Museums in Times of Crisis: An Equality Lab Virtual Symposium

In October I told you about Finding Home, a virtual symposium from the Equality Lab that looked at the concept of home during the pandemic. Last Friday, we hosted another symposium addressing the pandemic and the overarching need for social change, Museums in Times of Crisis. Organized by Laura Beltrán-Rubio and myself, this symposium provided an opportunity for museum professionals working in different regions, cultures, and institutions to talk about their work, from responding to the immediate crisis of the pandemic to addressing decolonization and other forms of ongoing change.

Poster for the event Museums in Times of Crisis, designed by Laura Beltrán-Rubio.

Like Finding Home, we started talking about this event back in the fall, but this conference spoke more specifically to the interests of both Laura and myself, as we’ve both worked in museums and envision ourselves most likely pursuing museum careers after we finish the program. It was also an opportunity to facilitate discussions about the problematic qualities of museums while learning more about how different institutions have been responding to the pandemic. As I’ve mentioned before, as someone who previously worked in museums but currently isn’t working at one on a full-time basis, it’s been a peculiar experience being a doctoral candidate during this time. While I’m extremely grateful that I’m in a place where I can focus on research and writing, I do feel like I’m on the outside looking in as I’ve read about how museums have been trying out new ideas and policies. Organizing this symposium and facilitating the conversations that stemmed from it, then, offered a way of engaging in these debates more directly.

Laura and I put together the entire program, from the organizing themes to the speakers participating in each panel. We started the process back in December by creating a preliminary outline with potential speakers and themes. In January, we revised the list by finalizing our proposed roundtables, adding new speakers to diversify the selection, and making sure our participants got paid. The final event included eight speakers (we originally had nine but one of the participants wasn’t feeling well) and lasted three hours. Many of the participants were people we knew from our respective museum networks; others were people we had either read about or seen in other virtual events.

Here’s the event summary (in italics) and schedule. To read more about the individual biographies and abstracts for each speaker, click here:

The global pandemic has changed how many of us do a lot of things: from going to school, to caring for children, to work. Negotiating between a crisis in public health and a new wave of social unrest, cultural institutions, including museums, have had to adapt to radically new circumstances. This virtual symposium explores the different strategies that museums and museum professionals have embraced during these complex times. Some museums have used social media and virtual conferencing to engage new audiences and forge new institutional collaborations, while others have reimagined their gallery spaces in response to precarity stemming from decreased attendance and revenue. Still, other professionals and activists have continued their work of decolonizing museums and challenging white supremacy within institutions that have proven to be, at best, reluctant to change. Join us for this special roundtable event as we share different projects and discuss the potential futures of museums.

Roundtable 1: On Decolonization (12-1 pm ET)

Brandie Macdonald, Director of Decolonizing Initiatives at the Museum of Us, San Diego

Debra Yepa-Pappan, Community Engagement Coordinator for the Native American Exhibition Hall at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

Roundtable 2: On Access and Precarity (1-2 pm ET)

Christina Vassallo, Executive Director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia and Founder of the Philadelphia Collaborative Arts Consortium

Charlotte Potter-Kasic, Interim Director of the Barry Art Museum at Old Dominion University, Norfolk

Aubrey Hobart, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Roswell Museum and Art Center

Roundtable 3: On Virtual Engagement (2-3 pm ET)

Jane Lavino, Chief Curator of Education at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Wyoming

Vicky Salías, Director of Museo de la Historia del Traje (Fashion History Museum), Buenos Aires

Tanya Meléndez Escalante, Senior curator of education and public programs at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT), New York

Over the course of the event, participants talked about decolonization and the need for ongoing institutional change, as well as the potential long-term impacts of the pandemic on museum content and audience engagement. One theme that recurred throughout the sessions was the pandemic’s effect on audiences. As Vicky Salías, Tanya Meléndez Escalante, Charlotte Potter-Kasic, and others pointed out, moving to virtual platforms has enabled many museums to significantly expand their audience in quantity and geographic dispersion, with previously regional institutions suddenly developing an international following. As such, one of the questions these museums will need to confront after the pandemic is who they want their audience to be. In other words, do they want to return to their original purpose of serving the immediate community, or do they want to retain their more international focus? Or can they accommodate both?

Another resonant theme was nimbleness with respect to programming. Museums typically take a long view when it comes to their exhibitions and programming, often dedicating years to the development of a single show or related initiative. Indeed, as Brandie Macdonald and Debra Yepa-Pappan both pointed out, museums often use their long timeline as a means of maintaining colonialist frameworks, arguing that change is slow and they can’t be expected to decolonize their narratives overnight. Yet the pandemic has demanded that museums become more nimble. As Tanya Meléndez Escalante explained in her presentation, shifting curatorial energy away from large, in-person exhibitions to virtual presentations and social media engagement has enabled her institution to respond much more quickly to ongoing current events, making the institution more relevant with respect to Black Lives Matter and other ongoing calls for social change. As these new initiatives make clear, museums can be flexible when they feel it’s important or necessary.

Regardless, yesterday’s conversations made it clear to me that the impact of the pandemic on museums will have long-term consequences. For organizations like the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Wyoming, it means continuing to develop virtual educational initiatives and developing a more national and international following. For institutions like the Barry Art Museum, it means continuing to employ a hybridized virtual/in-person approach to programming and reassessing your core audience. For places like the Roswell Museum, it means reevaluating your community audience and actively reaching out to populations you haven’t engaged before while questioning the museum’s long-term future as an institution. In any event, while the pandemic may eventually go away, its impact on museums will reverberate far into the future.

Overall, Laura and I were pleased with this event. We were happy that we were able to bring together such an engaging group of speakers and to provide a place for them to share their work and discuss ideas. All in all, it’s been a satisfying way to contribute to the Equality Lab’s ongoing role as a space for facilitating conversation and collaboration.

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