15 May

#AAM2018 Recap: Language, Collaboration, and Action


The Annual American Alliance Conference 2018 was hosted in toasty Phoenix. Many participants mentioned that this conference felt like a year to consider the basics. Rather than big bang projects, many presentations seemed to focus on maintenance, improvement, and thoughtfulness. As part of this introspection, many presentations put a fine focus on understanding the structures and processes of the museum world. Here is a roundup of some the biggest issues

Language: Communication between people has an inherent bias. Verbal communication often holds a bias towards those in power. For example, until very recently, many occupations were described in gendered terms (fireman, postman, councilman). Focusing on words might feel insignificant in the grand scheme of improving equity and inclusion. However, words are the basic building blocks of improving the socio-cultural state. Currently, language is built on broken blocks. Being thoughtful in the ways that you use language, avoiding biased language, for example, is like excavating and rebuilding our faulty communication tools.

Decolonialism/ Equity/ Inclusion:  Just as language might be the building blocks of inequity, colonialism is the architect of the inequity in society. The society we live in is a product of white Europeans expanding and conquering much of the planet, laying waste to the people and cultures resident there. This expansion/ decimation might have begun centuries ago, but the ramifications remain present today. Museum collections are particularly tangible artifacts of the colonial state. In order to truly embrace equity and inclusion, museums need to face and address the colonial nature of their work and collections, in a holistic and all-encompassing manner.

Collaboration/ Partnership: Museums are part of an ecosystem of organizations and institutions, large and small. Despite the breadth of possible collaborators, museums often act unilaterally in their planning and implementation of programs and exhibitions. Museums are ill-at-ease with ceding power, the central crux of good collaboration. Instead, museums often create collaborations in name only, which are basically perfunctory check-ins. With careful planning and dedicated time, museums can implement collaborations that will have positive lasting effects on their communities and their work. This type of collaboration, however, requires earnestness, truthfulness, transparency, and follow-through.

Risk: Risk-taking can be at the heart of a good collaboration. Museums are change-averse and yet always in the throes of change. This state means that staff needs to handle inadvertent change consistently, while not being able to take calculated risks (planned change). Fear of change is often centered around a few of power changes/ loss of power.  Conversely, ceding power is a learned skill not unlike risk-taking. Taking small risks, and reaping the benefits, can increase institutional aptitude for risk-taking.

Space: Improving anything is hard. It takes time, energy, money, and dedication. Ameliorating the state of museums can feel particularly draining, as we are a physically disparate field. (Rather than a physician with scores of peers in your region, museum workers often find their peers around the country/ world). As a result, people can feel isolated. Exhausted and isolated people cannot effectively make change. Museum workers must take care of themselves if they want to continue their impact on the field and their visitors. Self-care can take many forms, but in essence, means that you take some time to focus on yourself.



04 May

6 Tips for Making the Most of a Conference #AAM2018

Conferences are a huge expenditure of time and money.  They are held in huge, impersonal buildings, peopled by hundreds and hundreds of unfamiliar people. The pressure to do conference right can feel overwhelming. But, first and foremost, there is no one “right” way do attending conferences.  You need to find a good balance between engaging with ideas, meeting people, and finding space for yourself. Each person has to find their own best way to handle conferences.  How do you find your own best way to handle conferences? Here are some tips to help you do that. (Follow the tips, and then notice what feels right).

Plan Ahead: Have some clear objectives in mind before you go. For example, think about a few big topics you know you want to think about. Search the program ahead of time for those topics, and pick a few for your calendar.

Be flexible: The best-laid plans are actually the ones with room to bend. Other than your few must-see talks, allow yourself chances to be swept up in the zeitgeist of the conference. You will hear people talking about talks; try a few of those.

Share: Be open with people and allow them to be open with you. Elevators, hallways, coffee lines are great chance to make a quick bit of connection with a colleague.

Document: Make sure to take notes, however, you naturally do. Twitter stream, hand-written, typed. Whatever you already do, keep doing that. You will be taking in a number of ideas, and you don’t want to be stressed about forgetting them. But, also keep your phone in hand. Sometimes it is easier to snap a shot of ppt slides than to take down notes. Also, remember, you won’t catch everything. Be okay with that. After all, you will be able to find plenty of notes on Twitter and SlideShare.

Relax: Conferences are exhausting. You are on all the time. Even the most extroverted person can feel tired. Find your own ways to get a little break. I always have a half-read book in my kindle app. Any time I need a little me time, it’s there in my phone.

Enjoy: Conferences are work, sure. But they are also a chance to be with scores of people with similar values and interests. Luxuriate in that.



12 May

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. 

07 May

AAM 2012 Recap

Rather than create a play by play recap of the annual conference, this post highlights broad strokes of the event.

On Museums:

  • Museums are holder of the public good.  Programs should showcase public value.
  • Museums should create memories for visitors. 
  • Museums are community based and community responsive. They are public utilities.
  • Museums serve 55 million kids nationally –annually!
  • Arts and culture are the heart, soul and conscience of society


  • Create community of visitors through experience that leverage their shared interests and the museum’s strengths.
  • Develop and employ partnerships with other institutions around desires to reach particular visitors. 
  • When using visitors as partners to develop community events create a culture of mutual respect between visitors and staff. 
  • There is not a simple 1+1 equation between community building events and fundraising. 
  • Target market—go where your visitors are to get the message out.  Or even better, invite someone from that community to help you develop the program and then market it.
  • Develop communities within your institution. Brainstorm in selected, though not siloed, groups.

Fostering Connections to Visitors:

  • Understand that each visitor community (casual visitors and teachers) have their own vocabulary and culture.  Own that and then come to a common language. 
  • Don’t assume that everyone wants the same thing. 
  • Understand what your audience wants before developing your program, while running your program, and after your program has completed.
  • Similarly, know the digital habits of your target audience and make sure your digital plan targets the right audience
  • Awareness of your museum can be an important and viable goal for your programs.

Stories, Games and Media:

  • The process of social media and crowd sourcing is what fulfills the mission not the product.
  • Create stories for your visitors.  Stories can make the collections relevant to the visitor.
  • Bring your community into the museum to tell their own stories, so that they can feel like they contribute to your museum culture.
  • Games can create meaning for visitors—often those with a great story. 
  • No all gamers are alike!  
  • Simple and clear can be essential to a good story or game. 

What were your biggest takeaways?