by Kate Wilson
Reflecting on the experience of attending my first Western Museums Association conference was more galvanizing and also more overwhelming than I had expected. It brought me back to Tacoma and the excitement and invigoration I experienced in the array of sessions and discussions. With everything I learned there, it also made me realize there is so much work to be done, in terms of my role, my institution, and the greater museum world. As I sifted through nearly twenty pages of handwritten notes, I noticed that a few key themes were popping up: diversity, marginalization, reflection, engagement, decolonization, and inclusion. All of these are current buzzwords not only in the culture of museums but in general society, and there is a reason for that--they are essential issues for us all to address, and in many ways have been neglected and ignored for too long. Some sessions incorporated them in subtle ways, and others in extremely direct ways, giving the conference a sense of relevance, urgency, and also hopefulness, as participants discussed ways to address these issues and create positive future outcomes.
These themes are all connected and in a way, successful implementation of one requires consideration and incorporation of the others. In other words, engagement cannot be properly achieved without making inclusion a top priority, which requires diversifying workforces and subject matter, and in some cases decolonizing the museum setting and collections. Meanwhile, none of this change can occur without internal (within the organization) and external (with the public) reflection and reaction. Much of the conference explored the roles and responsibilities of museums, within these themes.
In the moving opening speech by Puyallup tribal member Connie McCloud, she laid out the opportunity as well as responsibility that museums have to keep stories and cultures not only preserved, but alive and accessible to the public. Over the last three or four decades, the landscape has slowly been shifting to include and involve indigenous people and minorities in the conversation or planning of museums and exhibits, but going forward, it is clear that this is not enough. Keynote speaker Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham pointed out that actively hiring people from these marginalized communities is a step in the right direction, but to truly make a difference, the change must be systemic. Hiring diverse museum staff cannot just be from the “bottom up” but must include leadership positions as well. Highlighting the importance of museums to be agents of change, she quoted German poet and dramatist Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” To achieve this, Johnson-Cunningham encouraged everyone to be more bold by actively engaging in adversarial conversations and topics, even within our own organizations.
In two of my favorite sessions, “Languages of Inclusion” and “Museums, Social Justice, and Civic Engagement,” we looked at the need to alter institutional behavior, particularly in more inclusive and positive ways by having those internal conversations to find approaches for the organization itself to function in an inclusive and positive mode. The presenters in the former session focused on three equally important aspects of language in the museum setting, tying them all back to the importance of sensitivity to different races, cultures, and genders. In essence, language is not just physical words--language represents and communicates a culture. Using inclusive language affirms people’s diverse experiences and allows visitors to see themselves in the space they are visiting, whereas exclusive language assumes that everyone shares the same experience and isolates people who are deemed “different.” I came away from the latter session with not only answers, but questions to ponder, making me think about approaches to exhibit planning of controversial contemporary topics, as well as the importance of analyzing and synthesizing reactions and criticism to daring and bold exhibits.
The Tuesday morning panel discussion (“Deconstruction/Rebuilding: Museums of Tomorrow”) pointed out the need to involve indigenous people in reforming museums, emphasizing they should not only be involved in the planning of museums and exhibits, but that they should actually be leading these discussions and movements. This could happen in a couple of different ways, depending on the situation. Jim Enote, CEO of the Colorado Plateau Foundation articulated that indigenous people need to look for the best way to move forward, collaborating with institutions that have their cultural artifacts to either make sure their materials are properly labelled and displayed or to actually reclaim those materials and work with experts in museum creation/administration to create an effective & accurate new museum. This concept is essential to moving forward and to preserving marginalized communities and cultures in danger of being lost or misinterpreted. However, Enote also made a point about decolonization and the importance of moving forward in a proactive, as opposed to reactive, manner. He mentioned that when indigenous youth go to him and bring up “decolonization” he responds that he does not want them to be a generation of sufferers--he wants them to be a generation of nation-builders.
I think the most valuable thing about this conference was that I felt galvanized by not only the concepts and themes introduced throughout the presentations, but also by the practical ideas, examples, suggestions and guidelines that many of the presenters incorporated into their sessions. I came away with tangible plans, systems, handouts, and new directions to pursue with my colleagues in our institution. This included holistic approaches, such as rethinking our institutional approach to language and engagement with the public, to organized planning and preparation for working with contractors. Another of my favorite sessions included activities where we practiced techniques to make the museum experience safe and meaningful for low- or no-vision visitors.
I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to attend this event. My overwhelming feeling throughout the conference was, aptly, INSPIRED, in line with this year’s theme. I kept thinking “I wish my colleagues were here” so we could have shared all of these sessions and meaningful encounters. Even with this feeling of inspiration though, I was conscious of WMA President Lisa Sasaki’s call to action on the first day of the conference to not take the word “inspire” at face value, but to actually set the bar higher, striving to “create, capture, amplify, and perpetuate the feeling of inspiration in others.” I hope to translate those concepts into actions going forward in my museum career and general life.
Kate Wilson is a 2018 recipient of the Wanda Chin Scholarship.