Thursday, May 27, 2010

Theme from the AAM conference in LA: affecting change in our world

This year's American Association of Museums conference offered me a series of inspiring moments. At the PR & Marketing Luncheon, a speaker from Participant Media showcased the amazing roster of films they've produced in their five years in existence, including the Oscar-winning documentaries The Cove and An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc., and The Soloist. They evaluate all projects on both commercial potential and the possibility for social change, something that makes sense for museums as well. Each film they do also has a campaign with NGOs, including web sites, social media, petitions, etc. The Soloist (starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.) had a campaign to humanize homelessness and mental illness. Standard Operating Procedure was about the Abu Ghraib photos and how they were used as a weapon.

Their latest film, out this fall, is called Waiting for Superman, about the failure of the U.S. educational system. It's about kids in elementary schools who are in lotteries to get into the one decent middle/high school that will give them a way out of their neighborhoods. The preview was amazing and brutal. Museums who are working with inner city neighborhoods, schools, and literacy can visit this link to see how they can participate and help support this important film.

Next up was an Onsite Insight at the Museum of Tolerance. These are mini-field trips that AAM does and are often the best part of these conferences. This entire museum has the big hairy audacious goal of actively fighting intolerance throughout the world, not just commemorating the Holocaust. It's full of high-tech exhibits and covers the topics of genocide, hate speech, slavery, and child abuse. I found the technology at times to be overwhelming, and would have liked a stronger balance of hopeful stories and "what you can do" action points. It may be that teens (who the museum is targeted at) don't find it overwhelming. I also would like to see them invest in more take-home materials, putting a website link at the end of their video clips, curricula for teachers, etc.

At the end of our visit, we saw a personal testimony from Matthew Boger, a gay man who was assaulted in a hate crame when was 13 and left for dead. Years later he became a volunteer at the museum as part of his healing process, and eventually became friends with and now works with his attacker, also a museum volunteer. The short film they showed, From Hate to Hope, was amazing, but having him come out afterwards and talk about his story was goose-bump-raising. We didn't get to meet his former attacker Tim Zaal (normally they do the program together), but my entire experience of this museum was changed. Learn about their story here. They have first-person testimonies like this every day. That powerful first-person interpretation needs to be bottled somehow... it really does make or break an experience.

I also visited the Audubon Center at Debs Park and the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, where I saw one of the most creative exhibits I've ever seen called Homelands: How Women Made the West. My full exhibit review is posted here.

Wednesday was a day of amazing speakers, beginning with travel writer Pico Iyer, author of The Global Soul. One forgets how powerful a good speaker (or "lecture") can be, in the age of bad PowerPoints. Iyer spoke with no slides (he claimed to be "powerless and pointless" but was just the opposite) for about 50 minutes. He talked about the new global citizens: children and young adults who are mixed backgrounds and have more in common with each other (around the world) than they do with their parents. He said that museums can be places of respite and recharging in our overcharged world, a centering space. In an age of images and media one image, one painting, one idea can have incredible impact. People who travel are constantly creating their identities, living like snails with their homes on their backs. He also said it's easy to assume that we're "all connected" because we have this spread of sameness. But every McDonald's around the world is totally different in his opinion, as they reflect their neighborhoods and culture. The way museums can stand out is to celebrate what makes them unique, find their local resonance. Even people who never travel must adapt, as this "new world" is coming to them in their neighbors and schools and workplaces. If museums can do a good job of letting in the world, and be fluid, mobile, and light on their feet, they can become havens for these new world citizens. Museums need to be places where people can learn to read, learn to look, learn to think... Keep up with the times by remaining timeless.

Author Amy Tan was also hilarious, and encouraged museums to bring out their personalities, leaving in the details that bring people there.

The last session I attended was called Three Transformations, and showed how three very different museums have transformed themselves to be community-focused and therefore relevant and vibrant. I'll write a separate post about that as well, as it was full of good ideas.

Thanks to everyone at AAM for putting together such an inspiring several days.


  1. thanks Stephanie ... great post. Also, it was great to visit the Nick Cave exhibit with you, another memorable moment in L.A.

  2. Yes, that Nick Cave exhibit was just stunning work, wasn't it? All in all, a great conference, despite the LA traffic.

  3. Nice set of notes Stephanie and it was great to finally meet you in person. Look forward to Hawaii in 2011!

    I also did a quick set of impressions which you can find on my blog here: USA Trip 2010: Impressions from a land far far away