"Anything that divides us further has to be viewed with concern"; Opening address, IMA Conference 2017 ()

Posted: Saturday, 04 March 2017

Brian Crowley, Chair of the Irish Museums Association, addressed the current political climate in his opening address at the 2017 Irish Museums Association Conference - Cultural Tourism and the Contemporary Museum.

Highlighting values shared by the museum sector such as equality, empathy and inter-cultural understanding, Brian Crowley noted "it is harder to be made to fear people from another culture if you have eaten alongside them, walked their streets and learnt about their history in their museums". He added "Having lived through a period where borders were becoming increasingly irrelevant and travel much easier, it is somewhat worrying to hear of walls and borders and increased restrictions on the movement of people. Of particular concern for the IMA, which is an all-Ireland organisation, is the suggestion of the return of a hard border on our island. Irish museums, and I am thinking in particular of those in border counties, have dedicated much of their efforts to bridging the divisions that exist on the Island. Anything that divides us further has to be viewed with concern. We live in troubling times where so many of the values which museums stand for - such as intellectual rigour, equality, empathy and inter-cultural understanding - seem to be under attack. In an era of alternative facts, where some people in the public eye display a dangerous carelessness with the language they use and the information they disseminate, it is more important than ever that museums maintain the trust of public as sources of objective truth and humanist values."

See below for the full opening address by Brian Crowley at the 2017 IMA Conference:

"It is both my great honour and pleasure to welcome you on behalf of the Irish Museums Association to our Annual Conference which this year takes as its theme 'Cultural Tourism and the Contemporary Museum'. As many of you know, the annual conference is the highlight of the IMA programme and is an opportunity for us to hear from leading museum practitioners, as well as experts from outside the sector, about issues relevant to Irish museums. Equally important is the chance to meet colleagues and friends and learn from one other's experiences. Although we are a relatively small group, widely dispersed across the island of Ireland, I am always impressed by the sense of collegiality and mutual support which exists within our community.

Regardless of the wider events which unfolded around the world, 2016 proved to be a very positive year for the Irish museums. We played a leading role in both the commemoration of the 1916 Rising and the Battle of the Somme and showed ourselves to be institutions that remain at the very heart of national and local life. Having seen very many of the centenary exhibitions and education programmes around the country at first hand, I feel Irish museums can be justifiably proud of how they stepped up to the plate in spite of the considerable funding and staffing challenges they continue to face. The exhibitions and cultural programmes produced last year were characterised by their nuanced and inclusive approach. They honoured the past without avoiding its complexities and engaged a new generation of museum visitors.

We hope that the IMA played its part in the success of 2016. For the past three years we deliberately chose themes for our annual conference which drew inspiration and reflected upon the issues raised by the commemoration of the various centenaries. This "trio" of conferences addressed issues such as how museums should deal with challenging histories, museums' relationship with public policy and finally, last year, the role of the museum in developing a cultural democracy.

This year's theme - 'Cultural Tourism and the Contemporary Museum' - has in some ways developed out of those previous conferences where we considered our relationship with society and government policy. Study after study has shown that visits to museums and heritage sites are among the most popular tourist activities in Ireland. Our ability to engage and attract visitors from home and abroad mean that museums play a vital role supporting both the local and national economy. While we may not care to admit it, for many people, the value of museums lies in their ability to attract tourism to an area. Tourism has always been a mainstay of the Irish economy, particularly in more isolated rural areas. With the collapse of other industries in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, tourism has become more important than ever before to the Irish economy. At a time of shrinking and disappearing budgets, the government has funnelled what resources it has into the tourist sector. Museums and other heritage bodies seeking public funding find themselves being directed towards agencies such as Fáílte Ireland, tying our sectors closer and closer together.

I have struggled in recent weeks to come up with an appropriate metaphor or description for our relationship with the tourism industry. Is it a partnership? a coalition? perhaps not a love match but maybe a marriage of convenience? The relationship is certainly complex. While we control the cultural and heritage infrastructure which will attract visitors, in order to secure the resources to develop, care for and promote that infrastructure we need to engage, and be willing support the aims of the tourist industry. We rely on them to attract visitors to our areas, while they need us to deliver a quality experience for visitors which will encourage future visits and positive publicity and word of mouth.

However, while we share the same goals in terms of attracting visitors and supporting our local economy, our motivations often differ. It is important that we are both aware, and respectful of, these differences. Our dedication to playing a role in societal cohesion, social and cultural engagement and the complexities of preserving, documenting and researching the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity will not necessarily be of concern to our colleagues in the tourism industry. Similarly, there needs to be an understanding that our measure of success in museums includes, but is not restricted to, visitor numbers and bed nights. We need to be able to communicate what we do in a language our tourism partners understand. In particular, I feel we need to be able to speak to the priorities of the tourist industry, to show that museums can offer the kind of authentic experience which modern visitors demand. One of the most desirable tourists in economic terms are what are referred to as 'Cultural Explorers' or the 'Culturally Curious'. They do not want a pre-packaged 'tourist experience', rather they want to understand and engage with local people by partaking in the same cultural activities as they do. Museums are in a unique position to deliver these kind experiences and offer something which has real depth and substance.

Throughout the course of today's programme, our distinguished speakers will no doubt explore and tease-out many of these issues. We are fortunate to have leading figures from the museum and heritage sector who have a wealth of experience engaging with the tourist industry. I am also delighted to welcome leaders from the tourism world who have generously agreed to share their perspective of what they see as the role of museums in tourist sector. I look forward to the discussions both here in the hall, but also those that take place over the coffee breaks and lunch today. The truth is the success of any conference like this is only partly down to the programme - so much depends upon the engagement of those who attend. We are fortunate in the IMA to have such a loyal and supportive membership - though we are always in need of more members. As some of you know, we have had a challenging few years and the support of our members has been invaluable. The IMA is only as strong as its members, and the more members we speak for, the stronger that voice is.

Finally, a somewhat personal reflection. Even if one recognises the vital economic importance of tourism, there is still sometimes a tendency to be cynical or dismissive about its cultural value. Tourism is depicted as a shallow form of leisure activity, a superficial brush with other cultures with no real, lasting value. This is something I would dispute. While the ability to travel and visit other countries remains, in global terms, the preserve of a privileged few, it is undeniable that it is also something which is increasingly within the grasp of ordinary people. It is not unusual to meet someone in Ireland who may have been to the Louvre but has never made it to the National Gallery in Merrion Square. While travel does not necessarily broaden the mind, it is harder to be made to fear people from another culture if you have eaten alongside them, walked their streets and learnt about their history in their museums. Given that people seem to be particularly open to visiting museums while on holidays, museums have a key role in deepening the understanding of tourists about the country they are visiting.

Having lived through a period where borders were becoming increasingly irrelevant and travel much easier, it is somewhat worrying to hear of walls and borders and increased restrictions on the movement of people. Of particular concern for the IMA, which is an all-Ireland organisation, is the suggestion of the return of a hard border on our island. Irish museums, and I am thinking in particular of those in border counties, have dedicated much of their efforts to bridging the divisions that exist on the Island. Anything that divides us further has to be viewed with concern. We live in troubling times where so many of the values which museums stand for - such as intellectual rigour, equality, empathy and inter-cultural understanding - seem to be under attack. In an era of alternative facts, where some people in the public eye display a dangerous carelessness with the language they use and the information they disseminate, it is more important than ever that museums maintain the trust of public as sources of objective truth and humanist values.

And now some thanks. Our principal funders are the Department of Arts, Heritage, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the The Heritage Council. The importance of their support to the IMA cannot be over-emphasised, without it the IMA as we know it would simply not exist. without it.

I would also like to thank the IMA Board for their work and dedication both in relation to the conference and throughout the year. They are Anne Hodge, Ken Langan, William Blair, Elizabeth Crooke, Paul Doyle, Lar Joye, Hugh Maguire, Emily Mark-Fitzgerald, Carla Marrinan, Aoife Ruane and Rosemary Ryan.

The sterling work of the Director of Operations of the IMA, Gina O'Kelly, should also be acknowledged. The organisation is hugely fortunate to have someone with her professionalism and dedication and the success of events like the Annual Conference can be attributed in large part to her hard work.

I can think of no more appropriate location for a conference about cultural tourism than Galway, a city that manages to be one of the most popular tourist centres in the country while also maintaining a vibrant and challenging cultural life. The success and popularity of Galway City Museum with native and tourist alike, attracting 216,000 visitors last year, make it model for sustainable cultural tourism. I am delighted that its Director, Eithne Verling, has agreed to speak at this year's conference and I would also like to take this opportunity to thank her for her and the museum's management and staff for their support in partnering with the IMA on the conference this year.

Thank you all once again for making the effort to come along to Galway this weekend and I hope you will enjoy what I believe will be a fascinating and stimulating conference."

Brian Crowley, Chair, Irish Museums Association, IMA Conference, 4 March 2017.