London DEMHIST 2017 Conference: “Relevance”

Timna Seligman is a newly appointed member to the DEMHIST board. She current serves as the curator of Ticho House at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

CECA & DEMHIST and “Relevance”

The annual DEMHIST conference was held in collaboration with CECA – the ICOM committee for Education and Cultural Action, and Historic Royal Palaces. The collaboration with CECA gave direction and focus for the conference theme, while the participation of Historic Royal Palaces provided locations and hosting at some of the most important heritage buildings in London not least among them, the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace.

The conference theme, “Relevance 2017 – Are we doing enough? Keeping heritage relevant in the 21st Century” was very much on point and relevant (sorry, I couldn’t resist). It is a one of the most important questions occupying the minds of Historic House Museum (HHM) professionals around the world today. In the most basic terms – with the plethora of stimulation that surrounds us in today’s society, how do we attract visitors to come to our sites? How do we keep them interested and encourage return visits? This is the nexus with CECA – as museum educators and interpreters, these are the professionals curators and directors need to work with on a daily basis.

The Conference

The conference began with two days of lectures and panel sessions at the Tower of London. It became apparent to me that this would be a successful conference, and as usual, the tea breaks (with delicious biscuits) would be as productive as the sessions. The knowledge garnered from listening to the experience, research and anecdotes of our colleagues and peers was matched by the networking opportunities during the breaks, and journeys to offsite venues.


The first day started with greetings from John Barnes, the outgoing Chair of DEMHIST and CEO of Historic Royal Palaces and Mila Chiovatto, Chair of CECA. The opening keynote lecture was given by Franklin Vagnone, the bad boy of historic house curatorship and co-author of Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. What better way to start a conference on making HHMs relevant than a push to think outside the box, outside the walls of the house and beyond the velvet rope. In the afternoon we boarded double decker coaches and were taken to the Geffrye Museum. Tours of the extensive period rooms and design collection were held in parallel to poster sessions where 20 of the conference participants were able to present and discuss posters pertaining to their work to the other participants. As one of the poster presenters, I can attest to the overall interest and the loss of my voice by the time the cocktails began.


The second day of panel discussions at the Tower was as enlightening as it was confusing. How do you make decisions about which interesting session to go to? Always the sign of a good conference, I moved between the different sessions, trying to catch as many speakers as possible. For me, it was perhaps a day for memorable slogans, tellingly both related to the use of digital media in exhibition interpretation “Don’t be innovative, be transformative” by Inge-Kalle den Oudsten and later on, Iuliia Vronskaia backing up the decision not to use digital technology in the Tolstoy Museum with “nothing is more engaging than a good storyteller”. The day ended with an exclusive visit to the Jewel House (the Crown Jewels) where the conference members were able to amble slowly and undisturbed through the crowns, scepters and gem encrusted accoutrements of the British monarchy.


Monday morning, bright and early, we individually made our way to Waterloo station to catch the train to Hampton Court Palace, venue for the day’s activities. The closing keynote lecture was given by Maria Balshaw, who recently took over the helm of Tate. Using current and recent exhibitions at Tate Britain and Tate Modern as examples, she spoke about the need for cultural inclusivity and adventurousness in today’s society. Examples were given of Tate Britain’s exhaustive exhibition “Queer British Art” and the current show “Soul of a Nation” at Tate Modern exploring the work of African American artists in the 1960s-1980s as examples of opening the museums up to new subject matter and new audiences. In both cases she emphasized the reaction of the audience, many of whom felt represented for the first time in the museum environment.

Trying to find a balance at Hampton Court between the desire to explore the Palace and go to sessions was not easy, the pull of King Henry VIII and his court was powerful, and definitely worth it! Nonetheless, meetings were attended, including the DEMHIST Annual General Meeting where the new DEMHIST Board was elected. ICOM DEMHIST members thanked outgoing Chair John Barnes for his stewardship of the Board and the service of outgoing board members. Together we wished good luck to Elsa Rodrigues of the Museu João de Deus in Lisbon, Portugal, the new chair of the board which now includes house museum professionals across four continents. (Stay tuned for the board chair’s update from Elsa coming soon!)

A Wonderful Sendoff 

Definitely the highlight of the day, and perhaps of the conference, was the evening reception and gala dinner in the Great Watching Chamber and the Great Hall, the dining room of Henry the VIII. As museum professionals and HHM custodians many of us were overwhelmed by the opportunity to eat in such a glorious space, surrounded by Belgian tapestries, described to us as “the second crown jewels.” It was truly a royal evening.

The Day Trips and Museum Visits

The following day, conference attendees could choose between visiting museums in the Bloomsbury area, the Soane Museum, the Charles Dickens Museum and the Foundling Museum or museums in Kensington – the Design Museum, Leighton House Museum and Kensington Palace. The last day was the optional excursion to Oxford where participants could tours the city choosing from the many museums and collections that were open to them, including University College, Pitt Rivers Museum, Bodleian Library Weston Gallery, Ashmolean Museum, and the Natural History Museum.

A Final Thought 

The topic of “relevance” will continue to appear in our work as we confront the public engagement challenges of our institutions. Through the conversations, presentations, and relationships forged at the London DEMHIST conference, I know there is much work to do to continue to make house museums continually engaging spaces for our audiences. I appreciate the space the conference afforded us as we begin to develop future collaborations based on the exchange with our international colleagues. As we set our sights to 2018, I look forward to the Chicago DEMHIST conference which will build on the theme of “relevance” with the theme of “modernism” to be announced in the coming weeks.

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