AAM Reflections from a Failed Anthropologist

By Jan L. Hebbard, Outreach Archivist, Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia Libraries

I have been to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference many times before. Because of the significant expense, I don’t attend every year – but still, it is the professional conference I feel most familiar with. And I think it is because of this familiarity that I had the most difficult time embracing the full charge of our Collective Wisdom LAM Conference Exchange cohort while at the 2016 conference (May 25-29) in Washington, D.C. The pull of the familiar – visiting with colleagues I see this time each year and vendors in the convention hall. The draw of sessions that tie most into my interests and work at the Russell Library – focused on outreach and exhibition development. I must admit that I felt like a failed anthropologist by the end of my stay in Washington. I had an amazing trip, but the familiar trappings of this conference made it challenging to focus on professional development and continuing education in the museum field – as we were tasked via this cohort.

I did enjoy the conversations we had amongst cohort members – particularly the conversation which took place in the upper level of the expo hall – just after the first recommended session, “Next Narratives: Changing Audiences Need New Stories,” on Thursday morning. The presenters at this session really challenged me to think about the stories I want to tell at my institution, and what barriers are standing in the way. It also made me appreciate that every institution has baggage, and has to think about connecting with new audiences as time and culture change. In particular, hearing from the director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art about the evolution of their collection and target audience since their founding in the wake of the AIDS crisis was eye opening. Rather than having a target audience, they are focused on creating a collection that is reflective of the visitors they see coming through the doors. To that end, the institution charges no admission fee but does require visitors to complete a short, three question survey – which helps the institution to analyze who is coming to see the work on the walls. But really, the questions I jotted down in my program and on my twitter feed during this session were just great food for thought:

  • What obligation do museums have to provide a master narrative?
  • What do people value at museums?
  • What makes us special in a marketplace competing for the attention of visitors with so many other options for things to do and see? Is the answer authenticity, even when technology seems now to dominate museum exhibits?
  • Can you change the conversation around a polarizing object?
  • How much do a museum’s original stakeholders affect what visitors today expect?
  • What does it mean to inherit a mission that only speaks in the past tense?
  • How can you put a past that is still present into a historical framework?
  • Maybe my favorite question from the session: Why do people feel more welcome in art museums? Perhaps more welcome than in a history museum, even if it is their history on display.

So, this first session that we were encouraged to attend as a cohort definitely left an impression on me. And in particular, the notion that each institution carries its own baggage into conversations about how to evolve and change informed my thinking when we gathered as a group in the Expo Hall. The same is true for our various fields – Archives, Museums, Libraries. We discussed areas in which one of these seems stronger or more willing to embrace change than the other two. And we discussed the idea that grant funding agencies are still keeping us inside our individual boxes, even while they say they hope to encourage collaboration and experimentation across the sectors.

The other session that left an impact on me was one of the last I attended, “What Do We Really Mean: The Power of Museum Jargon,” – another session recommended by our cohort leaders. This session was so relevant, and left me with a head ready to explode. In many ways it was a vent session, where everyone in the room was given a chance to voice their struggles with jargon in their respective positions. I think the real strength of this session was its relatability – because I’m sure you could have a conversation about jargon with almost anyone, and everyone has something to say about it. But ultimately, I thought more carefully in this session having already heard feedback from LAM cohort members who were disoriented by the jargon and acronyms that were around every corner at AAM.

This was my first attempt to live tweet an event. I came away with great notes on the sessions, recorded via Twitter and for that I am grateful! And, likely better able to recall things in writing this reflection. At the same time, staring at my phone during most of the sessions felt – weird. I felt like I really understood people who hate on cell phones, and say they get in the way of genuine experience. So, I might try to strike a balance at ALA, taking good notes the old fashioned way during sessions and then tweeting post-session.

I think I will be a much better anthropologist at ALA and SAA than I was able to be at AAM. The familiarity was distracting, and also likely clouded my judgement with regard to our mission as it relates to the museum field. So, I pledge to do better next time and to continue to reflect on my AAM experience once I can draw comparisons between it and the other two conferences on our schedule this summer.

Finally, I attended a session all about programming at the New York City Transit Museum and found out that (1) the NY Transit Museum is inside an old subway station (amazing), and that (2) during the summer they operate rides on vintage subway cars out to Coney Island. The entire session was brilliant, and focused on thinking about what staff in every position at the museum can contribute to public programming – a very cool idea for creating an inclusive workplace and capitalizing on the talents of staff in other departments. But this revelation about the ways they actually get to use the subway system in NYC was awesome. Picking up interesting tidbits about other institutions across the country is one of my favorite reasons to attend museum conferences. It is also, of course, the reason I always allow myself to duck out of at least a few hours of the conference to explore the institutions in the host city. I hope some other folks picked up some fun info along the way to LAM enlightenment at AAM.

I’m now ready for ALA. It will be bigger and maybe more overwhelming than AAM, for many reasons, but I’m excited to dive in and explore new things. I’m especially interested in looking at outreach methods employed by public libraries and thinking about how they look to serve the needs of the broadest audience – the general public.