A member of the inaugural Museum Studies cohort, alumna Nalini Elias has made her mark within the museum world since graduating in 2014. After completing her studies at USF, Nalini was offered a position as the Education Programs Coordinator for the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, CA, where she worked for nearly three years developing community outreach initiatives and curating participatory exhibitions. In Spring 2018, she returned to San Francisco to work at the GLBT Historical Society where she currently sits as the Director of Exhibitions and Museum Experience. Nalini and I recently chatted over Zoom to talk more about her important work with marginalized communities, the difficulties of transitioning to online exhibition platforms and the effect that COVID has had for museums at large and for her organization in particular.
What have you been doing since you graduated?
Since graduating, I’ve been focusing professionally on museum education and the visitor experience via public programs, content development, interpretation, and exhibitions. My increasing love and personal preference for working directly with community members and artists has allowed me to focus on facilitating exhibitions that are curated by and for under-highlighted or marginalized communities and people. Currently, we have several fantastic online exhibitions available on our website, including Reigning Queens: Roz Joseph’s Lost Photos and Angela Davis: OUTspoken.
As the Director of Exhibitions and Museum Experience at the GLBT Historical Society, I have the privilege of working with a great team to not only create exhibitions and public programs about LGBTQ+ histories, but to also provide a safe space to share our platform with historians, students, educators, community members, activists and interdisciplinary artists to tell their own stories and experiences.
How did you make your way to the GLBT Historical Society? Were you always interested in queer histories?
I have always been interested in stories that were hidden or left out, and urgently needed to be told, and working for a smaller organization like the GLBT Historical Society has provided me the autonomy and freedom to build out projects of my own. We are a very community-based organization and much of our labor comes from volunteers. I love this about our organization; we are all about decentralizing and demystifying the exhibition process and, truly, community creation is at the heart of everything that we do.
On a more professional level, when I was hired as a Program Manager in 2018, I knew that I would be joining an organization that would enable me to grow and change along with the organization itself. I have definitely had that opportunity for growth and, in my short time here, I have already had three title changes! That’s part of why I love working for such a nimble organization; you never know what opportunities will arise.
How has COVID affected your organization’s audience? The LGBTQ+ community is so grounded to experiences of togetherness and intimacy so how do you translate that quality to online exhibitions?
When the shelter in place order went into effect, everyone at the GLBT Historical Society immediately identified what tools we could still use to continue our work while being remote. Both the museum and archives had to close immediately, so all our efforts moved completely online.
However, more than just the physical logistics of transitioning to online work, we needed to think about what would work and what wouldn’t within the digital space. All exhibitions have to tell a story, and it is our job to best direct our visitors on the path of interpretation. At the onset of COVID, we quickly realized that we would never be able to replicate an in-person exhibition. After relinquishing the idea that the online exhibition would replace the physical exhibition, we got to work rethinking the possibilities of how our exhibitions would play out.
In particular, I liked the idea of carefully selecting and organizing content online along with minimal scrolling on a webpage as a means of effective storytelling and narrative development. Rather than walking through galleries and spending time with works of art, we are trying to create an accessible, fun, and informative digital space that is not too complicated for our visitors to navigate. We currently have six online exhibitions on display on our website, with more on the way, which I think successfully get at the heart of what the curators originally intended for the shows, albeit reworked for a digital audience.
The museum world is at a moment of reckoning. As many institutions grapple with their racist origins, questionable patronage and lack of representation, what are some conversations that are currently happening at your institution?
While there is definitely lots of reckoning currently happening within the organization, it’s also important to remember that our organization has a completely different origin story than many museums and archives. Unlike larger institutions and museums, the GLBT Historical Society was started in 1985 by a group of friends who wanted to archive their experiences and stories at the height of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.
However, that is not to say that our organization is perfect. There is lots of internal evaluation currently happening and we are addressing some historical blind-spots that needed to take place. Our director has also contracted with DEIA consultants to advise our staff and board on current best practices concerning diversity, equity, inclusion and access- which will permeate every component of our institution in the future. It’s important work, and it’s even more important that we get it right.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about your organization or the work you’re currently doing?
At the end of the day, your success in your professional space really comes down to who you are working with. You need to make sure that your goals are aligned. But more important than making sure you complete your checklist everyday– you need to make sure that you are checking in with the people that make your organization run smoothly, and you need to stay positive. During these particularly trying times, we need to be sensitive and supportive of one another at work. Empowering your team and striving to help keep your team’s mindfulness and health is always essential.
To learn more about the University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program, click here.