Modern Museums: Relevant and Resilient

Attendance at conferences is some of the most valuable professional development experience out there as it combines both learning sessions and networking in a single package. Last week gave the opening Town Hall address for the 2018 California Association of Museums conference.

California is home to more than 3,000 museums, nearly 10% of the count IMLS keeps in its Museum Universe Data File. Its museum community is a powerful force both with the Golden State and nationally. Executive Director Celeste DeWald and her team and the CAM Board have not only organized campaigns for a license plate that provides funds to the museum field, CAM is also advocating for the California legislature to pass legislation to bring the national Museums for All program to California, providing free or reduced admission to the state’s museums for EBT card holders. And if that weren’t enough, CAM is also the host organization for phase two of Museums United, a national coalition of statewide museum associations.

Our evening event on Tuesday was at the amazing Sunnylands, “The Camp David of the West.”

I focused my talk around five major issues that I see facing museums today (there are more, I know, but one’s gotta make choices) and asked participants to consider them alongside these words from John Cotton Dana in 1917, “Learn what aid the community needs, fit the museum to those needs.” The only caveat I’d add to Dana’s maxim, which has been guiding museum practice for a century, is to make sure that an institution keep its mission in mind.

These are:

  1. Collections. While the current discussion surrounds the deaccessioning and sale of art from the Berkshire Museum, this is an issue that has long vexed the field and is much bigger than that. Do we in the history world have too many objects in collections? Have we collected the right objects? One solution my friends and colleagues Rainey Tisdale, Elee Wood, and Trevor Jones have proposed is for institutions to strive to maintain Active Collections.
  2. Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion. This is a major issue facing not only our field, but also our nation in general. In many ways, California is a bell-weather as July 2017 US Census Bureau estimates report that Latino/Hispanics make up the state’s largest racial/ethnic group (38.9%)— and no single group constitutes more than 50% of the population. But, I argued, diversity is not enough, it is too passive. Our institutions must (and I emphasize MUST) practice the act of inclusion or as Dr. Nicole Ivy of AAM said more succinctly in a panel on this very subject: “Diversity is being invited to the dance; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
  3. Decolonization. In this case, seeking to undo centuries of damage to Indigenous communities and their ancestors by following the museum community’s pattern of acquiring the belongings and the remains of people from these cultures. I’m somewhat new to this discussion and want to give a shout-out to my colleague Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko for sharing some great material with me, including her admonition that our institutions should seek shared authority for documentation and interpretation of Native cultures; privilege Native voices in our museums; and, above all, telling the truth in our stories about Native peoples. (Amy Lonetree’s Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums is a must for anyone grappling with decolonization.)
  4. Community Memory. This is a tough one for those of us living in the American South, a region that is full of monuments and memorials to the Confederacy. However, this is not unique to the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported in 2016 more than 700 can be found in 31 states and the District of Columbia. And the issue is not solely one of Confederate iconography, New York City has been debating statues of Christopher Columbus and Dr. Sims, the “father of modern gynecology” who did experiments on enslaved women against their consent. Some in California have taken matters into their own hands as well, vandalizing statues of St. Serra in San Gabriel and in Santa Barbara. At issue are questions such as Who should be memorialized? What are we solving by removing monuments and memorials? Who decides which stay and which go (and to where)? What could, and should, a museum’s role be? (Historic preservationists are met with an additional challenge, that of a change in the built environment.) I’ve followed this pretty closely the last few years and have come to the same determination that Kevin Levin has in his blog: there is no single answer, and communities will have to grapple with these discussions in their own way.
  5. Value/Relevance. This is the crux of the whole issue in my book, are we truly valuable — are we truly relevant — to the communities that we serve? And the additional question, one that will continue to vex me until we figure out a measurement for it, is how do we measure this? Obviously attendance measurements aren’t enough, nor is financial support — though both are good measures. How can we in the United States take a cue from our British museum colleagues in the Happy Museum Project?

In addition to my own talk, I had the chance to enjoy a few sessions as well. The Intent to Understand: Using Visitor Data for Decision-Making, particularly hit home for me, as I learned about the ways three California institutions are utilizing evaluation (I’m always surprised how “new” evaluation seems to my colleagues). I am particularly excited to learn more about a program the Museum of Photographic Arts is employing under the direction of Joaquin Ortiz, Director of Innovation.

Takeaways from Reimagining Annual Fund Stewardship.

Jacqueline Rais of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presented on Reimagining Annual Fund Stewardship. I was struck by how universal to the entire field (not just fundraising) many of the core precepts she cited were.

I also got to co-lead a discussion on Museums Responding to Current Events with two terrific California museum leaders: Bill Bailor of the Tech Museum of Innovation and Linda Blanshay at the Museum of Tolerance. Like the rest of us, California museums grapple with how to react appropriately to current issues such as political tumult, immigration, environmental calamities, and community memory/memorials. We led off the session asking whose museum dealt with which issue and asked those who felt their museum “rocked” the response (our term) to share just a bit with us. It was both enlightening and inspiring and I’m grateful to CAM for inviting me to join the panel.

Yours truly (left) with Jeremy Bernard at a booksigning after his talk.

The conference closed with an address by Jeremy Bernard, social secretary for Michelle Obama from 2011–2016 and co-author of Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life. It was awesome to listen to Jeremy speak about his experience in the White House and how the Obamas truly sought to make it the People’s House. But more than that, I found it good for my soul to hear someone remind us all the virtues of treating others well.

A hearty thank you for a great conference to Celeste, the CAM staff (particularly the fabulous Jessica Monahan) and board, and the California and Palm Springs museum community. You do John Cotton Dana proud!

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.