Universeum annual meeting Brno #3

Steph Scholten

Wrap UP talk of Thursday 20 June 2019 – Brno

by Steph Scholten, director of Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Scotland (UK)

Good afternoon dear colleagues,

These have been some intensive days. I’ve been asked to provide a sort of overview. The cliché goes that at a point like this you’re supposed to say that these days have been very rich and meaningful, so I will say that as well. But not because I want to stick to convention, but because I actually believe that these were very interesting days. Despite the dense program, I feel that the format for this conference, with its mix of shorter and longer presentations, workshops and posters, lunches, excursions and social events, works well. Not everybody seems yet to know how long 5 minutes really are, but I’m sure that at some point in time we all understand that 5 minutes means really focussing on the one important point you want to make.

These have been extremely pleasant days. I think that for many of us, Brno has been a revelation. And thanks to the hospitality and organisational capacities of Ondrej, Lucy and their team, we’ve felt very welcome. So thank you very much for the good care you have taken of us. And we get Prague as desert. Looking forward to it! Also, a big thank you to the UNIVERSEUM Board, who have once more put in a lot of effort in creating this opportunity for all of us to come together, discuss, socialise and bond. Last but not least, thank you all for participating and sharing your work and ideas with your colleagues.

Now I will turn to the content of these past days. I will not try to be complete or try to mention all contributions, the book of abstracts and the blogs will do that for you, but I will try to pick out a few things that I found of particular interest or relevance. After my talk, you’re all very welcome to join in and share your observations with us all.

Thinking back, I think there were a couple main threads: there was one about innovating, one about theorising, one about collaborating and one about politicizing. And sometimes they all met, most specifically when the question was asked “what are we really for?”

This question was very explicitly addressed by our colleagues from Ghent University on the first morning, when they presented their plans for the new university museum GUM. Statements like: “a forum for science, doubt and art”, “a museum for everybody who dares to think” resonate well with me, as something that is in line with what we formulated as a conceptual starting point for our museum development in Glasgow: that “we should want to be a place where big questions can be asked”. Those big questions are –amongst others- about the nature and mechanisms of the knowledge industry we all work in. Whether we like it or not, we’re part of a global business domain that is higher education. And we are asked to support the business goals of our masters: to make our universities more interesting, so they can compete better in national and international markets. This is definitely true for the UK, but I’m sure, to a certain level, true for us all. There is another aspect of our business sector that we could and should address more explicitly if I listen to some of the presentations these past few days: creating knowledge is a human endeavour and it is as flawed as all other human endeavours: we are biased, we make mistakes, we have blind spots, we fail. We all know that, but that is often not what we like to tell our audiences: we often speak only about our successes, our heroes, et cetera. As the saying goes “Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan”. And there is the ethics of our business: should we publicly discuss and question how we produce knowledge?  Should we tell the stories about the animals we manipulate genetically so we can do research into human health and wellbeing? Should we talk about the fact that substantial parts of published research can’t be properly reproduced and therefore verified according to our own standards? Should we allow doubt in, is it conceivable that we make space for other forms of knowledge production?

We heard a number of presentations and there was some discussion about the theoretical framework we work with in museums. I hope you don’t mind that I think that I am not particularly interested in hard-core debates about whether the middle-European or Anglo-Saxon schools are more right or wrong or if new or old museology is a better framework. I leave that to the museologists. I am very interested however in questions about what makes our museums relevant. Are we aware of the authority and power structures we work in and with?. Are we inclusive? Are we activist? I think we were all struck by Gerry’s presentation from the Philippines, using his university and museum in Manilla as a context to question national politics. I think I heard Marlen say at some point that she felt that it should be the role of museums to be activist. And you may wonder, in a time of “fact free” politics, Brexit, authocratic and nationalist tendencies in quite a few European countries, if being neutral is really an option. I think we all feel more comfortable when we apply this kind of thinking on e.g. climate change. We all feel a role to educate the world on this. But shouldn’t we also act on other major societal issues? And I realise of course that that is much easier in some countries and universities then in others.

But I’ve heard in these past days that we should not only question the power of others, but also our own mechanisms: our curatorial control over the narratives that we frame in our museums. Our control over not only what our objects and collections are in their material form, but also what they mean. I proposed at some point that we should maybe separate the two and we’ve heard that we should let others tell their own stories, be co-curators, add layers of meaning to the ones we find relevant and stepping back as professionals to let that happen.

We heard also that we need to critically engage with difficult episodes in our pasts, about slavery, eugenics, physical anthropology and the likes. That we maybe should not apologize, but acknowledge that universities, museums and the western world were and are not neutral and have made some very major mistakes in times past (and are possibly making some in times present). And this not only because of historical justice, but also, as James argued yesterday, in the interest of our mother institutions, who have a huge stake in preserving a positive public image. In some shape or form all or most universities have benefitted from power structures and financial support from sources that we feel not to be proper anymore. Whether that is political patronage, private sector support, slavery and we didn’t even discuss #metoo and other forms of inappropriate behaviour that seem to be in the news daily.

Maybe that is enough about politics, ideology etc. As it should, a lot of presentations focussed on innovation. Innovation in the sense of how we can position and organise our university museums the best within in the university and in relation to stakeholders outside. Should we think more about ourselves in business like terms? Should we look for different ways to cross the disciplinary divides that still often separate us, work more trans-disciplinary as Giovanna suggested? Can we bridge the gap between academics and non-academics in our universities, depending on where our museums find themselves in the university structure? Should we concentrate museum resources in universities to become bigger and stronger or should we be small, agile units? Should we sometimes ask for a kick in the butt, as Hans from Museum Boerhaave said, so we are forced to move and change and maybe become “European Museum of the Year” as well?

And of course how do we innovate our connections with and our offer to our audiences? What are effective approaches to engage students and researchers? How do new technologies help us? What motivates “crowdsourcers”? What educational approaches are the most effective? What do people remember from what we show them? How do we evidence, measure and evaluate the outcomes of our efforts? What is the value of online versus “real” visits? I think it is vital that we, university museum professionals, keep coming together on a regular basis and share our successes and failures, so we can learn from each other and be inspired. I think I’ll keep it at that. Thank you all.

Steph Scholten, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Brno, 20 June 2019