Last week I had the good fortune to join more than 4,500 museum colleagues at the 2014 American Alliance of Museums Conference, convened in Seattle over four beautiful, sunny days. Recognized as the largest gathering of museum professionals in the world, the AAM Annual Conference brings together representatives from all types of museums (history, art, natural history, zoological, etc.), of all sizes (the National Museum of American History to community historical societies like our very own), and from all corners of the globe (every state and dozens of countries). Such a diversity of attendees guarantees that panel discussions and even informal chats are inspiring and eye-opening.
As a first-time attendee, I was amazed by the range of topics covered in sessions. In some time slots more than a dozen concurrent panels were offered, making it difficult to decide just which learning opportunity I should seize. While every session I sat-in on was informative, there were two or three that particularly resonated with me. This week I have been reflecting on what I learned at the AAM meeting, and thought I might share some of my “take-home messages” with you all. In the coming weeks and months I hope you will see how these ideas are being applied here at home at LCHS.
Make your house museum a home museum. We are fortunate to have access to the beautiful McConnell Mansion, a Victorian house that accurately depicts the upper-middle class aesthetics of the late-19th century and provides a space where the everyday material culture of the McConnell and Adair families can be presented. The current interpretation of the Mansion, however, limits the sorts of stories we can tell about Latah County’s history. As we invite guests to look around a neatly organized and well appointed house, we may be educating them on the furniture styles of 1886, but we are missing an opportunity to examine how the inhabitants really spent their time. One presenter at the Conference encouraged house museums to put debris in the wastebaskets or leave a quilt untucked on a child’s bed. House museums only feel sterile because we curate them so differently from our own homes. I know this is a theme that also resonated with our Museum Curator, and he will certainly be putting the lessons he learned into making the McConnell Mansion a more intriguing home (not house) to visit.
Create a living room for your community. My very favorite session was titled “Itinerant Museums” and it highlighted three projects by organizations that actively sought to integrate their exhibit spaces into the surrounding community. I was especially taken with the presentation by Olson Kundig Architects from Seattle. In 2011, the company leased an empty retail space in the neighborhood in an effort to bring some energy back to a suppressed community. The project, known as [storefront] became a three-year long experiment in exhibit design and collaboration. Every installation was completed in one month and with a budget of $1000. (To see some of these very cool exhibits, click here.) While I was enamored with a number of the subjects showcased in [storefront] projects, I was even more inspired by the strong commitment to community that Olson Kundig demonstrated. Not only were all of the installations achieved through collaboration with local nonprofits, business, or individuals, but the public at large was invited into each reimagined space as a contributor. [storefront] became a living room for the community, a space where friends or strangers could enter into conversation or simply sit quietly in contemplation. I absolutely adore that concept, and aspire to bring a similar space to Latah County.
If we don’t tell people about how great our museum is, no one else will. Advocacy for museums is not something I had given a lot of thought to until very recently. We practice a sort of informal advocacy already here at LCHS — we invite the County Commissioners to lunch each fall at the Mansion, we communicate with city councils around the county, and we seek to increase our visibility in the community by participating in the county fair each year. In these ways, we are asking our elected officials and stakeholders to recognize the value of our organization and the services we provide. Yet, as a number of speakers at the Conference reminded me, advocacy is a year-round endeavor, not a once-a-year obligation. Presentations covered every level of advocacy from the local to the state to the national. Both as the Director of LCHS and as a board member of the Idaho Association of Museums, I am looking forward to employing some of the ideas I picked up in Seattle here in Latah County and in Boise. Museums are an essential part of America’s cultural landscape and serve as spaces for public education and dialogue. As an advocate for all museums, but especially LCHS, I was energized by the ideas shared at the AAM Conference and am ready to roll up my sleeves!
Want to know more? I’d love to chat with you about my experiences at AAM! Feel free to call, email, or stop by the Annex.