Museums Embracing Change

Written by 2022 Wanda Chin Scholarship Recipient Terri Thomas

Thanks to a generous Wanda Chin scholarship, I was privileged to be a first-time attendee at the Western Museums Association annual meeting, where talented museum professionals came together after a prolonged period of separation and shared bold visionary work that reflects the needs of our current times. Like flame licking up the side of a log I was fired up with excitement, lapping up best practices, novel leading-edge ideas, and peer advice.

Basking in the warmth of easy camaraderie, I was reminded of the power of collective action, and the importance of moving our institutions forward in solidarity as we adopt changes we need to make to remain relevant participants in our 21st century communities.

Among the many meaningful sessions that expanded my thinking, provided actionable items and concrete tools I could take back to my organization, was ‘Breaking Barriers: A Cultural Accessibility Project’ presented by Arts Access and the Utah Division of Arts & Museums. The panel format of this, and other session, provided excellent learning opportunities from a variety of experts, cross-disciplinary perspectives, and those with lived experience. We examined principles of universal design and inclusive social attitudes that enable accessibility, not only for those with visible physical disabilities but also for those who live with invisible disabilities. Expanding our ideas about accessibility we discussed the intersection of cultural proficiency as a tool not only for DEI work but as a means for addressing the barriers encountered by culturally diverse visitors who come to our institutions with varied life experiences and perspectives. I left this stellar session with the tools to start an Accessibility Plan for my organization and an expanded awareness of what accessibility means.

Throughout the conference we continued to deeply address DEAI through multiple lenses, always with an emphasis on authentic relationship building and recognizing that each community is the expert on their story. Putting the AANHPI into DEAI and Decolonizing Initiatives in Action at the Burke Museum and the Museum of Us gave me the opportunity to reflect upon the narratives that continue to impact our communities, enabled me to look for the ‘purposefully invisible structures’ that need to be dismantled and to evaluate normative behaviors. These sessions encouraged me to examine my own assumptions and biases and ask how I’m perpetuating Euro-American systems and attitudes. Is our community engagement rooted in performative tokenism or authentic relationship building? Do our exhibits perpetuate myths of ‘enemy,’ ‘other’ and ‘foreigner’ by only telling stories of past oppression and not the present-day vibrant, and frequently challenging, stories of our diverse communities?

Museums and the Fight Against Hate and Facilitating Critical Conversations Around Exhibition provided insights for navigating controversial topics and exhibition materials. Constructive dialogue techniques for promoting respectful exploration with our visitors, community and within the workplace itself were discussed. The concepts of searching for intersectionality of identities and experiences, to deepen the examination of how the specific history of one population is relevant to a broader population, was invaluable.

My background in the performing arts means I’m no stranger to the use of the arts as an agent for change and a tool for social justice, theatre has been doing this work for years. So, I was heartened to hear the museum sector being encouraged to become ‘Brave Spaces’ and embrace the discomfort that often accompanies this type of work. Museums are perfect venues to engage in current events and civic life. Through our exhibitions and programs, we can help our communities explore how the nexus of past and present informs our future, and encourage the conversations that can lead us all to become brave participants in building a better world.

The honesty, rich teachings, and conversation shared during Beyond Land Acknowledgements: Real Collaboration with Tribes and Tribal Museums provided the deepest and most important learning. I hope the high attendance for this session is an indication that Museums are willing to move into those brave spaces and begin the real work of developing ‘non-extractive’ mutually beneficial and respectful relationships that go beyond mere ‘lip service’ to the ubiquitous ‘Land Acknowledgement.’ As a relative newcomer to Oregon, I’m excited to continue learning about the tribal history of these lands and deepen my understanding of tribal land claims. It was a privilege to attend this session and learn from Roberta “Bobbie” Conner, Director of Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, Elizabeth Woody, Executive Director of The Museum at Warm Springs Rebecca Dobkins Faculty Curator, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University and David Lewis, Assistant Professor, School of Language, Culture & Society, Oregon State University, College of Liberal Arts Oregon State University.

Dashing between sessions, networking lunches, happy hours and evening events hosted at Portland’s great museums, the centrifugal force of a thousand ideas and questions swamped me. Could I create changes in my institution? Would the boss go for it? Change is disruptive! Coworkers might be resistant! How? How?! Spinning like a top I twirled into Mike Murawski’s Making Change Happen, a calm oasis of informative introspection on our relationship to change and ways to navigate it.

On the final night as I wandered around the Marvel exhibition at OMSI, I had a fanciful vision. There was everyone I’d met at the conference donning their super-hero capes, ready to unleash their curatorial, exhibition, education, programming, and managerial super-powers, and with their heroic strength, dedication, and ingenuity they moved their museums forward, inspired their communities, and changed the world!



Terri Thomas is the Membership and Community Engagement manager for the Benton County Historical Society which runs museums in Corvallis and Philomath, Oregon. She is member of the Committee for Audio Description in the Arts in Portland, Oregon, and when not working at the museum she makes visual content accessible for the blind or partially sighted at live theatre and opera performances and provides scripting and voicing for digital media and audio guides.