What is the role of museums in giving a platform to underrepresented voices and opinions? This broad question defined the direction of this year’s American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM) Annual Meeting held from May 6 to 9th in Phoenix, Arizona—the traditional homelands of the Pima and Maricopa peoples.
We were there to explore how this question is being addressed in institutions across America, as well as share some of the expertise that we’ve developed in our recent exhibits. As one of the biggest international museum conferences, it attracts over 5,000 professionals to its annual meeting and expo. Here are our takeaways, favourite talks, and some insight into why we continue to return to this event year after year.
An opportunity to connect with likeminds
One of the main reasons that we attend the AAM Annual Meeting is to reconnect with and meet new members of the wider museum community, both in the States and internationally. As our Content, Interactive and Technology Director Erika Kiessner points out, it’s hard to hear beyond your own organization when you’re working so intensely throughout the year on large-scale projects (a challenge shared by GSM Project and museums alike). This event is a great opportunity to reconnect and figure out the questions people are asking—what are we trying to solve together? More than simply a networking opportunity, this frame of reference serves us throughout the year as we face shared issues, such as audience renewal, or authenticity in addressing difficult historical events. Our goal every year is to leave the conference with our finger on the pulse, and this year was no exception.
A chance to give back and share our expertise
Another motivation for us to attend is to share insights and expertise that we’ve developed in recent projects with our counterparts at other institutions. This year, our work with northern indigenous communities was in the spotlight on the panel Engaging the Arctic: Working with Northern Communities to Tell Their Stories, featuring talks by Julie Decker of the Anchorage Museum, and Ailsa Barry of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Our Content Director, Jeremy Taylor, moderated and shared GSM’s experience of working on the Alaska Gallery at the Anchorage Museum, particularly with regards to working in consultation with Alaska Native communities. They discussed how it’s important to not only look at indigenous communities as something in the past tense, but to address the reality of their lives today.
Specifically, Julie Decker talked about how the role of the museum has changed from being a holder of knowledge, to an importer of ideas and curator of conversations. She sees the Anchorage Museum in this way as a conduit to the communities stories, in other words, a way of amplifying her community’s voices. These ideas take shape in the form of community-driven programming and events, as well as working with local artists and influencers to showcase their work in the museum. While this trend began in social and history museums such as the Anchorage Museum, it is now spreading to other types of institutions, such as natural history museums or science centres. Rather than simply displaying often stolen objects in glass boxes without context, institutions are having to address sometimes more difficult questions about how these objects were acquired and the impact on the communities involved.
Erika Kiessner moderated a second session entitled If You Are Reading This, You Aren’t My Target Audience, with Dana Schloss of the New York Hall of Science and Amanda Conlon of the London Children’s Museum. They discussed how museums can better communicate with audiences who either can’t, or don’t want to, read. The speakers shared a few successful examples of exhibitions communicating effectively without text, then the audience was split up into groups to create a tabletop interactive exhibit that explained itself without the help of the written word.
Talks and topics that stood out
Of the more than three hundred talks and events over the course of three days, there were a few speakers that stood to us out for their powerful messages and ability to tune into the predominant challenges facing museums today.
Ericka Huggins is a self-described human rights activist, poet, educator, Black Panther Party leader and former political prisoner who addressed, amongst other things, the dynamics and power of inclusion in exhibitions. She called out the inherent privilege of the institutional voice, and how museums can use knowledge and education to create change. Specifically, she stated: “Get educated. Action without knowledge is shallow.” This made us reflect, “What then, is knowledge without action?”
“Get educated. Action without knowledge is shallow.”
Speaker at AAM 2018
As educated people working with cultural institutions, what is our role towards social injustices and inequalities such as race, environmentalism, or sexism? As exhibition designers headquartered in stable and relatively wealthy Canada, it’s easy to feel distant from these issues. Ms. Huggins reminded us that we all need to be more attentive and inclusive of underrepresented populations, regardless of our role in the industry.
Panel—Responsibility and Empowerment: The Role of Museums Today
With forty talks under the “Forces of change” theme, it’s clear that museums are expected to do more today than provide a one-way educational narrative towards audiences. One panel that particularly stood out to us addressed responsibility and empowerment, with talks from Judith Margles of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and Andrés Felipe Roldán Giraldo of Parque Explora in Medellín, amongst others.
We were struck by a conversation about the role of metaphor vs. facts in storytelling—whereas metaphor can be a good means of evoking a shared understanding, facts are convincing. Andrés brought up an example from the Museo Casa de la Memoria in Medellín, where they use metaphor to discuss the shared horror of the violence in Colombia over the last few decades, both from political unrest and drug trafficking. Rather than examining these topics in an exclusively literal fashion, images of an ant unable to escape a ring of liquid on a table, or a black mark bleeding into a piece of paper, represent paralysis of fear, and the recovery from hurt, respectively. This approach doesn’t negate the brutal facts of Colombia’s often violent history, but rather seems to provide another angle for interpretation and the opportunity for a shared emotional connection.
Display it like you stole it
Another example of growing activism within the museum community was more subtle but poignant—we noticed a few attendees wearing “Display it like you stole it” pins. They’re the creation of British art historian Alice Procter who has made it her mission through her Uncomfortable Art Tours to call out her country’s colonial past and true “acquisition” methods of many objects in the collections of institutions like the British Museum or Victoria and Albert Museum, e.g. the spoils of war. In a recent Guardian article, she elaborates: “Museums are institutions of memory—they must stop pretending there’s only one version of events, and be willing to own up to their role in shaping the way we see the past.” We like the cut of her jib.
Working together to empower museums
As in years past, we’ve returned to our offices in Montreal inspired and informed. This year, in particular, was a wake-up call to our inherent position of privilege. How can we do more as exhibition designers to address issues such as racial or gender inequality and environmental issues through the institutions that we work with? As a company often working with history and cultural museums, we can’t afford to ignore these questions. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, we look forward to addressing these challenging principles throughout our projects in the year ahead.