Monday, December 7, 2015

What Do We Want From Our Professional Organizations?

Over the past month or so, I've had several different conversations, online and in person, with colleagues talking about what we want from our professional organizations.  These discussions ranged from encouraging AAM, AASLH and other organizations to take stronger stands on issues such as diversity and inclusion, unpaid internships, or whether our own professional organizations could embrace the role of museums as the Canadian Museum Association did in their statement (below) welcoming refugees.

In my JHU online course, International Experiments in Community Engagement, my students reflected on what they, as emerging professionals, wanted from AAM and other professional organizations. Here's a bit of what they said (emphases mine).
I think one of the most critical things that AAM needs to address, although maybe not resolve, is the question of what the role of the 21st century museum is? We've discussed this at various points in this course, and I envision the AAM as serving in the role of facilitator of this larger discussion to make sure that it continues to happen. While AAM may not be able to define the answer and impose it on museums, I think that sponsoring a campaign like "Museums Change Lives" could be very effective. Beyond this critical question, I think that the AAM needs to look at where it and museums in general are at in the context of larger social issues as they apply to the work of museums.
I think that museum related professional organizations must be more proactive in pushing for museum staff to be more diverse, phase out unpaid interns, and close the paygap. (Unlikely that this can be accomplished, but I can dream). This can be done through mentorships, funding paid fellowships, and allowing for more opportunities for professional development for young professionals and students from diverse backgrounds. ...For people of color, the statistics of employment for curatorial, and management jobs are appalling and highlight the fact that as a POC the opportunities for actually entering the profession are daunting and nearly impossible. I also think that more needs to be done about changing the practice of using unpaid interns. And professional organizations should take a stand against this practice. 
Many of these organizations, especially AAM are expensive, and if you sign up at a lesser rate, you do not get the benefits of the higher rate such as access to sample documents. For someone like me, that works in a very small underfunded organization, having access to this information is beneificial across the board...Having "tiers" is exactly what we don't want in the museum community- a higher echelon that dictates as opposed to working with -aka in the trenches- for the community it supports.
I would like an organization that provides standards for ethics and advocates for museum and museum workers. It should provide a platform for discussion amongst peers whether it is job search, references, or furthering education. It would also be nice to have some sort of job search help with resume and CV writing.
I think a key part of the AAM's new strategic plan should revolve around community museum relationships...The AAM can play an important role in making these kinds of case studies widely available and encouraging dialogue. Just like AAM has spurred on discussions about evaluation and technology, the AAM can take on the same role when it comes to encouraging museums to pursue community partnerships. The AAM can create the safe space for museum professionals to discuss, brainstorm, and work through how to best going about engaging the community and finding relevancy through relationships. 
I think a vital aspect of a professional organization is to provide a robust community of continued learning.
The second thing I’d like from a professional organization is a more personal need, which is guidance and mentoring. I’m new to the field, as are many of us, and ongoing help, guidance, and coaching would probably reduce my anxiety as I launch myself into whatever awaits. AAM has a good career center, but I didn’t get the impression they were as strong in career guidance as in providing job resources.

Working smarter, not harder could save organizations money, time, and energy. In listing strategies to accomplish sustainability, AAM lists four that include memberships, business opportunities, becoming goal-oriented, and strengthening its brand. However, I think this could be expanded to include other aspects such as ethics or something we’ve been working hard towards in this course: community engagement.

I agree that the those real world case studies is one of my favorite things about AAM. Their conferences especially do an excellent job bringing professionals together to share their stories and experiences.

After the events on Friday and our discussions this semester, maybe they should also address crisis management issues in museums from a collection, a community and global support perspective.

One of the first things that I think (and am hoping) the AAM gets on board with is addressing diversity both internally and externally.

I’d also like to see programs to support employment at small rural museums or institutions that are generally off the radar. It seems like there is a lot of turnover and competitiveness in the field, but most of what is advertised are positions at large reputable museums. It would be nice to see equal enthusiasm as well as grant-supported positions and advocacy for a diverse body of institutions. Maybe something like the Teach America program, in a museum setting. 
I also like the idea of a huge, shared database of national museum collections so museums can share resources and collaborate with their peers in a more streamline manner. 
I think it is essential that the role of the curator be opened up to include the intellectual and social engagement of the museum’s entire community, but I’d like to see the AAM and other professional organizations work toward redefining this role so that specialized or advanced knowledge is still a celebrated aspect of curatorship.

I would personally like to see two things prioritized for AAM members: a regularly updated, well-publicized job board where museums can post open positions and individuals can search for them, and continuing education opportunities.

Professional Development opportunities are sometimes few and far between for smaller museums, and is often the first thing to get cut. AAM has the unique opportunity to help fill that void. However it needs to be accessible and affordable. Online is definitely a viable way to create more affordable programming that doesn't require travel!

I would love to see more museum advocacy aimed at increased awareness in communities of what local and state museums have to offer. I know there is a "National Museum Day" and other days like that, but I would like to see something more tangible. Does AAM have a goal of increasing museum visitor numbers overall?
What are my take-aways from this?  The needs and desires are many, and there's no way any single organization can address all of them.  But that said, there appears to be, from my students and others in the field, the sense that museums need to look internally at our practices; and to be better community partners--and that our professional organizations can take the lead in supporting both of those ideas.   In addition, the affordability of resources including professional development, is a key question for both small organizations and emerging professionals.  Perceived value for money will determine participation. As one of my students said above, "having "tiers" is exactly what we don't want in the museum community."

And finally, there's a need for coaching and mentoring.  Don't forget to apply for my own mentorship program, with applications due December 18.  

What do you want from your professional organizations?


FDV said...

All great thoughts. So much of this is simply having the mind to switch - and just do it!- As always, nice post. FDV

Liz Shapiro said...

Nice synopsis of thoughts. The New England Museum Association went hard at the topic of diversity and unpaid Internships at it's conference in Maine in November. I'm optimistic that they are ready to assume a leadership role. In regard to the shared collections database, the CT League of History Organizations is working on the first 2 phases of a 3-pronged project consisting of a collections management database (CTCo DB) custom built on the open source collections management platform CollectiveAccess; an online public portal that harvests data from organizations that use the CTCo database, as well as from the PastPerfect management program. Subsequent phases of the project will allow for the integration of the CTCo portal with the Connecticut Digital Archive (CTDA), the state hub for the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), to offer a simple, cost effective way for organizations to ensure ongoing preservation of their digital collections and collections records. All software development will be shared on Creative Commons. If anyone is interested in learning more about the project, please be in touch with Liz Shapiro at

Laura Lott said...

Thanks for sharing this thoughtful, specific and constructive feedback! I have heard many similar ideas throughout my last six months of listening sessions in preparation for developing AAM's next strategic plan with our board of directors. I agree that AAM has a huge opportunity – and obligation, working with our allies in and out of the field, to help lead critical changes in areas such as diversity, equity and inclusion. And I envision AAM as that safe place for museum professionals to discuss and collaborate on the future of museums as relevant, financially sustainable and vibrant members of their communities. I hope your students and colleagues will see much of this feedback represented in AAM’s next strategic plan when it’s released next spring.
- Laura Lott, president & CEO, American Alliance of Museums

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Liz and Laura, for sharing work underway. I was really impressed with the range of ideas and not surprised by their passion. The JHU program is unique in that most of my students are working professionals with some career shifters, so their perspectives are pretty broad. Laura, we all look forward to seeing the new plan! said...

Hi, Linda.
I'm late to the party, but I'd like to see museum service organizations support museum workers. It's unnerving that ALA and even AHA have long supported committees on gender and salary, but AAM and AASLH do not. There are too many museum people--many of them women--working as hourly employees while feeding the student debt monster. At that rate they'd be better off in another career or potentially just a job. I know that AAM and AASLH cannot solve the financial woes of a gazillion small museums and heritage organizations, but what would happen if our service organizations actually stood behind a salary scale and said this is what a person with limited experience and an MA should make? Yes, an individual could still choose to make $28,500, but at least he/she would know that that their choice was not one supported by the service organizations. And the board hiring them would have to justify and explain....And while I think the diversity conversation is VERY important for a host of reasons not solely related to salaries, I really think that solving the pay issues would go a long way toward solving the diversity issues. And don't even get me started on pay equity.
Thanks for letting me rant.
Joan Baldwin

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