Overcoming Obstacles to Construct Change
Blog with reflections from the California Association of Museums Conference in Palm Springs
By Leonardo Vilchis-Zarate, CAM 2018 Fellow
I wasn’t sure what to expect before attending the California Association of Museum’s conference in Palm Springs. I had a grasp, based on my own experiences, of what the theme Modern Museums: Relevant and Resilient meant. “Resilient” seemed to reflect the fear of possible NEH and NEA defunding, as well as empowerment from a desire to continue despite this obstacle. “Relevant” was close to me, as I had participated in other museum programs where the topic of institutions as important and relevant to their communities was emphasized. Nonetheless, the conference’s workshops, presentations, and discussions went further than anything I had expected. From the conversations I had, I was happy to hear that many efforts were in place to change museums. It was at the forefront of many people’s minds to bring more audiences into museums and to engage them in different ways. Everyone brought their own issues and solutions to the conference, creating a platform to discuss and advance museums in communities where they are most needed. Even in the presentations on topics I had not previously considered, it was refreshing to hear that there were many professionals trying to do their best and willing to support each other. Learning about everyone's struggles helped me to better understood my own.
I was already predisposed to think that museums are relevant and a channel for social justice. From participating in other museum programs, the idea of museums as spaces for transformative change and inclusion mattered deeply to me. I imagined museums could be spaces available for all, where people of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds could benefit from thinking about history in alternative ways to how we are taught in classrooms. For the most part, however, I understood this issue as a shortcoming of museums “not doing enough,” but I had no idea how it could be enacted or what barriers museums face when attempting to connect with disadvantaged communities. By attending the conference, I met numerous professionals who were grappling with the issue of community involvement in different ways with their institutions. I became more aware of the varied struggles museums face and understood that social justice had no singular formula that would apply across museums serving communities of different sizes and interests.
The first workshop I attended was The Tiny Museum and the Big Strategic Plan. Admittedly, I believed that this workshop would be about miniature museums like the egg-shaped NuMu from Guatemala, which was recently replicated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The workshop was actually about small museums in comparison to larger ones that have more funding, staff, and other resources. Although I had worked in museums before, this was my first immersion into the interior of museums, where budgets and strategic plans have to be drafted, approved, and carried out. This is a big feat and concern for museums because it affects the entire mission of a museum, how they operate and how they are received by visitors. As part of the workshop, we broke into groups of four and drafted a strategic plan for an existing small museum. We had to look at a particularly diverse and unrelated collection, as is typical of smaller institutions. From this point, we had to devise an idea for how to bring this collection together and establish a mission for the museum. Approaching the program from a historical point of view, our group decided to make it a museum of town history. Following this, we had to figure out a way to get the museum to work. This was difficult as we operated within budget constraints. As our group was comprised of people approaching this conference from different disciplines, our museum may have been a bit naive. In confronting issues of lack of staff, collection size and variety, as well as interpersonal disputes within the group, it was interesting to understand the barriers that affect museums before they can even consider questions of social justice. The session was a fun activity in understanding the range of struggles that museums can face and it was a helpful exercise on how to broach those challenges for the greatest common good.
The tools I gained in this exercise workshop, and the conference overall, are invaluable to understanding my own role within museums. Museums are obviously places with many possibilities and equally as many obstacles. They have so many moving pieces and it’s really important not to lose hope in creating the types of change we wish to see. The obstacles can be overwhelming, but as I learned through this conference, they also present the necessary conflict through which we can learn and help others to learn as well.
About the Author/CAM Fellow
Leonardo Vilchis-Zarate is an undergraduate art history major at the University of California Riverside where, through the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, he is conducting research on gentrification and the history of development in Los Angeles. In the summer of 2016, he was a Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern at the Pomona College Museum of Art. Also in 2016, he was a part of the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Summer Academy at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where he co-curated a pop-up exhibition on abstraction in photography.