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Using Partnerships, Advocacy, and Art to Tackle Controversy: Rachelle Bonnett

As we enter our 2018 conference planning season, take a moment to read this guest post from Museums Alaska member and 2017 Donna Matthews Professional Development Fund Scholarship recipient Rachelle Bonnett.

The theme of social discourse and a museum’s role in moderating important and often controversial conversations within our communities is something we have all thought of at one point or another, but this conference allowed all of us to work through these ideas with a fine-toothed comb. Many of the sessions I attended touched on the subject of advocacy in some way and while each of them had a different topic of discussion, I picked out the relevant bits that help me see a clear path to make a difference at a local level.

The first session I went to presented ideas on how organizations can best achieve goals by collectively working together with other organizations in the area. The presenters pointed out that since museums are a reflection of the community, the question we must always ask ourselves is: how can we take community issues and be a place to help and inform, to better the people we serve? This session reinforced the idea that we shouldn’t be competing with each other, instead we should be working together through partnerships. When forming these partnerships, we should consider the following:

1. What are our resources?
2. What are our priorities?
3. What are the resources our prospective partners can offer?
4. What are their priorities?
5. How can we help each other achieve goals?

During another session, Sean Kelley from Eastern State Penitentiary gave us all inspiration to educate and engage our communities in discussion on difficult topics. After unveiling and dissecting all the possible barriers preventing us from advocating, he encouraged us to avoid being neutral and to not be afraid to take risks with exhibits and programming. He provided us with seven lessons he’s learned regarding advocacy vs. neutrality in museums:

1. It’s not about you, it’s about the visitors – meet them where they are
2. Decide if you are trying to:
a. deepen conversation among existing advocates or
b. connect with visitors who aren’t currently concerned about the issue (choose this one)
3. Don’t tell visitors you’re advocating
4. Don’t focus on language
5. Data can help sway internal stakeholders
6. Front line staff have good reason to worry
7. The sky isn’t going to fall

During a session discussion on Saturday, many of us spoke about our experiences bringing controversial issues to light through exhibitions at our institutions. At this point, with the echoing of advocacy in museum exhibits and programming throughout the conference, this final session seemed to tie everything together. Many of us noted that because our respective museums are funded through state or municipal government, the ability of controversial issues to be a central part of programming is somewhat limited.

However, one session attendee pointed out that one possible way to work around this road-block is by hosting monthly rotating exhibits. While not all artists make work about difficult subjects related to issues affecting the local community or community-at-large, some of them do. She referenced a small exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, curated by artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs, as an example of how artists can be the catalyst for bringing these issues to light in a way that isn’t coming directly from the host institution. In this exhibit, Sonya took traditional objects from a handful of Alaska Native culture groups and used them to confront contemporary issues of alcoholism, suicide, and abuse. By offering a space for artists to exhibit, we can better allow those in our community to engage in controversial and difficult subject matter in a safe space.

I left the conference thinking differently about the role that museums and local nonprofits play in engaging our communities in issues that affect us all, empowered by the experience of others. After returning to Juneau, I was asked what I took away from the conference. I would respond with a short summary, reciting the following major points: “We should work collectively (as individuals and organizations) to achieve goals, offer space for artists to exhibit their work, encourage discussion and engagement in locally relevant issues, and don’t be afraid to advocate.”

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Fred Machetanz lithographic prints on display at the Anchorage Museum during the Museums Alaska conference, 2017.

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