June 1, 2022

Three Cross-Cutting Themes from the American Alliance of Museums 2022 Annual Conference

American Alliance of Museums logo

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) 2022 Annual Conference was recently held on May 19th-22nd in Boston. We asked two attendees, Claire Lannoye-Hall, Director of Education at the Detroit Zoo and Marley Steele-Inama, Director of Community Engagement at the Denver Zoo, to share key takeaways pertinent to our community.  

This year, AAM centered the conference on four key focus areas, each coalescing around a keynote aiming their messaging around the topic. The four themes were Museums in Society, Innovation, Financial Wellness, and Organizational Culture. From the sessions and keynote addresses we attended, as well as observing conversations with colleagues and on social media, we recognize three cross-cutting themes that are important for zoo and aquarium professionals to digest, consider, and wrestle with.

Theme 1: We must center humans in everything we do.

Yes, animal wellness and conservation are critical to our existence, but without the people to care about and for wildlife, we won’t exist. We must strengthen our empathy muscles in our organizations.

  • Thomas Friedman, author and reporter for The New York Times, kicked off the conference with a keynote focused on how to dig ourselves out of what he called “a poverty of dignity.” He focused on the importance of what we “say” when we listen with intent – respect and dignity. Collectively, in order to be resilient and stabilize our social challenges, as well as climate change, we need to draw upon natural systems like healthy ecosystems and develop complex adaptive coalitions. Healthy people and communities are connected, protected, and respected.
  • It’s time for museums to get serious about focusing on their internal people just as much as they focus on their objects and guests. The definition of ‘museum’ puts things before people, and we need to reexamine that idea.
  • Trust is the foundation of a healthy workplace. Trust begins with human relationships. You cannot trust the concept of organizational leadership, or even an organization as a whole, if you do not trust the individuals within the organization.
  • Listen. Listen longer. Then listen some more. Dismantle who is the expert by allowing everyone’s knowledge, skills, and abilities to be assets as we learn and grow together.
  • Resource your values. Create line items in your budgets that support and activate your values.
  • The concept of sense of belonging was pervasive in multiple sessions, and some organizations are advancing our understanding of what belonging means, looks, and feels like in museums. Inclusion is the ability to thrive and belong, and it’s the outcome of diversity and equity. Check out this open-access article by clicking here about initial work coming out of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, including a toolkit built in to analyze data for organizations who do not have capacity or skills to do the analysis.
  • Relationship building takes time. Invest in the time. Be patient.

Theme 2: Accessible and Inclusive Design

There were many great sessions with practical tips about how to aim for more accessible, equitable, and inclusive experiences for our guests.

  • The Smithsonian Institute has numerous resources about access for exhibit designers available by clicking here, including Guidelines for Accessible Design (click here to view).
  • Language Justice: Everyone has the right to communicate in the language(s) in which they feel most comfortable and understand. Recognize that English and Spanish are both colonial languages; how can we honor our local Indigenous languages in our communication and interpretation? How are organizations ensuring that American Sign Language speakers are valued, and acknowledging that not all ASL speakers read English or Spanish?
  • There is transcription and there is translation, and then there is TRANSCREATION. This relatively new term blends the words “translation” and “creation” to create a process that involves taking a concept in one language and recreating it in another language. It is the intersection of language, culture, and emotion.
  • Include your guest and community in testing written communication and graphics. Test your prototypes and drafts with guests. One museum engages their staff’s 10-year-old children as testers, since their style guide is to write graphics at a fifth grade reading level.
  • Create a transcription/transcreation style guide for all translated language. Engage community insights into the creation of the guide so that the translation is culturally appropriate for your community.
  • Want to understand the impact of translated text in your organization? Asks guests on your exit survey, “How did you feel that the translated text impacted your experience in the Zoo?”
  • Pay for translations. Do not ask your bilingual staff to translate unless it is part of their job description or they are receiving a pay differential for this work.

Theme 3: Museums and Race

  • Museums need to address systemic white supremacy culture. It’s not an inclusion issue, it’s a racism issue.
  • Museums and Race is a movement to challenge and re-imagine institutional policies and systems that perpetuate oppressions in museums. Click here to access a resource called the Museums and Race Report Card that allows organizations to rate themselves on Governance, Funding, Representation, Responsiveness, Resources, Transparency, and Accountability. It includes a rubric and action steps to help organizations build context for each “grade”, and then take action to improve and transform.
  • Anti-racism work is the ongoing process that considers the economic, sociological, historical, and political frameworks that enable racism, and then interrogates and dismantles the racism with the intention of equitable distribution of power. (Click here to read Dismantling Racism in Museum Education, Dewhurst and Hendrick, 2016).
  • Each of us are a part of our institutions. We must dismantle ourselves, too.
  • Reconsider your donors and board of governors. Why is it important to diversify both groups, and why is it important that they reflect your larger community? One keynote shared this resource: “Everyday Donors of Color (click here to read).

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