(Re)building Museums: Reflections on the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums 2021 Symposium

By Megan Anderson, Manager of Exhibits & Interpretive Planning

As we approach the end of March and the sprint towards April, everyone in the museum or institutional field has hit their pandemic anniversary date—the moment when “business as usual” gave way to efforts to stanch the impact of a pandemic that has since claimed well over 540,000 lives in America alone. This anniversary has caused reflection and anxiety, despite vaccinations being underway. In many ways, it was a relief to virtually attend the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museum’s (MAAM) Building Museums 2021 symposium at the beginning of the month. Although there was a sense of pause or stasis—paused projects, paused growth—it felt optimistic and hopeful.


Studio Ma emulated the self-shading cactus in the textural design of the Scottsdale Museum of the West. Credit: PamMcP/Wikimedia Commons

As with many other museum conferences HAI has attended virtually in the past year, MAAM’s Building Museum Conference focused on resilience and refocusing in the face of adversity. The conference’s Welcoming Remarks and keynote set an upbeat tone for the entire conference. Studio Ma’s Christiana Moss began speaking about the Scottsdale Museum of the West by reflecting on examples of self-shading in nature. Cacti are capable of changing their ridged surfaces in arid conditions to shade themselves. Similarly, the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde in Colorado provide shade in the hotter summer months and more sun in the colder winter months.

Studio Ma used self-shading as inspiration for the design of the Scottsdale Museum of the West, but this resilience is in some ways visible in the larger museum field as a whole. The pandemic has wrought havoc on cultural institutions. Organizations have seen furloughs and lay-offs of valuable staff members—especially in educational positions—amid growing concerns about public health and greater demand for cleaning, sanitizing, and ventilating indoor galleries. Some spaces saw months-long shutdowns, others shuttered permanently. Despite the challenges, we’re seeing museums “self-shade” to refocus on the most important aspects of their missions and reserve energy for that. They are prioritizing their service to their communities in a refreshing and engaging way.

The pandemic and societal reckoning of the past year made room for greater inclusion, hard conversations, and critical thinking in cultural spaces. One of the plenary sessions, “The Future of Museums Beyond the Pandemic,” presented findings from a survey of 124,000 respondents called Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis: A Special Edition of Culture Track. One of the study’s primary conclusions was that “The cultural sector has an inclusion problem”—a finding which was underscored by the fact that white respondents were overrepresented in the responses. Still, many respondents wanted to see cultural organizations being friendlier to all kinds of people, treating employees fairly and equitably, and representing more diverse voices and faces.


This chart is one of several from the study’s Key Findings. For those interested in the data behind the infographics, you can download the methodology report and raw data tables here. Credit: ©2020 Culture Track

The study also looked at how the shift to online engagement impacted museums and their audiences. In some ways, forcing museums online has benefited communities that did not feel comfortable in those museum spaces; the largest proportion of digital-only users (who had not been to an institution of the type they were engaging with digitally) were Black or African American. Some institutions—like the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—began looking at how best to engage the local audiences who were not choosing them, despite proximity. They sponsored The Mural Project, which features Rob “Problak” Gibbs’s Breathe Life 2 at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, features a girl who looks like the audiences noticeably absent from their public spaces.  


Problak’s piece focuses on a young girl in a Roxbury jersey with winged shoes. The piece is the result of a collaboration between Problak and illustrator Rob Stull. Credit: Robb Gibbs (Problak), Breathe Life 2, 2020

In “Deconstructing White Space,” moderated by Ivan O’ Garro, Associate, AIA, NCARB, SmithGroup, Washington, D.C., speakers Tracey G. Riese, Stephanie Archangel, and Dread Scott explored equity, diversity, and inclusion in museums. Ivan O’Garro described the conflict between designing and loving these spaces that do not love him back. The panel considered the importance of where museums are located, considering your audience and community and making the museum’s content accessible to them, and how to deconstruct white supremacy and the status quo. The group reflected on the hostility towards inclusion. “The whole concept is not to display anyone or anything,” Ivan O’Garr summarized. “It’s really about sharing space—sharing history—and allowing room for the interpretation of history that is more holistic and sometimes more truthful.”

One unique opportunity presented itself to HAI as a sponsor and attendee: hearing from our partner and client communities. We enjoyed engaging with and attending sessions led by companies—like the architectural and engineering firms we often partner with—as well as museum professionals, to whom we provide a wide range of content development and collections management services. “The Perfect Fit: Assembling the Architect and Interpretive Design Team” offered museum staff strategies for finding a team that best suits their needs, providing wonderful insights into the internal decision-making process that results in contracts with consultants like HAI. HAI usually functions as a member of a larger team—and, as the panel noted, with an established team it is easy to gauge a team’s relationship and cohesiveness with a group presentation during the vetting process. In general, a team can more easily meet deadlines and perform within the time constraints of the project. 

The Building Museums 2021 conference filled me with gratitude for the museum community and cautious optimism for the year ahead. It reflected the turmoil and challenges of living through our very own plague year, but also the consequences of hundreds of years of white supremacy. As we move further into 2021, we look forward to supporting our museum partners as they seek to build safer, resilient, community-oriented spaces while deconstructing flawed narratives and the restrictive walls of physical spaces.

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