Facing the Dragons at the MA Conference: a blog by Esther Rutter, education development manager at Wordsworth Trust

2014 was my third visit to the MA Conference, an event which always has a great buzz and welcomes people from all over the world. This year its theme was ‘Museums Change Lives’: usually this topic would simply whet my appetite for the talks, workshops and seminars on offer – but this year it also made me nervous, as for the first time I had to take to the stage and share my ideas with the world.

As I mentioned previously, I had to pitch an innovative idea to the ‘Dragons’ Den’, a group of five senior professionals playing the ‘Alan Sugars’ to five nervous apprentices (or am I mixing my reality TV shows?) The purpose was to give us the chance to either develop a new project, or to help an existing one to become more resilient.  This year, most of the applicants had a learning background, but our pitches still had to be steered towards business resilience. We had five minutes and a handful of PowerPoint slides in which to explain our projects and ‘pitch’ for the Gold Award: £1000-worth of consultant time.

So at 12.25 we nervously mounted the stage in the Donald Gordon Theatre at the Wales Millennium Centre. For those of you who have never visited it, the theatre seats almost 2000 people and looks like this:

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Elizabeth Dollimore opened with a great pitch aimed at getting more museums involved in Shakespeare Week. Then Annie Sommazzi 8th in the East enthused us all with her idea for a ground-breaking project to combat racism, followed by Rachel MacFarlane of Colchester and Ipswich Museums sharing her plans to involve students in museum interpretation. Caroline Bray challenged the Dragons to help get museum directors and senior management teams to support the delivery of Arts Award – and then it was my turn.

I began by quoting CNN’s 2013 article Why I Hate Museums: ‘The main thing you learn in museums, it seems, is how not to run a museum.’ Their grievance with museums is that they are really bad at engaging adults in fun and interactive ways. I then pointed out that, as a sector, we’re really good at helping children enjoy their visits to museums (using quizzes, costumes, handling objects, games – and more!), but that we haven’t yet extended this to the way we approach interpretation for adults. My idea was to use the Wordsworth Trust’s collection to pilot an exhibition display which included lots of interactive interpretation – but not just for children. It would give adults the change to learn through doing rather than looking, and would be a relatively inexpensive way of trialling this style of interpretation. My heart was racing as I realised I had, in one fell swoop, criticised the entire museums sector, in front of a room full of people who love and work in museums – but I couldn’t go back and had to sit down and wait for the Dragons’ verdict.

Fortunately it was swift in coming. I was awarded first place, and was so pleased and proud to have been able to showcase the work and collections of the Wordsworth Trust in this way. But what really inspired me to take this project forward was the response from the audience. One museum director said: ‘I think you hit upon something really important and articulated it well. As a parent of small kids I particularly see the difference between how I and they are expected to interact with museum displays. I love it when I get to play ‘I spy’ or ‘do a collage’, but without them there … I look and read. You could launch a revolution Esther! Good luck.’

Thanks to the Arts Council England who funded my travel to the conference through the Wordsworth Trust’s MPM grant, as part of the Cumbria Museums Consortium.

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