19 April 2011

Thoughts from MEG's retiring Chair

The MEG Chair's Chain of Office
Reflections on the last 3 years

By Alison Petch

I started writing this brief account quite early on the Sunday morning after the 2011 Oxford conference. My husband, irritated by my demands that he read and discuss it,* asked why I was writing it, and what my aim was. A valid point  … I hope that this piece will give an idea of how fundamentally I think that the MEG committee has changed over the last three years, and how this was inevitable given changes in the surrounding world.

The first surprise of the 3 years was to find myself Chair of MEG. I have always characterized myself negatively as an iconoclast, rebel and nay-sayer. Not perhaps a natural for the role of Chair, and certainly probably not the first choice. However, in Oxford in 2008, towards the end of the conference ‘Ethnography at Home’ I was duly elected. During the next 3 years I would get many other surprises, culminating in the biggest and most delightful surprise of all, a beautiful drawing … presented to me at conference by my colleagues.

One of the characteristics of the MEG Committee is that it is made up of elected and co-opted members from all parts of the museum ethnographic world in the UK. I think I knew all the members of the committee before we served together but I would know them all much better 3 years later. MEG has always been lucky that it has been able to attract sufficient number from within its membership who are prepared to sacrifice their home lives and down-time to furthering museum ethnography’s cause in the UK. I was amazed, when I got to know my colleagues better, how many different roles most of them were juggling and just how high in their priorities they were prepared to place MEG. It certainly made me realise what a dilettante I had always been.

If MEG chairs were emperors (I can sense a digression coming on) and epochs were named, then my ‘reign’ would perhaps be called ‘The Age of the Email’. Lots of people started using email in the early 1990s, as I did, so it is not a new tool, but during the last 3 years it has become the primary way that committee members communicate.

Email has been used more and more frequently as a means of discussion outside meetings and ultimately the medium through which many (?even most) committee decisions were taken. This has many implications.

On the positive side, decisions can be made much more rapidly, no more waiting for nearly 3 months (potentially) to meet round a table and discuss a matter face-to-face. Many decisions are now made and implemented between meetings. I would say that this has been very beneficial and it has certainly meant that we can react very quickly when opportunities like the possibility of getting £10,000 from MLA as a subject specialist network arise

But it has downsides. There is currently no real mechanism for recording these decisions except in retrospect. I know that Claire Wintle (our Secretary) is concerned about this and I am sure she will find an effective and efficient new solution to this problem soon (if Chantal too comes to rely on email). There is another problem, how will this decision process be reflected in the MEG archive? These issues need discussion and resolution.

There have been other electronic developments. The web was already an important part of all museum workers lives before 2008, but during the last three years it has become ubiquitous, so enmeshed in almost every moment of our lives that without it we would struggle to operate. The dissemination of more and more data via electronic media has become a given, and MEG has reflected this. During our recent SSN-funded marketing project, z3, our graphic designers (never did I expect to write that phrase) pointed out to us the elephant in the room – MEG’s website has become the focus and centre of the group’s activities. Recently the website has been greatly improved by Dan and Chris, and Chris’ innovations of blogs, tweets and facebook pages may well prove the most lasting contributions to the future of MEG of the last three years.

Meetings have become much less important … this may well be exacerbated as the museum sector shrinks as a result of the current economic downturn. Many museums in effect subsidise MEG currently by covering committee members’ transport costs, in other cases the committee members themselves shoulder the financial burden. If the committee is always to have the widest possible spread of representation (geographical, university and non-university, local authority and national museums) then the cost of meeting is necessarily high, not only in financial terms but also time lost to most members’ full-time jobs.

Perhaps my favourite innovation of the last 3 years is the circulation before the meeting of officer’s reports to all committee members and the resultant lack of need to spend large parts of each quarterly meeting reporting on past activities (unless they need discussion). My intention was to shorten meetings and I must confess that in this regard they were not a very successful tool, but they have meant that committee discussion has centred on the future and not the past whilst there is still a good record, written by the officer responsibility, to action taken. These officers’ reports serve as appendices to the minutes.

I wonder if committee meetings will in the end become virtual. Once or twice we toyed with the idea of video-conferencing or skypeing (Neil from Aberdeen often spoke longingly of the advantages these might pose, having by far the longest journey to most meeting venues). If the virtual meeting does become reality then it will reflect the trends emerging in other organizations such as commercial businesses.

Did I imagine I would enjoy chairing MEG ? No. Did I think I would enjoy working with people from across the UK who were interested in museum ethnography? Yes. Did I expect to find such a diverse range of personalities, interests and skill-sets? Perhaps not …  but I did.

I think I am going to suffer a decline for a while as I get used to a future without the MEG committee. I must have served on the committee first as a co-opted member, then an elected member and finally as Chair for at least 10 years. Will I adjust to ‘normality’ - only having my job and home-life to concentrate on? I am sure I will but it might take time.

* The suggested edit here from my household editor was ‘my husband, giving me the benefit of his great wisdom and business experience …’

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