The last time the MA’s conference was in Belfast the signing of the Good Friday Agreement was a decade away and the subject matter was marketing. While the Troubles were ongoing delegates tried to find ways of boosting the fortunes of museums through, among other things, better promotion of their services.
Since then, like the country itself, the museums of Northern Ireland have transformed themselves in a post-conflict era, and Lonely Planet named Belfast and the Causeway Coast the best region for tourism in 2018. This has been helped by its cultural offer, which boasts the Ulster Museum, Titanic Belfast, Giant’s Causeway and also film locations from Game of Thrones.
However, while the Troubles are thankfully in past, Belfast like the rest of the UK is facing new challenges of gender and identity in society, the breakdown of the Northern Ireland Assembly and of course Brexit, which poses its own special problems for this region.
The MA says it chose Dissent as this year’s theme because of these challenging times and the fact that museums need to be brave in order to face up to those challenges. They believe that the programme and sessions on Brexit, conflict in Northern Ireland and gender and identity politics will stretch delegates to think beyond the norm. Organisers say the conference is all about fostering debate and discussion, learning from each other, hearing different views and thinking about how museums can be forums for debate and reflection.
As part of the conference at the ICC Belfast Waterfront Hall attendees will have the opportunity hear talks from museum professionals from across Ireland, the UK and internationally.
The Museums Association’s director, Sharon Heal says it is important to hold the event in Belfast and has worked in partnership with the Irish Museums Association, National Museums Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Museums Council and colleagues across Ireland to make sure the event is as inclusive and relevant as possible.
“The MA has a Nations Policy which means we strive to work across the UK to deliver our services to all our members and to understand the devolved policy context. Holding our annual conference in Belfast is part of delivering that commitment,” she says. “We live in a time of rapid change and turbulence and museums can provide forums for discussion and debate on some of the really challenging topics of the day. We can use our collections to reflect on the past and influence the future. We need to adapt to the change around us in order to survive and sessions at conference will help us think about how to do that as well as giving us the practical tools for survival.”
Festival of Change
Heal says one of the highlights of the conference will be The Festival of Change and this year there will be have drag kings and queens and the Museum As Muck network. They will be challenging assumptions, debunking stereotypes and ‘making delegates think and smile’.
Some of the questions asked at the conference will be – How can we foster radical ideas that defy the norm? Who develops these ideas, and how can we ensure that their voices are heard and valued in our work? And who are the dissenters from outside museums that can provoke, inspire and challenge us?
Highly respected museum professionals such as Americo Castilla from Argentina and Elaine Gurian from America have years of experience of practice and will discuss museums as public centres for cultural activism. Laura Raicovich former director of Queens Museum in New York will discuss neutrality in museums and socially engaged practice. They will be joined by speakers from across Ireland will explore the impact of Irish history and collecting on current practice and how museums can engage with contemporary issues such as Brexit.
Hannah Crowdy, Head of Curatorial National Museums Northern Ireland says she looks forward to showing off the city and ‘our brave, innovative practice, but also to engaging in frank discussions about the challenges we face’.
‘Raising our profile’
“Ever since the announcement was made about the Belfast conference it has been a real boost to the museum sector here,” she says. “The barrier of the Irish Sea and our different circumstances means we can feel isolated from and misunderstood by the wider UK museum sector. There is a feeling that this is our chance to shine and raise our profile.”
Crowdy will be chairing a discussion at the conference entitled Belfast Uncovered and has assembled three radical thinkers who she says will bring great energy and experience to the session. She will be pressing Ruth McCarthy from Outburst Arts, Adam Turkington from Seedhead Arts and Kim Mawhinney from National Museums NI on what it means to be a creative in Belfast, how they define risk and why it shouldn’t limit but rather ignite their practice. She will also reflect on how museums and arts organisations can support one another and how each can challenge the other to be braver and better.
“We are a post-conflict society, and dealing with the legacy of the past brings with it some very sensitive and complex challenges,” she says. “We don’t shy away from these, and aim to increase understanding of our shared heritage and facilitate healthy debate around live issues. The current absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly is a very obvious challenge, which hampers change and progress, but museums and cultural organisations remain vocal and proactive. We continue to advocate and campaign for what we hold dear.
On Brexit Crowdy says that many of the museum professionals concerns are at a very practical level – will staff who live on the other side of the border have to go through security checks on their way to work? Will the bureaucracy of export licences severely limit our ability to lend and borrow collections?
“But given our work on the Troubles and their legacy we also have anxieties about what impact Brexit will have on our society; there is so much at stake and the spectre of the past does haunt us.”
The Museums Association Conference & Exhibition 2018 takes place at Belfast Waterfront from 8-10 November. Bookings can be made online here.