For anyone who arrived to GEM Conference 2019 on Tuesday, well done because you caught some beautiful seaside weather! It was great to see some sun and seagulls before diving into the conference.

We were pleased to welcome lots of smiling faces on Wednesday morning to the charmingly quirky Torquay Museum. There were lots of “Faulty Towers” references which were admittedly lost on me, however, the “Devon in Devon” jokes were not. After registration and workshop selection, everyone shuffled up to the Pengelly auditorium where we had a warm welcome from Chair of Trustees Caroline Marcus. She outlined the aims for the conference and spoke of GEM’s reinvigoration due to the “Stronger GEM for a Stronger Sector” project which will allow for GEM to do the following…

  • Support heritage organisations and practitioners in developing and sharing best practice in heritage learning.
  • Develop innovative projects that contribute to sustainable development in heritage learning.
  • Work in partnership to contribute to important government agendas and the cultural economy.
  • Advocate the benefits of heritage learning in terms of individual and social welfare.

Needless to say, we are stoked! It was a great way to begin our 2019 Conference with a reminder of the renewal of GEM as an essential support organisation to the museums and heritage education sector.

Our first keynote speaker, Kate Richards, then gave us all an overview of WHERE we were geographically and WHAT was going on there! Kate is the Co-Founder and Director of Squircle Arts as well as a Learning Officer at Torre Abbey Museum. She gave us an overview of the Torbay area which we learned encompasses Torquay, Paignton and Brixham (a geography lesson as well!) Her presentation outlined her journey in founding Squircle Arts and why she felt this particular organisation was necessary and relevant for the area. Squircle operates in care homes, festivals, schools, community centres and lots of unconventional spaces as well. Kate’s goal is to celebrate children’s ability to be creative.

FUN FACT – a “squircle” is a square with round edges, a mix between a square and a circle which is often the first shape that children draw. Kate’s passion for arts education and cultural awareness came through in spades. She gave a dynamite presentation on her journey which I’m sure inspired others (I certainly felt it!) Be sure to check out Squircle Arts and follow them on Twitter – @SquircleArts.

Our second keynote was Cultural Consultant Piotr Bienkowski who felt so inspired by the GEM Conference 2019 subtitle “Forging dynamic and lasting partnerships with communities” that used it as the foundation for the presentation! Piotr spent a half hour picking apart each word within the subtitle and sharing his experience and knowledge on why and how museums and organisations can build these lasting partnerships. The moment during the presentation when I heard the most scribbling was when he said the following regarding working with communities, “Ask yourselves, who is not in the room, and why?” THIS question really hit the nail on the head so to speak. He went on to say that by asking these questions and answering them within your organisation you will begin to peel back the onion layers and get to the core of the organisational issues and practices that are preventing productive partnerships being formed with communities. The following quotes were other pencil scribbling moments within the presentation:

  • “Partnership means deciding together for mutual benefit.”
  • “The real work is outside the building, outside the gallery.”
  • “Community partners are a key part of any practice, not an add-on, they are key.”

He wrapped up his presentation with these 4 ways to build reflection into daily practice:

  • Set aside 5 minutes at the end of each meeting for reflection.
  • Create a regular forum for debate.
  • Use formal debriefs of projects and programmes.
  • Use regular meetings with staff and volunteers to host an organisational reflection.

NEXT UP we had GEM members’ presentations which included an engaging overview of how Aerospace Bristol built relationships from scratch with communities from Community Engagement and Outreach Officer, Claire Marston. Then, Isy Mead, the Head of Learning and Participation at The Story Museum spoke about their efforts to involve the community in curating the contents and look of their new museum which will open in Spring 2020. Side note – they had a Narnia exhibition complete with fur coats, snow, Turkish delights and a sleigh… How. Freaking. Awesome. To wrap up the Wednesday member presentations we heard from Caroline Marcus and Rosanna Heverin Weston their dealings with the wives of King Henry VIII through their partnership with the new hit musical “SIX”. They’ve partnered with the National Portrait Gallery and Hampton Court Palace to present a new interpretation of the HERstory of these iconic women. ALSO, they are giving away two tickets to the complete SIX experience at GEM Conference so be sure to fill out the form and give it to a member of the GEM team to enter!

Segwaying into workshops, we had three stupendous options to choose from including:

  • Mapping your design community with Kate Kennedy (Learning Producer [Schools]: DesignLab Nation, V&A; Holly Burton, National Schools Programme Producer, V&A; Nicky McIntosh, Community and Learning Manager, Culture Coventry; Gemma Potter, Maker
  • Beyond “bums on seats”, the power of pedagogy: using pedagogy and psychology to inform strategy, give us confidence and measure our impact with Samuel Fieldhouse, Education and Community Manager for Wessex Archaeology
  • Developing a resilient workforce with Laura Crossley, Freelancer

I heard MARVELOUS things about the first two sessions, I unfortunately had to choose, but fortunately really enjoyed Laura Crossley’s workshop which involved lots of wellbeing tips for employers and employees! Find me at conference tomorrow if you’d like some of the wellbeing resources she had left over – let’s spread the good word!

After all of the Gemmers refuelled on amazing quiche, cheeky sammies and some delicious brownies, the conference reconvened with afternoon workshops which included:

  • The Philosophy of partnerships with Bea Prosser-Snelling, Strategic Manager, Artswork
  • Moving beyond disability categories to work with access preferences with Helena Garcia Carrizosa, Research Associate, Open University
  • Family Making: What spaces can be found for family agency with Katie Cassells, Family Programmes Produces, Royal Museums Greenwich

All of the sessions were very well received by participants! It’s always great to have museum and heritage educators running workshops because they are always SUPER interactive. Bea’s session was particularly up-beat with participants sat in a circle and encouraged to interact/engage with one another – breaking the ice at its finest!

One quickie coffee break and about 4 biscuits later (damn that sweet tooth…) we were off to the afternoon keynotes!

Melissa Strauss, the Policy Project Manager for the National Lottery Heritage Fund gave the first keynote on their new Strategic Funding Framework. She spoke about the importance of community heritage, inclusive heritage and partnerships. Making community heritage RELEVANT to people’s lives was the primary takeaway from this session. We are looking forward to seeing what is next from the National Lottery Heritage Fund!

The second keynote of the afternoon and fourth of the day came from Alex Coulter, Director of Arts and Health South West and Chair of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance. This session presented some of the research that was discussed during Creativity and Wellbeing week back in June. I was lucky enough to snag a ticket to the sold-out conference at the Southbank Centre which was awesome – and it was great to hear Alex speak at the GEM conference to share this research through heritage-coloured glasses.

I’m not going to write extensively about the GEM Annual General Meeting which took place in the afternoon after the conference wrapped up – that’s a blog post for another time, but I WILL highlight some very exciting news that was shared…

The cat is out of the bag peeps! I (Devon Turner if you’ve forgotten) have been given the awesome responsibility of becoming the new Communications Manager for GEM. I’m looking forward to rethinking the way that GEM communicates with the sector and injecting some innovation into our programming and resource-sharing. You’ll be hearing a lot more from me, which is a good thing? I sure hope so!