What You Gain by Attending the Annual Meeting as a Scholar: An interview with James Burns

Category: Annual Meeting
Two photographs sit side by side with a white man. The one on the left shows him sitting on a log in a forest with tall wheat colored grasses in front and thin white barked trees behind. The image on the right has the same man, several years older, standing with his arms crossed in front of a white column outside wearing wire rimmed glasses and a blue suit and tie.
James Burns, on the left in 1997, and on the right in 2018

We recently had a chat with James Burns, Executive Director of the Arizona Historical Society, who was awarded an AAM scholarship all the way back in 1997. Here he talks about how that first trip to the AAM Annual Meeting helped jumpstart his career.

How did it feel to get the scholarship?

I was awarded a scholarship to AAM back in 1997 while working one of my first jobs out of graduate school at a small museum that was only able to pay minimum wage with no benefits. But I had a title; I was a newly-minted curator. When I received notification of the award, I was surprised, excited, and nervous all at the same time. I headed off to the annual meeting in Atlanta, where I encountered a much larger city than I’d ever been to before and thousands of museums professionals, none of whom I knew, and all of whom seemed so much more intelligent and experienced than I was at the time.

How did attending the AAM Annual Meeting shape your career?

My first AAM annual meeting influenced the trajectory of both my career and my personal life. That trip to Atlanta was my first exposure to a thriving LGBT community, and I observed museum professionals who were ‘out’ and successful in their careers. That was something I’d never before contemplated as I was barely ‘out’ to myself at the time. Through networking opportunities at the annual meeting, I began to form a group of museum friends across the country, and abroad, that I could lean on for professional advice; many became dear friends over the years. Those initial contacts and the people I met through them have become an intricate tapestry of relationships resulting in volunteer leadership opportunities, publications, the privilege of attending Museum Management Institute at the Getty, and even job offers. On a personal note, two years after attending AAM in Atlanta, I moved there; as I like to say: “I moved there to come out. I just didn’t know it at the time.” I built a successful museum career in Atlanta over a period of 9 years, which positioned me to return to my adopted home, Arizona, and become a museum director.

What was most surprising about your experience as an AAM Scholar?

The most surprising part of my experience as an AAM scholar was meeting people who were so accepting, giving of their professional expertise, and friendly. Through AAM I met many of the people who became mentors to me over the years. Today, I attend AAM to give back by sharing my expertise, making connections for emerging museum professionals, and participating in diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion initiatives.

Name one thing you want everyone to know about why museums matter.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

Museums matter because they enrich our lives, feed our souls, and provide a refuge from the struggles of daily life. In an ever-faster evolving world, museums help us make sense of complexity and ambiguity and open our eyes to magic and nuances. Museums help us understand what it means to be human and define us as a society. Museums turn the mundane into the extraordinary.

Read more about the impact of the fellowship from alumni Jeanine Pollard.

If you want to help Alliance scholars like James, you can donate to our Giving Tuesday campaign. 100% of donations go to 2019 Alliance Scholarship Program!

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