A Museum Professional Sees AAM Conference from New Perspective

By Alison Eisandrath, Andrew W. Mellon Director of Collections, Chicago History Museum

Working at an institution that has consistently supported my professional development over the past 17 years, I am privileged to say that this year’s AAM (American Alliance of Museums) meeting in DC with the Collective Wisdom cohort was my 7th time attending this event.  Over the years, I’ve come to know what to expect from this conference, and so it was an interesting exercise for me to approach this familiar turf from a new perspective – and with a cohort of LAM colleagues with whom to share and discuss our experiences of the conference and the different sectors in which we are accustomed to working.

Cultural Anthropology

As a museum professional for many years, I did my best to don my cultural anthropologist’s hat to observe the museum sector “culture,” while also aware of my role in the cohort as a representative of that culture. Serving in these two roles simultaneously was a bit of a challenge and surprise.  Observing my own community from a fresh perspective proved easier than I had anticipated, while I found it more difficult to serve as a representative of my own sector. (I had to keep reminding myself to try to speak authentically about my own personal and professional experience without slipping into authoritative statements about the museum sector in general.) I’m looking forward to flipping roles at the ALA (American Library Association) conference, which is so far outside the range of my experience that I don’t have any idea what to expect. I am truly approaching this next meeting open to any and all experiences – and to discovering what hidden biases and assumptions I may be bringing to the table that I don’t even know are there.

True to form for previous AAM meetings, I found the conference offerings to have a mix of value and relevance.  Meetings I expected to be interesting (I’ll not name names) turned out to be less interesting than I had hoped, while others were so rich I found it hard to sort out and articulate all the connections I was making – especially in the context of the Collective Wisdom cohort, where ideas, insights, and information were flying back and forth at such an incredible rate (particularly, I found, in our informal, smaller group moments) that it was hard to sustain a linear conversation.

Collections, Narratives, and Authenticity

Next Narratives: Changing Audiences Need New Stories was my first meeting and provided much food for thought.  “Narratives” and “stories” seem to be quite the buzzwords in the museum sector these days – with many institutions incorporating these words into revised mission statements as we continue to move away from the old “collect and preserve” model toward more audience-focused use.  I’ll be curious to see if this buzz is specific to the museum-sector or whether it is a LAM-wide topic of interest, especially given the museum sector’s heavier emphasis on active interpretation rather than on facilitating access to collections without a narrative overlay.

At one point in the Q&A for the Next Narratives session, one of the panelists posed the question, “Do we need to liberate ourselves from our objects?” – a question I can’t imagine being asked in the library and archives sectors. To me, this question is an indicator of the peculiar tension between content and authenticity in the museum field, where exhibits are increasingly dominated by props, interactives, and “experiential environments” (at least in the history museum sub-sector) – even as we continue to speak of the “authentic museum experience.” “But without our collections, who would we be?” was the (paraphrased) response of another panelist – again, illustrating this tension that I witness on a regular basis as a member of the museum sector.


Another excellent session was The Culturally Responsive Database, featuring speakers from the soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture. For the first few minutes or so I squirmed in self-conscious embarrassment over the museum sector’s relative lack of cataloging sophistication; one of the presenters kicked off by acknowledging that “museums don’t always focus a lot of resources on cataloging” (so true!), and then followed up with a “Cataloging 101” explanation (not necessary for all, but certainly necessary for some) of why cataloging is important, the fact that catalogers make choices that affect access and discovery, and that it is good practice to use a “lexicon” to facilitate searching.

[Aside: Do other sectors use the word “lexicon”? How about “nomenclature”? Is it because so many museums use Chenhall’s Nomenclature? These terms strike me as being “museumy” terminology for what I would expect a librarian or archivist to call a “controlled vocabulary” or maybe “thesaurus.” The guy I was sitting next to at my table had to ask me what I meant when I used the phrase “authority control” in our post-session conversation.  I’ll be listening for these language nuances at ALA and SAA.]

As the Culturally Responsive Database session proceeded, it turned out to cover a lot of interesting ground and sophisticated thinking about cataloging – in particular the application of subject terms in a way that recognizes and honors multiple identities (intersectionality), fluid identities (e.g. gender identity, sexual orientation), historically unacknowledged identities (i.e. FDR’s physical handicaps), etc.  I came away heartened by the knowledge that this sort of conversation was taking place at AAM. In my entire career in the museum profession, I don’t think I’ve ever attended an AAM session on cataloging before this one – or had any other museum-sector training in cataloging, which is astonishing! I see that there is a similar session on the schedule for ALA, and I’m interested in comparing the two sessions.

As the panelists at this session spoke about the cataloging workflow at their own institution, the light went on for me that cataloging in the museum sector has traditionally been seen as an offshoot of the registrarial function and that this historical division of labor within the museum sector has had a profound impact on museum cataloging practice. This to me is one of the key distinctions (and potential barriers) between the library and museum sectors, as the registrar’s primary job responsibilities tend to revolve around physical care and access, risk management, and administrative categorization and management of materials rather than public access and intellectual discoverability.

Armed with this insight and following up on a hunch that not much had changed since I received my museum studies degree in the early 1990s, I made my way to the COMPT (Committee on Museum Professional Training) Marketplace of Ideas to speak to the representatives of the various museum studies programs – my logic being that to understand the sector’s CE/PD needs, it would be helpful to understand what training people are already receiving through their degree programs.  Making the rounds of the tables, I asked each program representative:

  • Do you offer courses on cataloging, including cataloging standards?
  • Do you offer training in digitization, digital preservation, and/or digital access?
  • Do you offer any training in archival management (assessment, arrangement, description, etc.)?

With one notable exception (the program at Johns Hopkins, which also offers a certificate in digital curation), the answer from most of the program representatives was no, no, and no. One program (I forget which) offered its students the option to take an Archival Management course. One program offered a Museums and Technology class (that does not cover digital capture or preservation). And one program representative stated, “I think they talk about cataloging in the Registration class.”  All of the program representatives seemed very interested in learning more about the Coalition to Advance Learning in Libraries, Archives, and Museums. A few of them sounded a touch defensive – and somewhat startled – by my line of questioning. And my alma mater was astonished to hear that, as a graduate of their program, I often hired librarians and archivists to do museum work. To me, this training gap is probably one of the biggest impediments to future LAM collaboration – and one of the most potentially promising (and necessary) areas for CE/PD cross-sector training.

Freedom of Access to Information and Inclusivity

Platforms for the Unpopular was a really interesting program asking the question, “How can museums respond to the silencing of minority opinions as history and politics collide?” The program focused on a “9/11 friends and families” group who wanted to influence curriculum development on the subject of 9/11, and who reached out to the Newseum for assistance after they became the target of an ugly social media campaign denouncing them as anti-American due to the curriculum’s sympathetic treatment of Islam. The 9/11 organization turned to the Newseum because of its mission-based championing of the first amendment – and its extensive work in curriculum development.  I was struck by this session because I’ve always looked to libraries and archives as champions of the first amendment and been inspired by their commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of access to information – a commitment that I see as more muted in the museum sector. (The Newseum connection to the first amendment stems from its topical focus on the role of the press).

[Aside: This session also got me wondering to what extent the library and archives sector engage in curriculum development or teacher training, which is such a standard part of the work that takes place at museums. Is this another audience-driven, interpretation-driven mandate of the museum sector from which the other sectors could stand to learn? Or is this something that all three sectors are already doing, from which we could all stand to learn from one another?]

Related to the above topic was the Paying the Price of Admission session that I attended hoping for insight into the question of why museums seem to be OK with charging admission when that notion is anathema in the world of libraries (and archives?).  The panel consisted of representatives from two different institutions charging admission fees, a representative from the Amon Carter Museum (which is free), and Elaine Gurian, a museum consultant who wrote an article for AAM’s member magazine, Museum News, called “Free at Last” on museum admissions practices (see more at http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2007/06/book-club-part-1-free-at-last.html and http://www.egurian.com/omnium-gatherum-table-of-contents/admissions-membership). Overall, I found the session incredibly frustrating, as it didn’t dig deeply enough into the economics of funding to provide insight or direction towards reducing or eliminating economic barriers to attendance.  Elaine Gurian argued that the paid admissions model turns museums into attractions or destinations, while museums that do not charge an admissions fee are perceived more like public amenities, such as libraries and parks. According to Gurian, there are existing models of museums that have successfully eliminated (or dramatically reduced) their admissions fees, and that the question of whether to charge or not to charge is a philosophical choice rather than a foregone conclusion. I left the session with little additional insight that I could bring back to the Collective Wisdom cohort or my home institution – though I was gratified to find another session attendee (a director of a children’s museum) as frustrated by the conversation as I was, and who was fervently committed to finding a way to eliminate financial barriers to attending her museum.

[Aside: In one of our many interesting post-conference conversations, one of my CW colleagues noted that the various LAM sectors seem to use different terms to identify the members of the public that they serve. To me, the issue of admissions fees (and the philosophy behind our different admissions practices) parallels our conversations about what we call our various constituents (visitors, audiences, patrons, users, customers, etc.). If we charge admissions fees, we position ourselves as “destinations” for “visitors,” whereas museums (and libraries and archives) that are free may be perceived more as public amenities where “visitors” might be perceived more as patrons or users.]

A Generational Shift?

All of the AAM sessions I attended were extremely relevant to the overall conference theme of inclusivity and equity – in terms of public service and barriers to access, hiring practices, worker issues, etc. In this regard, I came away from the conference feeling that our sector is in the throes of a generational shift towards a more activist museum model.

AAM’s insistence on organizing the conference schedule according to tracks not only (in my mind), reinforces existing silos within the museum sector, but resulted in three concurrent sessions on the topic of inclusivity, which was frustrating. I managed to miss the #museumworkersspeak presentation, which I regret.  I also wish I’d had a chance to go to the Everyday Ethics session, which to me seemed like it had the potential to address the issues of inclusiveness, #blacklivesmatter, majority privilege, and the #museumworkersspeak movement, all within the framework of the ethical imperative to change our hiring practices, admissions practices, program development, and collecting to reflect our service missions. I am extremely interested in seeing how these social justice issues are being addressed in the other sectors.

Just as the #museumworkersspeak session took place outside of the AAM conference last year (before being officially included in this year’s conference schedule), one of my most interesting conversations (outside of the conversations with my Collective Wisdom colleagues, of course), also took place outside the official framework of AAM. The conversation – which I was able to initiate based on my Collective Wisdom credentials – was with Elee Wood of the Active Collections group (www.activecollections.org), which has been “trying to mobilize people” to “do things differently” in terms of managing their collections – including working with a hoarding psychologist to help develop guidelines for weeding collections and better understand some museum workers’ almost fetishistic (my phrasing, not hers)  attachment to “the object” and fear of deaccessioning (evidently, there are multiple hoarding typologies, one of which corresponds closely to museum best practices, which I find fascinating).  Elee and I both seemed to agree that the reluctance to deaccession collections tends to be more pronounced in the museum field’s “old guard” – and is often so fraught an activity that museums have become almost paralyzed by its own best practices.

Elee and I talked about some of the work that has been done to date by my museum to better understand the characteristics of objects that make them of interest to the public – and my frustration that we have not done enough as a field to understand what we can do (through design, text, and other means) to help move “uninteresting” objects into the “interesting” category – and what we may inadvertently be doing to move “interesting” objects into the “uninteresting” category.  (All of which circles back to my  impression coming out of the Next Narratives session that so many of us in the museum sector could benefit from a more thoughtful,  metrics-based understanding of how we can help make our collections more meaningful and useful to the public we purport to serve.)


In sum, I found the conference to be extremely informative, relevant, and thought provoking, and the challenge/opportunity to view the museum sector through a new lens (Collective Wisdom) made the conference even more interesting and exciting than it would have been otherwise.

That said, I am still looking to find “my people” — collections people – across the LAM sectors so that I can dig more deeply into some of the issues that are most relevant to me – especially collection development strategies, collections assessment and reappraisal practices, collections backlogs and collections overload, MPLP (More Product, Less Process) management approaches, etc. I’m beginning to think that it may be time for me to reconnect with AASLH, where I may be able to find my counterparts at other multi-sector institutions to continue my post-CW LAM explorations (since historical societies such as my own often have bifurcated museum vs. library/archive identities).

All in all, I found myself totally energized and engaged by the tremendous good will and enthusiasm of our cohort, the question-asking and the sharing of information, both formally and informally, and by having a group of colleagues with whom to discuss all the ideas we were encountering throughout the meeting.  As I mentioned to Betha, I find the notion of handing myself over as a lab rat (or guinea pig) in service of this cross-sector experiment to be exciting and strangely reassuring.  If we’re an experiment, there’s nothing we can do that can be wrong, and it’s been a great experience so far.