Interview with Ann Nicholls

EMA continues interviewing experts in their field. For our current issue we have been speaking to Ann Nicholls, EMA about her career, experiences, role in EMA.

1. Could you please tell us a little bit about your career and background? How did you meet Kenneth Hudson?

When I met Kenneth Hudson, I had been working for some time at the University of Bath in the Centre for Adult Studies, arranging a busy programme of courses and conferences for scientists and industrialists. Kenneth came to the university from the BBC to set up an educational television service and was attached to our department. To those of us who had been working in an academic environment he was rather like an exotic bird, flitting from flower to flower, full of energy and ideas. After the television service was established, Kenneth decided to leave the university and earn his living as a freelance author of non-fiction books and invited me to join him in this adventure. Over the next 20+ years we produced on average two or three books a year, initially on industrial archaeology and company histories, later branching out into various aspects of museology. The three editions of the worldwide Directory of Museums were a herculean achievement, the first issue alone comprising some 37,000 entries (by two people, without a computer!).

2. I hear you travelled all around the world, how did it affect your social and work life?

The travel was in fact part of my work life, doing research for publications of various kinds on museums in Europe, but also with excursions to Africa, Asia and South America for UNESCO-sponsored projects. Regular annual visits to the United States combined lecture tours for Kenneth with gathering material for future enterprises. When I look back now, my life would have been far easier if a computer had been available, and the internet had been invented. My social life? It didn’t seem to suffer from this rather nomadic existence.

3. We know you are one of the people present at the beginning of EMA, what was the process of making the decision?

There were three main motivations for setting up EMA: to establish an organization focused on knowledge and on the vast experience gained over the years and to make it available to the others (not only museums but also heritage organisations in general). Secondly, to activate a network able to offer training in the form of courses and seminars so that we can share our experience with the younger generation and offer opportunities for personal and professional development. And, last but not least, to preserve Kenneth Hudson’s legacy and pioneering opinions. This is a long-term programme going beyond the limits of the European Museum Forum (which focuses on the European Museum of the Year Award), many of us having served for a long time in that organisation.
For a series of coincidences and reasons we find ourselves still closely involved in Award schemes of many kinds, but the balance is more or less maintained with research, training and publications. EMA has also become an accumulation of experts from all over Europe.

4. You have obviously seen a lot of museums during your travels, what do you think about the evolution of museums and how to you see the future of museums?

In my working life I have been an outsider, an observer of the changes in museums, and it is in this capacity I noted with interest the growing emphasis on education in museums. In due course it became clear that the influence of the educators matched that of curators, no doubt with many internal spirited discussions between the two. Then some 20 years ago a new word came into being, namely ‘edutainment’, its increasing influence bolstered by advances in technology. Nowadays the pendulum has swung even further this way, with many museums feeling that they should inject pure fun into their offerings for visitors. Unfortunately, in some cases this means that education is now taking a back seat. Museums need to be beware of shifting too far from their original task of collecting, educating and displaying and straying into the realms of entertainment for its own sake.

5. Would you recommend anything to younger colleagues?

I don’t feel that I am I a position to do so, as my path has been the exception to the usual route into museum work, in that I have never been employed by a museum. Throughout my life I have probably seen more museums than most people, but my museum education has come about firstly through painstaking research into current trends in museology, accompanied by practical experience – at first thrown into the deep end – and then with the confidence that the passing years endows. If I can say anything it is that there is always more than one way to achieve one’s goal.

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