Day One

I was honoured to represent GEM at this international conference, I was especially pleased to attend as many of the themes were incredibly relevant to the work that GEM are currently undertaking in partnership with the Welsh Government regarding the introduction of the Curriculum for Wales in September 2022.

The conference began with a welcome from Dawn Bowden the Welsh Government’s Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport who highlighted the fact that the word ‘cynefin, the evocative Welsh word which describes our relationship to the environment in which we live (pronounced in English as ‘ku-nev-in), is a transferable theme for all museums as it captures a feeling of pride in your area. She also emphasised how important the wellbeing agenda is at the moment in Wales. It was fantastic to hear recognition from her for the GEM Cymru project currently ongoing looking at how museums can work with schools to adapt and amend their education programmes to take into account the demands of the new curriculum. This acknowledgement was further appreciated by GEM Cymru in the conference’ social media discussions going on at the time (see#WI2022conf), such as this:

Great to hear the @gem_heritage project on the new Curriculum for Wales getting a shout out by @Dawn_Bowden! Such important work! @robintjohnson8 @cymru_gem.

Nest Thomas from the Welsh Museums Federation, in her introduction to the day, also cited how important museums are for the new curriculum.

The session on climate change and museums underlined the very serious effects that climate change is having on museums, especially the physical impact on our buildings. The Australian National Museum focuses on this issue, as it believes that climate change connects us all. They have a temporary exhibition programme called ‘Future Now’ which specifically examines and highlights current solutions to climate change.  All the museum’s social media and online presence consistently encourages their audience to be ‘climate positive’ (net zero). All the museum’s events and programmes have been adapted to be ‘climate active’ (carbon neutral) where possible too. The museum would encourage all other museums to pro-actively look for funding to increase energy saving for their buildings.

There then followed a session dedicated to case studies about how some of the Welsh museum beneficiaries of ICOM’s travel bursary scheme have spent their funding, including a visit to South America from staff at Ceredigion Museum examining mining heritage and Wrexham Museum’s upcoming research trip to Dortmund exploring their football museum.

David Anderson, Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museums Wales), introduced the late afternoon sessions and also emphasised the importance of the new Curriculum for Wales to museums in Wales – particularly the emphasis on BAME history and experiences. He praised the Welsh government for being the first in the world to make it a legal responsibility to teach BAME history.

The following session was a discussion around how museums can help create a more equitable future and how museums can help marginalised communities feel part of their community. The basic, bottom line is that museum staff need to prioritise equity in all their work. Related to this theme, the next session focused on how museums can actually help bridge divides in their local communities by being a neutral, welcoming space for dialogue and friendly discussion. Again, the conclusion to this session was that museums need to be more inclusive of the communities they serve.

Day Two

The second day began with a presentation relating to new thinking around how museums are working with people with dementia by encouraging a positive sense of self.  The award winning House of Memories in Liverpool has been working with GEM Cymru’s Karin Molson at Monmouth with the intention of a establishing a House of Memories: Cymru. Monmouth used two pieces of Welsh Govt legislation regarding wellbeing and social services, and associated working practices to re-think the way they provided services for the elderly and people living with dementia. They set up a series of ‘intergenerational memory cafes’ where specially trained young people worked with collections to interact with elderly care home visitors in a gallery, including actually designing a menu around an object. The museum became a ‘dementia champion’ and believes that it is being taken more seriously as a genuine provider of wellbeing activities for this audience. All museums are houses of memories in some way and utilising the power of objects to trigger memories and open up conversations is a simple, but extremely effective tool.

Like GEM Cymru’s conference recently, the keynote speaker was Dr Huw Griffiths, from Powys CC. Dr Griffiths spoke passionately about cynefin  and how it is such a powerful word (and feeling). Similar Welsh words like cwtch (hug) and hireath (a longing for Wales) all resonate with the Welsh people and – as a Welsh person would say – “belong to us”. Dr Griffiths thought it was very important to include Welsh words in the new curriculum. He asked the Welsh poet Mererid Hopwood to write a definition of cynefin to enable people to understand how your own cynefin is unique to you, but part of a shared Welsh nation. It is the only thing that unities all Welsh pupils according to Dr Griffiths. In summary, he said that cynefin gives pupils “roots & wings” and museums need to ensure that cynefin is emphasised in their work with schools.

In the final session GEM Cymru’s Jo Furber from the Dylan Thomas Centre spoke about their work with the local refugee & asylum seeking community in Swansea where they provide creative writing workshops inspired by their collections. It is very important that the museum is not only seen as a safe space by these vulnerable groups, but that the museum as an institution has worked to create a space where people can feel free to express themselves without fear of punishment. As one of the speakers said: “Museums should be safe spaces for dangerous ideas”

About The Author:
Robin Johnson has been a freelance museum learning consultant since 2016, working with a wide range of museums and archive services. He has over 30 years’ experience of working within heritage learning and the formal education sector.