By Kristine Milere , Art Museum RIGA BOURSE, Riga, Latvia
What are the changes we are dealing with in our modern world and how do they affect museums both in Asia and Europe? A shift in museum audiences, rapid advancement of digital technologies and issues of ethics and provenance have become more relevant in the past years. How are museums keeping up with it? And what is the role of the museum and the curator in this changed world? These are only some of the questions that were tackled during the 8th ASEMUS General Conference in Kuching, Malaysia .
During those three days, from 14 to 16 November 2018, an international line-up of speakers from Asia and Europe talked about the role of the museum and the curator in today’s world, exhibition development – storyline and visitor approach, museums’ interaction with communities, digital technologies in museums, collection management, care practices and ethics. Speakers presented their perspectives, experiences and best practices on the ground, offering practical insight into how museums can respond and adapt to this changed world.
A day before the panel sessions I had an opportunity to participate in two workshops, which allowed me to go deeper into the themes that would be discussed the next day. The masterclass “Exhibition development”, run by Yasmin Khalid Nicholls, Exhibition Content Manager at the Sarawak Museum Campus; and Laura Miotto, Design Director at the GSM Projects Singapore, showed possible ways to communicate the message to the audience by concentrating on the needs of visitors. It is important to create an exhibition that is a space for free thought, a space for exploring and making your own way. Another significant aspect is the storyline of the exhibition. Speakers talked about the shift in exhibition making approaches – from a chronological or geographical towards a thematic approach. This helps to create more detailed stories and bring to light objects and themes that previously were not too visible.
The second workshop, “The Evolved Museums – Shift in Collection Management & Care Practices”, run by Prof. Darko Babic and Uma Parameswer from ICOM-ICTOP and Dr. Simone Stoltz, Lecturer in Information Management at Reinwardt Academy in the Netherlands, concentrated more on the new generation of visitors and how to find ways to communicate with this new audience. In a world with an information overload, we can find everything we need online. Younger generations do not care about the collections that we have in our museums, but about the stories and the things they can learn from them. Your visitors are able to gather, analyse and share information without you, so don’t keep the stories locked in the museum, bring them to the visitors, make them want the information you have.
One of the main themes across many museum conferences around the world is decolonisation and this conference was not an exception. Keynote speaker Jennifer R.Morris, a research fellow at the Sarawak Museum Campus and a PhD candidate at the National University Singapore, addressed colonial collections and how to acknowledge these collections in the context of the new Sarawak Museum. We always hear this topic presented by the Westerners and it was very refreshing that throughout the conference several Asian museum specialists touched upon this issue and expressed their view on it.
The main theme of the conference was the changing role of the museum and the curator. This entails almost every aspect mentioned above.
There are a number of museums across Asia and Europe which are now undergoing or have just finished a transformation. The main emphasis, of course, was on the new Sarawak Museum Campus project  with several speakers and case studies showing how the museum is shifting its focus from the collection to the visitor, its engagement with the communities and the new way on how to tell the object stories.
Similarly, the Shanghai Museum  presented its expansion, new building and thematic exhibition approach and storytelling with a strong use of digital technologies.
Museums need to change because our society is changing. Museums cannot stay the same. In the Netherlands, the National Museum of World Cultures is exploring its potential of being a museum about people and for people. Despite our many differences, we all are the same. There are few important things we can learn from this changing museum – first the change of the vocabulary. Museums need to rethink the words they use in their communication with their visitors, because words matter. John Sijmonsbergen, Deputy Director at the National Museum of World Cultures introduced a recent museum publication, “Words Matter ”, which should be in your museum library and could be very useful in your future communication with your visitors to reduce Eurocentric labels with a colonial gaze. And secondly the change from permanent exhibitions to temporary exhibitions, this way giving visitors an opportunity to see more, to experience more.
The Asian Civilisation Museum  in Singapore is also one of the examples of the changing museum following the thematic approach to exhibition curating and helping to tackle colonial history. The important changes mentioned by Kennie Ting, Director of the Asian Civilisation Museum, are the shift from ethnography to art and the challenge of shifting mindsets. Nowadays all is about connections and linkages and what are the stories and narratives that people respond to. To be able to follow these changes that every museum is going to face sooner or later, you need to know your audience.
If we are speaking about ethics in the museum world then we need to understand that museums are places of dialogue, where many people can be heard. Curators and other museum specialists need to think about not only how they are telling the story, how inclusive it is, but also about doing research responsibly and the responsible and cultural care of museum objects. Invite the right people to do the research and use collaborative approaches and co-curation in exhibition development. Be respectful towards other cultures not only in your work with museum objects, but also in your work with your fellow colleagues.
The changes in museum visitors and technology development affect both Asian and European museums, but it’s the way how we approach these changes that matter. There are many great examples from which to learn and be inspired. Museums need to be more open to visitors, bring out the objects and tell the stories they have kept in storage for many years and engage with their communities by building dialogues and bridges of understanding. Museum curators need to concentrate more on thematic approaches in exhibition making and looking at the past through a contemporary lens.
For additional information about the 8th ASEMUS General Conference, please visit http://asemus.museum/meeting/8th-asemus-general-conference-kuching-highlights/