“Are we on the edge of making change we haven’t seen before?” This question, posed by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole of the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. and the Baltimore Museum of Art, served as the undercurrent of the recent American Alliance of Museums Virtual Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo. While 2020 has brought an unprecedented year of devastation, pain, anger, and confusion, it has also provided an opportunity for reflection, reassessment, and renewal, which is why the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting was titled, “Radical Re-imagining.”
The AAM Annual Virtual Meeting and MuseumExpo began on May 18th in conjunction with International Museum Day. In her general session remarks, Dr. Cole emphasized that museums need to be an inclusive, collaborative, impactful force in the world, willing to shed traditional systems and adopt more economically sustainable and culturally responsible practices: “We’ve got to figure out how to use the resilient power of the arts to help our communities pull through this worst health crisis since the pandemic of 1918. We must also give attention to how we as museum professionals can … create new pathways forward for the betterment of our field and, of course, our global community.”
For #InternationalMuseumDay, @icomus invited me to share why I think this moment, marked by uncertainty, is one where museums must step up. We must provide context, offer insight, remind the public of the beauty around us, and embrace our common humanity. #IMD2020 pic.twitter.com/OtLeWLkXdp
— Lonnie G. Bunch III (@SmithsonianSec) May 18, 2020
The remaining sessions of the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting addressed the kaleidoscope of ways that museums could, as Dr. Cole put it, do the “exact opposite of safe what is easy, what we have always done.” To succeed in a post-COVID world, museums must embrace the rapidly burgeoning digital transformation, create more sustainable funding models, address racial inequity in hiring and pay, eschew traditionally colonialist collections practices, and in general, re-envision a new and (hopefully) better future. The day concluded with a poignant message by Lonnie Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who challenged museums, “on this International Museum Day, [to] remember who we once were, and celebrate who we can become.”
“REIMAGINE NEW WAYS TO SERVE”
This “radical re-imagining” continued two weeks later, as over 3,000 museum professionals reconvened for the second portion of the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, held June 1-4. Offerings included two keynote addresses, educational sessions, a virtual exhibit hall, and multiple opportunities for networking.
Responding to the events of recent weeks, AAM President & CEO Laura Lott began this portion of the conference by addressing “the senseless killing of Black people and unfathomable violence across [the United States]…these racist acts are a reminder that while we may be less exposed to a virus by staying away from each other, we are increasingly exposed to the anxiety, pain, and anger that can come from dealing with traumatizing events alone. In this time of forced isolation, we must be especially vigilant in looking out for each other.” She closed by releasing AAM’s official statement on these atrocities.
“I’m simply going to remind you to breathe,” followed Christy S. Coleman, Executive Director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. In her remarks during the first general session, she reminded attendees that in the face of a global pandemic, compounded with the recent atrocities of racial injustice, just breathing is an action easily forgotten. Taking the time to breathe, to listen, and to pause, “provides fuel for us to think, move, create, be…to imagine the possibilities.” The resultant rejuvenation enables individuals and organizations to better serve their constituencies and re-connect with their stated purpose. Once the why is found, the true community building can begin.
“In times of crisis,” explained Coleman, “in all of those struggles that our communities have faced in the past, sometimes the darker nature comes out…we have the power to remind people that there was always resistance to that urge…because people found those connections and pushed them towards common humanity, common love.” She challenged participants to breathe, to absorb the information presented in the following sessions, and to “re-imagine new ways to serve.”
Lonnie Bunch III, who returned to the conference as a keynote speaker, reiterated the need for museums to truly listen to their constituents and remember the role that they play in their communities: “museums remind us of our shared humanity. In moments of pain, museums remind us of beauty and the possibility of tomorrow.” In addition to listening and re-committing to their community purpose, museums need to innovate their technologies and business models, cement their position as informal learning centers, and seriously re-examine the way they do business. They also need to make a “strong and lasting commitment to diversity,” modeling it at every level and in every department of the organization. “At our best, we matter,” asserted Bunch. “At our best, we are transformative. At our best we allow people to find hope. Our job is to remind us of who we once were. Help us better understand who we are today. But to use this moment to point us to a better tomorrow.”
LISTEN TO YOUR AUDIENCE
In their remarks, both Coleman and Bunch stressed the need for museums to truly listen to their constituents and communities – to understand their needs, desires, and fears. Several of the sessions throughout the AAM Annual Meeting revealed data on audience attitudes and emotions regarding the pandemic, as well as their readiness to return to cultural organizations.
One such session was “Museum-Goers and the Pandemic: New Research,” in which Susie Wilkening of Wilkening Consulting shared results from a qualitative study she performed in the wake of COVID-19. The five resulting “data stories” offer an in-depth look at current museum-goer attitudes towards both the pandemic in general and museums specifically.
While some respondents were coping well in the crisis, others, were worried – about their jobs, their children, their communities, and humanity itself. Some were finding moments of joy, whether by engaging in self-care, pursuing hobbies, spending time with immediate loved ones, or witnessing societal acts of kindness. Museum-goers expressed differing attitudes about whether those “moments of joy” would eventually include museums, often falling into the “cautious middle” between resistance to leave their homes and desperation to return to normal activities.
Upon re-opening, visitors expect museums to implement enhanced safety policies and procedures, such as hand sanitizer stations, contactless payment, and amped-up cleaning and disinfecting practices. Most respondents found tours, theatres, and hands-on exhibits to be deeply problematic, which will result in a substantial interpretive and programming shift for many institutions. The survey’s safety questions evoked a deep emotional response in many of the participants, who felt a sense of “grief” and “pity” for museums: “to some extent, I think museums will be working with one hand tied behind their collective back as they welcome visitors into this brave new world.”
Unfortunately, this grief and pity is not motivating museum-goers to donate. Many respondents remarked that they were “unaware that museums were facing challenges,” and were choosing to divert their philanthropic dollars to those organizations providing more “essential” items like food and health care. “What all of this boils down to is that no matter how beloved we are, at this time we are not even seen as vital,” explains Wilkening. “We’ll have to adapt and become vital…or risk obsolescence.” So, how do museums solidify their place as essential institutions? The answer is by bringing hope and healing. Through their virtual programming, museums create community, making people feel as though they are part of a broader cultural narrative, “something big and meaningful.” As places of respite, escape, knowledge, and fun, museums can help community members heal from the post-traumatic stress of this pandemic. But Wilkening warns that time is of the essence: “don’t wait for this to be over to try to heal. If museums are not part of the hope and wait for the healing, they may not be as impactful.”
Many museums across the country are already serving as sources of help and healing, providing new virtual opportunities to engage and connect. In her session “Digital Engagement in a Time of COVID,” Laurel Allen discussed how the California Academy of Sciences’ digital engagement department had to quickly pivot to meet the needs of its community.
For Allen, the pandemic revealed deeply rooted communications issues. After “getting cold and methodical about what the actual problems were” among the various content and programming departments, her team created a comprehensive digital engagement strategy. With clear procedures and processes in place, the team then aimed to “keep the physical wonder of the Academy as real as possible,” and “demonstrate that we live in the same world as our followers.” That meant putting an emphasis on personal, direct, authentic interactions: “in terms of demonstrating kind of your regular, accessible good-humanness, I think that is so important right now. Like this does not feel like the time for polish or gloss. It really feels like a time for just transparency or openness.”
The Academy adopted several digital initiatives to help evoke that physical wonder, including Virtual Nightlife, an online version of their popular Thursday-night adult-focused mixers; Nightschool, a behind-the-scenes look at the Academy’s exhibits; and Academy Breakfast Club, live-streamed lectures with Academy scientists. According to Allen, the key to creating impactful virtual programming is to plan: “It doesn’t matter if we are in a pandemic or not, tech executed as quickly as possible is still a bad idea with no strategy. You have to differentiate during crisis but always between real and manufactured urgency…I don’t think I have ever seen a case where it is not worth slowing down to get something right.”
The Academy’s suite of digital programming was one of the many case studies featured in the session “60 Ideas in 60 Minutes: Sizzling Ideas in Audience Engagement and Inclusion.” Presented by Krista Dahl Kusuma of Visitor Experience Group, Peggy Martin of Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Timothy Hallman of the Asian Art Museum, this fast-paced session highlighted best practices in virtual programming across four areas: Connect, Access, Engage and Heal.
Examples of museums using their virtual programming to connect visitors include Mattatuck Museum’s Digital Murder Mystery, San Jose Museum of Arts’ Prom Nite at the Museum [Online], Chabot Space & Science Center’s May the 4th Virtual Star Wars Party, and Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s “Snail Jokes” on TikTok. Other museums are using their digital platforms to provide unprecedented access to their spaces, collections, or animals, including St. John the Divine’s Virtual Vertical Tour, the Art Escape Drive Thru at the Delaware Contemporary, or Cincinnati Zoo’s “Invite a Zoo Animal to Your Next Virtual Meeting” initiative.
Museums, zoos, and aquariums are also using digital programming to engage (and entertain) a broad spectrum of audiences, including Animal Crossing Art Generator at the Getty Center, Security Guard Social Media Takeover at the Cowboy Museum, and the Georgia Aquarium’s kitten visit. In addition to humor, museums are also providing healing. Museum of Science, Boston’s Public Engagement with Science (PES) initiative features conversations between scientists and members of the public to identify community issues and build common ground. For their #MuseumBouquet social media campaign, New York Historical Society sent virtual floral bouquets to other arts institutions, who then paid it forward. In the end, 365 museums participated.
Dear @americanart, we wanted to brighten your day with these apple blossoms by American painter Martin Johnson Heade.
— New-York Historical Society (@NYHistory) March 24, 2020
By providing connection, access, engagement and healing, museums are, as Wilkening recommends in her research, treating virtual programming not as a secondary focus, but as an integral part of their operations and community outreach.
LISTEN, CONSIDER, AND INCLUDE
Christy Coleman urged participants to breathe, be present and listen. Susie Wilkening, Laurel Allen and other AAM Annual Virtual Meeting session leaders encouraged museum professionals to meet their audiences where they are, providing programming and content that meets their present needs in this period of uncertainty. But are museums considering the needs of all those in their community? Are they creating space in their narrative and seats at their conference tables for those who have been traditionally underrepresented, unheard, and underserved?
In their session, “Is that Hung White?: Revisiting Issues of Race and Inclusion in Exhibitions,” Joanne Jones-Rizzi of the Science Museum of Minnesota, Marquette Folley of the Smithsonian Institute of Traveling Exhibition Service, Elisabeth Callihan of the Minneapolis Museum of Art, Su Oh of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and independent museum professionals Stacey B. Mann and Erika Katayam discussed the questions that arise when discussing diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI).
Throughout the session, each panelist posed a question to the rest of the group. The first was, “why is this so complicated?” As Jones-Rizzi explained, the issue of DEAI in museums has been a discussion topic for decades. In 1992, AAM released the Excellence in Equity statement, featured below. Yet 28 years later, many of the same problems persist. Jones-Rizzi acknowledged that the complication lies in the inherent discomfort involved in creating institutional change, while Marquette Folley believed that denial may be the root cause of this lack of progress: “why this question still? We have to be very honest about the reality that there is a culture that is implicated, and unless we put our finger on it, we will be asking the same questions over and over again.”
The next questions asked why DEAI is so often an ancillary consideration, often falling down in the priority list as times get tougher. Oh explained that “DEAI initiatives are on the shoulders of one person to initiate, or there’s one community engagement manager, but if we truly want to be living in the space, I think we need to have it baked into our DNA.” According to Callihan, unless museum leadership understands that DEAI must be a priority all the time and not just when convenient, any attempt at these initiatives will be seen as empty words. “If we want to ensure that racial equity is of value, we have to ensure that every single word, action, and decision we make truly reflects that, or our museums are going to continue losing brilliant staff of color and they will never be relevant or reflective of communities of color.”
The last question of the session proved to be the most poignant: what are we afraid of? As a case study, Folley presented the recent “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.” exhibit of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). This exhibit aimed to show the “diversity, broadness, and affirmative reality” of African American men, eschewing the dominate cultural portrayal of them as a subject of fear. Through contemporary art, photographs, quotes, and stories, the exhibition represents men who have altered the course of history, rather than those who have been victimized by it. Heralding these men as storytellers, myth-breakers, fathers, community leaders and catalysts for change offers a perspective of African American male culture rarely portrayed in society today. “American culture is broadly diverse,” concludes Folley. “The power of us is broadly diverse. If we refuse to look at the clear, open landscape of our all our heroes, we become less.”
AAM VIRTUAL ANNUAL MEETING: RESPOND TO THE TIMES
In order to ensure a smooth conference and enable panelists to engage with participants in real-time, the majority of the sessions at the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting were pre-recorded, meaning that they did not address the killing of George Floyd and subsequent demonstrations. As the week progressed and the justifiable outrage swelled, AAM realized they needed to provide a resource for catharsis, conversation, and community response. Within a matter of hours, they assembled a last-minute session entitled “Racism, Unrest, and the Role of the Museum Field” featuring conference speakers Johnnetta Cole and Lonnie Bunch III, as well as Lori Fogarty of the Oakland Museum of California. “You don’t just go by the program,” explained Cole. “You have to sense what is needed.”
Serving as moderator, Cole asked Bunch and Fogarty to explore two primary questions:
- “As museum directors, how should we respond to these crises that are haunting our country and indeed our world?”
- “What could and should our role be as museum directors, to end the struggle of systemic racism?”
In order to be true community partners and champion inclusion outwardly, Bunch believes museums must first begin by looking inward. As previous speakers noted, DEAI needs to be intrinsic to the organization, so that it doesn’t disappear in the face of a new CEO or curator: “One of the things I’m proud of is what museums are capable of,” said Bunch. “Part of it is the will to change. What I want to see is, is there the will to change? Will change be like a substitute teacher, or is it permanent, really reflecting the way we want future generations to live?”
According to Fogarty, once museums have self-analyzed, they need to be a resource for community members who are most likely suffering emotional trauma as the result of these injustices: “let people have this place of anger and exhaustion. Don’t move too quickly into our next to-do list. Let people breathe for the people who haven’t been able to breathe.” In this period that Fogarty likens to the convergence of the 1918 Spanish flu and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, community activism among museums will be paramount. They will need to show more than just statements of solidarity but concrete actions towards inclusion. “This is the defining moment of our lives,” said Fogarty. “Let us not miss this moment.”
Just as she did at the beginning of the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Dr. Cole’s final thoughts offered the perfect summation of the conference’s purpose, tone, and call to action. “Let us keep the faith,” she concluded. “But now more than ever, we’ve got to add another phrase. Let us keep the faith as museum professionals, but while we do the work.”