Monday, May 04, 2009

AAM Conference

Last weekend I went to the American Association of Museums conference in Philadelphia. Here are some notes from a few sessions I attended.

“Learning a New Language: The Delights and Dilemmas of Building Diverse Art Museum Audiences.”

The three main issues the panelist wanted to address were:

1. Are you programs relevant to non-traditional, esl visitors?
2. Are your programs responding to that community?
3. Are your programs for those visitors authentic?

They emphasized that every museum is serving a diverse audience, and that soon these issues will be even more important in the next thirty years when a third of children will be born to immigrant parents. They suggested that public programming should be accessible to all members of the community, including those who speak English as a second language and those who do not speak English at all, and that public programming should empower the non-traditional visitor and promote civic engagement in a more immediate way.

We broke up into small groups and discussed how to make public program authentic. We talked about a lot of different issues that had to do with stereotypes, authority, and relationships.

* Whose voice is presenting information? Is it the authority of the museum or the voice of the contributing community? Is it both?
* Does age create a stereotype of authenticity? ie, do people believe an object/idea is real or true only because it is from the past? (I thought this was particularly interesting because it seemed almost like a contradicting stereotype)
* We need to reach people on an individual/personal level because that is authentic to every person. We can’t be formulaic or broad or generalizing. If we want to be relevant to people’s lives and create a real, meaningful experience, we need to be able to make contact on a very personal level.
* We need to build and maintain relationships with those communities we’re serving, especially those that are marginalized or voiceless. We are not serving our community if we are only serving one or two culture groups.
* There needs to be complete institutional buy-in for these authentic programs to work and sustain themselves. If your staff doesn’t think it’s important (necessary) it’s not going to go far.

The panel also emphasised that language is integral to identity, and that culture and learning are influenced by languge. Therefore, if we’re not speaking the language of our visitors, we’re not reaching them on an intellectual or personal level. Language is a very big issue, and one that a lot of people feel strongly about. But the US does not have an official language, and the projected statistics for the next 30 years are staggering. If we do nothing about this we will be failing more than a third of the population of our country, if not more.

“Core exhibitions in Culturally-Specific Museum: Which Stories to Tell?”

This session focused on the competing lenses through which to present the history of America. Panelists represented Jewish, African American, and American Indian groups, with one curator from the National Museum of American History.

Some ideas about culture:

* it is not fixed or static; changing with time
* sometime it is buried or hidden and must be discovered to be heard
* it is not agreed upon and is different for every individual

The panelists questioned what stories we “like” to tell, and how deep we usually go with our histories. They also suggested that we might not be satisfied with our stories and that our audiences might be looking for something more, too.

The presenter from the NMAH wondered if by “American history” we mean the intersection of cultural histories, not simply the history of white men. He also addressed the original purpose of national museums as being an enforcer of national identity and how that idea inherently divides our cutlure from that of the “other.” But what really defines “other” in a community of immigrants? How are we united if not through culture/history/language?

Along with this concept of national identity, the american indian representative brought up two interesting points that I had never considered:

1. Not all american indians identify themselves as “American.” They see themselves as members of their tribe nation, not the United States.
2. Tribal museums function as national museums for tribes because they are the repository for history, objects and programs to educate members of the community and outsiders.

Good history is messy- that is why museums exist, to help explain, educate, question, heal and create a place for dialogue.

We are always making a choice when we create an exhibit- we make a choice with our words, the objects we show, which story to tell, which voices to use.

They ended the panel with the question: what is the ultimate goal of a culturally specific musem? - are these stories overlapping? - what groups don’t have a museum? - how far can they go? - does it ever become one story?

“Globally, Locally, Personally: Museums as Crucibles for Social Transformation.”

Book reference: “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” by Paolo Friere

Positive social change should:

* Awaken social conciousness
* provide opportunities for self-affirmation

Social interaction is increasing globally with internet and economy. Peridoxically, humans are joining social groups less but global life necessitates cooperation.

Book reference: “The Art of Cultural Development.” byt Arlene Goldbard

The museum becomes a crucible when exhbitons/progams/policy promote social change. We want museum staff and visitors to be agents for social change.

Use historic objects (Skirball and Harvard) and places (sites of conscience) to encourage dialogue about current relevant issues.

How can we create active citizens who engage in social issues? Use open-ended questions to promote dialogue.

Helps to have a network of different institutions to deal with specific issues; helps create content/answers to real and current problems.

Museums must create a platform for visitors to respond and share stories- don’t forget that visitors learn from museum and each other, museum learns from visitors.

Sites of conscious use the power of place to tell a story, questions actions and motivations, deal with current topics.

Skirball Museum (LA) had exhibition of photos about immigration and teens, then let teens in community take photos and tell personal stories. Teens talked with each other, and on npr about experiences- validation of identity and empowering.

Harvard Art Museum has hospice nurses, doctors, med students come to museum to grieve for patients, heal, build community through art.