Sitting Down with Association of Children’s Museums’ Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus
This month, we had the opportunity to sit down with Laura Huerta Migus, Executive Director of the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) and discuss this statement ACM put out in response to inhumane treatment of immigrant children in detention centers.
We talked at length about the role and responsibility cultural organizations have in advocating for and taking a stance on social issues that impact their staffs and audiences. (And yes, non-profit cultural institutions can advocate; AAM came up with an FAQ guide that addresses this very issue.) “Dialogue around social justice should be framed as structural. There is an emphasis on how this is hearts-and-minds work, but if you approach it from a structural point of view, it’s easier to channel your emotions into actions,” stated Huerta Migus. Part of translating individual values into organizational values for ACM has been developing an internal process that expedites its capacity to respond in a time-sensitive manner.
As a response to requests from member institutions and internal staff, ACM has been building capacity for this work in recent years. In 2015, the ACM conference was held in Indianapolis, Indiana, and happened to coincide with the anti-LGBTQ Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law that allows individuals to cite religious reasons in discriminating against other individuals, signed by then-Governor Mike Pence. ACM drafted a letter to Pence, citing that the legislation directly impacted attendees’ safety and well-being, as well as impeded ACM’s hosting of the conference.
On September 24, 2017, Trump signed Presidential Proclamation 9645 (aka the Muslim Travel Ban), the third attempt to deliver on his campaign promise to create a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” ACM responded by starting their 90 Days of Action for a #WorldTheyDeserve campaign on social media, which highlighted programs or exhibits that served and were welcoming immigrant families and children.
With these two examples as precedent, ACM staff worked with their Board of Directors to develop a systematized process that would allow for a quicker turnaround for putting out messages with calls to action in response to critical social justice issues. “The Association is a collective voice with entry points for members to amplify the message, and sometimes member institutions choose not to amplify. In a lot of ways, it is safer for an association to make a statement versus an individual institution,” said Huerta Migus. However, she identified some concrete questions that any museum can ask when developing a process.
The first step of the process was education the Board’s Executive Committee on how issues not usually associated with museums affect museum visitors and staff. Huerta Migus emphasized asking the necessity of making sure to ground statements and actions in vision and mission statements by asking does this issue confirm and validate our mission and value statements or the issue in direct conflict with these statements? How does it affect our work? In order to move beyond just releasing a statement, ACM prioritizes making a recommendation for a concrete call to action or consequence.
In the example of the recent immigration raids, ACM recognized a direct impact for member institutions to carry out services. Whether it be community outreach or after school programming that are geared specifically to immigrant populations, families were afraid to congregate and often would not access these programs.
Responding to large social issues does not have to be over-programmed. Huerta Migus invites us to ask what is the easiest, most substantive step? She cited the efforts of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s response to the Tree of Life shootings. The museum offered free admission for 5 days, engaged staff internally to affirm the museum is a place of healing and inspiration, and hosted a pop-up exhibition called XOXO: Love and Forgiveness, where children’s voices were amplified through interactive storytelling.
By identifying key filters grounded in institution values, museums and other cultural organizations absolutely have a role in responding to social justice issues. In planning for long-term action and understanding the structural inequities that impact internal and external communities, our field can act on the side of justice and be responsive.
Answering these questions can help guide decision-making, and build shared understanding, internally and with our Boards, of what our organizations do and stand for. Ultimately, we need systems and structures in place, because the issues we are addressing (racism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc.) are structural.
Written by Anniessa Antar