NEMO gave an expert training on the social value of museums

© Image: Lana Karaia

© Image: Lana Karaia

From 3-5 March 2020 in Tbilisi, Georgia, NEMO Board Member Sofia Tsilidou gave an expert training in the course of the Be Museumer project. On the agenda: social value as a growing trend in policy making. The participants from Georgia and Azerbaijan got to learn about co-curation, museum activism and how museums can work with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). NEMO is a partner of the Creative Europe funded project, which aims at increasing the professionalism of museum workers in the South Caucasus region.

Sofia Tsilidou was pleased to experience that the participants were active in asking questions and that there were plenty of time for networking. The training opened with discussions on social value as a growing trend in policy making at many levels, i.e. museums associations, EU institutions, NEMO, ICOM and UNESCO to mention a few. The participants remarked that it is a positive trend since it helps challenge stereotypes. However, it can hardly be found as a priority in their national laws  - when it does, it is limited in measures for improving infrastructure for physically disabled people; it is not mentioned in museum mission statements - which would legitimise and encourage this type of work, nor are there any funding streams available for this type of work. The need for stronger advocacy from the museum community came up as a means to connect policy makers with the museum community and its requirements.

Sofia also adds that they focused on what socially engaged practice is, how it manifests itself in activities promoting social inclusion and enhancing health and wellbeing. Participants worked in pairs to exchange on projects tackling social inequality and disadvantage in their museums. Common problems seem to be lack of infrastructure for wheelchair users, the fact that disabled people are still stigmatised and are almost invisible in museums as well as in the cultural life in general in both Georgia and Azerbaijan. The lack of collaboration with the health and social care and welfare sector, training needs of staff, lack of committed leadership etc. were also brought up.

The participants got to work in groups to create three collective memory boxes with items selected from diverse museum collections illustrating a common topic (e.g. Love, Childhood and summer holidays, Stalin) and intended to be used for reminiscence sessions for people with dementia. Some of the participants commented that they were inspired by this exercise to initiate such a programme for elderly people in their museums. 

The second day focused on co-curation and participatory community-focused work. In the interactive session, the participants worked on a hypothetical museum redisplay co-curated with local communities. Museum Activism was next on the agenda. Participants got to give their own definitions, which all underlined that activism is about making a positive change in society. They were presented with the framework of activist practice, many case studies of activist museums as well as the obstacles and critical factors that influence the effectiveness of such projects. The issue of museums being traditionally risk-averse and trying to safeguard their neutrality in order to avoid losing visitors and funders was crucial to our discussion. Some participants argued that taking an explicit stand in a state museum could even put their job in danger. As a group exercise, they were asked to pick a topic for an exhibition that would uncover hidden stories, challenge prejudices and make the invisible visible and write down their objectives. Topics for "courageous" exhibitions that came up included the exploitation of women migrants from Georgia working abroad and the recent conflicts in Abkhazia and Nagorno Kharabach.

The last session dealt with the Agenda 2030 and how to integrate the SDGs into daily museum practice. After discussing the SDGs and their relationship with values-driven work already ongoing in some pioneer institutions, the participants were encouraged to think of simple actions to support their local schools' strikes for climate change and to amplify the message of the #FridaysForFuture movement. A whole range of practical ideas emerged out of group work, for example bringing together policy makers and strikers at the museum venue, using the resources and social media of the museum, installing money boxes to encourage visitors to support the school movement, organising tree planting activities in school yards and so on.

The last day of the training in Tbilisi was dedicated to museum visits and networking.