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AAM Annual Meeting 2021

Embracing change: a recap of the 2021 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo

Members of the American Alliance of Museums gathered online last week for its Annual Meeting

laura Lott AAM
Laura Lott

“How can we embrace the change offered by the recent COVID-19 disruption?” This question from Laura Lott, President of AAM at the opening of #AAM2021 set a tone of resilience and thoughtful insights for the 2021 AAM Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo. The virtual event took place on 24 May and 7 – 9 June 2021.

There were 4 days of sessions, workshops and an expo hall with special events around Chicago Museums, the would-be host city for the event’s cancelled in-person element. Sponsors and exhibitors included Imagine Exhibitions, Roto, ACME Technologies, Immersive Arts, Interspectral, RocketRez, SenSource, Teo and Tessitura.

Collaboration within the field

With 33% of museums facing permanent closure in 2020, museums have had an extremely tough year. Despite this, the museum community rallied and came together. It did so through advocacy, with over 60,000 messages sent to congress, through opening museum doors as vaccination sites and food banks, and by providing online content and spaces for communities.

As a result of the efforts of museum professionals, the number of museums facing closure now sits at 15%. This is not insignificant, but as Laura Lott said “This gives me great hope in our collective power.”

This spirit of community has also helped to deepen relationships between museums in local areas:

“Our partnership has broken down the walls of perceived competition,” said Tim Sears, Director of Operations, Adventure Science Center. Speaking at the 2021 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Spears talked about the collaborative knowledge sharing of the local attractions in Nashville, not seeing the institutions as fighting for visitors, but as rising again together.

The Adventure Science Center is now doing a laser show at the planetarium in collaboration with the Country Music Hall of Fame. This is a project that wouldn’t have started before the pandemic. As Spears said, “Without each other, you cannot survive.”

Reaching new communities

Seemingly overnight, museums had the enormous task of communicating with their patrons and educating, engaging and inspiring their communities online. “Collections are meaningless without the people. Otherwise, they are just storage warehouses. COVID has proved this point – collections are for public use” said Sharon Heal, Director, Museums Association.

Collections are meaningless without the people. Otherwise, they are just storage warehouses.

There were all sorts of creative virtual engagements from exhibitions and events to podcasts, webinars and more. Many sessions at the 2021 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo spoke of the positive benefits of going virtual. For instance, allowing museums to reach audiences around the world, generate revenue 24/7 and reach more people with an event/exhibition than possible in real life.

Art on show in Occupy White Walls
Art on show in Occupy White Walls

Priya Parker, a keynote speaker and host of the NY Times podcast ‘Together Apart’ asked attendees to consider “Who have we left out due to the price of our tickets or the location of our museum?” How can museums use this moment to pivot and align their mission?

One virtual experience was the partnership between Birmingham Museum and the AI platform Occupy White Walls. The team created a virtual version of the museum for an online game. Here, players could use public domain images from the Birmingham Museum’s collection to curate their own collections.

“There’s a sense of meaning attached to the game – it’s not a game where you win or lose, players play because they have their heart in it,” said Linda Spurdle, Digital Development Manager, Birmingham Museums Trust.

A hybrid approach discussed at the 2021 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo

Other museums took their exhibitions outside. At the Baltimore Museum of Industry, ‘Women of Steel’ was about to be installed indoors when the pandemic hit. So, on a small budget, the team brought the exhibition to the sidewalk alongside its campus for free. 

“It felt really great when it went up on the fence. It was a way to be open when our galleries were closed. The community responded really well,” said Beth Maloney, Director of Interpretation at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

“We reached a lot of people we wouldn’t normally, like joggers and commuters. It felt like who we were as an organisation was right there, the first thing you saw on campus.”


This hybrid approach to online/in-person content and looking beyond the 4 walls of the museum is now being incorporated into many museum plans.

The Universal Hip Hop Museum is currently in development and is planning to open in 2023. “We are creating a strategy that doesn’t depend on people coming into the museum,” said Rocky Bucano, Executive Director of UHHM.

The museum has planned a travelling exhibition and is in the process of creating its archives from scratch. Working closely with Terentia to create a database for the collection, the museum is also planning how the public can access its content too. “We look at ourselves as a content production factory,” said Bucano.

Education for all ages

One key trend at the 2021 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo was programming for older adults.

“It’s ironic that museums are focusing on older visitors when our largest audience is older adults,” said Mary Ellen Munley, Principal, The Museum Group. “However we really only serve a very narrow segment of the older adult population- typically wealthy, retired, white people.”

elizabeth-merritt-Future-proofing-museums- AAM Annual Meeting 2021
Elizabeth Merritt

In a recent interview with blooloop, Elizabeth Merritt, VP for Strategic Insight at AAM said, “About 17% of people aged 55+ visit museums at least once a year. People at that stage of their life have more time and hopefully resources to enjoy what museums have to offer”.

“Demographics show that by 2035, Americans over the age of 65 are going to outnumber those younger than 18. That is an extreme skew. Everybody will age into that cohort. Everybody should care about this” said Merritt.

The majority of programming at museums traditionally is K-12 students. But what if museums also focused on developing older adults programmes? Arts and culture engagement can have a positive effect on health and ageing. Also, enriching programs can enable older adults to learn something new, share knowledge, and build cross-generational relationships.

Exploring creative ageing at the 2021 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo

One programme from The Museum of Contemporary Art Tuscon was called ‘Stay Gold’. This 10-week online programme allowed older adults in the LGBTQ+ community to come together and use the collections to have cross-generational conversations in a transparent space, sometimes discussions that might be difficult.

“How do we plan and fold topics like end of life in so it’s not scary but we provide resources and include in the conversation?” asked Eli Burke, Education Director, Museum of Contemporary Art Tuscon.

AAM museums and creative ageing report AAM Annual Meeting 2021
AAM’s new report on museums and creative ageing

“Health is a societal issue and we have a responsibility to shift from displaying objects to opening the museum as a space for these communities,” said Danielle Schulz, Senior Manager of Lifelong Learning and Accessibility at Denver Art Museum. “In addition to programming, this community needs to be part of the creative process and commissioning too.”

Accessibility for all

With the switch to virtual, there has also been an increased demand for museums’ online content to be accessible for all.

“Because of the pandemic, accessibility is being actively challenged and discussed,” said Rochelle Bowyer, DO-IT Student Assistant, University of Washington.

This proactive trend can be seen in exhibition design too: “Don’t wait for someone to disclose a disability, integrate it into design from the beginning,” said Sheryl Burgstahler, Accessible Technology Services Director, University of Washington.

Museums need to consider how people with disabilities will experience the museums, but also what content reflects them naturally.

smithsonian national portrait gallery
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

“We don’t want to veer into tokenism to mention for the sake of it. But often disclosing disabilities helps connect to the story. Let’s tell these stories and normalise these experiences” said Vanessa Jones, Access Programs Specialist at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

In a session on Advocating for Accessibility in a Time of Crisis, Schultz said “We need an attitude shift to create an anti-ableist stance. It’s about going beyond accessibility, but about equity.”

This applies to guests but also putting this into practice for museum staff too. For example, a disabled ramp is accessible on paper. But if it’s right at the back of the museum, it is prioritising people who don’t have a disability. “It’s about making sure they aren’t being told to fit a mould,” said Schultz.

The Museums Association has recently launched its ‘Manifesto for museum learning and engagement’ which looks at representation in the workforce as one of its 8 points. The document looks at collections, partnerships and activism across the entire museum landscape.


Artificial intelligence, ransomware attacks and AR were some of the topics in Merritt’s future trends session at the 2021 AAM Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo. “It’s not just the cost of a threat, it’s the cost of NOT taking advantage of an opportunity,” said Merrit.

The Universal Hip Hop Museum has begun using AI for its pop up experience with Microsoft. Guests explore the space and AI tracks how the user interacts with it. It then creates a hip hop playlist for them, from throughout history.

“As we get into the discussions with Microsoft on how to leverage their AI for the main museum, we’ll be thinking creatively on how to expand the storytelling for the experience’s artefacts,” said Bucano.

The Johnny Morris Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium was showcasing an AR App called “Agents of Discovery”. The educational gaming platform allows children to scan exhibits to learn more on-site as a digital scavenger hunt. The missions also change every month to encourage repeat visitation. Visitors can use the app remotely too, for online learning.

Attendees can watch session recordings, revisit MuseumExpo booths and talk to attendees on the platform until 14th July 2021. AAM’s Museum Summit on Creative Aging is taking place on the 29th July 2021 1-6pm ET. The event is free, interactive and virtual, offering museum professionals with insight, tools and connections to help serve the growing older adult visitor group. Join the mailing list here to be notified when registration opens.

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Ella Baskerville

Ella Baskerville

Ella is Business Development Manager and looks after client relationships and new business. Joining Blooloop in 2015, she has a degree in Natural Science from the University of Bath, but her true passion lies with the attractions industry and is a self-confessed theme park geek.

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