It has been a very long day filled with incredible talks containing so many new ideas and innovative programs. I forget how utterly exhausted I feel at the end of a full conference day! At least this time I came prepared with a portable charger so my phone battery could remain fully charged. At each conference I attend, I like to provide a summary of the day including the talks I attended and some of their key messages. That way, if you’re not here, you can still learn a little about what has been discussed.
Similar to the National Conference in Alice Springs, I am so grateful that this conference is offering a complimentary bus service transporting delegates from the CBD to the conference location, Tanks Arts Centre. This venue scores 11/10. For a bit of historical context, the Centre consists of three concrete fuel tanks that were built for the Royal Australian Navy in 1944 in the rainforest of Mount Whitfield. They were decommissioned in 1987 and repurposed into an arts centre from 1992. In 2006, the entire precinct was inscribed on the State Heritage Register for its significance to the region. It is such a peaceful spot for a conference.
To start the conference, we had a wonderful Welcome to (and connection to) Country performed by the Minjil Dancers. Then, we were welcomed by Cr Bob Manning OAM, Mayor of Cairns Regional Council. Manning highlighted the significance of the arts in Cairns and his dedication to seeing its influence grow through new programs and projects.
International Keynote Presentation by Frith Williams, Head of Experience Design from Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa).
I have probably raved way too much in the past about how great Te Papa is and how amazing they are for their seamless integration of Māori language and culture in everything they do. I was very fortunate to visit the Museum last year and experience it for myself.
Frith Williams spoke about their newly opened permanent exhibition, Te Taiao|Nature. Essentially, the talk delved into how the exhibition was imagined from the beginning and what, in the end, was delivered. Part of this process relied on knowing their audience and collaborating with the wider community. There were some fantastic insights provided including their ‘Inspire’ renewal approach (it’s like an acrostic poem).
Shake things up
Prepare for the Future
Empower our Communities
Although undertaking this new and exciting renewal, Williams also spoke about the five fundamental principles of Te Papa that had to remain central to the project (bicultural, sustainable, accessible, updateable, and safe). I want to briefly mention one thing about their bicultural principle in this exhibition. Going one step further than having a label in English and one in Maori, the new exhibition actually tries to merge them together to teach visitors new words. Make your visitors stop, think, and learn. It creates more memorable experiences.
Williams also made an effort to relate to smaller museums, with restricted budgets, by offering some tips. For example, you don’t need state of the art technology to help people interact. What you can do is have something big and imposing that many can stand in front of and talk about.
After morning tea, we had a choice of three concurrent sessions. I decided to attend the talks in Tank 5 looking at the Rockhampton Art Gallery, volunteers, and creative engagement.
Bianca Acimovic, Gallery Director from Rockhampton Art Gallery
Rockhampton Art Gallery is currently undergoing a huge 31 million dollar revitalization project that will see the construction of a brand new gallery precinct. In Bianca Acimovic’s talk, delegates learnt about the stages involved, how funding has been acquired, and watched a short video showcasing what the new gallery will look like (at this stage). I visited the gallery a couple of times while living in Gladstone and I cannot wait to return once the new one is up and running. No doubt it will be a very significant place in Rockhampton.
Melanie Sorenson, Collections Manager & Melissa McQuillan, Volunteer Coordinator from Cairns Historical Society
The next talk went behind the scenes of volunteer recruitment and retention in the Cairns Historical Society and Cairns Museum. It was really interesting to listen to this talk as I’ve volunteered in the sector for quite some time and have worked as a volunteer coordinator. Therefore, I have some very strong opinions on how volunteers should be treated and their potential. I was so happy to hear that this volunteer program has clear goals, great volunteer support, and opportunities available to suit a whole range of skills and interests. One quote I loved is that when selecting a project for a volunteer, it shouldn’t be age or gender specific, but attitude specific. It sounds like they run a very rewarding program that values the work of the volunteers and motivates them to become passionate promoters of the Museum!
Sheona White, Director from Penrith Regional Gallery
The final talk in this session was delivered by Sheona White and focused on creative engagement. One important takeaway message from this talk is that to be truly accessible (not just physically but much more broadly) everyone needs to be on board with a program, exhibition, etc. If you have conflicting experiences within a cultural institution (e.g. a fun program followed by VSOs policing people as they walk around) it can greatly lessen impact.
I was very glad we only had to make one concurrent panel choice today. It’s very relaxing when you don’t have the fear of missing out on a good panel.
Julian Meyrick, Strategic Professor of Creative Arts from Flinders University
This talk managed to cover so many incredibly important points when it comes to cultural institutions and evaluations. How can we measure meaning? Clearly, counting people through the door is not a sustainable way for cultural institutions to evaluate their work. But, we often come into disagreement with those who want to see these numbers, and these numbers only, due to a lack of understanding. If you are familiar with the sector you’ll know all too well that qualitative evaluations are underemphasised in cultural policy and are not captured by current assessment methods. Julian Meyrick, Tully Barnett and Robert Phiddian discuss this at length in their book ‘What Matters? Talking Value in Australian Culture’. They narrow down the problem of evaluation to being something political, not methodological. I, for one, am excited to purchase the book and read more about their concepts and outcomes.
Deanne Fitzgerald, Senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisor from Western Australian Museum
I won’t write much about this talk because Deanne Fitzgerald presented on the Indigenous Roadmap that I’ve already covered in a previous blog post from the National Conference in Alice Springs. You can read that here. It was a great talk for those unfamiliar with the Roadmap and also reinforced what was spoken about at the National Conference. In a very short amount of time for such a large topic, Fitzgerald was able to summarise the Roadmap and talk about the future goals outlined in the publication. These include increasing Indigenous voices in exhibitions and collaborating more with Indigenous communities when it comes to collection items and their use/storage.
To end the day, we had four presentations that focused on Far North Queensland.
Suzanne Gibson, Manager; Dr Jo Besley, Consultant; and Dr Jo Wills, Museum Development Officer
In 2017, Cairns Museum was completely redeveloped, transforming the Museum into a more modern, interactive space. Suzanne Gibson, Dr Jo Besley and Dr Jo Wills were instrumental on that team. In their presentation, they were able to provide an insight into engaging with the community throughout the process and involving the volunteers as much as possible. The end result, a museum that reflects and has been significantly influenced by the community.
Wills also presented the second talk focusing on her work as a Museum Development Officer with the Queensland Museum Network. Wills delivers support and programs for all Far North Queensland museums. This is around 50 institutions with only 8 paid members of staff and just under 400 volunteers. Wills has been involved in some amazing initiatives assisting museums with exhibitions, cataloguing their collections, and engaging with their communities. One particular program that stood out to me, is the work happening at Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Waiben (Thursday Island) in the Torres Strait concerning exhibition development. There are some wonderful exhibitions, including ‘Evolution: Torres Strait Masks’, that have emerged from this partnership.
Cultural Services from Cairns Regional Council
There was a last minute presenter change and I completely forgot to record who gave this presentation. If you were in attendance and noted it down, please let me know! The focus of this talk was on growing the arts in Cairns and creating an Arts Capital in the Far North. There was some discussion on the new gallery precinct that I linked to in the blog post on Cairns Art Gallery. The presenter also mentioned that the new Performing Arts Centre was shortlisted, alongside only fourteen nominees, for an international architectural award. What an achievement! The attitude of Cairns Regional Council towards the arts is unbelievably positive and reinforcing. A great model for other councils.
Pam Bigelow, Manager from Indigenous Art Centre Alliance
Our final speaker for the day was Pam Bigelow who talked about the role of the Indigenous Art Centre Alliance and its impact on Far North Queensland. This advocacy and support group grew from a need for a peak body. It aims to ‘effect sustainable growth through advocacy and long-term quality support for development, marketing and promotion’ (source). The work promoted by this group was noticed by the National Museum of Australia who will be exhibiting work from thirteen of the art centres in June 2020.
As you can see, it was a very jam-packed day with so many interesting presentations. I hope tomorrow challenges us even more about what it means to open doors.