We want to build a sustainable relationship with politicians”, says NEMO’s Julia Pagel.
The European umbrella organisation for all national museum organisations, NEMO represents more than 30,000 museums across the continent. Pagel has been its secretary general since 2014 and last year spearheaded an initiative to bring these museums closer to their respective governments on a more personal level.
“For the politicians who make decisions at the highest levels, we needed them to experience these museums firsthand, so they really know what it all means,” she says. “We wanted them to go beyond the walls of an exhibition and to get a behind the scenes look at the museum. This meant taking them into the depot, putting them in the shops, having them sell tickets – having them do real museum work.”
Based on some smaller initiatives, which had already happened in places like Finland and Germany, Pagel created a bespoke ‘political internship programme’ – the first to cover the whole of Europe – to engage politicians and gain their support.
With the aim of offering a unique and engaging experience to high-level policymakers, the programme is designed to allow politicians to do a “day in the life” of a museum worker – the goal being for them to better understand the inner-workings of the sector and its needs.
Learning the ropes
The first politician to enrol in the scheme was Julie Ward, a member of the European Parliament representing the north-west of England. Also a member of the UK government’s committees on Culture and Education and Women Rights’, Ward is a member of Culture Action Europe and the Platform for Intercultural Europe.
In May last year, Ward interned at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht in The Netherlands. Selected because she was already a strong advocate for education and culture, Ward took part in a full-day internship, which started in the morning with an introduction to the museum and its collections, by artistic director Stijn Huijts. In the afternoon, she interacted with the museum’s visitors when selling tickets. She also got to answer questions from visitors when minding the information counter and worked in the museum’s shop.
Later, Ward was given the chance to make a condition report in the museum’s depositary, before meeting members of the Bonnefantenmuseum’s youth department – called the Young Office. The day ended with a walk through the museum, together with its security staff.
“For our internship programme, we really look at the person we invite, finding out their interests, their biography and identifying what we want them to do to help us change,” explains Pagel. “Then we look for a suitable museum, thinking about why this politician is interested in our work.
“We want them to learn while they’re with us. Those taking part will always visit the backstage areas and we always give them meaningful interaction with our collections, either by prepping an artefact for a loan or arrival, or – for example – cleaning them.”
“Politicians spend a lot of time in their offices,” says Pagel. “Being able to get their feet on the ground is a rare opportunity for them, so going out and having the day while they see and experience it for themselves is a really special thing.
“If you have a very old object – for example, a sarcophagus – being able to touch that artefact is something that they will likely only experience once in their life.
“In doing this, you open up communication channels and can reach out in a way you couldn’t with any other advocacy initiatives,” she says.
Luca Jahier, president of the EEFC (European Economic and Social Forum), was the next politician to take part in the scheme. Taking place on 24 May, his visit is set to be followed by the minister for culture in the Netherlands, Ingrid Katharina van Engelshoven, various politicians in Finland and other politicians in Flanders, Belgium, and within Germany.
With the programme rapidly expanding, NEMO has set a strict set of guidelines, emphasising that it’s important to let the participating intern do real work and to take their role seriously.
According to these guidelines, museums should not give interns a private tour or a “PowerPoint Presentation to sell the museum and its ideas. Instead, the politicians should work with the museum’s staff and patrons to get a true understanding of how a museum operates. Through the day, the guidelines also suggest the educator or curator feeds the politician with facts and figures on visiting numbers, educational programmes and volunteer work. The main aim of the internship, says the guidelines, is for the politician to have a pleasant day.
“Politicians spend a lot of time in their offices,” explains Pagel. “Being able to get their feet on the ground is rare, so going out and having a day and seeing it for themselves is huge. You’re able to open up communication channels and can reach out in a way you couldn’t do with any other advocacy initiative.”
For NEMO, the aim of the scheme is not only to give politicians a better understanding of museums, but also to achieve direct contact with someone who can make real change and help grow and improve the sector.
“Many politicians ask themselves why museums don’t have more communication activities or bring more people into the museum, while not recognising the whole machine that runs it. They’re still perceived as places where you invest a lot of money and there’s no return,” explains Pagel.
“We want them to see how the people in the museum work and that they need to be skilled and need more money for the work that they’re doing.”
Aiming for the highest positions in European government with the new initiative, Pagel wants to see the model replicated across the Continent by as many museums and associations as possible.
“The beauty of this initiative within NEMO is it’s easily transferable,” she explains. “Everyone can do it. Every museum and every association can start a scheme and handpick the museums and politicians they want to target. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, because it’s so down to the ground. It’s so direct with the politician that it’s perfectly transferable and always has a tangible outcome.
“The result is you build these very good relationships with politicians all over Europe and they get a 360-degree picture of what museum work really means.”