By Joy Hyatt
Implementing change requires courage. For me, the duality of this experience can be equally inspiring and a challenge to demonstrate. Focusing on this year’s theme of change, the Western Museum Association (WMA) Annual Meeting did not shy away from considering the struggles and joys related to change. Before attending the Meeting, I often wondered how museum professionals might delicately bridge the past with the future. Particularly, regarding the innovative technological, educational, and theoretical changes taking place in the museum field as a whole. How might museums become more inclusive in their practices and share collaborative authority with their communities? How can I help generate progress within an institution where everyone does not agree with what changes need to be made, let alone how to make it happen? As a Wanda Chin Scholarship recipient, participating at the WMA Meeting shed some light on these complex processes of how to activate an environment of change.
Questions circulated at the sessions about how to start identifying and implementing a safe place to talk about changes in a variety of ways. The Meeting invited us to reexamine our understanding of museums and recognize an existing complexity as vast as the Arizona desert topography, which graciously hosted the event. As the Meeting’s session topics navigated a variety of paths towards formulating those changes, I witnessed museum professionals of all ages and levels of experience grapple with the challenging but essential work that museums have done and must continue to do. As a first-time attendee, I watched WMA members come together from all parts of the West to collaborate and kindly challenge each other in order to advocate for a meshing of old and new.
It has been a few months now since the 2016 Meeting, and I have had some time to let the connections and questions resonate. The Meeting has impacted how I think about museums in a powerful way. Of all the impressions, two major lessons still linger. 1) Make room at the table of power and 2) Deconstruct the change you want to see.
1) We must make room for diverse points of view for changes to occur. As the needs of a museum community ebb and flow, the Meeting reminded me that we must all continue to learn how to simultaneously adapt and yet stand firmly connected to creative and inquisitive museological practices to make room for change. I attended sessions like, “Museums Collaborate with Homeless Youth,” “Managing Time-Based Media: Best Practices for Small Staffs”, and “Grant Writing for Museum Professionals” that provided a space for discussing creative approaches to museum subjects. As a Museum Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies graduate student at the University of Kansas, I currently spend lots of time discussing and processing museological ideas through the lens of class, gender, sexuality and race. Although I am learning to practice how to welcome change in a museum setting, I can honestly say, at times I struggle with understanding the bureaucratic methods, lack of financial resources and team collaborations required to facilitate change. Not to mention how to truly listen to the needs of a community and collaboratively represent them. However, I am enthusiastic regarding the important work of museums, as it seems critical now more than ever to create meaningful experiences and be the place where communities want to gather.
2) Deconstruct the change you want to see. The session, “Museums and Race 2016: Transformation and Justice” responded to contemporary sociopolitical issues which drastically impact museum staff and visitors. Packed full of attendees, this session navigated uncomfortable conversations about how to confront institutional racism and oppression. This particular session affirmed the hard but necessary work of re-looking at the spaces created within the museum concerning dynamics of power and control and asked questions like, how can we share authority and control of museum spaces? What steps are necessary to re-create a trusted relationship with a community? In addition, how might museums assess whether their practices represent all the members of the community in which the museum serves, from the board members to the educational programs the museum offers. I, too, wonder how we can radiate compassionate museum practices, offer knowledge-making experiences and rediscover objects that reflect a more inclusive history rather than an exclusive one. This session highlighted the possibility of deconstructing the institution and restructuring it to reflect many truths rather than a singular perspective.
A message of courage needed to bring about changes echoed in the programming, tours and speakers of this year’s Meeting all the way to the last day. Gregory Hinton, the closing keynote speaker, charged us with maintaining an attitude of inclusion by sharing beautiful photographs and stories about Out West. His historical and national program series Out West is, “dedicated to illuminating the history and culture of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) communities in the American West.” Hinton’s speech was inspiring to say the least. Not only because he was an eloquent speaker but also because he was truthful and honest in his particular description of the West. He opened up a conversation about an exclusionary past and presented meaningful perspectives about how one can see it differently. For me, he exemplified an aspect of change that all of the Meeting’s sessions, lunches, workshops and evening museum tours accomplished in various ways. Change is not a single action, but rather a collective of decisions by those who are willing to ask questions, try something new and learn along the way. The WMA provided a thought-provoking experience, and I had a fantastic time discovering the West. I am looking forward to implementing the approaches I gleaned at the WMA Annual Meeting in my future work and my daily life. I expect wonderful things from the 2017 Meeting!
Joy Hyatt is currently pursuing an MA in Museum Studies and a graduate certificate in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) at the University of Kansas (KU). Her research interests include museological approaches that connect film and media studies, art history and WGSS. Concentrating on interdisciplinary public programming, she has a shared graduate assistantship with the KU Natural History Museum and The Commons and will graduate this May.