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American Alliance Museums: St. Louis

A moment approaching the sublime came upon us when we two faced the setting sun, framed against a cloudless sky by Richard Serra’s “Joe.” We were in the center of the sculpture, having followed a museum docent through a spiraling, disorienting passage. Aside from the docent and the sun, we were alone in the universe.

“Joe” is one of only three permanent pieces at the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis, an infinitely horizontal structure designed by Tadao Ando. It asserts itself only to expose views, to lend light, to frame art. As part of the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums, we had arranged an after-hours visit to the Pulitzer — to commune with art and to gossip with arts professionals. “Earlier, there was one cloud,” the docent said. We nodded. “I thought it would be good in our collection.”

If conversations among museum professionals about collecting clouds seem esoteric, they are also necessary. Once a year, four thousand practitioners from the museum field gather to, yes, commune and gossip, but also to reflect on the role that museums play in their communities and imagine the roles they are yet to rehearse. For museum professionals, whose daily battles are waged over thinning funds and shortening attention spans, opportunities for introspection are limited. At AAM, three days of talks, workshops, and an expansive trade expo brought the entire field around a shared conversation. This year’s theme was broad, spanning all institutions, which made it all the more urgent: “Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion.” It will require the commitment of the entire museum community to create a future in which institutions welcome visitors of all ages, faiths, backgrounds, and abilities. Or, as former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, noted, “a single bangle does not jingle.”

We were at AAM on a mission. As Sasaki’s portfolio of cultural and civic projects expands, we wanted to understand the forces that animate museums — from conservation to communication, from climate to culture, from budgets to gadgets. We wanted to understand how museums grapple with rapidly shifting demographics of communities whose identity they interpret. We wanted to understand how museums see the vectors of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion reshape the way museums mediate between audience needs and content. And we wanted to understand how Sasaki can support the missions and ambitions of these important institutions through design. We were not disappointed. What follows are a few notes, made under a cloudless sky in St. Louis.

Finding a broader audience within our communities

Museums are stewards of and transmitters for our shared scientific, historic, and artistic identities. Because of this responsibility, an ideal museum audience would reflect the communities in which they are situated, and benefit all segments of society. But museums have a history of struggling to address disparities in the racial and ethnic makeup of their visitorship versus their surrounding communities; the pace of demographic change across the US brings this issue into even greater concern.

What can museums do to become more inclusive, to serve as a vital part of the lives of people they don’t serve now? In her keynote address at the opening session of the conference, disability rights advocate Haven Girma advocated for considering the exploration of accessibility and inclusion as drivers for innovation. And in multiple sessions dedicated to the discussion of how to use visitor data to inform decision-making, there was an apparent growing interest among museum professionals to understand the needs and desires of broader audiences. To do this, many recognize the need to think beyond exit surveys and current email lists and imagine new ways of gathering information about those who visit the museums — and those who do not.

New generation takes media by storm

With baby boomers reaching retirement age, a new generation of museum leaders is moving into positions of influence. With new blood come new ideas about methods of outreach and visitor engagement, and adopting more culturally relevant practices for the 21st century. For example, Emily Graslie of The Field Museum in Chicago was honored at the conference with the 2017 Nancy Hanks Award, in recognition of her creation of the museum’s educational YouTube series, The Brain Scoopwhich has garnered 18 million views since launching in 2013. Emily plays a magnetic host on the series, transmitting her enthusiasm for learning in a museum setting through social media, and thereby expands the museum’s reach worldwide. This represents a new way to think about a broader audience, whether remote or physically present. And the success of the Field Museum’s channel signals the importance of creating new touch points that shape the museum experience for all kinds of audiences.

At a session discussing leveraging data analytics to shape visitor experience, several leaders of highly innovative museums including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, discussed what can be gleaned from retail research to rethink methods of visitor engagement. They introduced museum leaders to the term omni-channel which is frequently used in retail user-experience design. The term describes a multichannel sales approach that provides the customer with an integrated shopping experience, using many platforms to engage and connect with customers, while ensuring a seamless experience and consistent messaging across each of these channels. The idea presented in these session was that as digital technologies permeate our everyday realities ever more deeply, museums can learn from this by designing spaces and exhibits that transition across digital and physical realms of experience.

Anchoring a cottage industry

Museums are sites not only of interpretation, but of cultural production. Already, generations of museum professionals conduct programs, such as artist residencies, workshops, and continuing education classes, that invite active modes of production. Building on this platform are promising recent experiments that reenvision museum spaces as coworking and collaboration spaces, maker laboratories, or technology incubators. New York’s New Museum, for example, repurposed an adjacent space as a design and making space, in which graduates from area design and art programs find equipment and mentorship. And the Australian Centre for the Moving Image has launched an incubator that leverages the Museum’s expertise and collection to support emerging technologies and creative talent. In this way, institutions are cultivating wider audiences and sharpening their missions — far exceeding their physical and programmatic boundaries.

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