Museums Show Off

A few months ago, jumping between tweets, I came across Museums Showoff, a bi-monthly event described as an open mic evening for everyone who works in or loves museums.

The concept is intriguing. Eight people fill nine-minute slots, the first five who sign-up are guaranteed a space, the rest are invited (with an occasional last minute walk up slot if people drop out). Speakers can chose any topic and present in any format as long as it’s less than nine minutes and it’s about museums. Entry is free but a well-enforced ‘voluntary’ donation is collected for a different charity each time.

Steve was back on, cracking jokes and building anticipation for the next speaker, an unprecedented second man in one evening, and a designer to boot. Welcome to the stage… Michael Smith…

Michael Smith

I couldn’t make the following event but I told the rest of the Cog team about it and Ross went to one in June. He came back with some really interesting anecdotes. The speakers were varied in the quality of delivery but they all had great stories to tell. Perhaps most importantly, there was a general antipathy towards designers.

So, I signed myself up.

On Tuesday 1st October I made my way to the Black Heart in Camden Town. Downstairs it’s a pub populated by the kind of leather-clad goth-rockers who only seem to sit on pubs in Camden Town, upstairs it’s usually their gig venue. I climbed the stairs and met Rachel Souhami, the woman who organises it all. I handed over my USB stick and took the derision handed out because I’d used a PDF rather than Powerpoint (bloody designers). I sat in the corner, chatting with the other speakers who all seemed a lot younger, less nervous, more female and cleverer than me.

Gradually the room filled, and filled, and filled. The lights went down. Steve Cross, the very funny compere, took to the stage and it was immediately clear that this wasn’t a subdued, polite museums crowd; this was a boisterous, packed room (of mostly women in their twenties) out to let off steam.

First up were two museum and exhibition designer, Lucy Carruthers & Abby Coombs, from Event. They had a brilliant set of banter and exchanges, dispelling the myths and humorously tackling the issue about why designers are hated. My nerves were growing, so much so that I can’t be entirely sure what order the rest of the speakers came in. I think that next up was Eva Amsen who spoke about The Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA, a museum of such fantastic stories that they might actually be fantasy. Eva was followed (I think) by the larger than life character, Ivo Dawnay (yes, him, brother-in-law of Mayor Boris). Ivo spoke about his attempts to mix things up at National Trust by campaigning to include the Big Brother House. The campaign backfired when everyone seemed to agree it was a good idea. Finally, in the first half, were the very funny duo of Miki Webb & Jenna Byers with tales of volunteering at the Royal Museums Greenwich. My favourite anecdote being the child, dragged into the timekeeping exhibition, screaming ‘but why, mummy, we have clocks at home’.

Steve wrapped up and the crowd went crazy with applause. Oh god, I was billed to be on straight after the break. I had twenty minutes to pull myself together. Three seconds later (or so it seemed to me), the break was over, Steve was back on, cracking jokes and building anticipation for the next speaker, an unprecedented second man in one evening, and a designer to boot. Welcome to the stage… Michael Smith…

I took to the stage, notes in one hand, slide-clicker in the other, no third hand to hold the mic. I’ve never stood on a lit stage before. You hear actors moaning about bright lights and not being able to see anything, I’d assumed they were just exaggerating. They aren’t, I couldn’t see anything or anybody. I know that I began with the line ‘I have massively misjudged my presentation’ but everything else is a bit of a blur.

I’d prepared pretty well so I was on auto-pilot. I spoke about our work for The Beaney: House of Art & Knowledge, and the wonderful women who commissioned us and worked with us to make it such a great project. I had more than 50 slides so it was pretty rapid-fire stuff. I got some laughs, some boos and cheers (at the right time). I was a bit cruel about architects, which went down well, and I tried to interact with the heckling.

Then it was over, in a flash, I handed back the clicker and Steve the compere was back on, ridiculing our logo. I skulked back to the darkest corner at the back of the room.

Straight after me were Claire Reed and Lauryn Etheridge, another excellent double act, talking about a National Trust project at Osterley Park House; they ended with a slick film. ‘Are you ready for your penultimate act?’ Shouted Steve to the crowd. ‘Are you excited to be somewhere where it’s OK to use the word penultimate? Catherine Jones is New Media Engineer at Science Museum. No, she doesn’t do websites, she makes stuff out of speakers, Mac-minis, sensors, circuit boards and arduino software. What a cool job.

The final act of the evening was the self-assured Rosie Clarke, from Culture24. She reeled us in and had us on the edge of tears with a tales about crowd-funding for Picassos in late ‘60s Basel.

Steve wrapped up the night and the lights came back up. The night was over.

Now that it’s over, it’s safe to admit that I loved it. I’ve presented to quiet rooms of students, and to noisy teams of clients but nothing like this. Standing on a stage, interacting with a boisterous (and very forgiving) crowd was a great buzz; it’s easy to see why people become addicted to the experience.

I’ll be back to the see how others get on in future Museum Showoffs and who knows, I might have a think about another topic for a future slot.

For line-ups and dates of future Showoffs, visit their site http://museumsshowoff.wordpress.com/

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