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“The Truth Must Start with Museums”: Opening Remarks from #AAM2021

Category: Annual Meeting

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

Opening General Session of the 2021 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo

May 24, 2021

Good morning from the AAM office just outside Washington DC, the land of the Piscataway people.

And welcome to the second – virtual – AAM Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo.

Thank you to the thousands of people watching and participating across the United States and from around the world. We’re glad you’re here.

Like many of you, I would have much preferred to be together in person in Chicago this month, shaking hands, giving hugs, and visiting all of the amazing Chicagoland institutions. But, even via a screen, it feels wonderful to be together with all of you during this time.

Thank YOU for making an investment in yourself, in museums and communities, and in the future of this field. Museums are critical to our society and to rebuilding our communities after the extended period of uncertainty, loss, and trauma we’ve been living through.

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, which sparked an overdue reckoning with our nation’s long history of racial injustice – and more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began taking the lives and livelihoods of far too many, the theme for this annual meeting is simply: “Resilient, Together.”

To AAM, resiliency is defined by the ability to recover from difficulties, to learn from mistakes, and in doing so, to find enrichment.

As we begin to recover and look to the future, our “new normal” is filled with uncertainty – and, likely, more frequent disruption. During the four days of our annual meeting, together we will explore some difficult questions.

  • How can we come together, embrace the change offered by the current disruption, and build greater resilience?
  • Which aspects of traditional practice have not served us well – as professionals and institutions? And how can we rebuild more sustainably, more equitably?
  • What is the role of museums in bridging divides, bringing communities together, and building empathy, understanding, and belonging?

I am looking forward to our discussions and to your ideas. But I know our work on these challenges – and many others – will not end when our annual meeting concludes.

While the past 15 months have been miserable in so many ways, our collective museum advocacy work and accomplishments, together, have been a bright spot. These achievements give me hope and confidence in the resilience of our field.

Shortly after the pandemic started last year and 99% of all museums were shuttered, AAM surveyed members asking about their future and hope for recovery. Devastatingly, one-third of museums (33%) reported they were at risk of permanent closure or didn’t know how they would survive the sudden and dramatic loss of revenue.

We could not let these museums fail. We called on museum advocates to act. You answered the call and sent nearly 60,000 messages to Congress in support of your colleagues and your communities who rely on museums.

Together, we fought for museums to be included in federal relief funding – including the Paycheck Protection Program and the $16.25 Billion Shuttered Venues Operating Grants. I’ve never been able to use the word “billion” and museum assistance in the same sentence before! But WE did it.

Together, we told the stories of how dedicated museum professionals strived to meet the new and dire needs of their communities, despite their own hardships – providing space and resources for remote learning, donating supplies, feeding hungry community members, and serving as vaccination sites, to name a few.

Together, we made the case that museums are essential community infrastructure.

Together, we saved thousands of museums and tens of thousands of museum jobs. Museums received government support to an extent never before seen in the 115-year history of the American Alliance of Museums.

Instead of 33 percent of museums facing permanent closure, today there are less than 15 percent of museums at near-term risk. While still concerning, this progress gives me great hope and confidence in our field’s resilience – and in our collective power when we come together.

We have more work to do.  Sadly, there are still too many jobs lost and too many museums forced to close permanently. We will not rest on our laurels.

There are also too many people who don’t feel they have a place in museums.

Many of you are well aware of AAM’s longstanding commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) – and the actions we have prioritized in recent years to make permanent, structural change at AAM and across the field.

At the 2016 annual meeting, I unveiled a new Strategic Plan for the Alliance, which identified DEAI as a field-wide priority. And we quickly got to work.

A few years later, AAM launched the Facing Change initiative to advance board diversity and more inclusive cultures among museum leadership. Just shy of a year into the program, the pandemic began closing museums. Did we ever consider putting this critical work on hold? Absolutely not!

While we were all quarantined, more than 50 museums and thousands of board members participated in intensive racial equity trainings and developed inclusion plans.

AAM launched a new board matching program and placed nearly 100 BIPOC folks on museum boards – boards that are excited to tap into their ingenuity and experience and to keep learning.

And an eminent task force of museum leaders worked to embed DEAI into our Continuum of Excellence programs – including accreditation.

The dedication to change among members gives me hope about the resiliency of our field.

But this work is ongoing and, in fact, it likely won’t ever be complete. At this Annual Meeting, we’ll continue that pivotal discussion last June about “Racism, Unrest, and the Role of Museums” with one called “The Truth Starts Here: Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing in Museums.”

The truth must start with museums. And museums must start with their own truths and far-from-perfect histories.

Looking back at the past year, our advocacy and DEAI accomplishments are just two examples of our Alliance’s tremendous work together that give me hope for the year ahead.

There are hopeful signs all around us. Hope in science, medicine, and technology that delivered a vaccine in record time.

Hope in the confrontation and reckoning with our country’s past and addressing the influence that history continues to have today.

Hope in the strength and resilience of our democratic process and our capacity for bridge-building.

Hope in you: museum professionals across this country who have not only weathered this period, but who have done so while continuing to prioritize service to your communities in remarkable ways.

Having hope does not mean we are naively saying everything will be fine in the end, or that things will go back to “normal” in a few months. Our recovery is certain to be slow. And museums will not, fully at least, ever return to the way things were.

There are myriad challenges ahead. But our museums have the opportunity to be leaders in rebuilding, to be the promise for recovery, and catalysts for reimagining our communities – stronger than they’ve ever been.

I firmly believe that museums can lead the next Renaissance.

We can illuminate and elevate the voices and histories of those whose stories have not been told. And we can help to fill critical education gaps for our nation’s students.

There is no place for hesitation or fear in the next steps we, as a field, will take in the coming months and years.

We must be bold!

We must boldly challenge the status quo, rethink outdated models, and lift up the many brave individuals in museums across the globe who are leading us into new frontiers.

What happens when you combine hope with bold action? THIS is resilience.

I’ll leave you today with some gratitude. Thank you to the incredible AAM board and staff, volunteers, supporters, and 30,000+ members. Your active participation and tireless work delivered a tremendous five-year record of growth, innovation, and transformation that made it possible for us to emerge from 2020 ready to build.

Thank you to the volunteers on the National Program Committee and Local Host Committee in Chicago, and all our presenters. You have truly raised the bar this year. Museum professionals need and deserve a gathering that is informative, inspirational and that provides the networking and camaraderie that we’ve been missing for over a year.

One hundred and fifteen years after AAM’s founding and fifty years after AAM began accrediting museums, our Alliance is bolder and stronger than ever. Our future is brighter.

Our communities need museums like never before. And museums need YOU! There is no Alliance… there are no museums without YOU.

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