MGA Conference 2018 – Agents of Change

The theme of the 2018 Museums Galleries Australia conference was agents of change – and the delegates and line up of speakers delivered on that promise. Whether it was theme of change, the fact that MGA now has an active emerging professionals network, or just that I’m getting older, I really noticed the presence of younger museum professionals who were willing to speak up and challenge the status quo: both in the conference sessions and the parallel twitter discussions.

A recurring theme was consideration of who is absent: from our institutions, from our leadership teams, from our collections and exhibition content? Where are (to name a few): The queer voices? The voice of people living with illness or disability? The voices of First Nations and people of colour? Are we really doing enough to address these absences or are we simply paying lip service? What do we do to keep institutional focus on addressing absence, when it isn’t captured in the dollars-and-numbers-through-the-door KPIs that we are expected to meet?

An article I came across recently is a good read about the dangers of measuring performance by metrics alone:

Contrary to commonsense belief, attempts to measure productivity through performance metrics discourage initiative, innovation and risk-taking. The intelligence analysts who ultimately located Osama bin Laden worked on the problem for years. If measured at any point, the productivity of those analysts would have been zero. Month after month, their failure rate was 100 per cent, until they achieved success. From the perspective of the superiors, allowing the analysts to work on the project for years involved a high degree of risk: the investment in time might not pan out. Yet really great achievements often depend on such risks.

One of the keynote speakers was Kaywin Feldman, the Nivin and Duncan MacMillan Director and President of Art, and author of the recent article Museum leadership in a time of crisis. This article was shared and quoted repeatedly in my social media feeds in the lead up to the conference. One of my favourites was:

When people ask me to pick out the skills most needed by museum directors today, they expect to hear ‘fundraising’. Instead, I say ‘agility, closely followed by bravery’. The days have passed of primarily preserving and perpetuating an institution – of a ‘keep on keepin’ on’ attitude – and the status quo is actually the riskiest place to be.

This idea of the need for bravery, and that keeping on doing the things we’re doing is no longer going to cut it, was another theme that recurred throughout the conference. To paraphrase one of the speakers, we tend to give more weight to the risks of change, and not enough attention to the opportunities (or the risks of doing nothing). The things that make our current Boards, traditional audiences and other current stakeholders comfortable may be the very things that are making those absent voices uncomfortable (and so absent). This reminded me of the ‘doors’ analogy Nina Simon used in the Art of Relevance – the traditional ways in have worked just fine for the people who are already there, and those people can take some convincing that  new routes in might be needed (and they might not always be comfortable with what comes in).

Some other links from the conference that are worth catching:

Twitter recap: Tuesday 5 June

Twitter recap: Wednesday 6 June

Twitter recap: Thursday 7 June

Ten things for my museum colleagues working in digital – Seb Chan

Audience first: exhibition and experience – Paul Bowers and Beth Hise

Curating your online presence – workshop I presented (and which has given me the impetus to resurrect this blog)

I’m sure there’s plenty more I’ve forgotten to mention, and others who might have seen it in a different light. I’d appreciate you addressing my oversights in the comments.