ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE 2023 FROM DONALD MACDOUGALL
As a new entrant to the archive sector, I was delighted to attend the 2023 Archives and Records Association Conference (ARA) in Belfast. This year’s conference drew together hundreds of delegates from the UK, Ireland and beyond to discuss all things archives and records management, focusing on the theme of ‘Communities’. I was especially keen to go to Belfast to meet new people working in the profession, and I came away feeling inspired after listening to some brilliant speakers.
The conference was held at the historic Europa Hotel. I knew it would be an organisational triumph as soon as I registered before the welcome reception, as even the name tags had been arranged alphabetically, card index style. Not entirely unexpected for an event catering to archivists and records managers, and one of many satisfying details that made the conference that more enjoyable.
In terms of the conference’s structure, individual sessions and workshops were divided into six different ‘tracks’ or themes, preceded each morning by a keynote speech, allowing delegates to choose the sessions most relevant to them. The keynotes were memorable, especially the presentation on day one by Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Coming into public service from a tech and finance background, Brady used her speech to counsel those working in archives not to be afraid of failure when it comes to finding solutions to problems, whether that’s a shortage of funding or the need to do more to broaden access to archive collections. The message was to be more entrepreneurial in overcoming adversity and take every opportunity to work with others to promote what archives offer.
Many speakers at the conference championed the work of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), celebrating its centenary this year. A curry night and tour of PRONI’s modern, purpose-built institution in Belfast’s buzzing Titanic Quarter was the main social event of day one. Although I feel obliged to state that curry and records were never at any point in close proximity! PRONI is a truly impressive organisation with a commendable focus on the people of Northern Ireland, whatever their background. The guided tour of its facilities (including a state-of-the-art conservation studio and spacious research room) served to underline how investment in new and welcoming archive buildings can boost the involvement of local communities in archives, encouraging a sense of ownership and belonging.
The conference theme of Communities generated some great panel sessions, too. Although I’m not an impartial observer, Argyll Estates archivist Alison Diamond and education consultant Douglas Roberts delivered a masterful joint showcase of the Tìr Ìseal nan Òran project, which ran from February to July 2022. The project was focused on the Isle of Tiree and used traditional stories and records from the Argyll Papers to inspire new music, song, film, writing and dramatic performance. It was heartening to see the enthusiastic response of people in the room to these forms of archival outreach. I’m sure that in the future, many more archives will look beyond purely academic uses of their collections.
I’m also glad I took the opportunity to follow the conservation track for one of the panel sessions on day two. Knowing little about the intricacies of specialist conservation work, I was slightly apprehensive about attending a session on humidifying a series of 17th-century illuminated manuscripts. However, I came away from the talk with a much better understanding of how conservators approach their work and why specific techniques are used over others depending on time or budget constraints. Much of the costs of conservation are due to the hours of skilled labour required to bring items back from the brink. I now have an even greater admiration for the individuals who work in this field – especially those who can transform blackened and tightly folded leaves of parchment into beautifully flat, clean and legible documents.
It’s impossible to overstate the value of meeting and learning from other professionals, particularly for someone at the start of their career. Above all, I now feel part of a friendly and supportive archive community.
MUSEUMS ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE 2023, FROM SHANNEN CALDERWOOD
In November (less than 48 hours after getting married), I travelled from Helensburgh to Newcastle to attend the Museums Association Conference 2023, supported through my Apprenticeship in Museums & Galleries Practice as part of CHARTS, Argyll Aspires. I was lucky that Khara, the Heritage Learning and Access Assistant from Campbeltown Museum, was also attending the conference and we were able to travel and share the experience. We stayed in a hotel just five minutes’ walk from the Glasshouse, where the conference was held. Each morning, we could enjoy breakfast and coffee before our day began.
The Conference brought up a range of emotions and, at times, was fascinating, colourful, overstimulating, overwhelming and thought-provoking. Although all these emotions aren’t smooth ones, the conference was a highlight of my 2023. I heard so many interesting people speak and was exposed to ideas and passionate hopes for the future.
The standout discussion for me was on day two: ‘Invisible pasts, invisible people? Gypsy, Roma, Traveller collections and heritage in British museums.’ The panel was well-curated, keeping us engaged through their debate and shared research. Another favourite was hearing from the Preservative Party at Leeds Museum, a curatorial group of 14 to 24-year-olds who meet weekly and have recently curated the award-winning ‘Overlooked Stories’ exhibition, which they discussed with us. I was inspired by the idea of marketing volunteer opportunities to a group that is often overlooked. I came back to Dunollie and started pitching these ideas to everyone who would listen – watch this space!
Attending a conference like this when you work in a small, independent museum can sometimes be a frustrating experience despite the positives. People often speak about feeling inspired and excited to return to work and execute the new ideas they hear about, but sometimes, it isn’t that easy… In the museum sector, inspiring projects are being implemented which are not always feasible for small museums. I do feel that I had this in the back of my mind whilst listening to some of the presentations, which gave a bit of a bittersweet tinge to the experience. Yes, I was inspired by the incredible work being done to make museums more inclusive and future thinking and yes, I believe that this is essential work, but I didn’t feel confident that my own museum would be able to execute such fantastic, exciting projects in the near future.
However, it does motivate me to keep working hard at my place of work to help make sure it is the best it can be. We can’t implement huge (expensive) changes, but we can always work to improve. The conference reminded me that passion and enthusiasm, are often more important than anything else and that any changes are a step in the right direction. It also just reminded me how privileged I am as a white, Scottish, able-bodied woman to see myself represented more regularly and empathetically than a lot of museum visitors do.
All in all, it was an unforgettable experience that has left me excited to work towards changes at Dunollie on a scale that is realistic for a site run by an independent charitable trust. May museums continue to grow, adapt, and work towards inclusivity for all. Hopefully, I will be lucky enough to attend another of these events in the future to celebrate that mission all over again.
MUSEUMS ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE 2023 FROM KHARA MCPHAIL
In November 2023 I had the opportunity to attend the annual Museums Association Conference (with Shannen) held in Quayside, Newcastle. It took me around nine hours to get to Newcastle, and we decided to walk to our hotel. No one told me how many uphill streets were in Newcastle (there are many) so bed was well earned.
I really enjoyed my time in Newcastle and learned a lot from the talks I attended and gained inspiration for ways I could implement some ideas in Campbeltown Museum. This was a big deal as I’ve never really been away from home and it came at a time when I had three university deadlines, but I still managed to be there, in the moment, and take it all in.
I attended a variety of talks such as poverty-proofing museums, Invisible Pasts, and talks on disability and accessibility needs and representing minority groups/all people. One talk that stood out for me was one called ‘Overlooked Stories’, where a group of volunteers worked to create an exhibition around people from the past who have not been represented or acknowledged within their local museum. I thought this was really inspiring and was a great way to get young people involved in the heritage sector.
This conference highlighted museums' vital role in education and how they can provide warm and inclusive spaces for everyone to enjoy the displays and other activities such as games nights, reading corners, and crafting clubs.
This experience has pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone, but it has made me realise, truly, how impactful my Museum and Galleries Technician Modern Apprentice at Campbeltown Museum has been to my self-confidence as this time last year I would never have gone to Newcastle!