Dispatch from abroad - thoughts from the ECSITE conference
“So, why don’t you work in a museum?” - We were sitting on the grass, in Porto’s botanical gardens, full plates and wine glasses at hand. This was the second evening of the Ecsite 2017 European Conference for Science Engagement and the setting was captivating: maze-like hedges and rose bushes creating pathways for explainers to show off their solar–driven tinkered vehicles while science centre folk enjoyed the opportunity to chat with similar-minded individuals (basically, a whole bunch of people united by the common agreement that communicating science is both essential and fun).
Why not work for a design museum firm?
I’ve always appreciated the perspective that museum conferences allows one to take from the hustle and bustle of daily life. While every year the main themes remain relatively constant, the step back gives us the opportunity to reassess our practice. To answer the Scandinavian museum director’s question, I’d say that what I’ve always loved about working for a firm that works for museums, instead of in a museum per se, is the diversity of teams, locations and projects that I get to work on.
In the past year and a half, two of our projects have particularly captivated me, and some Ecsite-inspired thinking helped me pin down the reasons. Two themes that particularly resonated with me this year were, first, the place of art and design in science and history museums and second, the notion of community engagement. Neither is new, but the fact that these subjects are still being brought up and discussed in such forums speak volumes.
What I’ve always loved about working for a firm that works for museums, instead of in a museum per se, is the diversity of teams, locations and projects that I get to work on.
Getting insight from art and design
Certain science-based institutions struggle to see the value of bringing art and design into their exhibitions. I appreciated how Nuno Ferrand de Almeida, a professor at the University of Porto involved in the restructuring of several of the city’s natural history and science museums, emphasized the important role that art and design were going to play in these new institutions, recognizing how they can bring enlightenment to the subjects for discussion. I also appreciate every year learning more about the amazing work being produced by the Science Gallery in Dublin, where artists, designers and scientists are teamed up to create thought-provoking installations and exhibitions, pushing the editorial limits of museum communication.
While developing the new Alaska Gallery for the Anchorage Museum, the museum’s curatorial team invited local artists for whom the subject of Alaskan identity is at the heart of their work, to participate in some workshops with our design team. The insight that they provided was essential in pinning down the right tone for certain of the installations that we are creating for the gallery. This collaboration was greatly appreciated and I look forward to the September opening to seeing how bringing a contemporary art-based approach into a history gallery will help bring emotion to narratives that can sometimes become dry and overly factual.
Communities as part of the curation team
Coming to the theme of community engagement, it was also great to hear keynote speaker Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, about the efforts she has made to make her museum inclusive and open to all the members of the community of Santa Cruz, making the institution about them, and not only for them.
All too often, I’ve seen aggressive timelines – and not lack of will - discourage efforts to include members of the community. Working with curator Dr. Michele Bambling in Abu Dhabi on Lest We Forget, a grass roots initiative which encourages young female university students to create works of art based on their explorations of a growing collection of vernacular Emirati photographs from their own families, has been another invaluable experience. The exhibition-making process was lengthier and less straight-forward than when a consultant comes in to design all of the elements from A to Z, but the emotion and cultural knowledge expressed by the young artists made all of the difference.
As I fly back to Montreal after three full days of conferences and talks by peers, I feel grateful for the opportunities we have at GSM Project to contribute daily to making such exciting projects come to life. I'm also happy that communities such as the one gathered at ECSITE is giving me opportunities to reflect on the meaning and importance of my work.