At our professional gatherings, the Museums & Race team has been committed to making sure there is a space for marginalized voices. While our beginnings in 2015 were humble, our intentions have remained the same. Our presence at annual meetings and conferences have served to disrupt conversations that often completely ignore or co-opt the labor of museum practitioners of color, especially those who claim additional marginalized identities. Our lounge at the AAM annual meeting was our flagship space for three years: a space for people to gather in solidarity, to have tough conversations, to rest, to find joy in meeting up with colleagues, and to lift up artists from local communities surrounding the conference location. Many of these things are counter to the pace and goals of professional meetings, which encourage high-intensity, often transitory interactions, and making as much profit as possible while ignoring the communities surrounding the conference location. Every year we have participated, we receive feedback on how valuable and important our lounge space has become to AAM Annual Meeting attendees. For many, AAM is the only conference they attend for professional development, and can only do so because their institutions sponsor their attendance.
The existence of our space at AAM has been contingent on a good faith partnership with AAM’s annual meeting planning team. This partnership ended abruptly and without notice in 2020. M&R reached out to AAM staff to ensure everyone on their end was aware of our continued interest in and intention to produce a lounge space in 2020. The response we received was incredibly disheartening and disturbing. After a direct conversation with AAM staff, the M&R steering committee was informed that Museums & Race would not receive a dedicated space within the Expo Hall at the 2020 Annual Meeting. Instead, AAM selected Museum Hue as the sole partner for DEAI programming in the Expo Hall, and any activities M&R proposed would need to be cleared through them. No one at M&R had been informed or consulted prior to AAM moving forward with this plan, and no one within AAM appeared to have taken note of our past MOUs or lounge activities as evidence of our interest in continuing the partnership. We came away from this initial discussion with the sense that AAM views all of the equity initiatives and organizations like M&R as interchangeable.
AAM’s decision to exclude M&R from initial planning conversations put both groups in an extremely awkward position, leaving little room for M&R to negotiate or find solutions to ensure our presence beyond our session during the annual meeting. This is a common tactic, an age-old game of pitting marginalized groups against each other to fight over the meager resources, while the institutions themselves continue to uphold inequitable power dynamics. For DEAI work, this is especially true. However, we refuse to engage in scarcity-mindset behavior and we believe there is room for everyone in this work. We support the important and valuable work of Museum Hue as well as our colleagues in other equity coalitions working for change.
Over the last decade, the museum field has been fortunate to witness the growth of several independent equity coalitions. Each of them has provided frameworks and perspectives for challenging dominant institutional narratives, which have been the foundation of this industry. By assuming the work of our colleagues at Museum Hue is interchangeable with that of M&R, AAM has inadvertently perpetuated the institutional paternalism and white supremacy culture which it claims to challenge. How does AAM continue to square its vocal support of change and inclusion—plastered throughout its social media and website since 2020—without considering the ways in which it might be a part of the problem?
It has become clear to us and others within our equity sphere that AAM does not find it necessary to invite the widest range of perspectives to share space at the annual meeting. We want to highlight that this is not simply a one-off incident, but part of an ongoing trend in which M&R and other equity groups have been slowly silenced or pushed out. This trend ranges from severing existing good faith partnerships, to consistently scheduling DEAI sessions on the same day (and usually the last day) at conferences, to publishing the work of dominant voices on AAM’s platforms without critical examination of the source(s) of its content.
For the foreseeable future, we are disheartened to say there will not be an M&R lounge space at the AAM Annual Meeting. We hope this changes in the future, as the AAM conference is a place from which many museums across the country draw their cues. We hope AAM—and the wider museum community—understands that the field of equity work is expansive and constantly evolving. Our professional organizations should be supporting museum practitioners in growing their capacity to grasp the nuances of these varied perspectives and organizations, not encouraging false, binary choices. We would encourage anyone who is a member of AAM and a supporter of M&R to express their concerns, or ask AAM staff about the exclusion of M&R.
The Museums and Race Lounge at [the 2018] AAM Conference made me feel at home. It quickly became my “HQ” during the conference. I’m grateful for the roundtable sessions at the Lounge and the opportunity to start an important dialogue with other museum professionals on mixed-race identity in the industry—it was a moving experience to have this conversation (a first at AAM, as some attendees told us) in a space challenging and confronting issues on race.Andrea Neighbors, Asian Pacific American Center