Radical Reimagining for the Museum Community

Mina Shea, Docent, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Advisor, National Docent Symposium Council  (Summer 2020)

2020 - the year I decided to attend the Annual Meeting and Museum Expo of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).  My city, San Francisco, was to be the host for the meeting in the Spring. Then the world changed; a pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for us as individuals, society, and cultural institutions. Virtual became the watchword and the AAM took the lead. AAM President Laura Lott said of the museum community, “they came together to hear from leaders within and outside our field, to engage in tough conversations, and enjoy some joyful moments together.”

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“Radical Reimagining,” the theme of the conference, was reflected in each of the speakers’ presentations. Each gave honest assessments of the challenges and real possibilities for the future. Topics for thought and discussion related to the advent of COVID-19 and the digital transformation immediately and inherently part of the future of museums. Financial viability and fundraising were top of mind with creative ideas and a call to advocacy in recognition of the importance of our cultural institutions for the health and well-being of society. Despite the dire circumstances of the pandemic, Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion (DEAI) was a topic of multiple presentations, an important mantra for museums which should and must continue. A point was made in several presentations that we can learn excellent practices of community building and outreach from culturally specific museums.

Lessons in Equity from Culturally specific Museums

Just days before the conference began, the importance of DEAI rose to prominence as the nation and the world rose up in protests triggered by the death of African American George Floyd. “Pivot,” a frequent term of the moment, is exactly what the AAM did in response to the serious events. Responding, the AAM arranged for a live conversation during the conference: “Racism, Unrest and the Role of the Museum Field” led by museum leaders Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, National Council of Negro Women, Inc. and Special Counsel, Strategic Initiatives, Baltimore Museum of Art; Lonnie G. Bunch III, 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; and Lori Fogarty, Director, Oakland Museum of California. To witness this presentation at that particular moment in time was emotional and yet hopeful. Museums are important to our communities and our nation and museum leadership must struggle to educate and allow for conversation and collaboration. The conversation of these thought leaders was recorded and is available to the public at the AAM website https://www.aam-us.org/.

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While the AAM conference is primarily directed to museum staff, every person linked to the museum community benefited from the thoughtful insight from cultural leaders into the challenges ahead and possible directions to follow. As a docent I was tremendously appreciative of the opportunity to see the swell of excitement for change and the horizon of many possibilities. The conference left me with an uplifting feeling of the importance of museums to mankind. Museums show our shared humanity. Our institutions are seriously coming together to a realization of the opportunity to provide context and understanding in new ways to serve their communities as well as educate. “The Arts” are essential work. As docents we are the public face of the museum and are part of the solution of peace and understanding. We as docents together with our institutions can strive to achieve the call to action from Secretary Lonnie Bunch to “be more nimble, inclusive, cohesive, supportive and accept the call to serve.”

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