Saturday, 18 June 2022

Link round-up: AMAGA-inspired and related

 This past week I attended the CAM-D (Council of Australasian Museum Directors) and AMAGA (Australian Museums and Art Galleries Association)* meetings in Perth, also a chance to see the new WA Museum Boola Bardip and the first time I've left Aotearoa since 2019.

It felt like waking up. Like a big lungful of fresh air. Thinking at scale again, meeting new people again, get out of the usual conversational grooves and organisational concerns we all tend to slip into, but have stayed in longer over the past two years of the pandemic.

One of the many things I realised while I was away is that I miss writing. I write so much in my day job that since joining Te Papa, I've barely put any thoughts down outside the course of my work. It's time to ease back in.

So, as a baby-step, here's a round-up of things that I read throughout the week (conference related, and just chronologically aligned).

Mike Dickison linked to two articles this week that I found really interesting:

University of York archaeology lecturer Colleen Morgan's The Outrage Machine, about dealing with the Daily Mail publishing an "outrage-bait" article about her (and others') use of content warnings in their course materials. Morgan's strategy basically boils down to "don't feed the trolls". She notes:

As an academic you really want to set the record straight, to potentially educate the journalist, or perhaps the public, but it doesn’t work that way. With outrage bait articles they are not looking for a reasoned response. They don’t want you to convince them, they want you to be the dumb woke academic mollycoddling our fragile students. They want column inches and maybe a photo of you for their right wing audience to mock. Give them nothing. I’m writing this during the furore, but will likely post it only after things have died down.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History curator Mark Carnell on How and why to cite museums specimens in research. In this post, Carnell describes how poor or overlooked citations of museum collection material create more work, don't show the value of museum collections to research, and amount to trash science:

For many natural history museums, although we work with a range of audiences, scientific publications using our specimens is one of our key measures of success, justifying our staff and existence to local, national and international funding bodies. We’re ecstatic when publications using the collection come out because it’s one of the reasons we are there in the first place. We’re actively keen to promote your research on our collections to our audiences through exhibitions, online and social media. All we ask for in return (and often this is on one of those forms you sign) is that you let us know when you publish, give us a copy of the paper or book and cite the specimens properly.

Somebody at the conference linked to Elizabeth Merritt's (Center for the Future of Museums) latest post In Praise of Mission Creep. In it she notes that the phrase "mission creep" originated in military operations, and that sometimes carrying language over without scrutinising the underlying thinking and context (most of us are not literally running aggressive, politically-charged, life-or-death operations) can be unhelpful, inappropriate, or make our thinking lazy:

Looked at from a different perspective, “mission creep” is often a side effect of the mission itself. This happens, for example, when missions create artificially narrow constraints by focusing on the mechanisms of the work (collect, preserve, interpret) rather than on the change an organization wants to make in the world.

As a relief from all those quite long articles, here's a tweet from the conference by Michael Parry that summarises a concept we need to communicate better about our sector: 

One of the talks I missed was by ACMI's Lucie Paterson and researcher Indigo Holcombe-James; luckily ACMI has long (under Seb Chan's leadership, in a way many of us did in the (g)olden days but few of us - including me - still do): How to increase your museum's digital literacy.

I'm putting this tweet here simply because I know I'm going to want this as a metaphor for so many things in future

Tristram Hunt at the V&A in London is one of the few museum directors (in English, anyway) who blogs frequently and with a argument (rather than anodyne statements that do not court controversy). I respect him for putting his arguments out there. His posts often leave me feeling unsettled - often professionally grumpy, if I'm honest, with a tendency to write them off as pleas for a status quo and assumption of privilege that I think Western museums should be recognising, reconciling and reinventing for an equitable future. 

His latest post, The Enlightenment and the Universal Museum leaves me wondering - as I so often do with his writing - whether I'm just being chippy in seeing it as an exercise in yes-but-still-ism. In it he accepts that the Enlightenment (and the museums that emerged from it) was a beautiful dream based on racism and sexism. He writes:

the challenge for museum leadership is to unpick such toxic legacies and then seek to re-imagine the mission of the Enlightenment as an egalitarian, empowering, and transformative project.

 He then writes that the museum needs be a 'cultural and psychological resource' to help individuals 'transcend inherited identities'. That in order to retain trust, the opening of authority in museum collections and interpretation to previously excluded communities and experts must be 'additive to the essential role of museum curation by experts in the field'. He concludes:

Finally, we need to move from the Universal Museum of the Enlightenment to the Cosmopolitan Museum of the 21st century. The racism of the Enlightenment needs to be replaced by a much richer understanding of how the construction of European identity was always a global endeavour. This necessitates a continued reckoning with the imperial and colonial past and, with it, new strategies around restitution and repatriation based on reciprocity, humility, and shared professional endeavour with colleagues in the Global South. The post-war hierarchies must be dismantled to shape a truly cosmopolitan public sphere. 
That is the modern calling of the Enlightenment – which endowed so many superb cultural institutions that have, in turn, transformed so many lives over the years. It still matters.

I don't know. I'm getting a weaselly feel off the phrase "Cosmopolitan Museum". I recently (I wish I could remember where) saw someone refer to cosmopolitanism (celebrating immigration, diversity, complex histories) as a possible alternative to biculturalism. Becoming cosmopolitan does not feel to me like decolonising, or deep-reaching re-purposing and reinvention. It feels like a more acceptable face on an old idea.  I'm going to have to mull this one.

*No-one knows how to pronounce either of these acronyms. That was one of my favourite parts of the trip.  

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