This article originally appeared in Museum magazine’s May/June 2023 issue, a benefit of AAM membership.
For generations, much of the American public has put museums in a box, seeing them as nice places to visit on occasions like annual school field trips but not community anchors essential to a thriving society.
In recent years, this public perception has become an increasing concern. In the stiff competition for resources, funders have been focusing on utility above all. Government leaders want the tax dollars they earmark to clearly benefit their constituents. Philanthropists want the activities they support to demonstrably address social issues. The good news is, we know museums can and do impact the world in the ways these decision-makers are seeking. Our museum field just needs to build on recent momentum to strengthen, aggregate, and communicate this impact.
For that reason, AAM named advocating for social and community impact a top priority in our 2022–2025 strategic framework. As we developed the framework amid the tumult of the pandemic, we were inspired by the deep commitment museum professionals had shown to their communities, through steps like donating protective gear to health-care workers, stocking food banks from their gardens, teaching remote classes, and helping to demystify and provide comfortable space to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. There was no better nationwide demonstration of all the things museums were doing outside of the old box.
Already, there are signs that this demonstration is transforming the perception of museums. For instance, I was pleased to note that a recent government report outlining a plan to improve health and wellness outcomes, The Federal Plan for Equitable Long-Term Recovery and Resilience, mentions museums no fewer than a dozen times. For those in the field, the connection between museums and well-being is established, but this was the first time I’d seen our country’s decision-makers embracing it so enthusiastically. This is only the beginning of the change we want to see over time, but it’s a good sign we are making progress. We can’t stop our work to break out of the box.
Over the next few years, we have a strategy to define and measure the impact of your work, and then to convey that impact to the decision-makers who need to be convinced. One of the first major steps in this effort is taking place at the 2023 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in Denver. This year, we have reimagined our long-running conference as a mass dialogue on social impact. With thousands of members expected to attend, every session on the program relates to one of four dimensions of impact—People, Power, Planet, and Possibility—and new formats like workshops and roundtables allow for more participatory discussion and concrete skill-building. With articles derived from sessions on the program, this issue of the magazine is your first look at some of what that conversation will hold.
As we work toward a unified framework of impact, with greater recognition of all that museums can do for the world, we need to hear from you. We hope you’ll play an active part in our collective work, whether at the Annual Meeting or through the year-round programs that will be part of our recently announced $1 million investment in the museum community.
Funders and policymakers are eager to understand the full value of museums. We just need to show them.