Reflections on Museums, Diversity, and Leadership

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It’s AAM week–the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums. This year AAM is in Phoenix where it was (no lie) 110 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday. Because Leadership Matters is also a co-founder of GEMM we devoted ourselves to AAM’s diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion initiatives.

We started with “Beyond Diversity,” AAM’s DEAI working group. Led by Dr. Nicole Ivy, AAM’s Director of Diversity, four members of the working group talked about their six-month journey creating a shared vocabulary and basic principles to guide museum professionals in incorporating DEAI in their workplaces. Dr. Johnnetta Cole called the dialog around the table energizing, embodying what it meant to be “the other.” She reinforced the experimental nature of the process by recollecting a quote from her own mother and quoting Zora Neale Huston, who said that “if you jump for the sun and don’t make it, at least you get off the ground.”

Several of the panelists pointed out their work was an iterative process that succeeded because their team worked so hard. Nonetheless, at the conclusion of their comments, audience members challenged them, and by extension AAM, asking what AAM’s role would be in making change? One questioner said that she’d been in the field for five years, but wasn’t sure if she would stay because salaries are so low she isn’t sure she can afford it. Panelists deflected her question, responding that their job wasn’t to actualize, it was to frame the questions.

The following day we and GEMM joined other diversity and inclusion initiatives at AAM’s Diversity Forum. Each group made a brief presentation about its goals and work. Then  participants moved from table to table, moving in and out of conversations. At the GEMM table women spoke about the pay gap, salary negotiations, and the rigors of combining parenthood with work. Participants allied over common problems, what to do about low salaries, and how to advise the next generation of museum professionals. Hopefully, the women who participated in the GEMM conversation left with renewed confidence and a sense of support.

It’s impossible to talk about the first full day of AAM sessions and not mention the opening session and the keynote. Certainly the moment when Hallie Winter, Curator at the Osage Nation Museum, received the Nancy Hanks award was a high point. The Hanks award goes to a museum professional who’s been in the field less than 10 years, and recognizes a specific achievement that benefits either the honoree’s home institution or the museum field in general. In a short video and in person, Winter’s brief acceptance speech was heart-breakingly wonderful, reminding all of us why we do what we do.

Then came Kevin Jennings’ keynote. Holy smokes. There are speakers and then there are the ones who get you where you live. Jennings, a former teacher, non-profit director, and writer is the new president of The Tenement Museum in New York City. Weaving his personal history with the museum’s story, and placing them both against a back drop of the national narrative stretching from roughly 1900 to the present, Jennings asked his audience to see themselves (and their stories) as facets in a bigger chronicle.

It’s rare to hear such a personal speech that was packed with leadership lessons if you knew where to look. He made himself vulnerable. He was funny.  How many of us are ready to show a huge audience our high school prom picture? He talked about loss. He wasn’t afraid to pause so his audience could comprehend a wrenching turn in the story. It is the way good teachers teach, mingling the now with the then so listeners understand the iterative nature of time. And it’s the way we all need to approach our work, with open arms and minds so our audiences hear the echoes of their own stories. If you weren’t in Phoenix yesterday, try to listen to this speech when AAM makes its recordings available. You’ll be glad you did.

Joan Baldwin

 



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