite enjoying my time there and making some great friends I never really felt at home. Something about the city's chipper-underdog image didn't gel with me and the legendary friendliness too often seemed hidden beneath a hard and unforgiving attitude. It's also true that, back then, the city and its suburbs offered a limited range of urban vistas, from shabby-chic through to unremittingly grim.
All this was pre-Capital of Culture and since 2008 the city has undergone a massive and much-needed renaissance, the impact of which is still being discussed (see the Impacts 08 website for information on the research). The new Museum of Liverpool is a latecomer to that particular party. It opened in July 2011 at a total cost of £72m, which (according to the NML website) makes it the UK’s biggest new-build national museum for over 100 years. With the weight of expectation that such a high-profile project entails, the museum has lot to live up to and has welcomed thousands more people than anticipated since it opened in July.
The first thing to say about the Museum of Liverpool is it's not finished yet. The ground and second floor galleries are open but the whole of the first floor and the exhibition areas it will house – Port City and City Soldiers, along with an interactive resource centre called History Detectives – has yet to be completed. The area in front of the museum is still a partial building site. The most obvious impact of this phased approach to opening is overcrowding: the museum had 13,000 visitors on its first day and the influx has hardly slowed since. That should ease with time and when the museum is fully open, but for the time being overcrowding makes for an uncomfortable visit.
The architecture and design have had a mixed, often unkind reception, including a nomination for the Carbuncle Cup, Building Design magazine's annual award for the UK's ugliest new building constructed in the previous 12 months. Given the museum’s location in a World Heritage Site alongside the city’s legendary Three Graces one might speculate that, whatever the design, it could not have hoped to escape the critics’ brickbats. Liverpool has been under fire for several years for its management of developments along the waterfront. UNESCO has held the world heritage site under review for three years because of poor management of new developments and the museum's design took place against a backdrop of controversial decisions about new buildings in the vicinity. Its image wasn't helped by well-publicised disputes between the museum trustees and original architects. Whatever your view, it's unfortunate that the development of the UK's new national museum has been overshadowed by negativity and arguments.
The resulting building may not the most innovative design ever but it’s certainly not the most awful of the rash of new buildings that have sprung up on Liverpool’s waterfront (in my view the menacing construction built for Neptune Developments at Mann Island should take that prize). Inside the museum the public spaces are bright and welcoming, and the spiral staircase forms an impressive centerpiece. Circulation areas outside the galleries are spacious with a good supply of seating, albeit fairly ad hoc in places. The reward for making it to the top of the building is the view – the architects have made the most of the prime location and both top floor galleries offer panoramic views of the city’s skyline and across the river to Birkenhead. The outward-looking approach and use of natural lighting on the upper floors is in welcome contrast to the numerous museums that keep visitors in the dark and insulated from the city whose story they’re trying to explore.
The story of Liverpool starts on the ground floor with the Global City gallery. Visitors are launched straight into a disjointed narrative about Liverpool's importance to the British Empire, touching on its trade links, its connection with slavery and how its location and global connections shaped the city’s growth and brought it to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is undoubtedly a social history museum. It’s understandable that curators would want to emphasise Liverpool at its height, but all the same this seems an arbitrary place to begin the story of a city that celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2007 and has archaeological collections that span prehistory to the postmodern age. The first floor History Detectives resource will apparently ‘explore the long history of Liverpool and the Merseyside region from the last ice age to the present day’. It will be interesting to see whether that hands-on space and the yet-unopened exhibitions extend the narrative back in time and make use of collections that don't get an airing anywhere else in NML's family of museums.
The People’s Republic exhibition on the top floor tackles Liverpool's 20th century social history. It doesn't shy away from some of the grimmer Liverpool facts - that it is still one of the poorest cities in Europe, for example, or that death from coronary heart disease is 53% higher in Liverpool than the national average - but there's little explanation or context for why life in Liverpool has frequently been so hard. The museum avoids the traditional narrative of post-industrial, post-1960s decline but doesn't replace it with anything, leaving it difficult to construct an overarching story from the individually interesting displays. Some stories are omitted because they're effectively told elsewhere - the nearby International Museum of Slavery addresses the legacy of the slave trade and its impact on race relations in Liverpool - but this leaves the city story with conspicous gaps. However, with two galleries yet to open, it's difficult to draw any conclusions yet about the cohesiveness of the museum's narrative apprach.
The more upbeat Wondrous Place gallery explores Liverpool's character and popular culture. There are no surprises here, but characteristics such as the Liverpool accent, the city's musical heritage, its poets and playwrights and its sporting traditions are celebrated through engaging individual and personal narratives, with plenty of input from local people and multiple voices accessible through objects, text, film and audio displays. The museum has made much of its community consultation and co-production and says that 10,000 people contributed to the displays. This is a laudable achievement and in some areas results in genuinely illuminating stories - the Global City gallery's exhibition on Liverpool's relationship with China and its legacy in the form of the UK's oldest Chinese community is one example. In other areas the city lives up to its own stereotype. In a section entitled the "Liverpool Look" a local artist asked Liverpool women to design an outfit for a doll that they might wear themselves. The outcome is a slightly creepy display of Barbie and Bratz dolls wearing ugg boots and clutching miniature Cricket shopping bags, as though the women of Liverpool have colluded in caricaturing themselves. Leaving aside the limitations of asking women to represent themselves with toy dolls, it seems a shame to restrict this project to women, all the more incongruous on a day when the city's Gay Pride celebration was in full swing outside. The resulting display says little about how women use clothing to express themselves, or how their individual identities relate to their sense of belonging to the city in which they live.
The museum takes an interactive approach to storytelling, with objects, interpretive panels, touchscreen and physical interactives, flipbooks and short films making for a lively mix and a multi-layered approach to interpretation. The broad range of media and range of approaches to storytelling prompted Observer reviewer Rowan Moore to describe the galleries as ‘a warm gloop of unchallenging information’, which begs the question, what level of challenge did Moore expect? I suspect he’s seeing accessible, audience-focused interpretation and making that tedious and tired assumption that the museum is somehow “dumbing down”. You won’t get a greater level of challenge in the V&A, Rowan, you’ll just find the labels are harder to read. Having said that, while the quality of the build and the production values are second to none, overall there's nothing groundbreaking about the design or content of the exhibitions. Text panels are informative, but wordy and often bland. Displays are object-rich, sometimes to the extent that the collections are hard to take in. The curatorial team has obviously made some tough decisions and crammed as much as possible into limited space, with the result that circulation space in the exhibitions would be inadequate for far fewer people. In some ways the museum is a victim of its own success: overcrowding meant that the touchscreen computers and interactive exhibits were largely being ignored.
Of course the real test of a museum is not whether critics and reviewers like it, but the response it gets from the public. On the day I visited, despite the numbers, there was a buzz in the air and plenty of discussion taking place between visitors: lots of “Have you seen this?” and “Do you remember that?” from the predominantly local crowd. Visitors seemed to recognize themselves in much of the interpretation and many clearly enjoy having their city reflected back to them, particularly on the upper floors. The museum is being billed as a ‘living biography of the city’, emphatically for, about and by the people of Liverpool.
This, however is the central question, for a museum geek at least. No other city in the country has a city museum with a local remit that receives national level funding directly from DCMS (the Museum of London is funded by the city, and the national museums in Bradford, York and Leeds are offshoots of the London-based Science Museum and do not restrict themselves to local themes). I can't say I discerned any real difference in ambition, scope or scale between the Museum of Liverpool and other major city museums, for example Leeds, Sheffield or Birmingham; at least, nothing beyond what you might expect from several years of work and a budget of £72m. National Museums Liverpool has created an excellent example of a modern city museum built on a long-term programme of community engagement. Then again, as a national organisation aspiring to leadership of the sector, so it should.
Wednesday's conference venue was Norwich Castle Museum, offering delegates the chance to find out more about NMAS's work with audiences. The day started with keynotes from leading thinkers in the field of education. Prof Terry Haydn is Professor in Education at the University of East Anglia and course tutor for History on the secondary PGCE. His presentation focused on how to genuinely engage people in learning. He asked, how do you make learning powerful and engaging? How do you make the past relevant to people in the present, particularly young people – what use is the past to them? He pointed out a reality that we don’t often acknowledge in museum learning, which is that sites and collections can be intractable resources and create disastrous experiences when they’re not used well. Terry then posed the cookery book analogy: how many cookery books do you have in your kitchen, and what proportion of the recipes in them do you actually use? The point being that it isn’t about having lots of objects, but about how you use the ones you’ve got. He showed us some great examples of powerful, memorable learning experiences that stick in the mind and reminded us that learning is a more complex process (and teaching a less effective one) than people often think. His advice to the museum learning sector was to acknowledge that times are hard and the situation we’re in isn’t fair, but to carry on, learn from each other, and use integrity, commitment, creativity and imagination. Those attributes have been very much in evidence over the past couple of days.
Prof Tom Schuller is director of Longview, a think tank promoting longitudinal and lifecourse research, and a visiting professor at Birkbeck and the Institute of Education. Tom has long experience in the lifelong learning sector and has been a key policy influencer: among other roles, he directed NIACE's review of lifelong learning that reported in 2009 and chaired the MLA Leading Museums group. His keynote illuminated some of the long term trends affecting the lifelong learning sector now and in the long term. He talked about our ageing society and gave some startling statistics: one in three babies born today will live to be 100, and by the time you and I get to the end of today our life expectancy will have increased by about 20 minutes. Makes me feel like taking a little 20-minute break. This trend has a range of implications: Tom asked the question, when does middle age actually start? In the context of recent debates over the retirement age, it’s a very pertinent question. The family is changing too: there is a broader range of family types around now than ever before. It’s the norm for today's children to grow up with all four grandparents (or 5, 6, 7 or 8) and the role of grandparents is becoming increasingly important as more parents work, childcare costs are high and people stay healthy through middle age. This means that the relationships between the generations, both at a personal level and in the macro social context, are shifting and Tom introduced the concepts of dependence and interdependence between generations. This matters for museums because it needs to inform our programming and our planning for the future. How can museum learning programmes foster intergenerational relationships in future?
Tom ended with 4 strategic challenges for our sector:
The following discussion covered the issue of advocacy, linked to research and evidence. There was consensus that museums need to be more adept at shouting about what they do, locally as well as on a wider platform, and knit together compelling data that demonstrates impact with the emotive case studies that convince policymakers of the value of our work. There’s clearly a need for better research, aggregation and sharing of data across the museum learning sector and this is something GEM will try to get to grips with as part of our forward planning process. Evaluation was described by one delegate as ‘the grisly elephant in the room’ on day 1 and clearly isn’t something we can ignore if we are to survive in the current policy environment.
How fast can I type in the half-hour between the last conference session and dinner?! With any luck I might manage to summarise this morning's two inspirational keynotes.
We were lucky to have Carole Souter from the Heritage Lottery Fund as our first keynote, sharing her thoughts on the outcome of HLF’s recent consultation and on the likely direction of the new strategic plan that begins in 2013. She had some impressive statistics – in its 16-year history HLF has been part of a transformation in learning and engagement with heritage and invested £4.7bn in over 32,000 projects ranging from £3000 to over £20m. £1.4bn has gone into museums and galleries alone.
The good news is that HLF will have more money than was anticipated from 2013 onward. This is partly because it will take 20% of the ‘good causes’ money rather than 16.6%, but also because that pot is itself bigger because last year was Camelot's best ever for ticket sales - I wonder why! The upshot is that HLF's budget is £300m next year, nearly back to the level it was at a few years ago. The less encouraging news is that the process is becoming much more competitive. HLF are now 3-4 times oversubscribed which is an unprecedented situation and means that applications will have to be watertight to stand a chance of success. It means there are some excellent projects that won’t be successful in gaining HLF investment. Carole’s advice was to bear in mind the two main decision-making questions that the HLF board uses – why HLF, and why now? Why is HLF the right funder for your project, and why is this the right moment for your project? They need the positive answers to that second question and not just the negative ones – it’s not just about saving your building from falling down, but about why your audiences need you, and what they are asking you to do. Carole has a positive message about HLF's ability and willingness to support good ideas and innovation. However it's also true that HLF's £300m doesn't go anywhere near plugging the £500 - £700m funding gap left by the Comprehensive Spending Review, and that HLF funding is still about additionality and not about funding core work.
Our next keynote was from Tony Butler, CEO of the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket. His presentation was about re-imagining the purpose of the museum, turning standard instrumentalist ideas about museums' contribution to political outcomes and economic development on their head and focusing instead on their stewardship role and potential to be "connectors in civil society". MEAL is an active social enterprise with progressive values, focusing on social justice and being the centre of local life, and Tony shared some of the principles and values behind that with innumerable references to alternative economic thinking and philosophy. He challenged us to find new ways of measuring and valuing what we do - for MEAL success isn't measured by the length of queues lining up for blockbusters but by how well it contributes to the strength of social networks, promoting shared interests and a sense of identity and locality. Tony introduced the work of the Happy Museum project, an initiative supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation's Breakthrough fund and based on Edgar Cahn's theories about civil society as the core economy. The project challenges museums to reinvent themselves - how does participation work throughout your organisation? Are you a pyramid, with the trustees at the top and your audiences and participants at the bottom, or a circular network with participation at all levels through governance, leadership and collaboration? What role do museums play in their communities? Can they be campaigners, activists, places for encounters? How do we address our ingrained behaviours to become more open?
If I've been brief in that summary it's because I really can't do Tony's presentation justice in the time I've got but I do recommend you read his blog and look at the Happy Museum project for more detail than I can give you in this short time! If I don't depart *now* I'll miss the AGM (and the drink I've been bribed with beforehand) so I will publish now but post again later with links to some of the workshops I went to later in the day. Chin chin...
GEM's conference for 2011 got under way earlier today at Dunston Hall in rainy Norfolk. The theme of "thinking ahead and staying afloat" couldn't be more relevant to organisations facing cuts, redundancies and wholesale restructures and it's encouraging to see that so many people were able to make the journey to network with colleagues, share practice and hopefully take away ideas and inspiration to sustain them once back at the coal face. This is a quick summary of day 1, hastily typed in the half-hour between the end of the session and departing for the Sainsbury Centre's evening reception so forgive me if I've missed anything pertinent! The Twitter hashtag for the conference is #gem2011 and an increasing number of people have started tweeting, so please follow that for live comment from a greater variety of voices - and do follow GEM at @gem_heritage.
GEM chair John Reeve's opening remarks outlined the new political and financial situation we're all facing, with all the threats, challenges and opportunities that brings. After that we heard from Vanessa Trevelyan, director of Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service and current president of the Museums Association, and it was reassuring to hear a leading museum director describe learning in its broadest sense as central to the mission of any museum. Vanessa's comment "there's no point in having collections unless you're going to use them to inspire and educate people" certainly struck a chord with me, though she did say that learning is under threat and requires specialist staff and robust evidence of impact. She showed us some of that evidence in a tour of some of the work happening in Norfolk. There's clearly a lot of exciting work going on with audiences across the board and Vanessa talked about how the service was facing the challenge of sustaining this through cuts - investing in income generation through shops and cafes, rationalising storage and making "sensitive disposals", making clever use of spaces, restructuring staff and making better use of staff skills and abilities through flexible working. You can download the full text of Vanessa's presentation from the Museums Association website.
Vanessa's keynote set the tone for the panel discussion that followed, which covered the pros and cons of maintaining in-house staff versus outsourcing work to freelancers; and the ongoing challenge of evaluation and whether the Inspiring Learning for All GLO and GSO frameworks are still relevant or whether we need to find impact measures that work for our partners rather than our own sector. Delegates raised the challenge presented by the new political framework, in which our sector's longstanding focus on engagement and audience development is now being challenged, bringing with it the need for creative responses and new relationships, for example with Academy sponsor organisations rather than local authority learning advisers. I'm sure these conversations will continue over the next few days.
We then split out into breakout sessions, bringing with it the eternal conference dilemma - which one to choose? I stayed for Susie Bachelor's session on developing a strategic site-based learning programme', with some interesting examples and discussion about how Historic Royal Palaces has grown its provision for different audiences and how it plans to sustain this in the long term. I'm curious to know whether the challenge from Tullie House Museum, to arrange an exchange between students from London and Carlsle, goes ahead!
I'm afraid I missed most of the members' presentations but will be asking around to find out what I missed - please leave a comment if you were there! There may well be a role for live streaming web feeds at future conferences. I did return for the brainstorming session on GEM's future CPD role, to which I was listening intently in my role as chair of GEM's professional development committee - that might have to be a topic for a future blog post.
I shall have to leave it there as I'm reliably informed that the coaches to this evening's meal don't wait for latecomers! More tomorrow... and in other news, my room-mate has found her toothbrush :-)
Image: View en route to Pulpit Rock, Norway
I’m currently working on a fantastic EU project for the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, collaborating with colleagues from Italy, Spain, Norway, Poland and Slovenia. The project's called Sharing European Memories in School and is a follow-on from another project I worked on a couple of year ago. It's a brilliant experience and I'm surprised that more UK organisations don’t get involved with international partnership projects – the success rate of funding applications is impressive and the rewards of collaboration are immense. If you want to find out about opportunities, the Cultureuro website is a good place to start. Here, in no particular order, are some things I’ve learnt about how to succeed at (and enjoy) EU partnership work.
1. Keep it simple
Multi-partner projects are complex. This means that, as far as your own work is concerned, the simpler the better. In the first partner project I worked on, which had a modest budget, we tried to do too much – involve numerous museums, two schools, an artist, an ambitious concept and a separate external evaluation project. That meant too many partners, too many needs and expectations to cater for and in short, too much work. This time around, mindful of the complexity of having six international partners already, we’re being much more focused and concise.
2. Spend time developing the relationship with your partners
One of the rewarding things about international co-operation is learning about the cultural differences between the partners you're working with. This means nothing can be taken for granted and you need to allow time to discuss fundamental assumptions before you can work together in a productive way. Some words and concepts simply don’t translate from one language to another, and others are just complex in their own right. For example, in my latest EU project focusing on historical memory we've spent hours in person and by email debating what we mean by that term and the different connotations and meanings it has for each of us. This isn't something you can shortcut. It’s a much longer process when five of the six partners round the table are not working in their native language so discussions inevitably take longer than they otherwise would. I have also discovered the phenomenon of ‘international English’, when five other nationalities understand each other perfectly in English yet I have no idea what they’re talking about.
3. Beware exchange rates
EU project budgets are, inevitably, in Euros. This means that for countries outside the Euro zone the value of your budget will constantly fluctuate along with the exchange rate. If you're lucky this won't be a major problem, but global financial events over the last couple of years suggest it's best to be cautious and plan in some contingency particularly if there's going to be a big time lag between making the application and actually getting your hands on funding. In a strange quirk of EU budget rules, for the Comenius project I'm currently working on we have to recalculate the entire budget at the end of the project based on the exchange rate in November next year, which is causing my poor colleague who's managing the budget no end of headaches. There's not much we can do about this, other than be aware of it and be extra careful with our funding.
4. Always budget for translation
I mean always. Even if the working language of your project is English and you're not responsible for having anything translated into other languages. If you are going to receive any documents for public consumption written in English by non-native speakers, such as marketing materials or web copy, you will need to proof and edit them and that could be a major job. Even if the English is grammatically correct, stylistic conventions differ. In UK museums we use a very active and accessible voice for audience communications and I have found that many European partners write in a much more formal style than I'm comfortable with. If you can't budget for external support you at least need to make provision for this in your own work programme. Otherwise you could find yourself spending days rewriting leaflets, reports and web copy to make the content consistent and accessible, cursing the person who said you didn’t need to budget for that on the basis that everything would be provided in your mother tongue.
5. Learn to love paperwork
Some stereotypes exist for a reason, and the one about EU bureaucracy is one of those. The reporting paperwork is labyrinthine and complex, and each invoice and receipt, no matter now minor, needs to be stamped, signed, scanned and copied before you submit. I'm not telling this to put you off, but you do need to find out the finance and reporting requirements at an early stage so you can build time into your workplan and acquaint colleagues with the process. Make very good friends with your finance manager and ensure you have a bottle of wine to hand.
Effective collaboration is all about relationships. Therefore you need to make time to get to know the people you’re working with. What better way to do this than to take time out after your work is done and get to know your colleagues and their culture. Don’t go to bed straight after the meeting on the grounds that you need to be fresh the next day. If you’re travelling overseas and you can possibly manage it, try to take a day off before you travel home and spend some time exploring. You’ll need to be sensitive about this – if your colleague has just spent two days chairing meetings and playing host they might not be too keen on showing you round – but I’ve found that, generally speaking, people are keen to get to each other in a more relaxed setting and will put themselves out to spend time with you. In the name of international co-operation I’ve visited the Guggenheim in Bilbao, wandered round Bologna sampling the sights and the gelato, climbed a mountain in Norway (hence the photo at the top of this post), and spent an enjoyable evening drinking Polish vodka (though I hasten to point out that none of this was at my employer’s expense!)
7. Take a crash course in the language of at least one of the countries you'll be working with
If you're anything like me your linguistic education will probably have ended at A-level. I speak reasonable French and basic German, but typically neither are any use within the partnership I'm involved with. Learning the basics of a language will be no help whatsoever in a business context. My colleagues all speak excellent English and my holiday Spanish is entertaining rather than any practical use. However, I'd still advise having a go. When your baggage fails to turn up at the airport or you arrive in an unfamiliar city at 11pm with no idea how to find your hotel, a few words of pidgin might just be of use.
8. Don't check your bags in on flights
Seriously, don't. Buy a netbook for your work files and travel light. Unless all your flights are direct, I guarantee that sooner or later an airline will lose your bag. Sitting in an 8-hour meeting wearing the clothes you've travelled in with your paperwork still in transit is nobody's idea of fun.
Partnership work is about so much more than achieving project outcomes. Get to know your colleagues, their organisations and their culture. You’ll enrich yourself both personally and professionally, find that all kinds of new opportunities come your way, and the chances are you’ll make some valuable friends.
This is the final part of my quick guide to working with freelancers and consultants. With thanks to Ali Bodley and Vicky Dawson for their input into the thinking behind this post.
6. Be an active manager
Hiring a consultant isn't an easy option. While most consultants will work from their own premises rather than yours, and you don't have the hassle of providing space and equipment or dealing with payroll issues, you still need to manage and monitor their work. Keep in touch, and don't assume no news is good news. Minute meetings and circulate any decisions or action points. Provide feedback on the consultant's work promptly, and make sure you keep your own deadlines for signing off their work at key milestones. Remember a freelancer or consultant will be working on other projects at the same time as yours, and any delays may impact on their ability to complete the project on time. If you realise that the outputs are going to differ markedly from what you agreed at the outset you should renegotiate your contract with them. Remember the psychological contract as well as the legal one. Consultants aren’t members of staff and their relationship with you is different. That’s not to say they won’t be dedicated, but they are likely to be very task focused and you won’t be able to draw them into other areas of work like you would with employees. You might also find you need to maintain an appropriate professional distance during commissioning and while you’re working with people, even if you know them well.
7. Give feedback, and raise any concerns promptly and constructively
Never feel you have to accept sloppy work. If you're unhappy with any aspect of a consultant's work you should raise it with them straight away and ask them to remedy it. Many concerns will be easily resolved – the consultant may simply have misunderstood what you wanted. Be as clear as you can about what you’re not happy with and what you expect them to do as a result. Most consultants will be keen to resolve any difficulties, do good work and keep their reputation intact. You shouldn’t make a final payment until you’re happy that the contract has been fulfilled and that the standard of work is up to scratch. If you are relatively junior in the organisation, ask for help from your HR representative or a more senior manager who will be able to impress upon the consultant the need to address your concerns. If you have employed a consultant to do specialist work that is outside your area of expertise, you could ask a colleague from another organisation to give you a second opinion on their work and help you formulate your feedback.
Ensure your disputes procedure is set out in the contract. If you have serious concerns, raise them in writing and ask for a formal meeting. Refer to the contract, make sure you have evidence to back up your complaint and are sure of your facts. Have a colleague or other witness present at the meeting, and ensure discussions are properly recorded. Some legal practitioners are able to offer arbitration in cases of dispute. If you need to end the contract, ensure you have copies of all the work that has been paid for so far.
8. Pay bills on time
Make sure your payment terms are written into the contract, and stick to them. Many consultants are sole traders for whom cash flow is crucial. Most museums operate 30 day payment terms, though some have 15 day terms for small suppliers. Word will get out about bad payers, and if your organisation develops a reputation for not paying on time you may find that good people won't want to work for you, or that contractors require a bigger proportion of the fee up front. Sole traders and small businesses are entitled to charge interest and late payment penalties if you don't pay them on time, and many do. See www.payontime.co.uk for details.
9. Say thank you
You'd be surprised how many clients don't give any feedback at all. I've spent hours worrying about whether people were happy with my work only to discover, after anxious questioning, that everything was great. People don't know you're happy (or unhappy) unless you tell them. If you thought someone's work was particularly good you might consider writing a short testimonial for them to use on their website or on professional networks such as LinkedIn. Consultants and freelancers are reliant on word of mouth and references to get further work, and your vote of confidence will help them stay in business.
I'd welcome any comments on this or any of the related posts about working with consultants. If you'd like to find out more about the GEM training course on working with freelancers and consultants, please contact me.
This is Part 2 of my quick guide to working with freelancers and consultants.
4. Ensure the contract covers everything you need
Make sure you have a written agreement, signed by both parties, at the outset. If you work for a larger organisation it's likely you'll have a standard contract with places for you to vary specific terms and to add an appendix with your agreed outputs. It's hard to overstate the importance of a written agreement in clarifying the timescale, outputs and expectations of both sides and it will reduce the likelihood of difficulties later when you both have different recollections of what the consultant was supposed to do.
Ensure issues like copyright, moral rights and confidentiality are adequately covered. Include procedures to deal with disputes or if one party wishes to end the contract before the work is complete. If you require the consultant to have a certain type or level of insurance, make sure this is clealry set out as well. Include the fee and payment details you've agreed on, including your organisation's payment terms. If you need to vary the terms of the contract part way through, ensure you do this in discussion with the contractor and formalise your agreement in writing.
If you're contracting for a small piece of work you might not feel you need a formal contract, but you should still set out your agreement in writing and ensure both parties sign it. A letter of appointment, accompanied by an official purchase order, will help build confidence in the working relationship and gives you something to fall back on if any problems crop up at a later date.
5. Make the commissioning meeting work for you
A commissioning meeting marks the beginning of the contract and is a key opportunity for you to clarify the brief and agree timescales, outcomes and your respective responsibilities. Don't rush this meeting. You may to set aside half a day or longer to ensure the consultant really understands your organisation, introduce them to key staff members and volunteers, and show them round your premises. Without drawing them into workplace politics, make sure they know about any issues or sensitivities that might affect their work. The commissioning meeting is also a good chance to hand over any paperwork the consultant will need and talk them through lists of key stakeholders.
Once your consultant is briefed and ready to go, it's important not to let them disappear into the ether for months at a time. I'll cover aspects of managing consultants - including what to do if things go wrong - in my next post.
I spent last Monday at the Cartoon Museum in London delivering a training day on 'Working with Freelancers and Consultants' for GEM Heritage with freelance colleague Ali Bodley. We ran the training as volunteers, because the importance of supporting the sector in making effective use of consultancy firms and sole traders is something we both feel very strongly about. I'm a Trustee of GEM, for my sins, and improving the CPD opportunities available to members is a high priority for us.
I'm going to cover the main points of the day in 3 linked posts on working effectively with freelancers and consultants. This owes a great deal to Ali and the people who attended the day at the Cartoon Museum and shared their own knowledge and experiences, though any opinions expressed here are my own. If I've missed out anything important, or you disagree with anything I've said, leave a comment and let me know!
1. Scope the work carefully, and ensure a consultant is really what you need
There are plenty of circumstances when freelancers and consultants can add real value to an organisation's work. Maybe you need skills and experience you don't have in-house. You might need fresh ideas, a new approach, or specialist advice to help with a project. Perhaps you just don't have the capacity to deliver an important piece of work without outside help. Sometimes it's about having access to an impartial external voice - an outsider can say things that people within the organisation find it difficult to say. Whatever the reason, ensure you think the work through carefully in collaboration with your staff and volunteers. Once you've scoped the role, check against HMRC's guidance to make sure this really is a freelance role and not work that should be done by a fixed term or casual employee. Remember it's HMRC that decides whether a person is an employee or self employed in a specific situation and they will make that decision based on the reality of the situation, not what the paper contract says.
2. Spend time drawing up the brief
The brief is the most important part of the recruitment process. In it you set out what kind of person you're looking for, the work you want them to do, and what the outputs and outcomes will be. Make sure your outcomes are SMART - this will help consultants cost the project accurately, and will help you to monitor and evaluate their work. Include any important contextual information and give a clear summary of the kind of skills, experience and knowledge you expect. Make sure you have adequate time to recruit and deliver the work properly. Consultants are not miracle-workers. An inadequate timescale will reduce the number of people available to apply for the work and hamper their chances of doing a good job.
Make sure the fee you're offering is realistic for the work you want doing. We had lengthy conversations about this last week and opinion varied wildly on what an appropriate day rate for different types of work should be. There are no hard and fast rules, but remember that whatever you're paying includes tax, national insurance, and the costs of running a business which for most consultants will be between £50-£75 a day. State whether the fee includes expenses and VAT. If you're asking people to pitch blind, ie you're not including fee information in the brief, it's all the more important that your brief is detailed and as clear as it can possibly be.
I could write a book on the importance of a good brief, and I'm sure any other freelancer would say the same. The clearer the brief, the more likely it is you'll get good, realistically costed proposals from people who are capable of doing the work.
3. Ensure you have a robust, fair recruitment process
Recruiting a consultant has much in common with recruiting a member of staff in that you need to ensure you're operating a fair and non-discriminatory process. Many organisations will have rules on tendering, depending on the value of the work being commissioned, and funders such as HLF will have their own procedures they require you to follow for contracts over a certain threshold. If your organisation's rules differ from those of the funder it's a good idea to work to the strictest points within both sets of guidelines. Decide whether you'll operate an open or closed tendering process, and be clear about your reasons. Consider asking for short initial expressions of interest and using that to compile a shortlist for the tender process if you don't want to wade through hundreds of proposals. Make sure your process is proportionate to the size of the contract and don't include unnecessary bureaucracy - writing a tender is an incredibly time-consuming task, and an overly complicated system may put off some of the people you are hoping to attract.
I'm sure this is all so far, so obvious to many of the people reading this, but unless you're very experienced in recruiting freelance staff (or used to being on the receiving end) you'd be surprised how hard it is to get the process right. When I say 'right', I mean 'attracts the people you want, brings in good well-costed proposals and results in you appointing the best person for the job'.
And now you've found them, how do you get the best out of them on an ongoing basis? I'll answer that question in another post.
(Incidentally, if you haven't been to the Cartoon Museum, you should go - there's a great Steve Bell exhibition running until 24th July).
Since September I've been working with 15 Yorkshire museums who form the Precious Cargo partnership, developing Yorkshire museums' flagship Cultural Olympaid programme. My role is to support the partners in evaluating their projects, and particularly to focus on the impact on young people of engaging with museums and collections.
As part of that I've talked to a lot of young people (in this context we're talking about the age range 14-24) and the staff who have worked with them. The first thing they told me is that they hate the term 'young people' - I talked about that in a previous blog post. However, since we haven't found a better alternative, they've given me permission to carry on using the hated term. So here, in no particular order, are my tips for working with young people in museums. This list is partial, subjective and by no means exhaustive. I'd be delighted to hear yours.
1. Don’t make assumptions about what young people will be interested in
Once you’re past a certain age (about 30 in my experience) ‘young people’ become alien beings. They seem to have separate interests and a different, unfathomable way of experiencing the world. It’s easy to stereotype young people according to media expectations and assume they need high tech, youth orientated content and special jargon in order to be engaged. It isn’t true. Have faith in your collections, trust your audience, share your passion and let them find their own way. In Yorkshire, our group of young consultants was absolutely transfixed with Whitby Museum where the displays are about as traditional as you could possibly get.
2. Communicate their way
Text messaging and Facebook are necessities if you're to communicate effectively. Set up a separate Facebook profile if you're concerned about privacy, or better still, set up a group for your project so you can communicate with participants without having access to each other's profiles. And be prepared to answer texts at 11pm on a Friday night.
3. Social life is everything
Our young people were hugely motivated by the opportunity to make friends. A consistent factor throughout the evaluation was the value they placed on getting to know other young people they wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to meet. Plan for this in your programming and make sure you structure your sessions so that people can get to know each other. They are far more likely to stay involved with an ongoing programme once they've made good friends.
4. Take them behind the scenes
Throughout my career in museums I’ve noticed how much people love going behind the ‘staff only’ door. Young people are no exception. Take the opportunity to tap into their innate curiosity and make them feel privileged and special by taking them behind the scenes.
5. Take them out
if your budget can stand it, trips to other venues are a great option. Young people often don't have the opportunity or the money to travel and experience different cultural venues. The Yorkshire partners set up a young consultants programme that brought young people from different cities together to visit different museums and advise them on how best to appeal to a young age group. This offered social time, a way of discussing issues in a neutral space and plenty of food for thought for the venues they visited. And who doesn't enjoy being asked what they think about something?
6. Don’t underestimate the appeal of the museum as a workplace
It’s easy to be blasé about the place where you work. But for many young people, whose work experience may have been limited to faceless offices or mundane manual jobs, museums are radically different and fascinating places to work. Simply being in your office will have an appeal to young people. If they have had negative experiences of previous working environments, it could open their eyes to a whole new possibility for how their working life could be.
7. Emphasise the benefits for the future
All the young people we worked with, whatever their background or educational position, were motivated to get involved because the project gave them something for their future. It might be skills, knowledge, confidence or new ambition, but whatever it was, they were clear that working on the project would help them take the next step. The opportunity to gain recognised awards or qualifications, or even simply a certificate from the museum, was important in recognising what they had achieved. It meant they had something to put on a job application or UCAS form and something real to talk about in an interview. As a group we hadn’t appreciated how important this would be for young people and we’ll be using this as a means of attracting other participants from now on.
8. Provide food
Preferably hot, preferably lots of it, with cake to follow. In the words of Sean from Barnsley: “Free grub. The way to a young person’s heart”.
I'm currently working on a Social Return on Investment analysis with Hull Museums, as part of my evaluation work for the Yorkshire Precious Cargo programme. I've done two days of training with the SROI network to enable me to use the methodology, and am working towards becoming a fully accredited practitioner. There's been a fair amount of interest in SROI among the cultural sector lately, so I thought it might be worthwhile to blog some of the links and reports I've found useful.
SROI is a methodology used to measure the social and environmental impacts created by people and organisations and represent them in monetary terms. Traditional accounting systems prioritise financial information, and can therefore undervalue social and environmental benefits. SROI measures those non-financial outcomes. It enables organisations to tell a full story of the value they create and express it in a way that economists and policymakers can recognise. One of the key principles of an SROI analysis is that it's rooted in stakeholder engagement, with a particular focus on the benefits to end users. Ultimately it aims to support better decisionmaking by helping organisations understand the impact - both intended and unintended - of their work.
SROI is a specific and complex methodology. I've put some links to further information at the bottom of the page.
Museums have typically been poor at defining and articulating their value to society in a consistent, externally recognised way. SROI offers one way of capturing and putting a value on the outcomes that we often grapple with as unquantifiable - the benefits of increased self-esteem for people taking part in a drawing class, for example, or the role a museum plays in building bridges between different sections of the community. There's still a tendency for museum evaluation to be fluffy around the edges despite initiatives such as the Generic Learning and Generic Social Outcomes frameworks to introduce some consistency (www.inspiringlearningforall.gov.uk). Personally I'm interested in exploring a tried and tested, externally verifiable methodology that can introduce some rigour into the difficult task of identifying and articulating the value we create through engagement with museum collections, buildings and people.
If you're interested in how SROI could work in a museum context I would recommend looking into work done at the Museum of East Anglian Life. The museum commissioned an SROI analysis to look at the value of their Work Based Learning programme. There's a summary available on museum director Tony Butler's blog and the full report at the MEAL website. And watch this space for further updates on my own SROI work.
nef (New Economics Foundation) has information on SROI and public policy, with a link to the UK Cabinet Office guide to SROI. nef has also written a discussion paper commissioned by MLA entitled 'Proving Value and Improving Practice: A Discussion about Social Return on Investment' (2009)
The SROI Project is a Scottish Government-funded programme designed to develop, support and promote the use of SROI across the third sector in Scotland. This is a really helpful website with examples of how the different stages of the methodology work and a database of financial proxies.
The SROI network is a limited company and membership organisation that exists to manage and develop the methodology and provide training for practitioners. The website contains further details of the methodology, training and accreditation, with sample SROI reports.
The thinktank New Philanthropy Capital has produced a number of papers including a position paper that outlines the pros and cons of SROI for charities.
The thinktank DEMOS has produced a report on measuring social value that focuses on the ability of the third sector to adopt methods such as SROI. It recognises problems of resource and complexity and argues for a basic and universal standard of outcome measurement as a first stage.
Dr Dave O'Brien at Leeds Metropolitan University has written a report for DCMS called 'Measuring the Value of Culture' (Dec 2010) that outlines the issues involved in valuing culture and recommends further research into economic valuation methods. In his blog he argues for the cultural sector to take a serious look at economic valuation methods if we are to survive in the current political climate.
The Third Sector Research Centre produced a very useful working paper, 'The Ambitions and Challenges of SROI' (Dec 2010), a thoughtful analysis of the benefits and weaknesses of the SROI methodology for third sector organisations.
Unless you've been on another planet for the past month, you'll be aware of the Coalition government's plans to increase university tuition fees, and the resulting backlash from student groups and trade unions. The new regime could see students at some English universities paying up to £9,000 a year in tution fees. The era of free university education that my generation felt the benefit of is clearly very much over.
I'm not going to rehearse the different arguments in the tuition fees debate, which have been extensively aired across the media: the Guardian's education pages cover the main developments. I am interested, though, in the impact this policy will have on the demographic of those who attend university, who will consequently go on to begin graduate careers. Museums employ an overwhelmingly graduate workforce, with many employers and potential employees regarding a postgraduate degree (along with voluntary experience, which itself comes at a cost) as essential to get a foot through the door. What impact will university tuition fees have on the museum workforce, and particularly on the efforts of the past couple of years to open up access to the profession to people from a wider range of backgrounds?
Considerable effort and funding have gone into intiatives designed to help more people from minority ethnic backgrounds break into museum work, with some success: the Museums Association's Diversify scheme, which is coming to the end of its final year, has supported over 130 people from minority backgrounds to begin a museum career, though it is not without its critics: some of the key issues are outlined in Sam Elliot's Museum Workforce blog. There have also been a number of initiatives to help young people to get started in museum careers through on-the-job training and other vocational routes: in 2009 the MLA pledged funding for up to 50 apprenticeships, supported by a diverse range of organisations.
Nevertheless, throughout their careers those Apprentices will still need to compete in a jobs market in which a degree has been a core requirement for many years. Many museum organisations are restructuring and preparing to lose staff through 'natural wastage' or redundancies. Will the drive and the funding for training, diversity initiatives and apprenticeships be maintained, or will the sector slip back into its traditional way of working? A return to a passive over-reliance on graduate and postgraduate qualifications as the bar for new entrants to the profession, at a time when the cost of a university education is soaring, could easily see the workforce demographic becoming less representative in terms of both ethnicity and class.
I'd love to hear from people or organisations taking a proactive approach to building their future workforce. For museums to thrive as a sector it's vital that we have a socially diverse and motivated workforce. The onus will be on employers to think creatively about their future skills needs - which in straitened times may be very different from those of the past. We'll need people with the potential not only to be great curators, educators and exhibition planners but who are business people, relationship builders, creative agents, innovative thinkiers and entrepreneurs. And if we're to continue to move towards building a diverse workforce that draws on the widest possible pool of talent and is truly representative of British society, we'll need to think more creatively about where we find and how we nurture them.
I'm still buzzing from a seminar I ran last week for GEM Yorkshire on 'Social Media and Museum Learning'. 20 delegates from as far afield as London and West Lothian got together at the Round Foundry in Leeds to hear from local experts, talk social media and share hints and tips on how their organisations are engaging audiences online.
There were some great presentations and ideas which I've linked below. I've created a list of attendees on my Twitter page and will keep adding to it as more people take the plunge!
Bryony Taylor, self-confessed social media junkie and former MLA Yorkshire colleague, gave a great overview of the most useful social media sites for museums and advice on how to get started. Her presentation is on Slideshare and she's also blogged some further advice and tips at http://sociallearningonline.wordpress.com/
Lindsey Green of Frankly, Green + Webb talked about a piece of research she's done into how families use smartphones with lots of hints and tips for how museums can get involved without spending vast amounts of money. You can view the presentation on Lindsey's blog, and download the report she refers to from her website.
Finally Eric Hildrew, Marketing Manager at Museums Sheffield, gave a case study of Museums Sheffield's approach to social media. Eric described how Museums Sheffield uses its Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube sites, the challenge of creating a constant stream of great high-quality content for audiences with high expectations, and what staff plan to do next, including building more effective synergies across the different social media platforms and involving users more in generating content.
We had some great feedback on the day and I'm really grateful to speakers for giving up their time and all those who came and participated. Look out for more GEM Yorkshire events in the next six months.
I've been thinking recently about how museums like to categorise the people we work with. It's part policy, part practicality: over the last ten years we've been pushed (and pushed ourselves) to broaden the range of audiences that use museums beyond the traditional, and if you seek to do that you need to have a way of describing those groups you're trying to engage with. Hence audience development and outreach programmes that identify people by such things as age, ethnicity and gender, and programmes aimed at target groups: black & minority ethnic audiences; older people; families; young people.
I've recently started work evaluating a fantastic project that forms part of the Stories of the World Cultural Olympiad. Precious Cargo aims to engage young people aged 14 - 24 in exploring and interpreting museum collections. I won't describe it in detail as I've done that elsewhere. The most interesting aspect for me is getting to work with a group of participants to support their own evaluation of the project. What questions do they think we should be asking? What does success look like for them?
Which brings me back to the question of categories and identifiers. At our first meeting in Sheffield on 15 October, Becki from the Barnsley project came up with a fundamental and entirely sensible question: Why is this project just for young people?
As I groped for an answer that involved funding criteria, government priorities etc., it became clear that she'd hit a nerve. The eight "young people" in the room, aged between 17 and 22, uniformly disliked being referred to by that label. They didn't see why they should be grouped together purely by their age when there were many other aspects of their identities that felt more important to them. They also felt it was unfair that other people were being excluded from the project because they fell outside the target age range. They felt passionately about the project and wanted to share the experience, not just with other young people, but with everyone.
Fast forward a couple of weeks to another meeting at Whitby Museum. Whitby is a true community venture: with only one part-time member of staff, the day-to-day operation is run entirely by volunteers. Many of them are retired people who dedicate a huge amount of time to the museum. The project lead was delighted to hear the views expressed in Sheffield and confessed that several museum volunteers were equally disgruntled about the project's youth focus, for similar reasons. They couldn't understand why so many projects and funding streams were focused so specifically on one age group, and felt the skills and talents of older people were being ignored.
So where do we go from here? We don't have any answers yet, but simply asking the question is an important start. On the one hand, museums clearly do need to broaden their audiences in order to be truly accessible institutions and there are specific demographics that are currently under-represented among our user groups. Targeted 'positive discrimination', as one participant described it, is a way of addressing that problem. On the other hand, once we do this, we label that person or people through our own eyes. What seems obvious to some of us working in museums (for example, that "young people" self-identify as an audience group) is not all all obvious to other people and might actually create a barrier with the people we're trying to engage.
So where does Precious Cargo go from here? We can't change the parameters of the current project, but we can look at the way we do things in future and think again about our perceptions. For a start, the museums involved are trying to avoid the term "young people", though admittedly we're finding that hard! The participants are going to discuss this and tell us how they'd like us to refer to them. We're also thinking hard about how we can work with a broader range of people in the next 12 months, and our current participant group is going to take the lead on that. They see themselves as critical friends, and it will be fascinating to see how they develop the project.
For me, this has really demonstrated the importance of working closely with museum users right from the start. Stories of the World has been in development for months and nobody had thought to question one of its basic principles until Becki did that for us. She's made us question the very basis of the way we work, which can only be a good thing. I'm looking forward to many more debates to come.