As I prepared to attend MuseumNext London earlier this month, I was reflecting on what exactly it had been about the 2018 MuseumNext London that had made me want to return. I struggled to articulate what I had enjoyed about 2018 except that I knew it had been uniquely energising.

Jim introduces MuseumNext London 2019

This year, I’ve tried harder to capture my thoughts and reflections over the last three weeks since coming back. I’ve identified three lessons I’d like to shout about and I’m sharing them here:

Lesson 1: Be Present

The first lesson of MuseumNext is to commit to being fully present; in sessions, in coffee breaks, and socially.

Other large conferences have a wide selection of parallel sessions, which in theory makes for a personalised and relevant programme for each participant. But what it doesn’t generate is the collegiate feeling of going through the same experience together that makes MuseumNext special. For me, the programme with multiple options tempts me to multitask rather than commit fully which affects my focus.

One session I really enjoyed was the impromptu workshop led by Mike Murawski who had binned his planned talk overnight and instead led a challenging workshop. He asked us to choose three words from his list to describe how we were willing to be during the session. I chose present, supportive and truthful because they are the opposites of the traits I dislike the most when I catch myself showing them;  distracted, cynical or superficial.

So this lesson is the first I want to shout about and commit to in my working life. I will be more present.

Lesson 2: Get out of the bubble

This, for me, was the strongest message of this year’s conference – get out of the museum world bubble! It’s something I have always believed but now I really want to shout its importance from the rooftops. Last year the two talks that stood out to me were by leaders who had backgrounds as an artist and in a punk rock band respectively. This year the two speakers I found most inspiring were Katrina Sedgwick, Director of ACMI (Australian centre for moving image) Anna Starkey of We the Curious. Both of whom come from a film/tv background.

Katarina Sedgwick

Here Katarina is sharing what she had learnt from working in arts festivals and this chimed perfectly with my recent experience working with a performing arts organisation. I loved their fresh approach, the creativity, commissioning process and respect for freelance practitioners.

Katrina also talked about their coworking space, something I’m really interested in as I’ve been searching for the perfect coworking space for a while (location, price, community).  ACMI moved their 80 staff plus 10 film and sound archive staff into offices with 60 additional desks made available at a price to university partners, co-workers and members of their accelerator programme. The benefits to the museum staff of being outside their own bubble and in touch with their industry and other creatives were huge. More museums should definitely do this!

We the Curious Manifesto

Anna Starkey talked so energetically about the process they went through to birth We the Curious out of the former At Bristol. Anna’s fresh approach and the whole team’s willingness to really think differently and get out of the traditional science centre bubble were inspiring.

But those of us who started our careers in museums rather than as rock stars, artists or in film and tv don’t need to despair. We just need to keep our minds open, mix with others (see ACMI coworking) and take risks. This is my second lesson to keep in mind.

Lesson 3: Be Authentic

The topic of risk brings us on to lesson three – be authentic. The link was a session led by Hilary Spencer (CEO of a Children’s museum in South Carolina) and Frederic Bertley (COSI Science museum in Ohio). They challenged us to take one of their lapel badges if we were a risk taker. My first response was that no I  am not a risk taker; I am very calculated, measured and logical.

But they explained their theory is that ‘taking risks’ describes random acts of risk but that ‘being a risk taker’ is more of a strategic approach. I am a freelance worker who loves change and I wrote on my conference badge that I wanted to work with clients ready to be bold and brave. It seems that on reflection I absolutely am a risk taker and I am happy to shout that out and feel authentic about that.

Other speakers who told their stories in an impressively honest and authentic way were Georgeenia from the Francis Crick Institute, Emily Koteki and Silvia Filippini Faontoni about their work at the North Carolina Museum of Art and Claire Madge from Autism in Museums (Tincture of Museum on Twitter).

Mike Murawski in his session mentioned earlier shared his guide for interrupting white dominant culture in museums which to me seemed to have far broader applications. All of the ways of working in the new culture seemed to me to be about personal authenticity and putting your whole self out there. I find that uncomfortable and exposing at times and find it easier to hide behind a “professional” facade (even putting this out here in public an example of how uncomfortable that honesty is). But authenticity is the key to real power-sharing relationships. This is my third lesson and a work in progress.

Guide for interrupting white dominant culture

Of course, the best thing about MuseumNext is the people. Every new person I met and every old friend I caught up with were inspiring and energising, friendly and open. That’s the magic of MuseumNext. Thank you all.