Last week I returned from California where I attended MuseumCamp at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. The museum is directed by the dynamic Nina Simon who has been making waves in recent years as the author of The Participatory Museum and blogging about her work at Santa Cruz through Museum 2:0. Museum 2:0. One of her strengths is in her leadership and the use of the innovative techniques that she brings to audience engagement. She has embedded the museum in the Santa Cruz community, and the team that she draws around her to allow her staff the freedom to develop exciting projects and new methods of participation.
This is the second year Nina has run MuseumCamp as a development training camp for museum professionals (and others working across the cultural sector). The basic premise is to pick
‘a different theme and work with new partners, but the concept is the same: diverse, passionate people coming together to learn in a creative space. MuseumCamp is intense, spirited, and transformative.’ MuseumCamp
The reason that I applied to attend MuseumCamp oringally was the theme of social impact assessment– which stood out as being particularly relevant to me at this point in my museum career and also to the sector in the UK right now. The Museums Association launched a campaign Museums Change Lives last year and the theme is being taken up at the national conference this October.
At the same time in Ceredigion Museum where I work in Mid Wales we have been running a social enterprise and participation project Harvesting the Knowledge with funding from the Happy Museum. The Happy Museum team has the grand objective of ‘Re-imagining museums for a changing World’. They have supported 18 commissioned projects over the past three years across the museums sector in the UK to work within their manifesto principles of wellbeing, persuing mutual relationships, valuing the environment and to be steward of the future as well as the past, be an active citizen, learn for resilience and measure what matters. A good manifesto for life in general, I feel.
In these difficult times of austerity museums have to change they way they work and we are all under pressure to prove our ‘value’ in times of budgetary cuts. In Wales the way we are funded is being linked nationally to goals focused on social impact including for the reduction of child poverty (now part of our national museum strategy of Wales), also evidenced through the Transforming Children’s Futures commitment from National Museum Wales and through reports like ‘Culture and Poverty’ Culture and Poverty by Baroness Kay Andrews, where it is suggested that libraries become hubs for the community, and also a possibility for museums.
This is certainly something we feel we already doing in Aberystwyth, at the Coliseum, Ceredigion Museum Service’s home base. We hope to build on this in the future through partnerships like the ones we are developing at the museum with Tir Coed through Harvesting the Knowledge, the Ceredigion Museum Youth Service through the Out on the town project and through working in partnerships with contemporary artists for audience engagement at Adfer offsite gallery space.
100 professionals attended MuseumCamp across the fields of museums, the arts, social impact research and marketing. The camp was a three-day event, working intensely from morning to night, predominantly in small groups but with the chance to network and socialize with other participants and hear about other exciting projects that were happening across the US.
In order to run the Camp, Simon had partnered up with Arts Company ‘Fractured Atlas’ led by Research Director Ian Moss. I’m not sure that we have an equivalent in the UK, but most similar might in Britain be organisations like Artists Information Company and Axis but without the in-house expertise of evaluation research that Ian clearly represents.
When we arrived at Camp we were broken up into smaller groups to work on real time research projects across Santa Cruz town over the three days, with the task of developing hypotheses, methodologies and then evaluation of those projects. The group into which I was formed was Team Hair Band – more about our project and the others here. Our project was focussed around the free live concert series on the boardwalk at Santa Cruz beach – a complete hardship as you can imagine, with museumcamp group swims out to the pier bobbing up and down next to the sea-lions and brown pelicans flying overhead.
My team included:
- Dhyana Kapsner, Visitor Services Manager at Santa Cruz Museum (our local link)
- Arts advocate Margy Waller of Art on the Streets Cincinatti
- Nick Stillman from the Arts Council of New Orleans.
We were led by Ian Moss from Fractured Atlas, whose specialisms in evaluation appear to be (deep breath) cutting-edge analytical forecasting and social-sector evaluation techniques, which certainly isn’t a form of analysis that I think that the arts are dealing with on a regular basis back home (certainly not in county museums in Wales anyway). The closest links that I have come across in my own practice are through The Happy Museum’s ‘measure what matters’ work with Daniel Fujiwara from the London School of Economics on Museums and Happiness, which measured the effect of museums on individuals wellbeing, and the ongoing evaluation work that is being done in the arts in health sector nationally, particularly through the work of academics such as Andrew Newman at Newcastle University ICCHS department where I studied for my MA and Manchester Arts for Health who have been evaluating wellbeing in this field for decades.
For our projects in Santa Cruz we were encouraged to research using a method that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to use back in our work environments that was a bit edgy and as it turned out, very difficult to evaluate. As a group we bonded around public art and art that people happen upon serendipitously, with the idea of trying to measure pride and sense of place.
Inevitably our research indicator was unusual (high five for Santa Cruz!) and therefore messy and our hypothesis didn’t exactly turn out the results that we had planned but we did gain confidence in our methods, were given a huge amount of support in areas to look for research in the future and the other campers we met were awesome people working in amazing ways. It is rare to have the opportunity to have such an intense period of time in a professional development environment (I stayed one night in the museum camping on the floor – so I did literally camp in the museum too!) and one of the things I treasured the most was having time to reflect on my own curatorial and arts practice whilst I was at camp.
Back at home my life over the past few years has been manic. I am the mother of two small children and my partner and I have not long ago completed a large building project to convert a chapel into a home (it took seven years). For the past two years I have been working almost full time in the museum where we are constantly being demanded to ‘give more for less’ at all levels. Moments for any kind of development – personal or professional, let alone a week, would normally be considered impossible indulgences; so I am riding on the high of inspiration that my trip has given me, and I am going to hang on to as much of that learning and reflection as I can and build on it, as its not an opportunity that will be offered up again very soon.