Community Relevance - Inside and Out!

By Kelsey Clark

This post was written by a recipient of a Wanda Chin Scholarship to attend the 2015 Annual Meeting.

The San Francisco Bay Area is booming. The population in the entire region is growing, new industries are taking root and cities are struggling to keep up with the pace of change. Museums in the area - and across the Western United States - are coming to terms with new audiences, new models of development, and new urban landscapes. Amidst this backdrop of transition and shifting identities, the Western Museum Association 2015 Annual Meeting in San Jose tackled the theme of “Listen. Learn. Lead.”

The conference created a professional forum, with a diverse lineup of panelists, who shared about their own experience navigating these changes in their home institutions. I attended WMA this year for the first time, and was grateful for the opportunity to attend as a Wanda Chin Scholarship Recipient. The support from the WMA Scholarship program allowed me to invest my time and energy into preparing and fully participating during the Annual Meeting. 

Image credit: Photo by Monica Samantha Hernandez. SFSU Museum Studies students and alum convene between sessions at the WMA 2015 Annual Meeting.

As an emerging museum professional in San Francisco, I am balancing simultaneous roles as a student, a museum staff person, and an intern. In these capacities, I am learning firsthand what challenges we face in solidifying a relevant place for museums in society. The WMA 2015 Annual Meeting was an opportunity for me to convene with others who are noticing and contending with the same challenges.

The wide variety of museums represented at the conference created the atmosphere of a diverse but united professional corps. Emerging, mid-level and established career professionals were all represented as speakers on panels. Viewpoints were shared from institutions ranging in size from very small (four full-time staff at Veggielution farm) to very large (hundreds of employees at California Academy of Sciences). I appreciated the inclusion of non-traditional speakers from institutions relating to museums present throughout the WMA conference.

For example, Veggielution farm was a community partner in the San Jose Museum of Art’s collaboration highlighted in the Tuesday session “Collaboration on the Table.” A representative of the farm on the panel was able to provide insight on what their institution needed in order to support the Museum and their audience in the collaborative programming. Another strong example of alternative voices in panel sessions was Kevin Kudo-King, owner of Olson Kundig design firm, in the Monday session “A New Face Forward: Presenting Museum Expansions, Shifting Identities, and Changing Missions to the Public.” Their company helped transform the physical spaces of multiple museums in Washington state by aligning the design of the building with the museums’ mission, vision and audience. Both of these panelists, and their collaboration with museum professionals, emphasized the “Listen” in the WMA theme of “Listen. Learn. Lead.” Museums are working toward more transparency, community-minded modes of operation that involve increased collaboration and partnerships outside the institution. Allowing these ‘outside’ voices to speak at the conference supports this collaborative model, and provided a positive example of how museums can “listen” to their community.

The term “diversity” was ever-present throughout panel sessions. The push to expand and include diverse audiences in museum spaces is not new, though it continues to be an important and ongoing goal for many museums. The lack of diversity of staff within museums, however, is an increasingly potent concern. Some sessions at WMA called attention to the issue outright. “Hanging Mirrors: Reflections on Women of Color, Leadership and Representation in Museums” brought together a group of voices that are so often missing from museum leadership - women of color. The panelists shared their career histories, professional experiences and hopes for a more inclusive future for museums. Conference attendees were able to “Learn” from their experiences - the second tenet of the conference theme. Panelists concluded the session by asking the group open-ended questions related to increasing diversity in the workforce. Do all job candidates need a college degree? Should all student internships be paid? What personal qualities, rather than previous experiences, should be required of museum staff? I am not sure these questions can be answered just yet, but they should remain in the spotlight and continue to be asked as museums evolve.

Staff diversity in museums is one important concern within a greater desire for healthy institutional operations. The session “Workplace Culture Matters” was framed around an extended dialogue on internal museum practices. The session was moderated by Gail Anderson, with panelists Laura Callen, Director of the Adoption Museum Project, Micah Parzen, Director of the San Diego Museum of Man, and Lori Fogarty, Director of Oakland Museum of California. I am still excited about the degree of clarity and care with which these Directors spoke about the importance of valuing their staff and the culture amidst museum professionals. To complete the conference theme, this session proved that Directors are thinking about how best to “Lead.” Small steps, like “Dog Friendly Fridays” at the Museum of Man, to large projects, like completely restructuring your organizational chart with the goal of collaboration at OMCA, can be influential in creating a culture on staff that is healthy enough to support and further the mission of the museum.

At the end of the WMA 2015 Annual Meeting, the themes of museum culture, diversity, and alternative voices have crystallized into a few key take-aways for me. Museums are socially responsible agents within their communities. Those communities include the group of people who work within the institution. Internal museum practices need to be just as relevant and responsive to their stakeholders (staff and volunteers), as external museum practices strive to be to theirs (public audiences).

Kelsey is a graduate student in Museum Studies at San Francisco State University. She is writing her thesis on urban museums responding to rapid demographic change in their cities. Kelsey graduated from UC Berkeley after studying Anthropology and Art History. She moved to the East Coast and worked in museums in Washington D.C. before moving to San Francisco. In addition to taking courses and writing a thesis, she works at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco as the Administrative Assistant for the Achenbach Graphic Arts Council, and interns for the Heritage Program at the Presidio of San Francisco.



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