American Alliance Museum conference 2019

Attending the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference is always an important event for hsd. There are always ongoing discussions indicating the need for change and questioning the mandate and role of museums, as well as their relationships to their communities. The latest edition of AAM exposed a recurring concern for community, diversity, and the future of museums.

Placing community at the core of museum activities has gained strength in recent years, resulting in a more participatory museum scene, increased community agency and engagement. This bottom-up approach has multiple benefits for the museum community, including the encouragement of co-operative exhibition design, programming and public engagement. Co-creation, shared authority and collaboration with community, artists, and non-museum professionals brings new perspectives, voices and fresh creativity to the field, expanding the possibilities for audience engagement and empowerment.

There are many initiatives advocating diversity in museum practices, staff and programming. The OF/BY/FOR ALL project led by Nina Simon (author of The Participatory Museum) was discussed at length, as it offers a structured programme, online community, training program and a toolkit to help museums navigate their way to becoming institutions “OF, BY, and FOR their communities.” Their aim is to create museums that are more representative of their communities, increasing their sense of agency, ownership and participation, reflecting multiple perspectives and voices.

Based on the number of people who engaged with the TrendsWatch 2019 session, led by Elizabeth Merritt, Director of the Center for the Future of Museums, everybody wants to know what’s next for museums. The key themes shared during the session can be summarized into blockchain, decolonization, homelessness and housing insecurity, and self-care.  Whilst some issues have more obvious resonances with museums than others, the emphasis was on the role museums play in society, engaging with pressing social issues, adapting to the effects of technology in collection ownership and privacy, and the working conditions of cultural workers. Clearly, the issue of decolonization speaks to the role of museums in the changing dynamics of cultural assertion and empowerment. The session provided a reflection on the overarching themes that affect our daily reality within and beyond museums.

Amid an increase in fake news and skewed information sources, a key strength of museums is their perception as trusted sources of information and knowledge. However, many people circulated around the conference with t-shirts reading “Museums are not neutral,” which poses a big question to be tackled during our next AAM rendezvous in 2020. We look forward to engaging with this important issue.