Museums as Agents of Change: Inspiration from MuseumNext Melbourne

By Leanne Wickham, Director, Expressions Whirinaki

I attended MuseumNext in Melbourne from 15 – 17 February 2017. It was the first of its kind in Australasia, and an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.

MuseumNext is a global conference series on the future of museums. Since 2009 it has acted as a platform for showcasing best practice today to shine a light on the museum of tomorrow. Conceived at the start of the digital revolution, MuseumNext has grown to include future thinking on leadership, audiences, collections, transformation, knowledge, participation, and more.

The event was produced in partnership with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and brought together 340 museum professionals for three exciting days. I felt blessed to be able to attend.

The theme for the conference was risk. Inspired by the values of ACMI which state ‘we enable a culture that embraces creative risk taking, supporting bold ideas and new voices with energy and commitment’, the conference bought forward ideas of risk from across fields.

For me it was not just a chance to meet with and hear from museum and gallery professionals from around the world, but also to take time to reflect on what we do here at Expressions Whirinaki and our own risk taking.

Leanne Wickham, Director, Expressions Whirinaki

One of the overriding messages was based on not just the museum being part of the community, but the community being part of the museum. Internationally renowned museum consultant Elaine Heumann Gurian spoke about the role of the museum in a politically traumatized world and suggested that never before, has there been a time when cultural institutions are more important.

In a world of fake news, alternative facts, slogans, mass consumerism, apathy and culture lockdown how does a museum become ‘Storytellers of Trust’, places for civil dialogue and sites of respect where society can co-reside in a tumultuous world. It’s complicated…. and it’s risky.

Elaine challenged us to think beyond simplification and apathy to embrace complexity and cultural diversity, and to take risks to access, share, and create environments of real meaning. A Museum Should Do Good. We should be a site for change and offer experiences that can be powerfully and peacefully transformative. It’s more than just fluff.

I think we do that pretty well here at Expressions Whirinaki, looking at some our experiences with Shadow of Shoah Trust (stories of holocaust survivors) and the WW1 exhibition about Trentham Military Camp. But there is room to grow.

For instance I loved hearing from Paul Bowers, Head of Exhibitions, Museums Victoria about their new Children’s Gallery at Melbourne Museum. In fact; I want one! It features a silent disco, colourful play objects alongside museum objects, water play, textile play and about 25 push chairs all lined up. I thought this was awesome.

Melbourne Museum Children’s Gallery. Photograph courtesy of Leanne Wickham

Check out Melbourne Museum’s Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery

And I loved hearing from the Museum of Tomorrow based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil about how they implement their philosophy of “tomorrow is today and toady is the place for action”.

Museum of Tomorrow presentation. Photograph courtesy of Leaane Wickham

More about the Museum of Tomorrow

I also very much appreciated hearing from Jervais Choo, from the National Museums of Singapore. He talked through the development of their spaces and the use of digital technologies to represent traditional object-centric sites, creating a dedicated space for families and the adoption of new technologies to connect with new audiences. They have worked with an artist collective teamLab (who we will be working with in 2018) to create some amazing experiences. He finished with a quote from Benjamin Franklin “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn”, which still resonates with me now.

The number one thing I walked away with is that the biggest risk is: not changing.

If museums and galleries don’t change and alter the way we do things, we run the risk of losing our relevance. And if we lose that, we lose everything.

A lot of that is about listening to our audiences and what they want. That’s not new, but it is also about being open to the unpredictable and the radical. As we enter into a time of fundraising for our new extension here at Expressions Whirinaki we will be embracing change and considering the unpredictable and the radical.

It’s risky, but it’s exciting.

Leanne Wickham attended MuseumNext conference with the assistance of a Professional Development Grant from National Services Te Paerangi.

Find out more about the Professional Development Grant