After diving into a term paper right after the CMA, I can finally sit down and share some of my thoughts and experiences from the conference. For anyone who attended, feel free to share what you took away from the CMA.
There were many great speakers and presenters, so I will just highlight a few of the recurring themes I picked out.
Technology. Of course, a conference themed “Evolve or Die,” would have to talk about technology. People were tweeting (#cma11), presentations were being taped for future webcasts and there were several panels about new tools available for creating online exhibits, utilizing social media and just generally creating an online presence. However, there were also lots of people who weren’t just talking about the tools, but they were talking about the way the digital age fundamentally changes the way museums function. Loren Fantin from Our Ontario put it best in her panel “The Evolution of the Online Museum” when she called for a shift to a “digital mindset.” Museums have traditionally been one way exchanges of knowledge – you go to a museum and a curator has provided you with their interpretation of history through an exhibit. Curators and museum professionals have had an authority, or monopoly, on information in museums. However, this is no longer the case in the digital age. Technology has greatly facilitated a two way exchange of information. With the use of social media tools, audiences are much freer to voice their opinions, provide feedback and share their ideas. Technology has created a much more participatory environment and museums, and all heritage institutions, need to understand and embrace this new relationship with their public.
Community. Much related to technology and the digital mindset, is a move towards greater community involvement. This is something that I think about a lot . There seems to be a lot of emphasis on museums and tourism and I often wonder if this is to the detriment of our communities. I saw a wonderful presentation by Madelaine Callaghan from the Scarborough Museum in the panel “New Roadmaps and Uncharted Waters.” Unfortunately, I don’t have notes on this presentation, as there was standing room only for this portion of the panel (and kudos to the Hilton for putting a chair underneath me very quickly)! Madelaine was sharing success stories from the museum’s youth and mentorship programs. She explained that the museum wanted to do something for the community to combat the reputation Scarborough was receiving by the media as a violent place. Youth volunteers got involved with museum programming and the community, developing a range of skills in the process. I wish I had the stats to share with you, but the number of volunteers over the years skyrocketed and the kids often stay with the museum as employers or mentors to new volunteers. Here is one of those success stories from one of the young volunteers.
One of the evening’s keynote speakers, Dr. James Bradburne also encouraged a greater connection with the community. Currently director general of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Dr. Bradburne spoke a bit about the need to revitalize Florence. As he put it, you wouldn’t think that Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, would need to be revitalized. However, he argued that the city was too consumed by tourists who come for the day to see David and buy tacky souvenirs. Dr. Bradburne called for greater quality in tourism and heritage institutions and said that we should take care of the local residents first. Ultimately, what is good for them will be good for the tourists, too.
Power of Museums. Everyone involved in this field believes in the importance and power of cultural institutions. Yet, it seems we sometimes get paralyzed. We are so used to taking a back seat to other industries that we’ve come to accept our bottom rung status. One of our keynote speakers, Eddie Friel, ignited a fire under us (hopefully) and truly made us believe that we can make a difference. Mr. Friel was appointed the chief executive of the Greater Glasgow Tourist Board in 1983 and is responsible for completely revitalizing the city. Once an important shipbuilding town and thriving European city, Glasgow’s economy was in terrible decline and the city in poor shape. By investing in museums, heritage and the arts, Mr. Friel completely turned the economy around and the city is now a cultural hub. In less than 10 years after Mr. Friel’s appointment, Glasgow was named the European City of Culture for 1990.
The main message of Mr. Friel’s inspiring talk was that cultural institutions need to be seen (by ourselves, the public and the government) as essential places. We shouldn’t be the first to have our budgets cut, nor should we allow it. This, of course, is a completely overwhelming idea and someone in the audience voiced all of our thoughts when he stood up and simply asked “how?” Good question. How do we completely change the way this industry is viewed in society? How do we get people to value, support and encourage us? Glasgow was proof it could be done, but we still needed more. Mr. Friel provided two answers, with which I will now leave you:
“Start an engine and everyone will want to hitch their wagon to it.”
“Success has 1000 founders – failure has 1.”