15 Takeaways from #AAM2017: #Inclusion #Politics #Action

“I’m calling for love and I’m standing against hate.” -Dr. Johnnetta Cole

The 2017 AAM Annual Conference in St. Louis was a busy one, both in the conversation presentations and outside the presentations.  I have already written a little bit about #AAMSlaveAuction. Here are my notes from the conference presentations.

Big Takeaways:

  • Inclusion is small actions, big infrastructure and everything, in between.
  • Museums are political; collecting, educating, exhibiting all have political ramifications.
  • Look to other fields to augment and retool your practical knowledge about how to do your work, from counting visitors to considering your interpretation.
Inclusion is top down and bottom up and everything in between.


Inclusion is a Choice: This issue came out most strongly in Haben Girma’s keynote for me. People choose whether they want to include everyone in every one of their actions. When you don’t include people, you lose an audience. In her case, she was citing the 57 million people who are disabled. You might not realize you are making a choice, for example, by not being accessible to blind people, but you are. In the same way, when you create something inclusion, like offering braille labels, you are making a small change to the positive.  Small changes to the positive include more people making your community bigger, like a grain of sand to a pearl. When you don’t make a change, you have no pearl.  In other words, you need to choose inclusion but that relatively small choice results in huge impact.

Inclusive Practice is Everyone’s Job but the Leader’s Fault: Museums are for better or for worse hierarchical. As such, organizations will not become truly inclusive if the bosses (both director and board) don’t buy into inclusion. But, even if they do, the whole organization needs to work on it, down to each person in the museum.

Inclusion Means Change: Meet people where they are. For museums, this means changing the status quo. Those of us on the education or IT tip have been preaching this for ages. After all, ¾ of Americans have a smart phone, and they are using those phones to consume stuff. You can make stuff for them, or they will go somewhere else.  Social media is one of these choice points. People are there creating content; museums should work in their vernacular. Twitter, for example, is this generation’s oral history. Don’t ignore it.

Inclusion Won’t Happen by Accident: You must work at inclusion. Hiring someone because they fill a box won’t change your organization; you must have a culture in which you foster that person. If an organization is truly working on inclusion, they need to consider all the inherent structures for their potential challenges to inclusion.

You have to build a culture that doesn’t isolate or diminish minority voices at the fringes of the organization structure.






Instead you want to create a culture that centers minorities within the power structure.







Politics in the Museum Sphere:

Collecting is Political: Creating museums were political acts from the start. Choosing items to add to the collection is fraught with politics such determining value. Some elements of collecting are intensely political, such as the choices made to collect and exhibit objects from other cultures. Visitors might not be inherently knowledgeable about the political nature of collecting; but museum staff should be.  Shying away from the politics of collecting doesn’t make it go away.

Relevance is Imperative: Museum collections are inert until activated. Museums understand this; they have multiple careers focused on doing just this (educators, interpreters, exhibition staff). Yet, if museums don’t connect these collections to our society, they are not fully activated.  Collections need to be connected to today to make them relevant to visitors.

Interpretation is Resistance: Every museum object has stories and choosing the stories to report is a political act. You choose who to include and exclude when you interpret a work.  You can choose to create inclusive interpretation as easily as making a different choice.

Critical Thinking Starts with You: Museum education is inherently a practice focused on communication. Our patrons come out of these programs better able to understand visual information, scientific processes, cultural norms…In other words, we are in the business of teaching people to learn and communicate. We are honing skills that help people become better citizens, and communicate what they really feel.  What could be more political?

Practical Tips

Fail Forward: Do more prototyping, learning, retooling, retesting, learning, retooling, retesting, learning…Basic try new things, and then systematically consider how it went. Pick something that really doesn’t work, say your entryway, and try until it works.





Make Accessible PPTs: Once you know how, it is just as easy to make a PPT accessible to all. No reason to do it any other way.

Communicate Like You Want to be Heard: Your visitors won’t know what you mean if you don’t tell them. Be clear with your signage, certainly. But, even more imperatively, make sure you offer your front line staff the tools and training to share your brand and message.

Thank People Who Like You: Museum visitors who are not official members could still be loyal to you or your brand. Find ways to thank them for going out of their way to visit you.

Committees Make People Feel Like They Want to Get Committed: Museum board committees are too often about reporting out or performative fundraising.  Consider moving to Task Forces to make these interactions more focused and productive.

Look for Lifelines Outside the Field: How are other people solving issues like counting people in the space?  Don’t just rely on hand counters.  Other fields are doing this better with digital tool

Don’t Collect Data if you Can’t Protect it. 

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