Museums as Brave Spaces

by Holly Nicolaisen

Choosing to attend the Western Museums Association Annual Meeting was an easy decision, especially as a recipient of a Wanda Chin Scholarship. However, choosing which sessions to attend was difficult.

I attempted to balance sessions that I thought made sense for an early career museum educator in a small community museum, with sessions that I thought would inspire me. I think I did just that. I felt inspired and motivated. I met new colleagues in similar museums and spent time with colleagues I hadn’t seen in a while. I strongly believe this is the point of conferences- to refresh, inspire, and provide examples of how to put your new ideas into practice. I thought I would leave with a list of ways to improve my museum’s offerings, and I did. But I also left with far more to digest than I had expected.

As a museum educator with a background in cultural pedagogy and social justice, I have made a habit of seeking out spaces with bold and brave ideologies. Because of this, many of the sessions I attended were listed under the hashtags #bravespace and #DEAI (Diversity Equity Access Inclusion).

Generally, I leave conferences with ideas and thoughts about what kinds of programs, trainings, and activities I can offer based on what I learned in sessions. This is always helpful and was still definitely the case, but this time I also walked away with the inspiration and conviction to be a brave and bold museum educator.

Museum educators, often working with visitors of all demographics, need to be brave. Especially those of us who have a choice, based on our current privileges (class, race, gender, etc.), and for whom existing in this field is not already inherently brave. We need to support communities that need us most and fight for the needs of our visitors. This is a sentiment I have always felt deeply but have also struggled to implement.

Because of the sessions that I attended, I now have a better understanding of what it means to be brave, as well as concrete ideas to help me follow through with this desire. What follows, are three key takeaways that will continue to influence my work.

  1. Museums are not neutral[1]

Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham’s keynote about museums as places of privilege and power was profound. Museum professionals often know the difficulty of getting a museum job and the colonial heritage of these spaces. Many of us have been in the field (as visitors or professionals) for decades. Yet we often tend to ignore these facts or disassociate ourselves from these connections. We can’t forget that this system benefits those who can withstand the difficulties of finding a museum job. For those who are not as privileged, working in a museum can be nearly impossible. Therefore, we cannot assume that spaces of such privilege—spaces that reinforce unequal power dynamics-- can function as neutral spaces.

  1. Listen closely to the needs of your community

The best example of this was, surprisingly, not strictly the content of the session Undoing Institutional Racism: An Ongoing Project, but the way the session was conducted. It was announced at the beginning of the sessions that the attendees would split into two groups- those who identify as a person of color and those who do not. According to the presenters, this decision was made in large part because of responses to their past sessions that were similar in nature. Logistically, the process worked well. I identify as white and joined that group as we moved to an empty meeting space. We discussed the prompts we were given in an environment that seemed comfortable to those around me and then met back in the original room towards the end of the session time. The discussion was not only productive, but an example of a simple, yet bold change to support the community of professionals that have been attending their sessions.

  1. Use official statements to support community needs

Not every community can be supported in the same way; decisions to support one community may not be respected by other communities. As recommended by Joanne Jones-Rizzi in the session When Museums and Communities Connect, making an official statement, in this case an Equity and Inclusion Statement, can help defend a museum’s position. Having an official statement gives staff a place to direct unsatisfied visitors and community members that outlines the museum’s philosophies.


I was thrilled to leave the WMA Annual Meeting in Tacoma with a handful of ideas to use in my current position and a litany of inspirational memories and connections. Not only is “museums are not neutral” a poignant and succinct phrase to keep in my back pocket and use liberally, but the ideas and information I gained from other sessions (about listening to community needs and creating plans to help support these communities) gave me a foundation on which to build my programs.


Holly Nicolaisen 

Education Specialist at the Tempe History Museum in Tempe, Arizona.

MA in Social and Cultural Pedagogy with an emphasis in Museum Studies.


[1] refenced by Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham in her keynote.



Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Just want to see if you are a robot.