AAM 2018

The 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Alliance of Museums is underway, and there is a strong showing of MASS Action collaborators here this year. If you are in Phoenix for the conference, please come say hello! Follow #AAM2018 and #MassActionMia to join and participate in the conversation.


Karleen Gardner
Creating Place and Space: Museums and the Immigration Experience
1:00 PM - 2:15 PM
Location: 127 ABC

Chris Taylor
Impact and Scalability: Building Civic Engagement into Every Museum
2:30 PM - 3:45 PM
Location: 224 AB

Omar Eaton-Martinez
Interviews from 2040: Leadership and Sustainability, Truth and Reconciliation 
4pm to 5:15pm
Location: 126 ABC           

Nicole Ivy
Beyond Diversity: Lessons from the AAM DEAI Working Group
4:00 PM - 5:15 PM
Location: 125 AB

Michelle Moon, Heather Nielsen, Sonnet Takahisa
I Made It at the Art Museum: Maker Spaces in Art Museums
4:00 PM - 5:15 PM
Location: 122 AB

Jason Porter
30th Annual Excellence in Exhibition
4:00 PM - 5:15 PM
Location: 229 AB

Emily Potter-Ndiaye
Engaging Teens through History: Careers and Workforce Development
4pm - 5:15pm
Location: 222 ABC           


Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Ben Garcia
Decolonizing the Museum: Reflection, Vision, and Change
8:45 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: 131 ABC

Museums & Race Transformation and Justice Lounge
See M&R website for full schedule and information. Follow @MuseumsandRace #MuseumsandRace to join the conversation.
Monday 12pm – Wednesday 12pm
Location: Booth 1704 in the Expo Hall

Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Nicole Ivy, Margaret Middleton, Aletheia Wittman
Open Forum on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion
1:30 PM - 3:30 PM
Location: 224 AB

Christine Lashaw
Beyond Words: Immersive Interpretive Strategies in Art Exhibitions
1:45 PM - 3:00 PM
Location: 125 AB

Jason Porter
(Non)Profiteering: Mission versus Margin
1:45 PM - 3:00 PM
Location: 225 AB

Lauren Zalut
Engaging the System: Museums Working in the Incarceration System
1:45 PM - 3:00 PM
Location: 128 AB

DivCom + #drinkingaboutequity meetup
5:30 – 7pm
Location: Valley Bar 


Chris Taylor
Making Space for (Other) Voices: Challenging Perceptions
8:45 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: 229 AB

Nicole Ivy
Museum Inclusion: New Report from the Mellon Foundation/AAMD
8:45 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: 126 ABC

Janeen Bryant
Are Museums the Rightful Home for Confederate Monuments?
8:45 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: 129 AB

Alice Anderson
Measuring Awe and Critical Thinking in Museums
1:30 PM - 2:45 PM
Location: 227 ABC

Marjorie Bequette
Learning from Non-Visitors: Finding Better Ways to Reach Out to and Serve Underrepresented Groups
1:30 PM - 2:45 PM
Location: 129 AB

Elisabeth Callihan, Divya Rao Heffley
Experimental Museum Processes: New Models for Collaboration, Agency, and Voice
1:30 PM - 2:45 PM
Location: 225 AB

Latino Network
Latinos in Conversation on Global Immigration Politics and Policies
4:30 PM - 5:30 PM
Location: 123

MASS Action Happy Hour + Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, Inclusion Mixer
5:30 – 7 PM
Location: Hyatt Hotel 


Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell, co-moderator
Keynote Speaker: Donovan Livingston & Frank Waln
9:00 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: North Ballroom

Janeen Bryant, Omar Eaton-Martinez, Ben Garcia, Stacey Mann
Museums and Race Report Card: Looking Back to Move Forward
10:15 AM - 11:30 AM
Location: 129 AB           

Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Gretchen Jennings, Chris Taylor
The Empathetic Museum: Mission Impossible?
10:15 AM - 11:30 AM
Location: 225 AB

Joanne Jones-Rizzi, Kenneth Morris
A Change in Elevation: Museums Rising to the Challenge of Equity
10:15 AM - 11:30 AM
Location: 128 AB

Wendy Ng
Case Study: Activating Agentic Indigenous Voices and Ancestral Objects through Digital Learning
10:15 AM - 10:45 AM
Location: 228 AB

Margaret Middleton
Building Capacity Through Social Justice: Lessons from Children's Museums
11:45 AM - 1:00 PM
Location: 227 ABC



It’s Time to Listen: This Guggenheim Project Showed the Importance of Lending an Ear

Contributed by Rachel Ropeik

This article originally appeared on guggenheim.org/blogs, and is used with permission. 

Over the past year, our news cycles and social media exchanges have often seemed to be platforms for increasingly one-way communication. People of all political affiliations are using what tools they have to share their ideas as fully formed faits accomplis. Should anyone try to question or discuss those ideas, the tone of the discourse often devolves even further, with the result that little–if any–empathy or understanding is reached.

This was the state of affairs last spring and summer, when Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin’s . . . circle through New York project sent six different items and ideas rotating through six different locations around Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. In July, the Guggenheim hosted “A Call to Action against Social Injustice,” a thoughtful appeal composed by St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. An interdepartmental team of curators and educators came together to brainstorm ideas for how to take action in response, and after some discussion, we decided to focus in on this section: “Always be just as ready to listen as you are emboldened to speak out for or against others.”

As the Manager of Public Engagement at the Guggenheim, I train and manage a number of educators who regularly talk with our visitors. I encourage the educators to be participants in two-way conversations, not experts delivering one-way content. To respond to the call to action, we embraced that idea and decided to make our visitors the experts, with museum staff as their attentive listeners.

We crafted a question to ask our visitors that’s been on the minds of many museum workers: What roles can cultural institutions play in times of social and political change?

Then we put out an invitation to any interested Guggenheim staff, especially those who don’t usually interact directly with visitors. Who wanted to head out into our galleries to pose this question to visitors and record what they said in response? Nineteen staff members from six different departments (Education, Curatorial, Marketing, Security, Library & Archives, and Development) volunteered. Since many of these staffers were nervous about opening themselves up to these conversations—after all, we were asking people to discuss a sensitive topic with strangers where the answers might be directly opposed to their own thoughts and feelings—we hired Keonna Hendrick, a cultural strategist and educator, to provide some professional (and personal) development sessions.

All of the participants were required to attend one of Keonna’s training sessions, where she focused on techniques for listening, even when we might not agree. We also encouraged our staff to truly embody that role of listener, to encourage and record visitors’ thoughts without judgment and without engaging in debate, giving our visitors the metaphorical microphone.

With these tools and guidelines under their belts, the staff volunteers went out into the galleries for a total of about forty hours of listening to our visitors. Over that period, we learned that out of nearly two hundred responding visitors, significant percentages of them see museums as places for dialogue, for learning, for sanctuary, and for direct social engagement. Sometimes these desires are at odds with each other. To me, that is the value of hearing what our visitors have to say. They are not a monolithic group, and they look to museums to play different roles in their lives. Here are a few of the things they told us:

“A cultural institution becomes a venue for creative minds to showcase the social and political change of every era.”

“Culture can’t be divorced from politics and cultural institutions must reflect this! Especially now, reflect back and uplift the voices of the vulnerable—communities of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQI, etc.”

“Dare [to] criticize and challenge left-wing orthodoxy.”

I like to think that in addition to getting direct contact with our visitors’ points of view, our staff gained another benefit from their participation in . . . circle through New York. When it came time to gather feedback from them on how it felt to take part in this listening action, many of them shared an appreciation for the direct visitor insights, but just as many referenced the listening itself as their most powerful or significant takeaway. One staffer noted, “The biggest takeaway for me from this experience was the act of listening . . . We need more communication that is free from judgment and mutually respectful.” Another remarked, “The training workshop was really helpful for me and I am finding it applicable in work and life.”

At a time when so much of our public discourse is aggressive or aggrieved, hurting or hurtful, with little in between, I’m holding onto the lessons from our month of listening. I have outlined our process here, hoping that other museums might be able to adapt this approach to learn from their own visitors and foster real-time, face-to-face conversation. Here’s to meaningful listening, in 2018 and beyond.

© 2018 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Thoughts on Museum Neutrality: What is the Conflict?

Contributed by Gretchen Jennings

Can Museums Be Neutral? ,a post by Museum Questions blogger Rebecca Herz, galvanized museum discussions on Twitter and Facebook in December, 2017. The conversation died down over the holidays, but I’ve continued to reflect on some of the important questions that were raised. Earlier in the new year I posted thoughts by Dan Spock on the topic, in which he argued that balance and accuracy must be part of the conversation..

There is not (yet) a single narrative on this issue. Those of us writing about museum non-neutrality are building a line of inquiry, not an air-tight definition. Continuing in this investigative spirit, I’d like to focus on one issue raised by Herz’s post: that neutrality presupposes a conflict in which one does or does not take sides.  I believe that museums are indeed engaged in conflict. What is its nature?

Some might say that it lies in engagement with rifts in our society—racism, sexism, homophobia, the legacy of slavery, mass incarceration, income inequality, immigration policy. These are indeed divisive issues that some museums such as the National Museum of African American Culture and History Eastern State Penitentiary and The Levine Museum of the New South have rightly taken on in exhibitions, programming, and public statements.  However, there is a more basic source of conflict in our field: a conversation about the nature of museums themselves, It is here that we find the roots of our non-neutrality. And it is this conflict that we must address even while keeping our eyes on the wider world.

For insight, read the powerful introduction to the downloadable Toolkit for MASS Action:  Museum as Site for Social Action. The authors locate museums’ origins in a particular world view that privileges a Western (and white) set of values regarding race, sex, and class. Beliefs in the primacy of scientific understanding, Enlightenment philosophies, and encyclopedic knowledge may appear to be self-evident and benign, but they are entangled with colonial “expedition, appropriation, and export” and the creation of a system of taxonomy.  “The system makes claims on rationality but its biases and limitations are readily apparent.” That most museums, whatever their discipline or niche, come from this set of values means that they have already chosen (consciously or unconsciously) a side. “Museums do not just describe or collect cultural knowledge; they create it” (p. 12).  It is for this reason that we can say that museums are not neutral.

Worldwide travel, immigration, the flight of refugees, global commerce—all of these mean that the racially, culturally homogeneous nation state (if it ever truly existed) is a thing of the past.  Museums of all disciplines cannot continue to affirm a single narrative as the norm if they wish to remain relevant cultural institutions.

The current discussion about non-neutrality asks that museums

  1. Acknowledge the default position (described above) that most cultural institutions currently hold..
  2. Admit that they are indeed creating knowledge, not just displaying it; that their missions and collections reflect A point of view rather than THE last word. Art museum labels and catalogs, for example, should be more transparent about how and why they select some art/artists over others. Children’s museums should be aware that their assumptions about the value of play are culturally conditioned. They should present wider options diverse family participation..
  3. Take steps to move all of their organizational systems (Board membership, hiring policies, collections management, etc).toward inclusion, equity and justice, Museums must shift from practices reflective of a single dominant perspective to a more transparent and inclusive model.

In other words, museums must acknowledge that they already stand for what appears to many as an oppressive, unyielding, and exclusionary set of values. Museums must examine this stance, and they must decide if they wish to change sides. Cosmetic initiatives such as hiring a person of color for “underserved audiences” or bringing in a temporary curator on a diversity fellowship are not the answer. Real change requires systemic transformation.

The following are three initiatives that provide resources for this kind of intensive work.

The MASSAction Toolkit–

Visitors of Color

The Empathetic Museum Initiative

I want to be clear that this post is not advocating that museums avoid or ignore current issues that affect their audiences.  it’s my experience, however, that unless an institution is engaged in the internal work of inclusion and equity, its efforts to become involved in larger issues are likely to be reactive, patronizing, and sporadic.  Museums that are deeply involved in their own self-reflection and transformation will contribute to our world in ways that are authentic, grounded, and sustainable.  This is the kind of non-neutrality that we need.

25 Ways to See and Act on Decentering Whiteness Aka White Supremacy in the Museum

Contributed by Radiah Harper

Hello warriors. Since returning home from the MASS Action convening, I’ve been thinking about the conversations, comments, and action steps we talked about during our time together. It seems to me ‘how to’ touch the humanity of this work, which is our social justice practice, is on folks’ minds. My original intent was to share this piece with the leadership circle from the other day. Today, I’m thinking there are take-aways for all of us.

My goal here is to offer a way in to the question of how to decenter whiteness in the museum. My suggestions are in no way comprehensive, for instance they do not address every colonial issue like stolen cultural patrimony or the economic foundation of the museum. However, I do ask: What self-reflection is necessary to do the work of ending white supremacy in the museum? What skills do we need to build culturally competent relationships and spaces?

Knowing we are the museum, here are 25 ways to check where you are in decentering whiteness or white supremacy. 

1. If you are not seeing every black, brown, tan, and cream person of color as a person of stature equal to your own, you are not doing the work.

2. If you are not including the research and perspective of people of color in your work on people of color, you are not doing the work.

3. If you work with people of color and one person tells you their supervisor is racist and you don’t believe them, you are not doing the work.

4. If you haven’t addressed racism in the workplace, you are not doing the work.

5. If you haven’t looked inside yourself to recognize your own biases, you have not begun the work.

6. If you work with people of color and they quit the job stating the supervisor could not accept the differences between them, you’re not doing the work.

7. If you are still writing labels about the art, history, and culture of people of color without talking to or researching the perspectives of people of color, you are not doing the work.

8. If you are not co-creating materials with people of color, you are not doing the work.

9. If you are not locating where, how and to what degree people of color and white people are interconnected, you are not doing the work.

10. If you are only recruiting and hiring people of color with education and experience like your own, you are not doing the work.

11. If the voices of people of color inside and outside the institution are not accepted as true and knowledgeable, you are not doing the work.

12. If your institutional mission does not include an equity and inclusion statement, you are not doing the work.

13. If there are no woke people of color on your senior management team, you are not doing the work.

14. If people of color in the institution are not contributing to idea generation and the implementation of exhibitions and programs, you are not doing the work.

15. If the images of people of color are not in your brochures and videos or on your website, you are not doing the work.

16. If images of people of color in states of authority, and not just dancing, are not used in your marketing materials, you are not doing the work.

17. If the photographer comes to the museum to capture the activities of staff and visitors, and s/he fails to produce photographs of the people of color, you are not doing the work.

18. If there are no people of color at your fundraiser beside seat fillers, you are not doing the work.

19. If your acquisitions team or individual curators are finally purchasing objects of black, brown, tan, and cream people and they select the most visually unattractive representation of a person or historical narrative and they say but it references a moment in time and you let that go, you are not doing the work.

20. If there are no people of color in every facet of your museum then you are not doing the work.

21. If people of color are not in positions of power throughout your institution then, you are not doing the work.

22. If people of color are not creating, implementing, and leading without a white gaze hovering, then you are not doing the work.

23. If you think people of color are angry and you use that to stop progress, you’re not doing the work.

24. If the white voice has the final word in every situation, then you are not doing the work of decentering whiteness in an institution located within a global society made predominately of people of color.

25. If the antidotes to the preceding challenges are not in your consciousness yet, explore them deeply with your colleagues and get to work.

“Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny; to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.” ―
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Q. What would you add?

Radiah Harper
October 2017

Welcome to MASS Action Blog!



Welcome to the MASS Action blog. This is a place to connect our community of practice, to share concepts and ideas, learning and experiences, and to post case studies from your institution. This is also a space to stay in touch with your fellow MASS Action participants as we continue to build on the important work of creating more equitable and socially just museums.