Written by 2022 Wanda Chin Scholarship Recipient Ali Smurawa
I was near the tail-end of my first year as a full-time museum educator when I applied for the Wanda Chin scholarship. I knew that I wanted to (and needed to) attend a museum conference, but which one, and how? WMA’s theme Forward spoke to me, and as I sent off my application, I waited in anticipation for a reply. If awarded, then this was the conference that would set the bar for all future conferences because I had never attended one before.
I was ecstatic when I received the news that I was a recipient of a 2022 Wanda Chin scholarship. As many of us know, budgets are tight and professional development is often cut, especially travel out-of-state. Without the support from this scholarship, I would not have been able to attend this conference, or any conference, for the next fiscal year.
I arrived in Portland and eagerly took in the beautiful weather. Although it was October, Mesa was still hot and Portland’s fall air was just the reminder that no, I was not at work right now. My job over this long weekend was to learn, grow, and connect, and then return home and apply what I had gained.
WMA provided so many opportunities to connect with fellow museum professionals and I participated in as many as I could. Speed-networking, the opening reception, morning coffee, happy hour, and the Shippers Party were only just a few. Many people’s faces turned familiar as I encountered them again during sessions. I even ended up having a handful of faces go from familiar to friendly as we became conference friends and colleagues. We bonded over shared interests and experiences and bounced ideas off one another. Everyone I met was equally as passionate about museum work, in their own way. I had found my people.
The sessions were equally as incredible as the people I met. I wear many hats as a museum educator, and I attended sessions that represented some of those hats. As I sat in each session, I had my notebook out and my pen ready in my hand, scribbling away quotes and tidbits I found useful and/or inspiring. Thanks to technology, I also took snapshots of particularly interesting or useful presentation slides. I will admit, my phone’s camera roll is full of them. WMA’s theme Forward was a constant, weaving through each session I attended like a ribbon connecting everything and tying our final moments together in a bow.
My takeaways? Museums are not neutral. Museums are advocates. Multiple communities exist within a community, and they all deserve to exist within museum spaces. Museums must advocate for those communities. Museums need to look critically at the work we are doing to advocate for communities historically underrepresented or not represented within museum spaces. We must include those communities as stakeholders and contributors while museums change and adapt gallery spaces, programs, and initiatives. As we move forward and critically assess ourselves, we might not always like what we see, and that is okay. It gives us goals. Flexibility is key as we work to achieve those goals.
Social impact is a collective responsibility and museums should lean on each other for support. Forward thinking and moving museums change how they work and lead with their values. We love museums, and that’s why we need to be critical.
As museums move forward, we move forward together. We need to collaborate, share, and troubleshoot as a team.
Boarding my flight was bittersweet. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at WMA and although I was sad to see my time at this conference end, I returned to work more excited than ever. I am inspired, energized, and empowered in my role as a museum professional and in my developing museum career. Museums are doing and will continue to do incredible things. And I get to be a part of that.
Ali Smurawa is a museum educator at the Arizona Museum of Natural History and Mesa Grande Cultural Park in Mesa, Arizona. She holds a M.A. in Public History, a B.A. in Music History/Ethnomusicology, and a PreK-12 teaching certification with an endorsement for Structured English Immersion from the Arizona Department of Education. She is passionate about developing accessible and engaging educational experiences within museums and their local communities. Outside of museums, she enjoys hiking, playing violin, and spending time with her orange cat named Pierogi.