The next few weeks we will be posting reflections from students who attended the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Conference, held in St. Louis, Missouri, May 6-10. This first post comes from Max Metz, a current M.A. candidate in the Museum Education program at Tufts.
Just blocks away from the Old Saint Louis Courthouse in downtown Saint Louis Missouri, where in 1846 Dred and Harriet Scott filed for their freedom from slavery, the American Alliance of Museums held its 2017 Annual Meeting and Museum Expo. This year’s theme was “Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museum,” a theme that showed its importance and pertinence within the conference itself at an unanticipated session.
On Sunday, the LF Creative Group, an art and fabrication studio, set up their sales display of two manikins with the intention of showing their best work, create an emotional response, and to sell their products to museums and cultural institutions alike. They were unaware that their choice of an enslaved black man, chained to a post, chest bare, alongside a white slave trader, would create the kind of reaction that eventually overtook aspects of the conference. Early Monday, Michael Furlund, employe of LF Creative Group, was coming in to ready his display when he happened upon a black female on the cleaning staff almost in tears after seeing the two figures in his booth – a sign of what was to come. The AAM community took to twitter where the #AAM2017SlaveAuction hashtag was born and within 24 hours AAM president Laura Lott had weighed into the discussion and eventual the enslaved man manikin was covered in a black cloth.
Between late Tuesday and the close of the Annual Meeting and Museum Expo on Wednesday, conference goers and the CEO of LF Creative Group, Rodney Heiligmann, were able to address concerns and explain the company’s stance in front of a crowd of more than 100 conference-goers. This productive conversation did not happen naturally, but needed to be mediated and facilitated to keep it productive and civil. Participants on both sides were becoming too heated when Dina Bailey, CEO at Mountain Top Vision, stepped in to mediate the conversation. Under her calm and respectful guidance, the conversation was able to proceed and create a learning experience for all present.
Looking at this controversial, impromptu conversation like a session, I had a few takeaways that were profound to me. Although I did have more than these four takeaways, I personally found these more accommodating – they created new areas of experience that I can weigh on in my future.
The power of social media is both terrifying and liberating – awesome in the truest sense of the word. If I was not following the conference on Twitter and I did not try to engage in the digital space as well as the physical space of the conference, I would have missed this entire event. The terrifying power is that of the troll and the negativity that can erupt out of social media to create a volatile situation. The liberation comes from the ability to see diverse perspectives in an unregulated and open space that is accessible everywhere. While following #AAM2017SlaveAuction, one of the first hashtags I have ever followed (ever), I was amazed by the moderating behavior of some users and the incendiary behavior of others. I do not think that users truly understand the power of their words, and the tone and emotion behind those words, when amplified by social media. If it was not for a few moderators that brought some calm to the hashtag, the conversation would have developed into a riotous, unproductive space. However, with their mediation online and their calm, information began to permeate, not just emotion.
Just like the digital space, the physical space did not have a productive conversation immediately. One or two outspoken opponents of the company began to control the dialogue and amp up the emotions in the room. The productive conversation that eventually took place in the exhibition hall was almost missed had a skilled museum educator not stepped up to the plate and offered to mediate the conversation. As Heiligmann began to speak, museum professionals heckled him, while he tried not to react negatively. The situation was developing into an unruly mob. I was on the “side” of the museum professionals asking for more answers. However the way in which the conversation was proceeding was unproductive until deliberate steps were made to create a conversation instead of a one-sided protest. Together we stated the problems, gathered information on both sides, understood the problem from various perspectives, and created a set of recommendations for all of us to take away from this unfortunate situation.
Confrontation vs Dialogue
Much of the unrest came from the booth attendant, a fabricator and artist with the company, who was unprepared for the situation. I had the opportunity to overhear him interact with museum professionals at the booth before the larger session with the CEO, and it was clear that the stances that both sides had were too deeply seated to have productive dialogue, it was only resulting in heated confrontation and deeper heals in the sand. He was not around for the CEO’s session, however I happened to run into him on the other side of the exhibit hall, outside of the context of the intense situation. We chatted and I was really able to understand his point of view and I made sure he was able to understand mine, and the many others who were opposing his view. When we were outside of the intense context created by the manikins and I was not attacking him, he did not attack back and we communicated. When overhearing interactions at the booth, there was just noise being directed back and forth at each party – there was no listening taking place. I was happy to be able to listen to him, disagree with him, and walk away understanding him in the end. We must diffuse before we can communicate.
An Industry “About” Learning Not “Of” Learning
Much of the argument that the employee used to combat the criticism of much of the conference-goers had to do with the division between museum expo exhibitors and museum conference attendees. Although both audiences were under the same umbrella of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access, not all were present for the same reason. Exhibitors are there to sell products and grow business, while attendees are there to learn and grow perspectives – neither of these aims is wrong, but they are not productive in the same space. I do believe that there needs to be a larger emphasis in the industry, encompassing vendors and museum-based professionals, about education and the greater mission of our institutions. There needs to be a bigger push for exhibitors to attend sessions and interact with other attendees in a less transactional space. Furthermore, non-exhibitors should expose and educate themselves to the “other side” of the industry that makes exhibitions, publications, interactives, multimedia, etc. happen so that we can promote learning inside our four walls. A greater mixing of the two groups with the goal of education and understand could help prevent a situation like this from happening in the future.
Follow the links below below to view images of the the Old St. Louis Courthouse, the LF Creative Group booths, and the “Slave Auction” Installment at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum respectively.
About the Author: Max Metz is a second year graduate student in the Museum Education program at Tufts University. He is the Manager and Anne Larner Educator at the Durant-Kenrick House and Grounds of Historic Newton. As a nontraditional educator, Max flows freely between various atypical teaching and learning environments from museums to parks, deep in the forest or deep in the neighborhoods, and contemporary art settings to historic houses. He consideres himself a facilitator of educational experiences who uses interpretation to reveal the personal context and connections behind the resources at hand.