Museums are More than a Year-End Field Trip

Category: Annual Meeting

Prepared Remarks of Laura L. Lott
President & CEO of the American Alliance of Museums

Opening General Session of the 2018 Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo

May 7, 2018

Good morning AAMers! A few weeks ago, I took my now 5-year-old daughter to Kindergarten registration. It was an exciting day for her – and for our family.

We’re lucky. She’s privileged to be going to one of the best public school systems in the country. She’s healthy and smart. She has great parents. She’s been to more museums than most grown-ups and she’s already a frequent flier, like her mom.

She’ll do fine.

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But the Kindergarten registration experience also left me a little sad – and not just because my baby is growing up so fast! It was sad because, as a person who has worked in education most of my career, I know that, statistically, more than one-third of my daughter’s peers across the country who are also entering kindergarten this year do not have the language and literacy skills they need to succeed. Fifty years of research shows that those kids who start behind, stay behind.

If history proves true, 25% of my daughter’s peers across the country will not graduate from high school on time. You heard me correctly. One in four of the kids entering school this year in the United States won’t graduate on time.

And even among those who do graduate from high school, one in three still won’t be proficient in basic reading and math when they do. For students of color – who for the first time make up the majority of students in K-12 classrooms – and for students from low-income families – half of today’s students – the statistics are even worse. More than 6 million jobs are unfilled in this country because workers lack the skills that employers demand.

Colleagues, our education system is in peril!

Our children cannot wait for the system to fix itself. What we in the museum field do matters to them, today. Across this country, our museums – some of the world’s best – are side by side some of the most struggling school systems.

There is no shortage of research pointing to the benefits of museums for children. Be it a science center, art museum, children’s museum, or historical society… museums provide memorable, immersive, inquiry-based learning experiences. Museums inspire kids’ natural curiosity, imagination, and creativity.

As anyone who’s been around a preschooler knows…they cannot stop asking “why?!” They’re natural explorers. One of the many wonderful things about museums is they give children so many opportunities to ask ‘why’… and to keep exploring new worlds, people, and ideas as they grow up.

In an education policy debate recently, a colleague blurted out: “Stop saying we have to make learning fun. Learning IS fun! We need to stop making learning boring!” Well, I believe museums keep learning fun.

Before I joined AAM, I helped run an education program at National Geographic. The JASON Project, named for mythical explorer Jason and the Argonauts, used real explorers and real expeditions to engage and teach science to middle school students. I saw the incredible impact of authentic people, equipment, and experiments – on all kinds of students who were otherwise bored to tears in their science classes.

We were able to make that impact because we worked with the school systems. We worked with the state departments of education. We worked together to embed the content into the curriculum and give teachers ownership. We created real partnerships – and thru those partnerships, we instilled systemic change.

I am convinced that museums and schools partnering more cohesively in communities across the country is an absolute must – for museums to be seen as essential, for over-stretched schools and teachers to be more effective – and for our kids to be successful.

Many of you might be thinking, “My museum already spends a lot of time and money on education” and you’re absolutely right. By our estimates, museums already spend more than $2 billion a year on education. And the typical museum devotes 75 percent of its education budget specifically to P-12 students. We receive more than 55 million visits every year from students in school groups. And museums have created educational programs in every subject, tailored to the needs of state and local curriculum standards.

So what’s the challenge?

I think the biggest challenge is that we museums are not yet seen as essential to the learning ecosystem. I know I’m preaching to the Alliance choir, especially at an education-themed meeting – so that’s partly my call for action. We need to preach beyond our own choir, beyond the museum field, to get our museums woven into the fabric of local school systems. We need to move beyond decades of isolated pilot programs and one-off grants that don’t take hold.

Just a few months ago in Los Angeles, the American Alliance of Museums and the Partnership for LA Schools convened museum professionals and educators – from one of the largest and most diverse school systems in America. The goal was to get these two groups talking and listening to each other, the first step in building relationships that might bloom into long-term partnerships. Here’s a taste.

Kudos to the AAM team and the museum community in Los Angeles for supporting the program and to the LA Schools for welcoming them with open arms.

Open arms is not something I always receive from Washington politicians… But the video clip you saw at the start of the session featuring former Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice speaking about museums as centers of learning in our communities was just one step forward in urging high-level decision makers to consider what museums can offer.

Thanks to proud AAM member, the Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, museums were a significant part of the discussion at the recent Reagan Institute Summit on Education. RISE, as it was called, was held in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago on the 35th anniversary of the seminal education report, “A Nation at Risk.” The conclusion of many at that summit was that we’re still a nation at risk…we’re losing too many children – and all that potential.

I hope our time together this week will help us map out some goals and strategies with an eye toward sustained partnerships with our local school systems. Museums have so much more to offer than a year-end field trip. And we have so much more to gain.

Advocacy

When we come together as an Alliance, there is no stopping what we can do. Recently, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the first budget increase for the Institute of Museum & Library Services in nine years, despite the President’s repeated call to eliminate IMLS, NEA, and NEH.

YOU, the thousands who called and wrote your legislators, who visited them on Capitol Hill, invited them to your museums, and activated your board around advocacy – YOU made this happen. Those of you who came together for our 10th annual Museums Advocacy Day a few months ago heard me make a personal admission…I’m a recovering Certified Public Accountant. And I LOVE numbers!

I love numbers because they are powerful and they are respected by decision-makers. Board members love numbers. Philanthropists and grant makers love numbers. Policymakers and legislators love numbers. But, to be frank, our field has lacked the reliable and compelling numbers that show the true power of museums.

Working with experts at Oxford Economics, Wilkening Consulting, and with generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we recently unveiled two new reports – with lots of numbers!

The first study is called Museums as Economic Engines. It reveals that museums contribute more to the US economy than previously thought … much more:

  • $50 billion to the US GDP, every year
  • 726,000 jobs
  • $12 billion in tax revenue to federal, state, and local government

Now, I know we all hate dissolving the incredible importance of museums into numbers. And we shouldn’t. These data are just part of the toolkit. The numbers are important to change a common misperception about museums – that we only TAKE from taxpayers and the economy. These numbers prove we also GIVE in a big way to communities – financially – in addition to our many other contributions.

The second report, Museums & Public Opinion, examines the opinions of Americans concerning museums, and both their economic and educational value. Conducted by AAM and Wilkening Consulting, the study was fielded by the market research experts at Ipsos.

It revealed that supporting museums is a core value of the American public that crosses political lines, bridges divides between urban and rural communities, and is even consistent among those who do not regularly visit museums!! 97% of Americans believe that museums are educational assets for their communities.

And 96% of people report that they want their legislators to support them – to fund them! Conservatives, moderates, liberals, those who don’t care about politics…they all want their legislators to support museums. Museum funding is not a partisan issue – and we cannot let others make it a partisan issue! I could go on – but I encourage you to read, use and … LOVE the numbers. Both reports are free on our website.

During my visits to Capitol Hill and with some philanthropists, I sadly hear a lot of – “I love museums. But it’s not my place to fund them…” or “There are a lot of important causes, and museums just aren’t as vital as other needs.” What I hear them saying is: “Museums are nice – but they’re not essential.”

I believe – I think we all believe – that museums ARE essential because, in addition to our economic impact and what we have to offer the education system, we make the world a better, more beautiful, more just and empathetic place.

But can we say museums are essential if they don’t include everyone?”

DEAI

As you undoubtedly know by now, the Alliance has prioritized diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in all aspects of museums’ structure and programming – as well as our own. We abbreviate it DEAI.

After nearly a year of work, the DEAI Working Group, which I co-chaired with Dr. Johnnetta Cole, just released its report called Facing Change. Written by our own Director of Inclusion, Dr. Nicole Ivy, this report provides a clear roadmap for every museum, for each of us as professionals, and for AAM to jump-start the long and hard work that effective inclusion requires.

Here are the five insights in the report:

  • Every museum professional must do personal work to face their unconscious bias. We give you some ideas to get started.
  • Debates on definitions must not hinder progress – we’ve defined the terms.
  • Inclusion is central to the effectiveness and sustainability of museums. It’s not peripheral – it’s part of excellence.
  • Systemic change is vital to long-term, genuine progress – which is why we’re strengthening the DEAI connection in everything we do, including the Continuum of Excellence and, ultimately, Accreditation
  • Empowered, inclusive leadership is essential at all levels of an organization. We at AAM are working with emerging museum professionals to boards of trustees because all must play a role.

We at AAM are on this journey hand-in-hand with all of you. For example, informed and inspired by the #MeToo movement of recent months, we have developed a new code of conduct for meeting participants this year. It’s meant to help ensure everyone at AAM’s meetings and events are treated with respect, feels safe, and has a route to voice harassment concerns. I ask you to please be familiar with it, and I urge you to adapt it for your own museum.

Featuring You

I want to close with four words that should NOT be new to you: Champion museums. Nurture excellence.

It’s the tagline we adopted six years ago when we re-branded as the American Alliance of Museums. And it’s in our official mission statement: champion museums and nurture excellence in partnership with our members and allies. These words guide everything I do every day, along with the incredibly dedicated and talented board of directors and staff at AAM. I hope it’s clear that the Alliance is more nimble and efficient than ever – and that we’re listening to YOU.

Because our work is not just on behalf of the diverse field and its institutions… Our work is to champion YOU!

YOU are the change-makers.

YOU are the thought leaders and the trend-setters.

YOU are the ceiling-breakers.

YOU are the standard-bearers.

Over the last year, AAM’s Executive Vice President and Chief Program Officer, Rob Stein, led a team of staff and partners to launch a multifaceted and ambitious Internet platform and content strategy that features YOU.

We are creating an online space that is:

  • A connection to colleagues and thought partners across the globe
  • A stage for field-wide debate
  • An amplifier for voices not often heard
  • A toolbox to equip your work, and
  • A laboratory to experiment with new approaches

This is YOUR platform. And being a champion for YOU isn’t just about this new website. We’re championing and connecting you, face-to-face, as well.

This past year, the Alliance and its Professional Networks, members, and partners have hosted numerous regional convenings, across the Americas, around:

  • Museum Governance
  • Early Interventions to Prevent Deaccession Crises – in partnership with AAMD, AASLH, AAMG, and NEMA
  • Reimagining the Museum – with our great Latin American partners at TyPA and our own Latino Network
  • The Future of Historic Sites – in collaboration with Mt. Vernon and AAM’s Historic House and Sites Network
  • And, of course, a very important, field-wide, Museums Advocacy Day – with partners too numerous to mention here.

I am also proud of AAM’s Professional Network, EdCom – the Educators Committee – which is experimenting with new forms of professional development with its EdComversations. And, of course, this week you are attending the largest and most diverse museum gathering in the world, bringing you inspirational speakers, many from outside the museum field, who will challenge your thinking and the status quo.

This week – the Alliance comes together! This annual meeting can’t be done without the hard work of the Alliance staff, our Board, and, especially, the National Program and Local Host Committee members.

So here’s my last call to action of the morning – check out the new website and start sharing your voice and your stories.

As I travel the country, and abroad, visiting your fantastic museums and meeting you, sometimes getting to work side-by-side with you, I am repeatedly struck by your passion, your dedication, your resourcefulness and creativity. YOU, the extraordinary people that make up this field and this Alliance, are the continuous learners and leaders we must champion … give voice to … and learn from.

There is no Alliance without you!

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