This is America

Sharon Heal, 16.05.2018
AAM conference tackles inequality but ignores Trump
Last weekend I arrived in Phoenix for the American Alliance of Museums conference on the eve of two momentous events.

Childish Gambino premiered This is America on Saturday Night Live (over 100m views in a week) and Trump scrapped the Iran nuclear deal. An interesting backdrop to a conference where the theme was Museums on the Rise.

So how did the American museum sector respond to this context?

With anything the size of the AAM conference – over 4,000 attendees this year – there’s bound to be a mix of content and views. Practical workshops and tech tutorials rub shoulders with sessions discussing race and gender inequality and decolonising the museum.

There was no lack of timely debate – the session on whether the Confederate statues that were removed during the protests last year should end up in museums was standing room only and the discussion was far from tame.

The debate, around whether these monuments to white supremacy can ever be properly contextualised, even in a museum setting, or especially in a museum setting, was insightful. My take-home was: ask your communities and try putting the debate in your museum – not the statues.

But overall what was surprising was that in all the discussions about the role of museums in society, I didn’t hear a single mention of Potus over the three days of the conference, despite the fact that his war-mongering was topping the news channels every morning.

Of course it’s possible I missed the sessions where his contribution to the cultural life of America was analysed but I was left wondering if our colleagues had taken a secret pact to ignore Donald Trump, the orange elephant in the room.

In my session on museum activism, which included contributions from Cardiff Story, the Museum of Homelessness and Museum Detox, we explored what it means to be an activist in museums and also what prompted our different campaigning approaches. As well as family ties, background and values, a common factor was context.

We don’t operate in a vacuum and neither do our museums or our communities. If we are to use our collections to help understand the past and to shape the future – we also need to recognise what the present is.

We live in troubling times, where inequality, discrimination, poverty and social injustice are rife. If museums are to be the stuff of daily life – and they should – we can’t stand apart from any of that.