Summary of NEMO European Museum Conference 2022

From 9-11 October 2022, 200 museum professionals form 40 countries gathered in Loulé, Portugal, for the 2022 NEMO European Museum Conference: Innovation begins within – Resilient museums in times of disruption. It was the first in-person conference since the pandemic and the network was delighted to reconnect and network while getting inspired and gaining new knowledge. 

Together with NEMO members and the European museum community, we explored how museums can be more innovative, agile and flexible in a fast-changing and challenging world. With the conference, NEMO wanted to give museums essential tools and inspire to adopt (new) workways to ensure that museums stay relevant and are prepared for the challenges that the future holds. NEMO finds these to include innovation, agility and flexibility as well as to embrace failure as a learning process and source of innovation.

The conference unfolded a detailed analysis of the museum sector’s varying capacity to respond to crises – be it war, the pandemic, the energy crisis, social injustice or climate change. To encourage museums to adopt innovation as a structural component of their operations and thus becoming more adaptable and resilient, the conference celebrated creative skills that already exist within the sector and drew inspiration from outside the sector to find new approaches, perspectives and ideas.

In his wrap-up of the conference, David Vuillaume (NEMO Chair), pointed out that being innovative means accepting risks since you are leaving your comfort zone. But to be able to leave a comfort zone, you need to be in one. Therefore, secure employment and funding becomes essential. Paradoxically, people searching secure employment are usually not prone to risk-taking or open to change. To speed up change and innovation, we need a basic sense of security to join forces with an entrepreneurial mindset.

Sunday 9 October

The 2022 NEMO European Museum Conference was opened on 9 October with the Directors’ Meeting, a format developed especially for senior managers of national umbrella museums associations. After a presentation by Martin Zierold on how small and medium sized organisations can generate true impact, the directors got know each other better in a 1-1 speed dating session. They got to exchange with peers from across Europe to discuss shared challenges and opportunities as well as form bonds for future cooperations. 

After afternoon tours in Loulé and to the neighbouring towns Alte and Quarteira, all conference participants met for the opening reception Loulé Criativo. 

Monday 10 October

David Vuillaume, Isabel Cordeiro (Secretary of State for Culture in Portugal) and David Bimendel (City Council of Loulé) opened the content part of the conference on the morning of 10 October. Isabel Cordeiro welcomed the network back to Portugal after its 2000 meeting and wished all participants fruitful days of learning and networking. She added that “The theme of the NEMO 2022 conference emphasises that reflection on museum innovation and its adaptation to social changes must emerge from within the social institutions themselves, so that they can redefine a different way of acting and communicating and, thereby, accompanying and adapting to new social and economic conditions, as well as to the new information and communication technologies of contemporary society.” 

In his keynote speech, Michael Peter Edson challenged the participants’ ideas of the role of museums and asked how the sector can respond to and help people make sense of a world that’s on fire. We should all do one more thing to create change. Without the extra effort, we will continue as we always have without generating any change. He also pointed out that privileged people and organisations, like most of the ones present at the conference, with large networks, influence and/ or resources need to do more. He also suggested that it is time for museums to get into activism since it will save our profession and renew our sole in society and keep museums relevant.  

Maria Vlachou moderated the first session Inside the museum of the future, which gathered experiences of internal structures and processes from a university, a museum and a library. By looking at the three organisational levels leadership, staff and working structures, the panellists discussed how innovation can help organisations react quickly to new and unpredicted situations and find creative ways to adapt and becoming engaging institution with strong relationships to their communities. 

Martin Zierold (Institute for Arts and Media Management at the University of Music and Theatre Hamburg) described the paradox of leadership: it’s the cause and at the same time the only solution to all organisational problems. Merete Sanderhoff (National Gallery of Denmark) shared how the museum allocates 10% of its time and resources in the digital team for experimentation and 50% of her time is dedicated to engagement with users, networks and communities. Kari Lämsä (Oodi Helsinki Central Library) inspired with insights about the self-managing teams of Oodi and how the library operates with a flat hierarchy.

After lunch Lodewijk Kuiper (NEMO and Netherlands Museums Association), guided us through the session Agility in Crisis that evaluated agility in the face of recent crises by evaluating how our internal approaches measure against some of the most intense (and looming) external pressures.  

Joana Sousa Monteiro (Museum of Lisbon) shared insights from working through two lockdowns and transitioning from quantity over quality to thought-through strategies. Quickly the staff created a digital museum, and the lockdowns generated a burst of creative energy to keep the museum engaging and meaningful. Caitlin Southwick (Ki Culture) discussed relevance from a sustainability point of view and the need for museums to leave their position as houses of collections or didactic monologues. Vasyl Rozhko (Heritage Rescue Emergency Initiative (HERI)), delivered a video message from Ukraine to tell us about the important work being done to protect cultural heritage from the war. Not only is a massive digitalisation project preserving cultural heritage, but also making it more accessible now. NEMO has supported HERI from the very start and you may explore ways to support the initiative in this article.

The afternoon workshops offered people hands-on inspiration to make museums more innovative and futureproof. Later, we had the pleasure to celebrate the 30th anniversary of NEMO with a reception and dinner as well as a magnificent birthday cake. Since 1992, NEMO has supported and acted as the voice of museums across Europe, and we look forward to many more to come. 

Tuesday 11 October

The second conference day on 11 October opened with the session Destination innovation, moderated by Inês Bettencourt da Câmara (Mapa das Ideias). The session looked at the conditions for museums to change their ways and become more innovative and find structures that enable open processes and bottom-up approaches. 

Olga Tykhonova (MUSEUM BOOSTER) introduced the participants to the term “innovability” and suggested that institutions are not hindering change, it’s the people within the institution. Raymond de Jong (Rijksmuseum) promoted “fellowship” over leadership and points out that the museum employees and the mix of their talents ensure that a museum is flexible, resilient and able to constantly adapt through innovation. Therefore, talent management is key to sustainable innovation in museums. Michael Arnold (Stapferhaus Lenzburg) called in from Austria to deliver a digital presentation on the importance of participation for Stapferhaus’ organisational culture, about the challenge of growing while staying agile and about funding. Clara Camacho, Directorate-General for Cultural Heritage Portugal, contributed to the panel Destination innovation with an introduction to the Social Impact Commitment of Cultural Organizations (CISOC), a new public policy measure of the Strategic Plan of the National Plan for the Arts of Portugal. With autonomy and flexibility as guiding principles, organisations using the tool will put the audience at the heart of their operations.

With the final session, NEMO wanted to normalise failures as a learnings process and source for innovation. Therefor we were thrilled that Alessandra Gariboldi, Fondazione Fitzcarraldo, shared her experiences from failing with us in an interview with Eva Koppen (NEMO and Association of Jewish Museums in Europe). Alessandra described how things turned south with the recent large-scale European cooperation project Adeste+ aimed at expanding cultural participation. In the course of the project, several people quit. A learning from this failure was to turn failing into learning and see it as a source for innovation by breaking down old ways of thinking and allow for vulnerability to normalise failure. People aren’t afraid of change, they’re afraid of losing something – usually reputation, funders, credibility.  

The interview was followed by the Slam on Failing and Learning. Anna Ehrhardt (Ryfylkemuseet) shared insights from a marketing plan gone wrong and how to not improve marketing skills. She recommended to early on define what you want and need, write clear contracts and choose partners, and especially consultants, carefully.  Paloma Muñoz-Campos (Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas y Diseño) was brave to share how her museum failed to address the SDGs despite kick-starting with a motivating workshop. Other tasks were considered to be more urgent and five years later they have learnt the lesson: if we don’t take care of our planet now, all this “workload” will be nonsense. SDGs should be a roadmap in the overall planning. Sabine van der Hoorn (Mont des Arts Association) described how grand visions of a panoramic view festival in the Mont des Arts district in Brussels failed when it turned out that the participating institutions’ willingness to open up their rooftops was very low and fund limitations made VR options impossible. People asked for their money back - for the lack of panoramic views. Calling in From Austria, Veronika Liebl (Ars Electronica), shared her learnings from experiencing massive drop out to online networking events. Her tips? Know your audience, learn how they are behaving and what they want to develop a service that they will enjoy and use. 

 We were eager to learn about the conference participants thought on failure and asked them to discuss with the person sitting next to them. In an interactive exercise, they got to answer some questions about failure at their workplace. 94 people were brave to share their experiences. 29 percent are satisfied with how their organisation deals with failure whereas 71% are not satisfied at all. When asked how the organisations views with failure, the majority answered that failure is ignored, 21 people that it is highly criticised and only 4 people work at organisations that finds failure to drive energy. Communication was stated as both the failure that people face the most at work as well as the main suggestion as to how the organisation can improve on how they deal with failure.     

In the afternoon, the participants split up in 6 groups to join either one of the four NEMO Working Group meetings, a usability test & feedback session of the MOI self-evaluation framework for impact or a walking tour of the city of Loulé.    

NEMO members returned to the main conference venue Cineteatro Louletano for the Annual General Meeting. In the election, Petra Havu was voted to join the NEMO Executive Board for the term 2023-2025. She replaces Aleksandra Berberih Slana who had to leave the board after she changed jobs earlier this year.

All participants of the conference met one final time at the closing reception at the Municipal Museum of Loulé. The reception was sponsored by MOI! Museums of Impact. In 2023, NEMO looks forward to seeing its members and the European Museum community in Finland for the 2023 NEMO European Museum Conference from 19-21 November.