by Iyari Arteaga (MA, 2020)
If someone would have told me that my first time attending the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo would happen during the time of a global crisis and racial pandemic in the United States, and that the entire conference would be virtual, I probably would have squinted my eyes and laughed it off. However, this was the reality for all who attended AAM’s first virtual conference in May and June of 2020, as we sat through online sessions which urged us to consider and dream about the future of museums during a time of great upheaval.
AAM 2020 originally was set to take place in San Francisco at the George R. Moscone Convention Center. USF’s Museum Studies Program served on the host committee and was a sponsor of the annual conference. For nearly a year, faculty, students and alumni were involved with many intricate layers of planning to welcome museum colleagues from around the country and world to the Bay Area and its rich and diverse array of museums. Once the pandemic hit, AAM decided to experiment with new ways to connect, stay engaged, and provide meaningful online experiences. Kicking off on International Museum Day, May 18, and continuing June 1-4, the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo (#AAMvirtual) brought networking opportunities, inspiring programming, and the MuseumExpo to a new virtual experience.
I was fortunate to be able to attend this year’s conference through a generous fellowship from AAM’s Museum Studies Network (MSN), which sponsored both undergraduate and graduate students from ten different programs across the country. It was the first AAM conference that any of us had ever attended. MSN leaders met with us in advance to review expectations and facilitate our getting the most of the conference.
USF Museum Studies alumna Angela Gala (MA, 2018), a Social Media Journalist for #AAMvirtual, shared with me how this new model for the annual meeting was both challenging and rewarding. According to Gala, one of AAM’s greatest achievements was how staff showed, “…heart and flexibility while considering the news and facts happening in real-time, spreading the conversations among all its participants, whenever possible.”
The majority of #AAMvirtual conference sessions focused on how museums can move forward during the COVID-19 pandemic, through the practice of adjusting expectations and staying connected to community needs. I don’t imagine, however, that anyone anticipated a large-scale national uprising focused on racial justice to be ignited just as the conference launched. This was not a movement that could be ignored. Provoking long overdue conversations, the uprising and ensuing movement in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade by police officers in the United States demanded the attention of everyone attending #AAMvirtual. In response, conference organizers pivoted and made spontaneous and important adjustments to the program to highlight dialogue and action around justice for the Black Lives Matter movement.
On the third day of the conference, AAM shifted the previously scheduled programming and invited Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, and Lori Fogarty to lead an important and timely conversation around “Racism, Unrest, and the Role of the Museum Field.” These three leaders affirmed so much of what I was feeling, and what so many of us experienced during the beginning of this latest racial justice uprising: anguish, despair, anger, sadness, and hopelessness. Their dialogue validated these feelings, but also inspired hope by reminding us that as museum professionals, we must be committed to being anti-racist both within and outside of the museum in order to be of true service to all communities.
Through their panel discussion, my own personal vision for what museums can and should be was reborn as I had the opportunity to listen to a reimagined dream for the future of museums. What if conversations about how white supremacy is ingrained in this nation were no longer seen as requisites for “inclusivity and diversity trainings,” but rather rooted within the practice of each and every institution? What if dialogue about anti-blackness and action against it became deeply engrained in our everyday lives? What if museums were free and accessible to all? What if museums truly listened to the needs of the entire community and stepped aside to give space for the voices that are often ignored or silenced?
These are all questions I have been sitting with as an emerging museum professional. I realize that we cannot only reimagine and ask “what if?,” but we must also push ourselves in the direction of defining “how?” I refuse to accept that we will forever live in a country that is rooted in white supremacy, capitalism, and cis-heteropatriarchy. But I also know that I can’t sit still in a realm of imagination. Instead, to dream about “what if?” and “how?” we must recognize how each of us must be committed to unlearning systems of oppression, being okay with discomfort, and moving forward to take action. We still have a long way to go; this movement is not a singular one, but I remain hopeful that reimagining museums will play a vital role in building a more beautiful and equitable future for us all. A future where liberation—especially for Black people—is the reality. I am grateful that my experience attending #AAMVirtual helped me to envision such a future with even greater clarity and passion.
Bunch III, Secretary Lonnie G., Cole, Johnnetta B. and Fogarty, Lori. “Racism, Unrest, and the Role of the Museum Field.” American Alliance of Museums., last modified Transcript posted June 9, https://www.aam-us.org/2020/06/09/racism-unrest-and-the-role-of-the-museum-field/.