This article was written by 2017 Donna Matthews Professional Development Fund conference scholarship recipient Michael Bach.
Wednesday morning, the 27th of September, was windy and wet in Kodiak. I boarded the plane through a curtain of rain, and a four-inch deep puddle as I made my way to Anchorage. Heading to the 2017 Museums Alaska conference hosted at the Anchorage Museum was exciting, but tinged with apprehension. Since I am new to my position as the Collections Manager at the Kodiak Historical Society and Baranov Museum, I felt ill prepared to meet with other museum professionals and historians from across the region.
The plane touched down smoothly in the Anchorage bowl, filled with the bright colors of leaves turning in the crisp fall air. I disembarked and sped to a full-day pre-conference workshop with Laurie Stuart, Executive Director at the Pratt Museum in Homer. I sloshed into the auditorium with feet still wet from Kodiak, and a bit tardy, but I had arrived just as the group was moving around the space and writing on large Post-it notes. Across the tops of the Post-it notes were handwritten categories of museum patrons that included school groups, international visitors, cannery workers, cruise ship passengers, amongst others. Conference workshop participants were moving around the room writing perceptions of the groups listed at the top of the paper. I quickly grabbed a marker and recorded my thoughts at the bottom of each list. My tardiness proved beneficial, I was able to see what other conference participants had written before I recorded my thoughts and settle in before we reconvened as a large group.
Once gathered as a large group again, we moved around the room together and discussed the many ways we perceived the guests that walked into our institutions. We discussed how the perceptions we had with these groups informed the way we interacted with, and served them. Discussions about how to respond to offensive questions emerged, and we were able to share ways of responding calmly, tactfully, and with respect. I was humbled and excited by the realization that an hour and a half prior, I was shuffling through a puddle on the Kodiak tarmac, and was now engaged in the discussions I was hoping to work up to over the course of the conference. Instead of building-up to this sort of candid discussion at the conference, I walked right into it!
In hindsight, the stereotyping exercise helped me better identify the stereotypes that I bring into my interactions with the public through interpretation and sharing of our region’s history. More importantly, the exercise helped me recognize that stereotypes influence how I interact with other museums, collections, and communities around the state. Before I boarded my plane in Kodiak I thought that I was too new in my position to bring anything of value to this conference, I thought that other museums had “it all figured out” (perfect catalogs, perfect collections, and perfect staff). I viewed the professional community, of which I am part of, through a lens of various, stacked stereotypes that “other-ized” them in ways that isolated me, and placed my professional peers on untouchable pedestals. However, through facilitated conversation at the conference I was able to observe how other institutions dealt with similar obstacles, others who worked with collections had similar struggles with mystery objects, or unclear paperwork; I was able to see that we were all human and doing our best to carefully care for our community’s histories and resources.