This article was written by 2017 Donna Matthews Professional Development Fund conference scholarship recipient Katelyn Dickerson.
The 2017 Museums Alaska Conference held in Anchorage revolved around the central them of social discourse in public institutions. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site senior vice president, Sean Kelly, explored this idea in his conference 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 conference sessions I attended regarding advocacy, 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. Conference 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 conference 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 conference break-off session participants. As a whole, we found that the professionals in the conference 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.
A word cloud made with words professionals in the conference break-off session felt best decribed how they feel after the session regarding controversial subjects.
Making the conscious, institutional change to advocacy as opposed to neutrality is difficult and can seem overwhelming. Several institutions at the conference 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.
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.
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 conference 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 conference 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 conference session I went to presented ideas on how organizations can best achieve goals by collectively working together with other organizations in the area. The conference 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 conference 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 conference 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 conference 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 conference 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.”
Fred Machetanz lithographic prints on display at the Anchorage Museum during the Museums Alaska conference, 2017.
In Fall of 2017, Museums Alaska asked our members to fill out a survey to determine whether or not we are meeting our member's expectations, and where our members would like us to put our efforts moving forward. The responses we gathered will help shape our membership programming for the next few years. Please feel free to contact us if you have any further input!
We made the survey available through our Mailchimp email service, which is sent to all current and past members of Museums Alaska (217 subscribers). Three follow up emails were sent. The survey was available for 15 days and garnered a response rate of approximately 16% (35 responses) of the Museums Alaska membership list. Since two indicated they were not current Museums Alaska members, we determined that of the 2017 active membership (74 members), that is a response rate of approximately 45% of the membership.
Out of 35 responses, 27 identified as female (77.1%), and 8 identified as male (22.9%). The largest age group were in the 35-44 years old age bracket (25.7%, 9 respondents). The majority of respondents live and work in Southcentral Alaska (55.9%, 19 respondents). The three most common employment statuses identified were full time museum employee, part time museum employee, and museum board member, while four respondents indicated they do not work in a museum. The majority of respondents work in history museums (66.7%, 22 respondents), followed by art museums (21.2%, 7 respondents), science museums (12.1%, 4 respondents), and self-employed in the museum field (9.1%, 3 respondents). Respondents work in a variety of roles in the museum field. The top four were Collections (38.2%, 13 respondents), "I wear many hats" (31.4%, 11 respondents), Director (26.5%, 9 respondents), and Education (23.5%, 8 respondents). See further breakdowns of demographics in the graphic.
The majority of respondents hold an individual membership (54.3%, 19 respondents), while 12 responded that their institution holds a membership (34.3%). Two indicated that they are not current members. Of the individual members, 5 had been members for 11+ years, 5 for 7-10 years, 5 for 4-6 years, 3 for 1-3 years, and 4 for less than 1 year. Of the organizational members, 5 had been members for 11+ years, 4 for 7-10 years, 4 for 4-6 years, 1 for 1-3 years, and 1 for less than 1 year.
Reasons for membership levels
Respondents gave a variety of reasons for their respective membership levels. Members who were not individual members indicated that their organization was already a member, budgetary reasons, and some indicated they never thought of it and would plan to purchase one.
Members who were not organizational members indicated that their organizational leadership did not prioritize membership in their budget, or that it was not their decision to make. One person responded that they were working with their Director to get an organizational membership.
Of those two respondents who indicated they were not current members, one indicated that they forgot to renew, and the other responded that they "have not been able to attend the conference and don't see any other benefit to that cost at this point."
Museums Alaska in 3 Words
We asked people to list 3 words they associate with Museums Alaska. All the answers are below, with larger words reflecting greater frequency. The majority of descriptors were positive. Aside from "museums" and "Alaska," the top 3 words were variations on "statewide," "resource," and "networking."
Most Valued Current Museums Alaska Membership Benefits:
Membership on our mailing list, with regular online updates from happenings and opportunities around Alaska (71.4%, 25 respondents)
The opportunity to be part of Alaska’s voice for museums and cultural centers throughout the state (57.1%, 20 respondents).
Members’ rate for the Museums Alaska conferences (48.6%, 17 respondents)
Advocacy for museums and cultural centers at the state and national level (40%, 14 respondents)
Eligibility for travel scholarships to attend the Museums Alaska conferences (25.7%, 9 respondents)
Free admission to many of Alaska’s museums and cultural centers (22.9%, 8 respondents)
FREE job postings on our website (2.9%, 1 respondent)
One person indicated all of the above, and one person wrote in "grants" (however, we would like to point out that you do not have to be a member of Museums Alaska to participate in our grant programs!).
In your own words, what is your top reason for being a member of Museums Alaska?
"To support Alaska's museums community.""To help support museums and cultural centers throughout Alaska."
"The opportunity to be part of Alaska’s voice for museums and cultural centers throughout the state."
"Support for museums by colleagues."
"Museums are important."
"Supporting an important organization that benefits its members tremendously."
"It is THE state organization for museums and provides us with an annual opportunity to network, grow and learn, and be advocates for our industry."
"Having a vehicle to connect with other museum professionals around the state."
"Being part of the statewide voice for museums & cultural centers."
"To support a strong statewide network of people who care about museums."
"To support Alaska's museums"
"General support and advocacy for museums in Alaska"
"Access to grants, museums Alaska conferences and information on accessions"
"I've been a museum professional for over a decade and value the Museums Alaska services"
"It keeps me connected to other museums throughout the state"
"Collaboration, networking, professional development"
"Conference and grant program"
"To connect with the larger museum community in Alaska. "
"Being part of the state's museum network."
Priorities for Museums Alaska programming
We listed several ideas for new membership benefits we are considering adding to our programming, and asked respondents to rank their importance. Of those listed, the top 10 priorities of respondents were:
34 ranked as somewhat to very important
Webinars (with discount offered for members)
33 ranked as somewhat to very important
Promote museums through collaborative efforts (International Museum Day, museum snapshot, post news )
Museum document exchange (policies, procedures, etc.)
Workshops (with discount offered for members)
31 ranked as somewhat to very important
Access to Job posting or volunteer opportunities around the state
Access to email newsletter
30 ranked as somewhat to very important
Online discussion group
Access to white papers (reports)
Marketing Alaska’s museums through visitors centers and guides
What other ideas do you have?
"Additional sharing of applicable national museum issues/resources."
"Extended grants calendar or listing."
"Having all of MA member institutions able to put brochures on the State ferries and at the ferry terminals. Getting DOT to put up road signs pointing people to museums. Getting museums listed on maps of the state."
"If you want people to have both an individual membership AND an organization membership there should be some incentive (not sure what?)."
"More regularly updated job and volunteer opportunity page of your website; more frequent workshops and webinars - not only at the meetings; awards for museum education; information about grant opportunities beyond those offered by the Museums Alaska."
"More seminars and hands on workshops."
"Networking. Having an opportunity to share staff and expertise with smaller museums. Seeing both sides of large and small museums it seems that the smaller museums are forced with reinventing the wheel for most projects and exhibits. If Museums Alaska can assist with short term projects that would be amazing. Also, museums could share upcoming exhibits on your site as an information sharing."
Of the respondents, 23 indicated that they did not participate on Museums Alaska committees, while two did not respond to the question, for a rate of 30% committee participation of the respondents. Several of the respondents participated on multiple committees. See the breakdown below:
5 participated on the Advocacy Committee.
4 participated on the Art Acquisition Fund Grant Review Committee.
4 participated on the Collections Management Fund Grant Review Committee.
3 participated on the Conference Program Committee.
2 participated on the Membership Committee.
1 participated on the Scholarship Committee.
1 participated on the Auction Committee.
1 participated on the Finance Committee.
1 participated on the Nominating Committee.
When asked what would make them want to participate on committees, respondents gave a variety of answers:
"If I felt I had the time and knowledge to contribute."
"If my skills could be put to any real use (eg, data mgmt)."
"If I had more time."
"I have been in the past but have a hard time understanding who the current members are and what the issues are since I have not been to a few conferences in a row."
"Having the time to participate."
"Low time commitment."
"I have served on MA committees for more than 5 years so will now take some time away."
"Knowing when and where they meet and a listing of current committees."
"Word-of-mouth encouragement from other committee members."
"Knowing when to apply."
"I think my other time commitments lessen in this coming year and I'll be able to help."
"If I felt like I would be a benefit to the committee and I had time."
"Knowing I could learn some skills or gain experience that could enhance my current skill set."
"Having the time to feel like I would make a real contribution to the cmte."
Of the respondents, 11 indicated they were interested in running for the Museums Alaska board in the future, and 17 indicated that they were not interested in a Museums Alaska Board position.
When asked what would make respondents want to run for a Board position, respondents replied with a variety of reasons:
"When my work load is less."
"Ability to participate in a great organization!"
"Getting to know more Museums Alaska members to better understand their needs."
"Networking, planning, work with colleagues."
"Better bonding with other museum professionals outside of [region]."
"I need to go off other Boards I am on."
"Perhaps in the future when time allows."
"If I had more time."
"Make a difference in our museum community."
"Having the time to feel like I was making a real contribution ;)"
Barriers to Participation
Overwhelmingly, time is the largest barrier to board and committee involvement. While Museums Alaska does not have the power to address personal time constraints (that is an individual decision), we do encourage members to reach out regarding committee opportunities and individual skillsets. We cannot stress enough that Museums Alaska is as strong as its members! Your individual skillset can be of value, but we won't know how until you reach out! Several committees have very limited time requirements, and all committees are volunteer - meaning that if you cannot attend a meeting, there are no consequences! Our committees are always accepting new members, and we have recently added a committee section to our website, and a sign up section to our membership form. If you are interested in a board position, but don't have the time to commit, a committee is a great stepping stone to getting to know the organization.
There are several major takeaways from this survey. Our members value the opportunities to network with their colleagues across the state, believe that Museums Alaska is doing important work, and would like to see the organization grow to include more benefits for its members. Our members have creative ideas for how to improve the organization, and we think that is great! Based on the committee and board involvement questions, we would like to encourage members to step forward and work with us to make those ideas a reality. If you are interested in getting involved in committee work, check out the list of committees. If you are interested in getting involved on the board, nominations begin late summer/early fall for voting prior to the annual meeting. Contact Della or any board member to let us know you are interested.
We value our members' time and ideas, and look forward to continuing to serve the Alaska museum community.
This article was written by 2017 Donna Matthews Professional Development Fund conference scholarship recipient Helen Alten.
On the way to Anchorage on the big jet out of Juneau – Helen Alten, Regi Johanos and Aly Zeiger.
The Museums Alaska conference is an opportunity to learn in so many different ways. Peer interaction is one of the most important ways that I learn. But also experiencing other spaces and places. In this case, the most interesting moments for me were:
(1) The Ray Troll show at the Anchorage Museum. I have been wanting to ask Ray to do a show for our museum, ever since I heard about his show in Washington state. I thought it wouldn’t be possible, but now I see it is eminently possible – possibly by borrowing some of the graphics used in Anchorage.
(2) The Native Heritage Center was a new place for me to see. I loved the outdoor structures and the walking trail that show how each culture lived traditionally. I also enjoyed the light of the interior space. In particular, I enjoyed seeing a Wayne Price canoe and a Terri Rofkar Ravenstail blanket, both of them some of my favorite people.
(3) I enjoyed seeing the new expansion spaces and the new history exhibit at the Anchorage Museum. I’m not sure I agree with the design choices that were made in those spaces. For example, I am not a big proponent of matching a number to a key chart to figure out what you are seeing. I much prefer one label with each item. Just a lot cleaner and clearer. The history space was dark and spare, compared to its predecessor. I think one of the problems is that lighting is uneven between spaces in the museum, so one goes from daylit areas to dark areas, and the eyes don’t adjust well to those changes. The museum as a whole would appear brighter if all the spaces were lit at the same level. I also feel that pathways should be lit, not dark. Objects will have the same amount of low light, but people aren’t tripping over their feet. I did like the donor wall between the newest galleries and the new history exhibit.
(4) Listening to my collections staff and intern give their first professional presentation at the conference. Their talk on the Collections Inventory project, funded by Museums Alaska’s Collections Management grant, clearly transmitted how they approached starting an inventory (with education and training), and how they completed the project using volunteers, staff, and careful organization. They pointed out the necessity of having unique location labels for storage and exhibit furniture, using paper forms during the inventory, and then reconciling the paper information with the database. They explained how two people work together, one reading off the number, description and condition while the other acts as scribe.
(5) The pre-conference workshop by Laurie Stuart, “Connecting to Your Audience,” reminded me that we should be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.” Of course, I went on and gave two talks during the conference where I was that “sage on the stage.” I just didn’t have the time to be creative and inclusive, approaching the information in a way that it could be self-learned rather than expounded. She did a nice didactic about our audiences – letting us walk around the room and generalize about the characteristics of each of our visitor categories, such as “cruise ship passenger.” What I found fascinating was how much science and research has gone into the art of interpretation. I hadn’t realized. She gave us a workbook from the National Association for Interpretation. She stated that Interpretation is POETRY (Purposeful, Organized, Enjoyable, Thematic, Relevant, and You). We learned about Cable and Beck’s 15 Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture, published in The Gifts of Interpretation (2011). This is based on six principles published in 1957 by Freeman Tilden in Interpreting Our Heritage. We came up with six words to explain each of Tilden’s principles: Relate, Revelatory, Teachable, Inspirational, Comprehensive, and Audience. Then she moved us into a formula (KA) + (KR) * AT = IO . In plain English this is: Knowledge of your Audience (KA) and Knowledge of your Resources (KR) apply Appropriate Techniques (AT) to get Interpretive Opportunities (IO). Which led us to stereotyping our audiences. How are Canadians, Cruise Ship Passengers, School Groups, and Cannery Workers similar or different from each other? Then we learned about universal values and applied that to tangibles and intangibles. We then listed the tangibles and intangibles of an object. Maslow’s Hierarchy was applied to how we approach our visitors. What needs are being served by our facility and staff? “Interpreters can help people spend less time concerned over their basic needs so that there is a better chance to achieve higher-level thinking or self-actualization.” Ms. Stuart’s normal workshop is 2 days long. She skipped around in the workbook, hitting the highlights. We discussed the difference between themes and topics. Although she applied it to interpretation and education programs, I found it directly applicable to exhibit labels as well. We discussed how to build presentations combining what we had learned about tangibles and intangibles, themes and topics. We did three little skits that helped us understand why these concepts are important if we want to provide a stellar experience. We finished the conference workshop with a focus on ourselves – figuring out what type of presenter we are and what that means. I came out of the conference session feeling overwhelmed. I, who thought I knew a fair bit about museums, realized this was an area about which I knew nothing. I felt this was important training for my staff and volunteers, as well as myself. It was a struggle to wrap my mind around new terminology and concepts, but I found it thrilling that they existed and that I had a new area of museum lore to learn. Although interpretation is often relegated to an educator or volunteers, I saw that the concepts and ideas relate to the museum as a whole. We are trying to give a good visitor experience through our exhibits, our research areas and our publications as well as our programs. Remembering some of the key concepts, such as Maslow’s Hierarchy, would help us look at those tangible presentations in a new way. For example, if the gallery is so dark that I fear tripping, then I have a basic need – the need for safety and security – that isn’t being met. And I will be thinking about that need while in the gallery, rather than enjoying the aesthetics of the museum exhibit.
(6) I spent time in the Historical Society conference sessions, learning more about parts of Alaska History that might relate to our region. I especially liked the life story of a young man who died on the Princess Sophia – which was a surprise ending to the story for me. I had entered the talk with an interest in his experiences with schools and the local preacher, since I am researching the impact of Haines House on our community.
(7) I spent time talking with people, but not enough time. We spoke of social interactions, community involvement, exhibit pros and cons…and, of course, museum gossip. Which is, in the end, part of the joy of the conference meeting and the process. One breakfast meeting, which I was late for, discussed how to improve our daily work through taking care of ourselves physically and mentally. For me, one of the highlights, was meeting with some of the other directors and learning that my year was not unusual. We all have hard times, difficult boards, problematic staff, and attempted coups. Sometimes. Just being able to talk about it makes it easier to soldier forth and keep up a vision for a better future. And that concept of being good to yourself, so you are a better person for others, was one that I heard over and over among the directors as well as at the conference breakfast roundtable.
While in the big City, after gaping at all the cars and being thrilled by elevators, malls and escalators, we had dinner at a nice restaurant and acted like tourists.
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.
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