Museums in Transition: What We Learned in St. Louis

Question cardsAs always, the American Alliance of Museums’ annual meeting was a whirlwind, packed with teaching (in the AAM-Getty Leadership and Career Management Program), listening to the keynote speeches (funny, smart Haben Girma, and the astounding Bryan Stevenson), listening some more to the incredible group of women who packed our Workplace Confidential discussion, and talking (and listening) at AAM’s Open Forum on Diversity where the awe-inspiring Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole sat at our table and talked about Gender Equity in Museums. Not to mention we toured St. Louis’s Forest Park, the Cherokee neighborhood, and the St. Louis History Museum, and had some laughter-filled dinners with old friends and new acquaintances. We did a lot in four days, but here are some take-aways from the thought department.

  • That the conference was a living, working example of how over-arching values help organizations respond in times of crisis. With a theme of “Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museums,” and speakers Girma and Stevenson addressing questions of inclusion and equity, AAM faced its own moment when an exhibitor displayed life-size statues of a slave auctioneer and an enslaved man. There are likely some who thought AAM’s response wasn’t enough—-an all-conference email, discussion with the exhibitor and company president, and a teach-in—-but for many organizations still struggling with when and how to stand up and speak truth, it was a model.
  • That there weren’t many people at the Open Forum on Diversity: That may be because there’s just too much to do, and the third day was packed with other choices, but we applaud a conference that provides structured opportunities for like-minded folks to gather for discussion. Sometimes that’s just as important as hearing a speaker from the podium. Our own discussion on gender equity was rich, but we never left our table. We should have moved next door to talk to the LGBTQ folks or across the room to the Museums and Race table. We all need to talk with one another, and we all need to be listed on each other’s web sites so we can begin virtual conversations before we gather in Phoenix next year.
  • That I was ashamed of my generation of museum folks–at least once: I went to hear some speakers I’ve long admired–in print and on the Web. I expected them to be wise, and they weren’t, but worse their bias about age–old people know it all–, learning styles, race and class, was on full display. Regardless of the conference theme, annual meetings are an opportunity to share your best self and your most creative thoughts. Don’t re-tread a thought that was tired twenty years ago. It shows.
  • That we need to remember Bryan Stevenson’s words: Remember he said never accept a job that doesn’t gladden your heart. Remember he said we need truth and redemption, that the narrative of racial difference is everywhere, and we need to change the narrative. Remember that this fight means you have to be willing and able to do uncomfortable things. You have to get close to the margins of society, and call things what they are. Remember that from Reconstruction forward many African Americans were victims in a home-grown terrorism. Remember that unpacking that narrative isn’t about punishment, it’s about shame, and after shame comes liberation. And last, remember Stevenson’s maxim, “you’re either hopeful or you’re part of the problem.”
  • With almost 150 women in the room for our Workplace Confidential session, it was clear that even after 43 years (The first AAM Women’s Caucus began in 1974.) issues of gender inequity haven’t gone away. Ours was a wide-ranging discussion, that opened with the question of whether the fight for gender equity in the museum field is a white women’s fight. Our answer came from Wyona Lynch-McWhite, the first woman of color to lead a New England art museum. It moved on to whether gender equity is a fight for leadership, the museum field’s slow transformation to a pink-collar field, and the role of professional organizations in workplace gender equity. Anyone listening to the panel’s and the audience’s stories of cyber-bullying, rape, and sexual harassment could never say all is right in the museum workplace. And no discussion about the museum workplace is complete without talking about the gender pay gap or as one of our panelists described women’s salaries: The crappiest of crap salaries. And it’s the crap salaries which contribute to a work force of privilege because who else can afford to pay for graduate school and only make $12.50 an hour?

Most AAM sessions were recorded and will be available soon for purchase on their website. The keynote addresses are free. Using either one as the focus of a staff or department or board meeting might be a good way to start your own discussion on diversity and inclusion.

Joan Baldwin

Image: Audience question cards from the gender equity session, Workplace Confidential.

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