Relevancy, Honesty & Joy – Inspiration at WMA 2018


by Hillary Ryan, Communications and Programs Strategist

This year’s Annual Meeting theme is INSPIRE and I think that’s exactly what you’ll feel after listening to Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham’s keynote address- inspired.

As an older EMP (I off-ramped for 10 years to raise a family) I came back to the museum field thinking that the hope for change that I had shared with my graduate school peers would be well accepted by the museum field. My graduate class was diverse, engaged and ready to implement change in museum operations, conceptions, audiences and civic uses. So I was sure that by 2013 equity, diversity and inclusion would be part of most museums- or at least the ones that were ready and able to embrace change- or perhaps there were some “woke” museums working on internal culture backed by policy at the fundamental level. Sadly, this wasn’t what had happened.

In fact, 20 years after my master’s thesis exhibition “Fresh Voices from the Community: Korean-American Youth” at the Shoreline Historical Museum in Shoreline, WA, I found the museum field still slumbering, with a sparse and isolated museums forging ahead. However, in speaking to Johnson-Cunningham about her work and leadership in the museum field, I have begun to have some returning hope that change, albeit at a geological pace, is coming. 

Johnson-Cunningham seeks the work of changing museums through very clear and insightful eyes. The two most important things that she thinks museums are currently struggling with are relevance and honesty. Surprisingly refreshing, she also has very concrete ideas about what institutions can do to overcome these obstacles. 

Finding relevance to modern society can be a tough nut to crack for any cultural institution that is focused on preserving, studying and sharing the past. We all know that we are bombarded with thousands of messages every day and that our leisure time is a wide-variety of easily accessible entertainment options. People are searching for a third space (a place other than home or work) to create community.

Oldenburg suggests the following hallmarks of a true "third place":

  • Free or inexpensive
  • Food and drink, while not essential, are important
  • Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
  • Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
  • Welcoming and comfortable
  • Both new friends and old should be found there.

“Third places are characteristically wholesome. The inside of a third place is without extravagance or grandiosity, and has a homely feel. Third places are never snobby or pretentious, and are accepting of all types of individuals, from several different walks of life.”- The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenberg

Johnson-Cunningham champions that museums can succeed in this new landscape by inhabiting the third space in our communities, spaces that are welcoming, comfortable and encouraging of social gatherings in a safe environment. Relevancy to modern audiences means making space for them to relax, connect and enjoy their lives.

I’m in total agreement with her on this one. At the museum where I most recently worked, we put out a couch and chairs in the huge grand entrance and almost by magic people gathered in that living room area. Just the addition of comfortable seating space arranged in a small grouping changed the feel, sound and energy of a space that had previously often seemed cold and uninviting into an environment that was a warm and comfortable place to take a break or chat with someone new. In our high tech society, we are craving places to connect with our fellow humans and museums can, and should, be those places.

I was surprised to hear Johnson-Cunningham clearly state that museums need to struggle with and own their past, present and future by being honest. “Our audiences want us to be honest in our work,” she noted. Building on the ideas championed by Fred Wilson’s influential 1992 intervention “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society, she notes that museums should consider taking a deep dive into their collection and sharing honestly about the history of the artifacts. Johnson-Cunningham pointed to the new labels at the Worcester Art Museum installed last year as an example of museum professionals exhibiting honesty, compassion and understanding of the place of museums in a larger socio-political context. 

For many museums just starting to deal with issues around diversity, equity and inclusion, there is a surprising recognition that the work starts at a very personal level. Rolling up your sleeves and diving in with honesty can be daunting. Johnson-Cunningham notes, “it can be scary to be transparent, but every time I’ve laid my insecurities aside, I’ve been the most effective in my work.”

Underlying all of Johnson-Cunningham’s perspectives, and perhaps why she has burst on to the museum scene as a breathe of fresh air, is her full acceptance of the power of joy. The classic quote by Emma Goldman “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” speaks volumes to Johnson-Cunningham. From considering the expression of joy and dance as the most important form of resistance to recognizing the immense personal stress that we are all under and finding ways to inject fun, connection and joy— Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham will be a dynamic and widely influential voice in the museum community for years to come. Don’t miss the chance to see her at the Western Museum Association’s 2018 Annual Meeting this October in Tacoma, WA.


Resources and References

Wilson, Fred. Mining the Museum 1992 intervention

Garica, Maria. "At the Worcester Museum of Art, New Signs Tell Visitors Which Early American Subjects Benefited From Slavery". WBUR. June 8, 2018

DAEI Working Group of AAM. Facing Change. 2018

Museopunks. Museums Are Not Neutral June 2018



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