Hundreds of people from the heritage sector descended on Manchester Central this month for the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition 2017.
Being impressed by last year’s event in Glasgow we had high expectations, and 12 months on the industry gathering did not disappoint. Once again, the event proved a great opportunity to meet with clients new and old, as we recollected past projects and continued discussions surrounding potential upcoming work. Our exhibition stand drew in faces we hadn’t seen before too, with Leach Studio creating conversation both in person and on Twitter.
And that was before we even stepped into the conference.
With a packed programme of discussions and debates, there was a lot to cover, and the event certainly encompassed a wide ranging selection of topics pertinent to this visitor experience arena.
But if we had to pick out some key themes, there were probably three key takeaway points for people unable to attend:
1. Co-production was big news
Whilst certainly not a new concept, co-production is quickly emerging as one of the most relevant and inclusive ways to create new museum experiences in the UK.
Combining the thoughts, ideas and interpretive suggestions of EVERYONE, including the museum team, designers, councillors, volunteers and members of the general public – to name just a few potential stakeholders – it represents shift-change in collaborative storytelling and engagement techniques to ensure our heritage is redefined in a way that meets the needs of visitors.
Our friends at the Museum of Making at Derby Silk Mill have received lot of attention – and acclaim – for their pioneering use of this approach over the past 3 years and together we are starting the next phase of this exciting project in the next few weeks. Keep your eye out for opportunities how you can get help design the new Museum of Making throughout 2018.
2. A knowledge-sharing sector
Another refreshing observation at this year’s event is just how much open and honest dialogue flows between people within the UK heritage sector. There is a genuine appetite to share ideas and feedback with peers as to what has and hasn’t worked well as museum projects have unfolded.
Many delegates enthused about the use of low-tech interactivity within exhibits, for instance. Advising that, usually, a bespoke app simply won’t cut it when it comes to capturing the attention of young visitors used to enjoying multi-million pound equivalents, many professionals encouraged their associates to think differently. Interactive, wind-up displays may sound like basic alternatives perhaps, but they have proved extremely engaging for a number of visitor environments where visitors want to ‘have a go’.
Leach similarly embraces this knowledge-transfer mindset, and so we approached the event with the same willingness to share advice and experiences, as well as learn and expand on our thinking. A common theme for our team was the collaborative approach we can offer during the masterplanning or fundraising phases of a project, so we spoke openly about the benefits (and challenges) of having a design team involved during the early stages of a project.
It is far from easy to secure those much-needed financial resources. However, we have extensive expertise to help clients bring their ideas to life during the competitive pitch process, so we tried to offer as many thoughts and tips as possible across the two-day event.
3. The need to embrace and encourage sector diversity
Diversity has long been an important topic within the heritage sector, as no two people are the same. The needs and interests of one visitor may therefore differ greatly to the next. From a practical perspective, that’s why we’ve worked hard to design and manufacture display solutions that are fully compliant with accessibility standards, for example, so that everyone can enjoy their experience.
Yet diversity considerations are far more wide-reaching. Some museums may have a typical demographic audience, but more should be being done to attract people who wouldn’t ordinarily consider visiting.
A great debate therefore unfolded with several suggestions put forward to help encourage the attendance of people with very varied interests, lifestyles and backgrounds. Whilst it was perhaps unrealistic to reach a definitive answer over the course of a short event – not least because this isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ scenario – a number of promising ideas and thought processes were raised, which the industry should now build upon.
Sometimes ‘food for thought’ is all that is needed…