Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Radical Re-Imagining in a Time of Crisis: The American Alliance of Museums Hosts First Virtual Conference

by Clara Rice, JRA

On May 18, over 3,000 museum professionals convened via laptops, tablets, and mobile phones for the American Alliance of Museums’ Virtual Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo. While the Association and the conference attendees would have preferred to convene in person as they have for the past 113 years, this inaugural virtual conference offered great value to participants in the form of a dynamic welcome address, informative sessions, and online exhibitor booths.

This opening day of the conference, which continues June 1-4, coincided with International Museum Day, and throughout the sessions, a common theme emerged: museums are in a unique position to create positive change not only in their immediate communities, but also in the global community. Although COVID-19 has brought devastating economic challenges for museums, it has also brought opportunity: the opportunity to embrace new ideas, take risks, and boldly transform their business models.

“Conversation, Inspiration, and Community” – The Necessities of a Changed World

The general session began with remarks from AAM President & CEO Laura Lott and included the reveal of what the Alliance calls its own COVID-19 “CARES Act”:

  • C – Content, Communication and Connection: AAM will continue to provide resources, toolkits and virtual forums to keep members communicating across the country and around the world.
  • A – Advocacy: Advocacy is a critical component to the COVID recovery process. Just recently, museum advocates sent over forty thousand messages to Congress advocating for recovery stimulus, which resulted in $200 million in funding being designated for the cultural sector. 
  • R – Re-imagine: “The museums we closed will not be the museums we re-open.”
  • E – Equity: Now is not the time to abandon Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) efforts. It is the time to assess them, endorse them, and progress them.
  • S – Support: Empathy is a powerful healer, and museums will need to lean on each other in this time of loss and recovery.

Lott concluded her address by expressing her gratitude for AAM’s staff, board, members and supporters: “our museum field is connected like never before, and it will take cross-continental solidarity, leadership, and cooperation to tackle this worldwide crisis and emerge a stronger global museum field.”

Engaging in Radical Re-Imagining

Tamar Greene, Broadway cast member of the Tony Award winning musical, Hamilton

The general session continued with an impromptu performance and welcome by Tamar Greene, Broadway cast member of the Tony Award winning musical, Hamilton. Then Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, President & National Chair of the National Council of Negro Woman, Inc. and Special Council on Strategic Initiatives at the Baltimore Museum of Art, offered an inspiring address exploring the conference’s theme of “Radical Re-Imagining.” After extending participants a “virtual hug,” she applauded museum professionals on their shared values – from “igniting a range of emotions,” to valuing human creativity, to posing “some of the life’s most persistent and urgent questions.” Even so, she challenged the attendees to leverage this tumultuous time to reevaluate old ways of thinking and doing, and to shed systems and ideals that have been historically unsustainable, irrelevant, and exclusionary.

Johnnetta Cole sends a virtual hug

“When times are scary, when we’re not sure what the next day will bring, or how we’re going to get through a crisis, it’s so tempting to do what is safe,” explained Cole. “To engage in easy responses, to fall back on old and tried ways of doing things, to lean into the way we have always done something. I am convinced that the difficult times we are in require the exact opposite of what is safe, what is easy, what we have always done.” To create a more successful, sustainable and inclusive future, museums must embrace uncertainty, creativity, and possibility.

Digital Transformation

Concluding the opening session was Antony Salcito, Vice President of Education for the conference’s signature sponsor, Microsoft. Salcito discussed the digital transformation that has occurred in the COVID-19 crisis and declared that museums can learn valuable lessons from this paradigm shift: “education will be a platform for people to connect globally and share openly, building community through common struggle.” Just as virtual learning has not diminished the impact of educators, nor will technology diminish the core experience of museums. In fact, Salcito says that digital transformation can only enhance museum programming and operations: “things that connect us and make us feel human will be even more important moving forward.”

The key to success during this transformation is not a digital strategy, but a business strategy that underscores the importance of technology. Museums can use technology to reassess operations through data analysis, reach more audiences through distance learning opportunities, and truly transform their business models. It remains critical, however, to always keep the end user as the focal point of the strategy: “as you embrace the transformation digitally, don’t forget that, for your staff, your guests – the transformation is all about people. No school or university is embracing a digital transformation, they are embracing a people transformation.”

Towards a More Sustainable Financial Future

From digital transformation, the dialogue shifted to economic transformation. Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight and Founding Director for the Center for the Future of Museums, offered “a glimpse of the post-pandemic future” with a presentation of the Center’s latest Trendswatch report: “The Future of Financial Stability.”

“Nonprofits should make as much money as possible, in order to do more and better good,” Merritt writes in her report. To achieve financial stability for the future, museums first need to look to the past, re-evaluating each of their four traditional income streams: earned revenue, charitable income, government funding, and financial capital. Are they too focused on earned revenue, producing exhibitions that are off-mission simply to increase income? Is dependence on charitable giving leaving institutions too detached from the needs and wants of their visitors? Does government funding come with too many strings attached? And is lack of access to endowment capital rendering museums risk-averse? Merritt addresses these tensions and offers a variety of successful case studies for addressing these forces of change. “This crisis offers museums an opportunity to re-invent themselves,” Merritt asserts, “but whatever form that takes, there has to be a corresponding business model.”

Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight and Founding Director for the Center for the Future of Museums presented from her front porch.

One tool for reinvention is what Merritt calls “strategic foresight.” By assessing a variety of plausible scenarios, museums can broaden their vision of what is possible, expand their pool of options, contemplate their optimal future, and begin strategizing on how to achieve that preferred new reality. Merritt narrated “4 Stories of the Post-Pandemic Future”:

  • (Re)growth: Museums largely return to “business as usual,” but now, they are increasing their collection of audience data, re-assessing pricing and ticketing scenarios, and generally “becoming profitable non-profits.”
  • Collapse: Museums adopt a “survival mode,” leading many of them to drain their reserves, shed “unprofitable activities” like research, or close altogether. 
  • Constraint: Museums create a culture of “interdependence,” stimulating individual and community wealth by sharing their physical assets, supporting livable wages, and offering community health programming.
  • Transformation: Museums take “a sideways leap to significantly different operating systems,” monetizing online content, re-evaluating their allocations of staff and volunteers, or advocating for themselves as “essential public assets.”

Merritt explained that these scenarios “are not mutually exclusive. Almost certainly elements from each of them will inform the future that we actually live in.” But by analyzing these scenarios both separately and holistically, museums can prepare for – and “radically re-imagine” – a more sustainable future. “One of the most important forces that shapes the future is you – the choices you make as an individual and an organization,” concludes Merritt.

Radical Re-Emerging: Becoming Better Versions of Ourselves

Micah Parzen, CEO of the Museum of Man and Sarah Pharoan, Principal at Dialogic Consulting

The thread of individual and organizational choice continued throughout the following session, “Complex Challenges, Unconventional Solutions: Finding Opportunity in Crisis.” Micah Parzen, CEO of the Museum of Man, began the session by proclaiming that “we are at a fork in the road at this vortex of pain and suffering, where we as a field have the opportunity, during a time when we have been shaken to our core in so many ways, to find how we can emerge on the other side as a better version of ourselves.” The ensuing panel discussion, moderated by Parzen, explored the four “endemic and systemic dysfunctions” that keep museums from being fully inclusive and fully sustainable.

  • Pay Inequity – Christy Coleman, Executive Director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, explained that the “pandemic has put inequity into the screeching limelight.” In her view, museums must completely reframe their hiring practices, specifically, how they hire and pay their staff. Current systems, such as unpaid internships, barely minimum wage entry-level positions, and systemically biased hiring and career advancement processes have provided barriers to entry for women and people of color. Museums need to determine how they want to be impactful, then hire, support, and equitably pay those candidates that can help them deliver that impact, not just candidates that check traditional boxes.
  • Lack of Relevant Sustainability – President & CEO of Conner Prairie Museum, Norman Burns, asserted that “how our organizations operate and make decisions must undergo transformational change.” According to Burns, transformational museums empower staff at all levels to lead, from docent to CEO. They talk less about how to survive the pandemic and more how to thrive despite the pandemic. They embrace a culture of entrepreneurship, reframing how they do business and fulfill their missions in ways that stimulate their bottom line.  Because they are not hampered by layers of bureaucracy, they are nimbler and more experimental, trying new ideas to see if they work but willing to shed the ones that don’t.
  • Scarcity Mindset – Sarah Pharoan, Principal at Dialogic Consulting, explained that “scarcity mindset” is the notion of “if we don’t act quickly, we’re going to be left out, unable to access resources and opportunities.” Such a psychology leads museums to become more competitive than collaborative, more myopic than strategic. Leaders of such institutions spend less time in relationship building and lack trust in others. Conversely, “those in abundance are purposeful in their actions,” explains Pharaon. “These institutions define their values but also what is non-negotiable for them, and they use those values as a rubric in making all and every institutional choice.”
  • Colonial Legacy – Parzen focused on the last and potentially most damaging systemic dysfunction of museums, the “traumatic history of colonialism.” Most museums emerged out of colonial exploits, and most collections reflect the adage of “to the victor go the spoils.” Too many institutions “sweep trauma away as if it never happened,” not realizing or even blatantly ignoring the pain and suffering they have caused to native and indigenous peoples.

Parzen offers three steps to address the egregious practice of colonial appropriation. First, a museum’s message needs to demonstrate clearly and frequently that they are committed to a path toward healing. One method of achieving this is to invite indigenous peoples to join museum teams – not as token participants, but as true decision-making partners. Second, museums need to execute an extensive internal analysis. Are they publicly acknowledging that the land they stand on is the formal home of indigenous peoples? Are they using the words “collections” and “artifacts” when “cultural resources” and “belongings” would be more appropriate terms? Lastly, “museums need to commit showing up to do the work, no matter how messy it gets, with our visitors, with our donors, with our trustees, and even with indigenous peoples…progress moves at the speed of trust.”

Addressing Disparity in a Global Health Crisis

While the previous sessions explored economic and cultural inequity, the final session of the day addressed “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Infections Treatment and Deaths.” Dr. Crystal Watson, Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, began the session with an update on the pandemic and recommendations for next steps in response. She explained that COVID-19 is ten times more lethal than seasonal influenza, and that anyone who hasn’t had it is susceptible.

Initially, states were in what Watson calls “Phase 1” of response, which was slowing the spread through stay-at-home measures. Over the past days and weeks, states have moved into Phase 2, gradually re-opening and relaxing previous quarantine orders. According to Dr. Watson, the criteria for re-opening should include “sustained reductions in daily case numbers, hospitals not under stress, more widespread testing, and a scaled-up public health workforce.” Once a vaccine or treatment is approved and available (Phase 3), social distancing measures can be lifted more fully. Lest we become complacent in the completion of the prior phases, Phase 4 involves “rebuilding readiness for the next pandemic.”

While Dr. Watson offered a by-the-numbers account of the pandemic, her Johns Hopkins colleague, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, discussed various ways of reducing health inequity. Communities of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 for a number of reasons, including living conditions, access to healthcare, and employment in essential jobs with inadequate personal protective equipment. To address these disparities and assist the most vulnerable, leaders need to create a culture of compassion and trust. According to Sharfstein, “they need to enhance access to testing and healthcare, protect essential and low wage workers, and provide social services to keep vulnerable groups safe.” Leaders need to address such issues as healthcare inequities, housing instability, food scarcity, job loss and job readiness, and mental and emotional needs. Most profoundly, leaders need to reiterate that, when it comes to eradicating COVID-19, “working together we will get through this.”

Repositioning and Reorienting to Strengthen a Global Community

The notion of looking out for each other – on an individual, community, and global level, struck to the heart of what the first day of the AAM Virtual Annual meeting and MuseumExpo was all about. As Dr. Lonnie Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, remarked to conclude the day, “At times of worry and fear, museums provide context, insight, and understanding. At a time of uncertainty, museums remind us of the beauty around us, and of our common humanity. At our best, museums define reality and give hope. So, on this International Museum Day, remember who we once were, and celebrate who we can become.”

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The AAM Virtual Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo continues June 1-4 and again features a robust educational program, as well as networking events, mixers, workshops, and exhibitor meet-ups. To register, visit https://bit.ly/virtual-museumexpo.

Clara Rice

Clara Rice is the Director of Communications for JRA, a globally recognized exhibit and attraction design firm. She is also the Vice President of the Themed Entertainment Association’s International Board of Directors and a contributing writer for InPark Magazine.

Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki owns and publishes InPark Magazine. Started in 2004, InPark Magazine provides owners and operators the perspective from "in"side the "park." Martin has also written for publications like Sound & Communications, Lighting & Sound America, Attractions Management and others. Martin has been featured in Time Magazine, CNN.com and Folio. Martin lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

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