Conal McCarthy

It makes sense to begin our posts in 2016 with Conal McCarthy as, in many ways, he is where Nina and Matariki's paths in the GLAM sector were first solidified. Conal is the Programme Director for Museums and Heritage Studies at Victoria University where Nina and Matariki both completed their Masters. During the two years in which we both studied under his tutelage, we were shown how important the relationship is between practice and theory, a relationship that is exemplified through the invaluable placements that are undertaken. It is through these placements that we met people in the sector and better understood what really went on behind the scenes at museums. Though it has been a few years since each of us graduated, Conal is still a source of support and remains so for each of his former students. For this, and all else, we thank you Conal.

In five words, describe your role in the sector.

Facilitator, mentor, facilitator, advocate and critic.

What is it about the sector that you love?

I love it that people are passionate about their work in museums and galleries. This sense of vocational committment is indispensable to the sector, but sometimes I wish it were joined by professionalism. Museums are not built on passion alone. They need professional nous as well. 

What have been some challenges in your career?

My career in museums started in 1988. I have been dipping in and out of the sector ever since, in the last ten years through my role at Victoria. I have been trying to work in partnership with colleagues in the sector, bringing together the university and museums, theory and practice. But this is hard. In the sector academics are sometimes treated as ivory tower idealists, and research is not given its due, while in the university it is hard to get people to look beyond academe and engage with the public. I discuss these challenges in my latest book Museum Practice (Wiley Blackwell 2015), where I argue for a museum studies that is grounded in practice so that research, training and professional development are integrated.

What challenges can you see moving forward?

Looking back I think one of the great challenges this country has faced since the 1970s was to listen to Māori voices and incorporate their perspectives on museums and heritage. It did this to a remarkable degree after the groundbreaking Te Māori exhibition of 1984-6. But since the 1990s, I think things have gone quiet. Many peopole have forgotten the hard lessons of those times, or arrived after this period of dramatic change. It seems to me that we now need new ideas, paradigms, and approaches to respond to the challenges of iwi in their postsettlement phase. What can museums do for iwi? How can they remain relevant for Māori? What new models of museology will Māori themselves come up with to manager their own heritage based on their own world view and way of being? What can the world learn from this dialogue between museums and Māori?                   

What do you think people in the early stages of their careers can offer the sector?

It is great to see this website, a new journal, and the emerging professionals group appear in recent times. This suggests there is a bright future for the sector when so many early career professionals are coming through with fresh ideas. We should take heed. A new period of change may be afoot. 

What is your spirit animal?

My Chinese zodiac animal is an ox, and my Chinese name means horse.