In a short space of time, The American Alliance of Museums was able to pivot from its planned Annual Meeting in San Francisco to a fully-virtual conference. The AAM Virtual Annual Meeting began on 18 May 2020, coinciding with International Museum Day. Then it continued with a packed schedule from 1 – 4 June.
Attendees took part in a range of online events around the theme of Radical Reimagining. These were organised into four different tracks; reinspire, rebuild, reengage and reconnect.
The AAM Virtual Annual Meeting continues
The week kicked off with a warm welcome from Laura Lott, AAM President & CEO, who thanked attendees and sponsors. She then referred to recent events in the US in her opening remarks. She said, “We must be especially vigilant in looking out for each other. We have a unique duty to listen, to chronicle the lessons in history for our communities and educate future generations, so that we might stop this senseless violence.”
As we begin #AAMvirtual excited for the days ahead, we want to acknowledge the weight of the current moment & the recent racist acts being perpetuated against the Black community.
Below we share the full opening remarks of AAM President and CEO @lottlaura:
— American Alliance of Museums (@AAMers) June 1, 2020
During the first General Session, Christy Coleman, Executive Director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, also addressed the conference. She recapped the virtual event on 18 May and then delivered a powerful message. She gave attendees a reminder to breathe, to listen, to ask, and to reflect on why museums do what they do:
“We exist because our communities need us. Our communities have entrusted each of us to remind the world why we matter. To remind the world that there is a brighter tomorrow. Even when we are in the midst of things and we can’t see beyond it…but we can’t imagine a new future if we can’t breathe.”
Keynote looks to the future
Following this, Elizabeth Merritt of the Center for the Future of Museums introduced the keynote speaker. This was Marina Gorbis from the Institute for the Future.
“The future begins in your imagination.” We have too few positive visions of the future–more important than ever that we start telling positive stories of what we can create @mgorbis @iftf #AAMvirtual
— Future of Museums (@futureofmuseums) June 1, 2020
Gorbis’ keynote speech for the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting identified some of the stark wealth inequalities in the US. On looking to the future, she talked about the need to examine the current context as well as looking to patterns from history:
“The kind of things we’re experiencing today is actually the result of decisions and choices we made decades ago. And similarly, the kinds of decisions and choices we make today are probably going to shape our post-COVID-19 future.”
The opening addresses were then followed by concurrent sessions on many different topics. One session, Rethinking Experience Design for a New Reality, gave an early glimpse of some national audience research. Jen Benoit-Bryan and Peter Linett of Slover Linnett offered a preview of the findings from Culture & Community in a Time of Crisis: A Special COVID Edition of Culture Track.
62% wanted arts and culture organisations to help people stay connected during the crisis
One particular stat looked at what people want from arts and culture organisations during the pandemic. 62% of those surveyed said that they wanted these institutions to help people stay connected during the crisis. In addition, 61% are looking for distraction and escape, while 60% want help with educating children.
Later that day, a session with Carolyn Royston, Chief Experience Officer at Cooper Hewitt, Catherine Devine, Microsoft Worldwide Education and Ross Parry, Professor of Museum Technology, University of Leicester looked at Digital Clarity.
Royston talked about the importance of establishing digital channels for museums, saying: “It is a huge learning moment. How does this fit into your wider strategic thinking? How does this support your mission and your purpose, your impact, your resonance? They aren’t tech conversations, they are fundamental conversations for the purposes of your institutions – digital is one arm of that.”
Devine agreed, saying that digital skills aren’t a technology issue: “Digital skills are as much about how to use technology as it is about how to use technology for your mission.”
Day two of the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting finished with a musical happy hour. This was led by Songdivision, with live performances and a rock-and-roll game show.
— Blooloop (@Blooloop) June 1, 2020
AAM Virtual Annual Meeting day three
Tuesday’s programme began with a keynote by Lonnie G. Bunch III, 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, introduced by Arthur Affleck, VP of Development, AAM. He also referred to the events happening in the US, saying:
“This is a moment of pain and loss, but it also a moment of great possibility. We must remember the role that museums must play in our society. They are the times when museums are needed the most. To demonstrate our values for our countries and our guests. It is not just to preserve the past and educate but to define reality.”
Lonnie G Bunch III, the 14th Secretary of the @smithsonian “These are the times that museums are needed the most. It is not just to preserve the past, but to define reality”. #AAMvirtual @AAMers pic.twitter.com/DuTlc0sJud
— Blooloop (@Blooloop) June 2, 2020
“At best our museums provide content, insight and understanding. We provide comfort healing and inspiration and hope. I would argue we are the glue that holds community, cities and nations together. In this moment of fear, division, this is when museums show us our shared humanity. In this dark moment, museums help us find hope. And in pain, museums remind us of beauty and the possibilities of tomorrow.”
Many educational sessions
This was followed by another day of varied sessions. One, entitled Is That Hung White? looked at the issue of race and inclusion in exhibitions.
Speaking on this panel were Elisabeth Callihan, Head of Multi-Generational Learning, Minneapolis Institute of Art; Joanne Jones-Rizzi, VP, Science, Equity and Education, Science Museum of Minnesota; Marquette Folley, Content Director, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Su Oh, SVP, Education, Exhibitions and Community Engagement, Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County.
Callihan talked about the uncomfortable past of some institutions, “art and natural history museums are founded on white supremacy. Until we can unpack it, relearn it then we can start to make progress.”
Oh agreed, saying museums need to acknowledge their past: “Going back to the foundations of what a museum is…if the foundations are uncomfortable we need to address them. Each museum has its own journey.”
What museum-goers want
Later on Tuesday, Susie Wilkening of Wilkening Consulting looked at the company’s ongoing qualitative research on museum-goers and the US as a whole. The research explores attitudes towards museums, their value and their support. It aims to help institutions to put their visitors’ needs and interests first as they prepare to reopen.
Do audiences want virtual content from museums? In the pandemic, yes! But the type of content they want and how they find it varies: https://t.co/yts25WaGxC #AAMvirtual @SusieWilkening pic.twitter.com/Dn7EaN8Ntv
— Blooloop (@Blooloop) June 2, 2020
Amongst other things, it found that most museum-goers expect a new standard of basic precautions. This is what will make them feel safe after the pandemic.
Other sessions that day looked at wellness and wellbeing projects, museum careers, virtual programming and more. These sessions were followed by a selection of virtual networking events.
AAM Virtual Annual Meeting day four
On 2 June, AAM announced a change to the programme for the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting. This was in response to the racial tension, protests and demonstrations taking place across the US.
An extra session took place on Wednesday 3 June with Lonnie G. Bunch III, Dr Johnnetta Cole, National Council of Negro Women, Inc. and Baltimore Museum of Art and Lori Fogarty, Oakland Museum of California speaking about racism, unrest and the role of the museum.
A new General Session has been added tomorrow, June 3 at 2 pm CT:
Racism, Unrest, and the Role of the Museum Field, with:
— American Alliance of Museums (@AAMers) June 2, 2020
In a hard-hitting statement, Bunch spoke about the importance of understanding history and the systemic racism that still pervades today, “This is about a long story that starts with slavery, with lynching…the history of racial violence is the history of the US. You can’t understand the history of this country without it.”
The power of museums
Fogarty said, “We have power as museums. We have to think in deep and strategic ways how to use that platform for public good…I think this will be the defining moment for museums. The only way we will get through this is to move beyond statements of support to real strategies and actions.”
Bunch agreed, saying, “It’s not enough to be a good museum. You have to be an institution that recognises that the goal in everything you do…should be to make your community, your region and your country better.”
Finally, Cole finished the session with a message of hope, “To get through this we have got to believe that it is possible for change to come.”
AAM Virtual Annual Meeting educational sessions and panels also continued throughout Wednesday, covering several pertinent topics. For example, one session, Changing Expectations, Changing Experiences: Cultural Audiences in the Post-pandemic World, looked at what audiences want from a cultural organisation at this time.
Speaking on this panel were Arthur Cohen, CEO, Laplaca Cohen, Brad Baer, Partner and Chief Strategy Officer, Bluecadet and Philip Tinari, Director, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing.
The greatest areas of concern during the pandemic among those surveyed were boredom, worry, fear and loneliness. When asked how their lives had changed during the crisis, 79% had been staying home, 28% had some reduced income and 12% had been sick, or had close friends or family members who had caught the virus.
The session also highlighted how COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on the black and African American population – 72% of those asked had been staying at home, 40% had some reduced income and 19% had been sick with the virus or had a sick family member or friend.
Cultural activities and COVID-19
This session also looked at what cultural activities people have been looking forward to, and whether they had begun making plans to visit these. Panel members talked about the importance of digital engagement to help people relax and laugh, to stay connected and to learn:
“Your audiences are hurting, they are worried, disconnected, bored and lonely,” said Cohen. “The COVID crisis is a personal crisis. Almost 1/3 have had a reduction in income. And 1/3 of black Americans say they have no income at all in this crisis.”
Another session at the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting looked at digital engagement in the age of coronavirus, with Brad Dunn, Web and Digital Engagement Director, Field Museum of Natural History and Laurel Allen, Senior Digital Engagement & Community Manager, California Academy of Sciences.
Allen spoke about how the closures meant that her team had a huge influx of requests from all departments to get content online.
“It felt like we were in freefall. When you can’t find the time, you need to just call it. Divorce yourselves from the urgency and get methodical about what the actual problems are.”
She talked about developing a unified and strategic approach. She also highlighted some of the digital engagement that the California Academy of Sciences has been working on:
“[We wanted to] keep the physical wonder of the academy alive, but show scientists as human and accessible. Showing that we live in the same world as our followers. We ramped up personal direct interactions, and worked to make life feel big, not small when people are self-isolating.”
Dunn also talked about the importance of a well-thought-through strategy, rather than scrambling to react to the situation: “Sometimes it’s about playing the long game, to funnel engagement, brand awareness, widening the digital community. The pandemic exposed ways in which we were prepared and we were not.”
“We learned… there is the opportunity for digital to serve the institution. It has been a great opportunity to show people ways in which our work is important.”
The final day of the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting
The final day of the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting included more concurrent sessions. Many of these were set up as roundtables and conversations, allowing attendees to be a part of the discussion. These included conversations on sustainability and resilience, conversations about mentoring, CEO roundtables and small museum boot camps.
Later in the day, more sessions looked at rapid response collecting, planning for the new normal, working from home and navigating careers after a layoff.
Social events also took place on the final day too. For example, networking opportunities for the National Association of Museum Exhibitions and the LGBTQ+ Alliance.
Over 40 exhibitors were in the virtual expo hall at the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting. Here, attendees could interact with companies in real-time. Highlights included a virtual booth hosted by leading planning & design-build firm Roto. Here, visitors could join Zoom conversations with Roto’s leadership team. They could also view the company’s portfolio and discuss new or upcoming projects.
JRA, a leading experience designer, was also present at MuseumExpo, where the team met with clients and colleagues as well as highlighting recent projects. For example, the National Comedy Centre and the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center.
The Gateway Ticketing Systems team was available to chat too, as they showcased some of the company’s recent Webinar Wednesdays sessions. These webinars have been exploring best practices for delivering the best guest experience during the crisis.
Creator of immersive and interactive attractions, Science North, also took part in the virtual MuseumExpo where it promoted its travelling exhibits, multimedia immersive theatres, nature exchange, consulting services and travelling exhibit tour management.
Microsoft was the signature sponsor for the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, alongside visionary level sponsors Blackbaud, the Getty Foundation and HTB. The leader sponsors were the Computer History Museum and the Oakland Museum of California.
Lucidea, The Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Solid Light were patrons of the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting. The event was also supported by Eos Lightmedia, The Exploratorium, Johns Hopkins University and Marts & Lundy.
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Chicago Scenic Studios, Inc., Frank Showcase Systems, Roto and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts are friends of the event.