GEM conference - day 1
GEM's conference for 2011 got under way earlier today at Dunston Hall in rainy Norfolk. The theme of "thinking ahead and staying afloat" couldn't be more relevant to organisations facing cuts, redundancies and wholesale restructures and it's encouraging to see that so many people were able to make the journey to network with colleagues, share practice and hopefully take away ideas and inspiration to sustain them once back at the coal face. This is a quick summary of day 1, hastily typed in the half-hour between the end of the session and departing for the Sainsbury Centre's evening reception so forgive me if I've missed anything pertinent! The Twitter hashtag for the conference is #gem2011 and an increasing number of people have started tweeting, so please follow that for live comment from a greater variety of voices - and do follow GEM at @gem_heritage.
GEM chair John Reeve's opening remarks outlined the new political and financial situation we're all facing, with all the threats, challenges and opportunities that brings. After that we heard from Vanessa Trevelyan, director of Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service and current president of the Museums Association, and it was reassuring to hear a leading museum director describe learning in its broadest sense as central to the mission of any museum. Vanessa's comment "there's no point in having collections unless you're going to use them to inspire and educate people" certainly struck a chord with me, though she did say that learning is under threat and requires specialist staff and robust evidence of impact. She showed us some of that evidence in a tour of some of the work happening in Norfolk. There's clearly a lot of exciting work going on with audiences across the board and Vanessa talked about how the service was facing the challenge of sustaining this through cuts - investing in income generation through shops and cafes, rationalising storage and making "sensitive disposals", making clever use of spaces, restructuring staff and making better use of staff skills and abilities through flexible working. You can download the full text of Vanessa's presentation from the Museums Association website.
Vanessa's keynote set the tone for the panel discussion that followed, which covered the pros and cons of maintaining in-house staff versus outsourcing work to freelancers; and the ongoing challenge of evaluation and whether the Inspiring Learning for All GLO and GSO frameworks are still relevant or whether we need to find impact measures that work for our partners rather than our own sector. Delegates raised the challenge presented by the new political framework, in which our sector's longstanding focus on engagement and audience development is now being challenged, bringing with it the need for creative responses and new relationships, for example with Academy sponsor organisations rather than local authority learning advisers. I'm sure these conversations will continue over the next few days.
We then split out into breakout sessions, bringing with it the eternal conference dilemma - which one to choose? I stayed for Susie Bachelor's session on developing a strategic site-based learning programme', with some interesting examples and discussion about how Historic Royal Palaces has grown its provision for different audiences and how it plans to sustain this in the long term. I'm curious to know whether the challenge from Tullie House Museum, to arrange an exchange between students from London and Carlsle, goes ahead!
I'm afraid I missed most of the members' presentations but will be asking around to find out what I missed - please leave a comment if you were there! There may well be a role for live streaming web feeds at future conferences. I did return for the brainstorming session on GEM's future CPD role, to which I was listening intently in my role as chair of GEM's professional development committee - that might have to be a topic for a future blog post.
I shall have to leave it there as I'm reliably informed that the coaches to this evening's meal don't wait for latecomers! More tomorrow... and in other news, my room-mate has found her toothbrush :-)
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