The following article was written by 2019 Donna Matthews Professional Development Fund conference scholarship recipient Marni Rickelman.
MUSEUMS. ARE. NOT. NEUTRAL. Given my newness to the museum field, I was really looking forward to meeting museum professionals from across the state at this year’s conference, and the “Critical Conversations: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion” theme was especially appealing to me. The Outside-In: Changing Roles, Shifting Goals session with Dawn Biddison, Nadia Jackinsky-Sethi, and Melissa Shaginoff felt particularly relevant to my work. The importance of land acknowledgments and breaking established memory narratives was reaffirmed. I learned that the terms “Indiginize” and “material culture” are preferred over “decolonize” and “objects”, and that there is precedent for exhibits having a space set aside to allow viewers to honor the exhibit/material culture with a prayer or blessing. I left the conference with thoughts and ideas churning about in my mind.
Two weeks after the Museums Alaska conference I was reading a thread about Indigenous People's Day on the Museum Social Media Managers Facebook group. There was a great discussion on whether museums need to take a stand on issues that may be potentially controversial in their individual communities, and how to do so when you don’t have agreement or a unified statement from all who represent your organization. A member of the group, George Garner, wrote: "Once more for those who need it: Museums. Are. Not. Neutral. If you're not doing something today, of all days… then you're continuing to do harm."
It’s now been a month since the conference and I’ve thought a lot about the various sessions on cultural appropriation, inclusivity, equity, and standard museum practices, as well as speaking with coworkers and my standard perusal of various online publications. I have realized that while I consider myself an advocate of diversity and inclusion, I have played it safe. And that stings. Non-confrontational by nature, I thought working for a municipality meant I had to make everyone in my community happy. (That’s largely what we aim for with programs and marketing, no?) Given the state of affairs throughout Alaska and our nation, I believe it necessary to not shy away from bringing dialogue out into the open and having those sometimes difficult conversations. And to remember that museums do not need to be neutral. As museum educators, it is our responsibility to help make that space in our communities to be accountable and discuss the issues directly affecting our audiences. While that may sometimes be a challenge for some of us, I hope to be compassionate and empathetic while working to find successful ways to engage our community on issues related to diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion. I greatly value the tools I acquired at the Museums Alaska conference to help me work toward these goals!
Panel from the The Art of Powerful Questions session at he 2019 Museums Alaska Conference.