Being an Enterprising Educator: GEM conference

Selwyn College, Cambridge (2 – 4 September 2014)

written by Esther Rutter, Education Development Manager at the Wordsworth Trust:

This year I went to the GEM (Group for Education in Museums) conference for the first time. As with all conferences, I approached with the usual trepidation: will it be useful? Would I be better staying in the office for three days? Will I actually learn anything? Well, as it’s a conference run by education specialists I shouldn’t have worried. It was a brilliant three days of meeting, discussing, being inspired and learning, learning, learning so much about how be an Enterprising Educator.

These are dark times for funding for the arts and so the theme of ‘Enterprise’ was a very pertinent one. Each day began with an intellectual double-header: key note addresses from entrepreneurs from within and without the sector. School for Creative Startups’ Medeia Cohen enthused us all with her vision of creative enterprise, followed by the funny and very acute Dean Paton of Liverpool-based Big Heritage who reminded us that cultural heritage is a tool to affect social change, not just an asset. Community comes first, history second. Or, to use his exact words: ‘It’s just a shitty brown pot unless you learn otherwise.’

After the key speeches a choice of interactive workshops was on offer: the only problem with them was choosing which one to go to! Top of the pops were ‘Can we make money from the national curriculum?’ (which included hugely helpful data on secondary outreach from Leeds Museums and Galleries); ‘That’s entertainment: draw in the crowds without losing the learning’ by Rosie Amos of the Polar Museum, which came complete with origami penguins to help tell the story of Scott’s expedition to collect penguins eggs; and Homerton College/Fitzwilliam Museum’s session on ‘Making a long-term investment’ by working with teachers of the future through Initial Teacher Training (ITT). Although the speeches were always good and often inspirational, it was the workshops that really helped me develop my skills and knowledge, from how to use Jing to how to make a successful HLF bid.

But what I absolutely loved about the conference was the chance to meet other educators from every level from across the country. Interns and volunteers mixed with heads of service and directors, sharing ideas and experiences. Sometimes working in one small organisation can feel isolating, particularly if the education department only consists of one or two people. The GEM conference was a great opportunity to discover solutions to shared problems, getting new collaborations off the ground, and finding opportunities you never even knew existed. My personal conference highlight was being allowed to wander through the Fitzwilliam Museum after hours with a glass (or two) of wine, talking with colleagues from all over the UK about what we love about our work, what we love about the Fitzwilliam, and how we could change the world. At the conference I was also invited to pitch an innovative idea for museums to the MA Conference’s Dragons Den in October – so watch this space.