By Steve Gardam
Nick Poole’s post talks about the skills required by future museum professionals. This reminded me of a short presentation I gave at the Museums Association 2012 Conference, looking at the future of the museum workforce as part of Museums 2020. The conference session title was Get Your Bloody Tools Out! given to me by convenor Nat Edwards.
When I first came to write my presentation, I felt I only had things to say that were – to me at least – obvious. But obvious does not mean unimportant. My thoughts from last year seem to complement Nick’s, and Nick’s post is a reminder that speaking up about important things is a key factor in making a positive change. This blog is simply offered as another way of describing fundamental common sense.
For the conference and for this blog, I take the meaning of ‘tools’ in this context as values, actions, behaviours… things that help people to so something positive. For me, the five most important ‘tools’ for museum workers are these:
- Take Notice
- Be Active
- Keep Learning
You may recognise these as the Five Ways to Well-being, first described in 2008 by the New Economics Foundation. I had found about the Five Ways through the Happy Museum Project, and given them a great deal of thought in the various discussions and events within that project. These five simple actions have properly lodged in my brain, and I keep finding situations where they apply. When I use them myself, they work: it’s that simple.
This blog post isn’t about well-being as such. But whatever you think about your professional future, my assumption is you would like to be healthy: well-nourished in skills, experience and support, fit for your tasks and labours. That is why the notion of well-being fits professional development.
Think of the Five Ways as ‘tools’ you can use to form everyday habits. Try it: when things are not working out as well as you’d like in a professional situation, scroll through the Five Ways and see how consistently you actually take these actions.
Although the Five Ways are sometimes listed in a different order, for me, they properly start with the action to Take Notice. Paying attention to our context; to the people we claim we want to serve is frequently trumpeted but not always realised. Running family learning programmes? How are families involved in designing those programmes? Do they involve the whole family? Do they actually enable learning? We should do what is needed for people we know, not do what we presume strangers need. We should listen before talking.
Taking notice also works between colleagues. Do you find yourself in frustrating meetings where there is much confusion and little clarity? Ask an open question, to understand rather than challenge. Someone hasn’t completed a piece of work you need? Try and find out what else they have on their plate.
After listening, we should talk. Museums should be in dialogue with our public and each other, but ‘museums’ as buildings or institutions don’t speak – museum people do. I often do a simple exercise with participants on the London Transport Museum employment skills programme. Standing a yard or two away from them, hand in my pockets, I ask them to shake my hand. They are confused, because it’s not really on offer through my actions, despite the verbal invitation. Then I take my hands from my pockets, step forward, and make the same request. You can imagine the difference.
‘Connect’ is a very personal tool. For me, it means offering something of yourself to model what you might like in return. For example, maybe you’re running a focus group with some of your users. Before they can give you their opinions, have you taken an object and explained why you personally like it, or another to say why you don’t? Have you told a story from your own experience to encourage tales from theirs?
Like all these ‘tools’, the actions to Take Notice and Connect are taken by individuals. But using these tools builds relevant, mutual programming. I often talk about triple win programmes being the ideal:
- A win for a core group of participants, who work collaboratively with the museum in a way that is based on their needs, which are now well understood by the museum.
- A win for the museum as an organisation, as the product of participation is also something the museum needs e.g. more capacity through volunteers. The participants understand and value this too.
- A win for a wider audience, enjoying the product of the participation e.g. public events supported by volunteers
Something like this happens some of the time in some museums… but using the Five Ways can increase consistency and quality.
We should take notice to understand our public, and our colleagues, and through understanding be able to connect with them better. But we don’t have to be passive in this. Take the time to articulate what you care about as an individual, what you enjoy in your working life and why. It could be small, and task-based: you enjoy writing. It could be bigger, and more strategic: you want to increase active participation by young people. Either way, bringing your own passions into play will motivate you and excite others. But being able to say clearly what matters to you will breed better connections that help you achieve things with other people.
This could be misinterpreted as only doing things and working with people that make us feel comfortable. That is always a risk, but we avoid it if we Keep Learning.
At conferences, in reports, in meetings with our boss, we are all tacitly encouraged to talk about the good stuff, the successes. But we have to be better at learning from failure. We have to acknowledge when we don’t know enough… But match that with an action to change that ignorance. It’s one of the scariest things to do, to risk looking stupid. But around every meeting table when I’ve said ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘What does that mean?’ I know I asked a question for more than myself, and improved everyone’s shared understanding.
Admitting we don’t know something reminds us to take notice, connect, and be active. If we think we know it all, we’ll forget to use the Five Ways. To Keep Learning keeps us humble, and humility means we always consider why we are doing anything. The reasons can be very simple, but they should not be mindless. We should be active in taking notice, connecting and learning.
Museums at their best are human places, communal and social spaces. But as I’ve previously said, ‘museums’ don’t make this happen, museum people do. To Give is the sustained action of Connect, but it’s more selfless, more open. We can make a connection with someone face-to-face by being active and sharing our enthusiasms. But why stop there? If we want all our public to understand and appreciate our collections, we have to explain why we appreciate them, what a museum ‘hit’ feels like to us as individuals. And so we should do this in our main medium: display.
I would like to see more and more museums becoming personal in their interpretation. The trust in museum revealed by the recent Museums Association research (and referred to by Nick Poole) will not be eroded by a curator sharing their personal point of view, it will be deepened. As Nick observed, that trust is based on integrity and professionalism, on giving our best to meet our responsibilities.
Despite the original context in Museums 2020, this blog post isn’t describing an ideal future. It’s describing the best of what we already have. These tools, these five ways of being brilliant and healthy, are already in use, by you, on your best days. We all just need to find the mantra, the mnemonic that keeps these tools close to hand. For me, it’s the Five Ways. It’s a personal thing, but this simple reminder to take notice, connect, be active, keep learning and give helps me stay on track, especially on the days when it’s hard to. What’s in your toolbox?
Steve Gardam is Head of Live Programmes at the London Transport Museum