Skip to content

Now Is the Time to Rebuild a Better Museum Field

Category: Virtual Annual Meeting
A graphic for the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, titled "Radical Reimagining."

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

Opening General Session of the 2020 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo

May 18, 2020

Hello! And welcome to the first-ever virtual AAM Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo.

To the thousands of you watching and participating across the United States and from around the world, I know this isn’t what we hoped for.

Just two months ago, we were putting the finishing touches on fantastic plans for our in-person meeting in San Francisco. The local host committee worked so hard to welcome us to the amazing institutions in the Bay Area—the Oakland Museum, the Computer History Museum, the Exploratorium, the Asian Art Museum, and so many others.

But the coronavirus had other plans for the annual meeting, for the museum field, for dedicated museum staffs, and for our world.

Like many of you, I suspect, I have spent a lot of time lately feeling angry, scared, and sad about all that is happening.

Each one of us has been affected by the pandemic and is suffering some sense of loss.

For those participating today who have battled this virus or know someone who has lost the battle to COVID-19, our thoughts are with you.

To the caregivers, first responders, grocery store employees, and others who risk their lives every day for our communities, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Not a day goes by when I don’t think about all of the people who are hurting and struggling in the American Alliance of Museums community. Because nearly every institution remains closed, thousands of museum colleagues are out of work. The AAM team is doing everything in our power to get you back to work as quickly and safely as possible.

Among the emotions I shared earlier, it’s important that I share a few more: I am also grateful, inspired, and hopeful.

I am hopeful that the museum field is going to lead the way in our world’s recovery and healing.

I am inspired by how museums are already leading that recovery and serving new needs in our communities. Even though museums are closed, many are still providing educational programming and resources to the one-and-a-half billion school children around the globe affected by school closures.

Museums are emptying their own closets and donating safety supplies and equipment to local hospitals.

Their doors may be closed but you just cannot stop museums from providing opportunities for joy, solace, and inspiration when people need it most.

And I am grateful that the amazing staff of the American Alliance of Museum is healthy and strong. And that our team pivoted—in a matter of hours—to a virtual office, producing new content, advocating, and bringing our hurt community together.

I’m grateful to our Professional Networks and presenters who are giving of their time and expertise during the virtual conference and in dozens of free webinars and resources.

I’m grateful to our Board and generous supporters who realized that AAM cannot close down, cannot miss a beat.

We need to fight for museums and support the people that make up museums, now more than ever.

Like most of our members, AAM is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.

Like most of our members, AAM’s revenue consists of membership dues, donations, and event revenue, including from our annual meeting and expo.

Like most of our members, we use that revenue to provide year-round programming and advocacy for our community…and in AAM’s case, our community is you.

At the same time museum leaders are working through contingencies and models for reopening institutions in a new world, we are doing the same thing here at AAM. Those models right now include less revenue and more expenses.

In the months to come, we may slow some Alliance initiatives. But let me be crystal clear: We will never stop our work to champion museums and nurture excellence.

AAM was founded 114 years ago and has survived previous pandemics, world wars, and vicious political attempts to shut down arts and culture in our country.

We are doing everything we can to guarantee that our Alliance and our museums are around for another 114 years.

During this once-in-a-generation crisis, a strong Alliance is crucial.

I want to take just a few minutes to share a bit about our plans to lead our field’s recovery, our own Museum CARES Act, if you will….C.A.R.E.S.

C is for Content—and Communication—and Connection

For decades, AAM has been a leader in providing you trustworthy information and in connecting people across the sector, from art museums and aquariums to science centers and zoos.

We take that responsibility very seriously. In any crisis, especially one of this magnitude where there is no playbook, we all need high-quality, rapid response, thoughtful information to guide our decisions.

At every stage of this crisis, the AAM team has been laser-focused on sharing resources, data, and examples from across the field to inform your decisions.

And we moved quickly to make sure you could connect with each other—on a variety of platforms, including this virtual conference.

We all have a thirst for news and information. There is record traffic visiting our website during the pandemic. Governors and local leaders around the country are using the Alliance’s guidelines and resources to plan for the re-opening of museums and other cultural institutions—safely.

Thousands are participating in our free webinars. And more than two thousand museum professionals are participating in this virtual conference.

But here’s the secret to the “C”…our digital library and toolkits and virtual forums are empty without contributions from you. Alliance members have stepped up to the challenge and shared articles, data, and resources like never before.

So, thank you! And please keep the content coming! Many in the field are relying on your valuable information, lessons learned, and inspiring examples of success.

The A is for Advocacy

When the world shut down in March and Congress started working on a relief package for the country, I was optimistic—and determined to make sure museums’ needs were heard and addressed.

My optimism came from the fact that the museum field has some of the strongest advocates anywhere, with important stories from diverse communities.

As recently as February during Museums Advocacy Day, hundreds of you came to Washington, D.C., and stormed Capitol Hill to share your museums’ stories and our field’s $50 billion economic impact with lawmakers.

And in recent weeks, museum advocates sent over forty thousand messages to Congress using the Alliance’s online advocacy tools.

What was the payoff for that hard work? More than $200 million in financial relief earmarked for the cultural agencies, eligibility for small business loans to protect museum jobs, and increased charitable giving incentives, among other successes.

I know it’s not nearly enough. But it wasn’t that long ago that museums and zoos and aquariums were left out of Congressional stimulus funding entirely. The U.S. Senate actually voted to ban museums from receiving any funding in the 2009 stimulus package.

So, from being left out ten years ago to millions of dollars in 2020—our advocacy is working.

And we are certainly not done yet! We will keep fighting for additional funding for museums of all types and sizes in the next rounds of relief funding—and as Congress turns its attention to the annual appropriations process.

So, please, keep responding to our Advocacy Alerts; keep writing those letters and making those phone calls to your legislators.

And engage your trustees and communities in telling leaders how important your museum is to them. Your voice matters.

The R in our CARES acronym is for Re-imagine

It’s clear that how we choose to move through the impacts of the pandemic will determine the future of our museums for years to come.

As others have put it, in the midst of much uncertainty, one thing is clear: “The museums we closed will not be the museums we reopen.”

I urge us to embrace that reality, difficult as it is right now—and use this disruption to address many of the structures that have not served us—from precarious business models to the inequities embedded into how we work. We need new models to be successful, relevant, and inclusive in the future.

Now is the time to dismantle the old and rebuild anew. Rebuild a better museum field.

And so the E is for Equity

It was just about this time a year ago when I shared details of our Facing Change initiative to diversify museums boards and leadership.

Thanks to investments by the Ford, Mellon, and Alice Walton Foundations, the Alliance held a dozen workshops with over one thousand board members from fifty-six participating museums last year. Inclusion work at this scale has never been attempted before in our field, and we were overwhelmed and grateful for the support and enthusiastic participation.

When the pandemic hit and museums’ focus shifted to survival, I anticipated our Facing Change participants would want to pause our work on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion. But the response was the opposite.

The majority of museums recognized the importance of this work—now more than ever—and asked to continue. So, while some elements of the plan will slow and change to address the current situation, the important work of Facing Change continues.

During this pandemic and global crisis, it is more important than ever to acknowledge that it is our diversity—the variety of voices and perspectives we bring to the table—that makes us strong.

As museums rise to the challenge of COVID-19 and make impossibly difficult decisions, we have a great responsibility to stay focused on equity. The pandemic has amplified many of the inequities in our society—and our field is no different.

Now is not the time to push these DEAI initiatives aside.

Now is the time to double down on them—to center equity in our decision-making and actions—and to lift up those most vulnerable in our institutions and in our communities.

Lastly, the S is for Support

This is a stressful, highly emotional time for all of us. Each of us is struggling in our own way and facing our own personal challenges.

Hopefully, we each also know how good it feels when someone extends some kindness, some compassion, a message of encouragement. It can mean everything to just hear a few words of support.

We can’t change or control everything that’s going on in the world, but we do each have the power to bring light and empathy to our fellow human beings, to our colleagues in this museum field.

In the coming days, I urge you to support each other, be kind to each other, check in on your colleagues, and really practice empathy and patience.

That will make us all stronger.

I want to close by reiterating my gratitude to all of you.

On this International Museum Day, thank you to all our participants and presenters from around the world.

Our museum field is connected like never before, and it will take cross-continental solidarity, leadership, and cooperation to tackle this worldwide crisis and emerge a stronger global museum field.

To our museum expo participants and sponsors, and especially today’s signature sponsor, Microsoft—thank you!

As each of you deal with this crisis and wonder what your future looks like, you never turned your back on the museum field nor on AAM. We will all remember how you stood by us during this crisis and we will all succeed together in the years to come.

And thank you to the presenters who you will hear from during the five days of the virtual conference.

We are so lucky to have experts and thought leaders from within the museum field, as well as some outside voices. They are joining us to provide perspective, ideas, and inspiration to help us re-imagine our institutions.

Despite a lot of uncertainty in the world and the challenges we face, I am hopeful.

In addition to all the serious conversations we’ll have together in the coming days, we at the Alliance also wanted to bring you some Moments of Joy.

You are here because you are leaders. You are resilient. And you are vital to our society’s recovery and healing. There is no Alliance without you.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.