Social discourse in museums and public institutions as explored at the annual Museums Alaska Conference.
By Katelyn Dickerson, Museum Curator
Recently our curator, Katie, traveled to Anchorage, Alaska to attend the 2017 Museums Alaska Annual Conference. She was one of six recipients of the 2017 Donna Matthews Professional Development Fund scholarship, allowing her to attend the event. The conference revolved around the central idea of social discourse in public institutions. Here are her thoughts on the conference, theme, and advocacy within museums.
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site senior vice president, Sean Kelly, explored the idea of social discourse in his keynote address and break-off session. The question of advocacy versus neutrality is not which is better; it is what do these ideas mean and how do we employ them? How do we, as institutions, properly advocate for an idea while still remaining comprehensive, respected, educational organizations? Neutrality is a contradiction within itself. As long as exhibits are human-made, the inherent bias of man will be present.
In the sessions I attended regarding social discourse, the overwhelming sentiment was that museums should be advocates. Despite this consensus among the attending museum representatives, it was also clear that it was much easier said than done. Attendees were at a bit of a loss as to how to take on controversial topics within the unique Alaskan landscape. Museums in Alaskan communities struggle with the isolation and community pressures associated with living in small, close-knit, often politically-divided towns. The break-off session facilitated by Kelly on Saturday afternoon highlighted the shared apprehension surrounding controversial topics within museums and why that might look different in Alaska.
Kelly had the group use an anonymous text-in program to survey the break-off session participants. As a whole, we found that the professionals in the room were primarily left-leaning, while we saw our communities and boards were much more diverse, if not right-leaning. This discord in itself is an issue echoed across the museum community and pulls into question adequate reflection of museum visitors, particularly socio, political, and economic diversity in staff. How do we make up for the fact that often-times like-minded individuals are creating ideas for the public? Naturally the first step is to acknowledge this disconnect and be aware of potential personal and institutional biases. Awareness leads to educated exhibits and an institutional honesty. If we are honest with ourselves about personal and institutional biases our interpretation will likewise be honest to our audience.
Making the conscious, institutional change to advocacy as opposed to neutrality is difficult and can seem overwhelming. Several institutions including the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site and the Juneau Douglas City Museum found that highlighting particular artists who made social statements within their artwork, was a more passive way of advocating. The artist took a position, but the institution chose the artist; although the focus of the audience is on the artist the statement is in reality a joint collaboration with the institution.
Although society does not always see museums as living, relevant, changing institutions, they very much are. Objects are always being collected, information is always being learned, staff and visitors are developing; growing as individuals, learners, and teachers. As people change so does the organization, it is undeniable. Even if an exhibit has stood with the same interpretation, objects, design for twenty years, the person that sustains the exhibit is changing, and the audience who is experiencing the exhibit is changing, as the world around them moves.
This reiterates the point that to suggest that a museum should be neutral is to misunderstand the idea of the institution and the human factor of all public organizations. People donate, people create, people interpret, people experience; people are always the core of a museum and people are not neutral. When we try to be neutral we leave ideas and information out to “balance” controversial topics. Omission is simply as mask for advocacy to hide behind, it is not always obvious, but is felt by the audience.
As museum professionals push their institutions and their audiences to re-understand museums as living, educational centers who have an active role in present day conversations, the professional community must likewise strive for open communication and support. The 2017 Museums Alaska Conference identified this burgeoning role of museums and gave Alaskan professionals the platform to discuss the realities of advocacy in a changing world.