GEM Conference 2016: Adapt and Thrive, weathering the impact of change on cultural learning

I was very pleased to attend the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) conference. It took place in the Surgeons’ Hall; a fantastic venue for this super event. I have recently started in my role as Collections and Engagement Manager at MGS. Having come from a curatorial background in the Highlands, this was a brilliant opportunity to spend two days discussing and considering learning in museums and cultural environments.

The title of the conference was Adapt and Thrive: weathering the impact of change on cultural learning, and the mood was one of an openness to new ideas and an awareness of the dangers of inadaptability.

Surgeons' Hall Museums, photo by Neil Turner (

(Photo by Neil Turner)

One of the most clearly apparent benefits of the conference was that there were delegates from all over Scotland, England and Wales. There was room for discussion and comparison; a chance to share ideas with colleagues from a variety of workplaces and backgrounds, and a unique opportunity to explore approaches to ‘weathering the change’ in person with one another.

Day one

The conference organisers had made good use of time using workshops, which allowed each attendee to curate the conference for themselves, and therefore make the most of what was on offer as individuals, or for their organisation.

I was impressed with the Cultural Writers workshop, which was run by the National Literacy Trust. Here we discussed literacy amongst young people, and ways to develop literacy outside of the classroom in a cultural environment. I was pleased with the ‘Picture the Poet’ project, where portraits of poets from the National Portrait Gallery collection form a travelling exhibition. School children respond to them creatively, using the portraits to influence artistic responses in the form of poetry.

Before being involved with museums I spent time writing poems, helping to publish creative writing journals, and organising poetry events, and to me, the two interests have always complimented one another. I was therefore delighted to hear about museum and gallery collections being used to inspire poetry amongst young people; this seems a wonderful and natural idea, one which has been established informally since museums have existed, and one which I think is beneficial to formally recognise and foster in museums and galleries.

After a busy day talking and thinking about different approaches to learning in museums we headed over to the ever-striking National Museum atrium, for a keenly anticipated glass of wine.

National Museum of Scotland, photo by Jacob O’Sullivan

Day two

Ruth Gill from NMS began the day with a fantastic summary of the incredibly ambitious and inspiring NMS transformation, before Piotr Bienkowski delivered a fascinating keynote on the nature of change and why change fails. There is little point in ‘change for change’s sake’. Change is about adaptability, and it is important to welcome and recognise change when adaption makes it inevitable.

At the National Museum we were treated to a lively sample of some of their schools’ programmes. We were shown the brilliantly effective ways that they bring science and history alive to children and young people. The activities were wonderfully resourceful and creative. By using hand windmills, nursery rhymes, teddy bears and building blocks, we were shown how primary age children can engage with the collections in a wonderfully effective way, whilst at the same time putting some of their classroom knowledge into practise. This is an exciting way of teaching children about science, technology, engineering and maths outwith a classroom environment.

With younger children in particular, it can be hard to make collections have relevance. A gallery or collections’ store can be an exciting and unusual place for learning, but it can be difficult to imagine objects being used in real life and the human effect such an object in its natural state might have. By allowing the children to interact and create with objects that relate to and compliment the collections (i.e. windmills when discussing renewable energy, plastic cogs when discussing engineering), they have managed to bring the collections to life. It’s far easier to imagine how an object might work when you’ve worked with a likeness of that object in miniature.

GEM Conference session, photo by Jacob O'Sullivan
GEM Conference session, photo by Jacob O’Sullivan

The conference highlighted a series of innovative approaches of how to adapt and thrive, and the overriding sense was of an enthusiastic, adaptable and creative area of the sector, well placed for weathering any impact of change on cultural learning.

To weather any change, it is important to work together, to create useful and trusting partnerships, and to be open to new ideas, wherever they come from. By adapting cultural learning programmes to be resourceful, creative and collaborative, then museums and cultural institutions can thrive, and be organisations of effective learning in a fun and engaging environment.

Jacob O’Sullivan, Collections and Engagement Manager, Museums Galleries Scotland

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