Wish You Were Here

I’m a cultural consultant. My finances are subtly balanced. So why have I splashed out on attending a conference in Germany rather than one in the UK? I must be loaded!? I must be a senior level professional!? I must be a huge Europhile!?

Well it’s kind of a mix of those. Apart from the money and the senior thing.

I am a strong believer in the sharing of ideas. Of listening to others. Of giving your own opinion too. Networking…

I’ve been a consultant in adult learning and museums for two years. Prior to that I spent 10 years working for an adult learning charity called NIACE and a longer period within education and marketing in the museum sector. Part of my role at NIACE was to represent the organisation on EU projects. As a result I, for the first time, began to travel to continental Europe to attend, and sometimes speak at, conferences. I found, early on, that leaving the UK gave me an almost palpable sense of being on the outside and looking back in at my home’s museum sector. For good and ill.

So I am definitely in the Europhile zone. Over the years I have made friends in many countries and I have learned a great deal from them. There are wonderful learning projects happening across the rest of the EU. The UK does not have a monopoly on innovative ideas in the cultural sector.

Each year, as a consultant, I attend one major conference as an opportunity to develop myself as a professional and to make new contacts that might lead to work in the future. This year I looked at my main three targets: GEM, MA and AIM. None of them fitted well. One because of timing and the other two because of cost. Then I received notification of the annual NEMO conference in Karlsruhe.

NEMO is the Network of European Museum Organisations. Basically its membership is comprised of each country’s museum association. It’s the network that the UK’s Museums Association goes to.

I have attended two previous NEMO meetings in Berlin and Ljubljana. I spoke at the latter on “adult learning and the museum sector” (an insightful exploration of the relevance the two sectors have to each other).

NEMO conferences are attended by an interesting mix of senior-level museum directors right through to early career museum professionals. Conference themes are always on interesting/engaging issues of the day. Workshops are led by some of the most highly regarded professionals on the continent. And, critically, the three day conference is refreshingly cheap! This one has cost me just over £100 and includes all food and drink (at the time of writing I am still in Karlsruhe and attempting to drink my weight in red wine).

About 160 delegates are attending this conference so it has a nice feel to it. Not too big.

Over the last two days I have met up with old friends from Sweden, Denmark and Italy and caught up with their fascinating work around engaging adults in learning. I have also met some lovely people from The Netherlands, Russia, Finland and Liechtenstein. Surprisingly I have only spoken to one UK attendee. From what I can see I am the only UK delegate who is not a speaker/workshop leader.

The lack of UK delegates saddens me. I appreciate it is immediately after the MA Conference but I’m sure there are many museum professionals in the UK who would benefit from being at this one. I have done my best to promote the conference to my networks back home but noone has reacted positively. A few have got back to me to say that it sounds really interesting but they could never justify a “jolly” .

There does, of course, have to be a cost/benefit analysis each time you look at attending a conference but to write one off purely because it is on continental Europe is so wrong. As I mentioned above the conference has cost me a little over £100. I paid for a flight to Frankfurt, a train from there to Karlsruhe and the cheapest hotel I could find. I estimate this conference has cost me no more than attending MA or GEM in Scotland.

So much for the cost. What about the benefit of NEMO 2016?

I was stimulated by the keynote address from Pier Luigi Sacco, Professor of Cultural Economics at IULM University, Milan and visiting Professor at Harvard (no relation) University. He posed the question “how do museums create value?” Surely the most crucial question facing all museums as they face death by a thousand cuts. An appeal to any conference organisers reading this article: book him!

Other presentations included “creating partnerships with scientific, social and artistic sectors”, “measuring the value of museums”, a fascinating and rigorously-researched “critical reflection of Guggenheim’s return on investment in Bilbao”, a moderated discussion on “Business models of museums: what works and what doesn’t?” and an enlightening “museum cooperation with colleagues from Europe: How to apply for EU Culture funding”.

Informal discussions, usually over a glass of wine, inevitably gravitated towards Brexit once delegates realised where I was from. All were horrified.

So, did I make new contacts? Yes. Did I learn new things? Yes. Did I find work as a result? Short answer is “no”, longer answer is “no, but I am in a better position to offer my services to a wider range of countries than I was before”. Did I have fun? Yes, apart from finding myself with 5 hours to kill in Karlsruhe on a Sunday due to my poor calculations re return flight tickets (there’s only so long one can stand in sub-zero temperatures, clutching a Starbucks coffee, outside H&M to piggyback their wifi signal…).

If you think conferences on continental Europe are “jollies”, think again. Broaden your mind and your horizons will follow.

(This review is also available on the ICOM(UK) website: http://uk.icom.museum/news/view/?title=/nemo-conference-2016-wish-you-were-here/ where you will find information on the Working Internationally Programme)




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