MY STORY: Diplomacy, diversity, outreach – museums’ modern challenges

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Following a career in the United States as a corporate lawyer and a management consultant, Tonya Nelson has recently become director of museums and cultural programmes at University College London

Which museums are we talking about?

UCL has three public museums: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology which holds 80,000 artefacts representing 5000 years of ancient Egyptian history; the Grant Museum of Zoology which holds a now extinct Thylacine skeleton (Tasmanian Tiger); the UCL Art Museum which holds paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture dating from 1490 to the present, including works by Rembrandt and Turner. The university holds a range of other collections, including vestiges of planetary science research such as debris from a European Space Agency Mission and photographs of the moon, which we display in temporary exhibitions.

But your job entails more than museums in that you're responsible for UCL’s theatre and public art programmes. Does this mean the university is extending its public outreach?

Yes, I am really excited about my new expanded remit which includes developing a new strand of programming for UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre and implementing UCL’s public art strategy. The Bloomsbury Theatre will re-open this year after a £19 million refurbishment and we will be producing a new series of shows which animate UCL’s cutting-edge research through experimental performance collaborations with a range of arts organisations. UCL’s public art strategy also aims to bring research to life through innovative commissions that engage audiences in the process of making art.  One of UCL’s strategic aims is to be “an accessible, publicly engaged organisation that fosters a lifelong community” and I believe arts and culture are excellent means of connecting the university with the outside world.

But your career did not begin in the arts. Where did it start, how did you make the transition, was being a fellow of the Clore Leadership Programme germane, and why do you think you are suited to this role?

No, my career certainly did not start in the arts. When I left university I went into management consulting and then I attended law school and became lawyer. Why? Having grown up in Washington DC, these were the careers that were familiar to me. I always loved the arts but was not aware of how to enter the sector or the different types of roles available. However, when I realised I had no ambition to become a law firm partner, I decided to jump off a cliff. I applied and was accepted into a history of art master’s degree in London. When I finished, I had trouble finding a full-time position, but I was lucky enough to be selected for a museum management training programme for people from a BAME background, and this gave me the foot in the door I needed. After a couple years focused exclusively on museums, I was chosen to be a Clore Leadership Fellow and met people from across the arts during my fellowship.  This inspired me to think more broadly about the cultural sector and helped prepare me for my current role.

'UCL's research can drive innovation in the arts'

Have you been given a specific mission in this new post?

The mission is to use arts and culture to enable UCL to connect with and engage a range of audiences inside and outside the institution. Personally, I see huge opportunities for UCL’s excellent research to be used to drive innovation in the arts. For example, I was part of a research project aimed at using 3D laser scanning technology to create digital replicas of museum objects. The project resulted in the development of one of the first fully interactive 3D museum websites ( Deployment of 3D technology in a museum context has given the public an unprecedented opportunity to interact with artefacts and view fine details that heretofore only curators had the possibility of seeing.

University museums used to be confined to being faculty facilities, but are they developing a more community-facing outlook, and should they? 

Most of UCL’s collections originated as teaching or research resources for academic faculties, but for a number of years now university museums have been positioned as places where universities can engage public audiences. Knowledge should not be confined to the elite, so I am a huge advocate of using museums as a means of research dissemination and knowledge exchange. Over the years, we have co-produced a number of exhibitions with community groups.  We are currently working on an exhibition of the subject of migration in collaboration with refugee groups living in London and abroad.

Funding for local museums in particular has become critically low, while universities generally have been able to maintain their support for their own museums. Can they make useful partnerships with non-university institutions?

University museums have also faced funding pressure and I think the entire sector has worked hard to find collaborations that increase their sustainability. University museums come in many shapes and sizes and therefore work in partnership in many different ways based on their local circumstances and institutional mandate. For example, Share Academy was a partnership project between UCL, University of Art London (UAL) and the London Museums Group. The partnership came together through a shared belief in the potential for mutually beneficial collaboration between higher education and museums. 

'Museums role in cultural diplomacy needs to be more clearly recognised' 

You are also the UK chair of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Is Brexit a threat or an opportunity?

Brexit raises a number of potential threats for museums, including loss of EU funding, an inability to attract employees with specialised knowledge and skills, and new import/export requirements that may impede the ability to borrow and loan objects. Generally, there is a worry about perception: Will the UK be perceived as inward looking and hostile to the outside world? In order to overcome these potential threats, organisations like ICOM, which is a member-based network of museum professionals from around the world, are working to help cultivate new cross -border partnerships, knowledge exchange opportunities, and collaborations. ICOM UK’s upcoming conference will focus on the power of networks to foster new relationships and increase sustainability.

Are museums fulfilling a role in cultural diplomacy for Britain, and how could they do more?

Cultural institutions, particularly national museums, attract millions of tourists each year, providing a platform for building intercultural understanding and respect, thereby facilitating public diplomacy efforts. I conducted an AHRC-funded study a couple years ago that examined the impact of a V&A exhibition called Light from the Middle Easton cultural diplomacy objectives. The study found that the exhibition was effective in breaking down stereotypes about the Middle East; offered a more nuanced and balanced approached to reporting about the Middle East society than the daily news; and showed the diversity of the region.  All of these outcomes helped to shape audience views of the UK’s understanding and appreciation of the region and thereby advanced its diplomacy efforts. I think museums are doing a lot of work in this area and would probably do more if their role in cultural diplomacy was more clearly recognised.

Diversity is a growing issue in the arts here and in museums. Cultural organisations seem to be focussed on increasing diversity in their audiences, but should they be focussing more on their own staff?

I don’t think the issue of audience diversity can be separated from staff diversity – these things work in tandem.  When museums have diversity in their staffing, they have a wider range of views that will influence the entire organisation, from the content of their exhibitions to the types of products they sell in their shops. Research from the commercial sector has confirmed the more diverse and inclusive organisations have higher profits. I believe that if there was more diversity in museum staffing, visitor numbers would increase due to higher attendance of non-traditional visitors. Museums have an uphill battle in this regard because we must work hard to create a pipeline of candidates from diverse backgrounds and ensure our hiring practices are fit for purpose.  We also have to be committed to being more inclusive in the workplace in terms of providing platforms for new ideas to develop and flourish.

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