#AAM2016 – reflections

My second AAM and I’m reminded that you can’t step into the same river twice. Since Seattle, the American museum world seems to have become simultaneously more radical and not advancing. Explain.

There’s a swell of anger about pay and conditions and intersectional representation. But this year it burst into the mainstream. And I’ve never seen so much anger expressed so constructively – every speaker, every session, seemed to be amplifying the last. Arguments from personal experience, precedent, data, emotion – and people who’d made it up sending the ladder back down for more climbers. I have never seen a conference so female, non-white and queer.

Twitter was usually more engaging than the speaker/panel – but that’s because of the dominance of people who spoke with, added depth, data and perspective. No-one was appropriating or drowning out the others. I haven’t cited anyone here specifically, because you can’t cite a bubbling conversation – it was the sum of everyone that made it great.


Museum of Man, San Diego

Multiple panels where I heard from staff from MoM. They are centring their work around ‘Love’ – and living the principle from guerrilla Pride celebrations to singing appreciations at staff parties. Love as a verb and a noun, able to guide. And love as a holding back – if they have no descendant communities to collaborate with, then they won’t display material. The antithesis of anthropology museum tradition. Moving. And in pointing out that their cannibalism exhibition, unlike Oakland’s Marijuana exhibition, didn’t have a munchies machine, they owned the joke of the conference.
Quoting the speaker:

Museum Jargon session chaired by Dale McCreedy.

We listed our problematic words and so used them. Then a speaker from the floor pointed out they were all either nouns or adjectives derived from nouns. Our field uses few verbs. So our way of speaking and writing about our field is centred around things, not change. Static not dynamic. Let’s change that.


Brave projects, brave sessions, brave speakers and brave questioners. A very supportive community and people feel able to swim against the current a little. A contrast with the Australian conference, which I still feel is too consensus-y and polite to drive true change.
The mistakes were made session organised and run by Sean Kelly – he told me the model has run in Children’s Museums for a while – was brilliant in creating a safe and humorous environment in which to share errors. We don’t as a sector talk about failure anywhere near enough – which is why we keep repeating dumb mistakes – and this was a great start. Who would win?
Swinging light bulb nearly smashing into a Van Gogh?

Escaped poisonous snake found outside the directors office?

The intern who crumpled and binned the artist’s precious sketch?
The latter won. To spare her blushes, know that conservators fixed it up, as always!


First conference I’ve been to where notions of empathetic, affective museums really outnumbered ideas rooted in authority and knowledge. I love that our field is finally acknowledging what other cultural producers have always known – feelings first.


I won’t even try. Just check the feed. Well done team. And Margaret Middleton told me all the artists were paid: properly paid. Well done team. Do this, everyone.

Digital tech is just tech

Rationally discussing whether iPads or post it notes would be better for capturing visitor voices. No more ‘look at me I’m digital, woo-hoo!’ nonsense anymore. We’re over digi-as-new at last.

Phrases / ideas of the conference…

Relentless incrementalism

My phrase of the conference. Stop waiting for big change, stop trying to fix everything. Get one thing sorted. Then move on the second thing. Immediately.
Very very closely followed by…
Decolonising the collection is Psychotherapy for the Museum

No explanation required. Do it, become healthier, live and love better.



First, the conference IRL didn’t feel like the Twitter feed. Too little planned cross over. Hashtags compulsory on conference titles and slides, please. Having one mic per panel is supremely dumb. All spontaneity is lost while the mic is passed around.
The quality control on the sessions was weak. Sometimes it felt like Museum 101, real basics. And too many sessions were fundamentally repeating what was in others, and I do mean repeating not building on.
Unconference was not a success. I suspect that’s due to a half-hearted space allocation.


Great to meet Margaret Middleton in real life. Inspiring thoughtful creativity and social commitment.

Thanks to Blackbaud for cocktails 😉

Thanks to the John Hopkins Museum Studies crew for welcoming me when I kinda gate-crashed their do

Thanks to the volunteers and staff without whom none of it could happen

Thanks to tweeters in and outside the conference for sharing, supporting and adding to my thinking

Thanks Smithsonian NH for the party

Ok. Now to disengage and get on the plane. Thanks to everyone who made this great. Only one way to end:



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