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Lessons from Liverpool

The Museums Association conference this year chose to focus on three main themes: Tomorrow’s World, The Emotional Museum and The Therapeutic Museum. As we are in the process of redeveloping our Museum here at Bethlem, it seemed like an ideal opportunity for our Community Engagement Officer to go and find out what other people are doing in the sector, particularly around the therapeutic and emotional museums.

The event was hosted in Liverpool which is home to a wide array of exciting museums, such as the Museum of Liverpool, the International Slavery Museum and the Merseyside Maritime Museum. The conference itself launched with a keynote delivered by Ricardo Brodsky of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile. His talk really set the tone of the event for me, highlighting how important memory and acknowledgement of our past is in making sure we learn in the future.

Another talk I attended looked at the battle curators have when trying to decide how to display difficult items from within their collections. The example given was of a slavery doll, which some curators thought best to hide away and others thought formed part of an important story. We have similar dilemmas here around some of our controversial objects and trying to decide how much of them our visitors want to see, or need to see to be able to understand the full story of the past. We are holding a consultation event to get peoples’ opinions on this in the Museum on Thursday 12 December, 4-6pm, so please come along and tell us what you think or drop us an email with your thoughts if you are unable to attend. The museum in question resolved the issue by displaying the object and telling the audience the story of the decision-making process that had accompanied it. This enabled the viewer to see and understand the debates and discussions that go into every decision we make when an object goes on display in a museum.

Other talks at the conference addressed issues such as youth engagement and funding, but one of the key issues that came through for me was community engagement and looking at how we can actively engage our audiences. Museums have moved on since the days of people looking at objects in cases and we both expect more from and offer more to the people that come through our doors. This helps the museum to be a constantly progressive space; we can inform people of what we know, but also facilitate debate and discussion around key issues. Community engagement is about more than just persuading people to come through the doors, but getting them to create part of their own experiences so that when they leave they leave a bit of themselves behind. This is the only way we can hope to build a museum that is truly responsive and representative of its audiences.