Sitting in the lobby of the Los Angeles Convention Center where the 103 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Museums (AAM) is taking place, I can’t help but think about the first time I attended in 1983 when the meeting was held in Philadelphia. Still, a rather new professional, I had completed a master’s degree program in American arts and museum studies five years before and was working in my second real museum job at the American History Workshop, a museum consulting firm in Boston.
Admittedly, what I most recall of that meeting was that after I decided to leave early to go back to Boston, I changed my airplane ticket (you could do that easily in those days), and got the last seat on the plane, next to a young doctor in training who was flying home to Maine. That young doctor is now my husband of 26 years. We had a great conversation about paintings and the importance of museums. Small wonder that he immediately won me over.
I remember other things about the conference as well. Cary Carson, a historian at Colonial Williamsburg, reported on what visitors talk about when they look at objects in museums. It surprised me then to hear that their first reaction was to make connections to their own lives, “Grandma had one of those chairs,” or “I’ve got one just like that. I wonder if it’s worth a lot.”
Why was what he said surprising? Because in those days, museum people concentrated on preserving artifacts and presenting information to the public. We didn’t think a lot about whether people would be interested in what we had to say or how to make what we did “fun”. In fact, the words “fun” and “museums” rarely appeared in the same sentence. (The few children’s museums at that time stood as exceptions.)
But times have changed since then. It took a while for Sesame Street and television shows like it to prove that we could learn while having fun and have fun while learning.
At the annual meeting this year, many speakers urged museums to find ways for many different segments of the community to feel at home. And, they stressed that we engage visitors in ways that are personally meaningful to them. Museum professionals no longer quibble about whether museums can or should be entertaining; there is a broad understanding that in order to survive they must remain relevant and interesting to 21st century audiences.
I feel proud of how far museums have come since the early 80s; they’ve become catalysts for lifelong learning, places for quality family time and for nurturing curiosity among children. I am also proud that Conner Prairie
has come to be seen as a leader in the field.
This year at AAM, three panel sessions and one on-line panel featured Conner Prairie as a role model for how to grow and thrive. In fact, we were named as one of nine “Magnetic Museums” that uses mission-focused planning and programming to deliver a total brand experience and offer audiences new emotional connection points and experiences.
I’m curious to know your reaction to changes in museums in the last quarter century. Do you like museums better now or then?