Today, the American Association of Museums becomes the American Alliance of Museums, which may appear at first to be merely a cosmetic change ushered in by a marketing consultant, but actually signals some significant changes in attitude. Those of us in the history field often felt like outsiders at AAM, which seemed to be dominated by art museums, our classier and richer cousins. But take look at the new AAM and you may find two major changes that may appeal to history organizations:
1. Accreditation becomes the end of a process of professionalization that starts with membership. Organizations can step up from membership by taking a pledge to operate at professional standards, then prepare five core documents for review by AAM, and finally pursue accreditation. It’s no longer an “all or nothing” approach which best suits the big guys. MAP, StEPs, and other existing programs can help museums and historic sites move through the process.
2. Museum membership is graduated. The highest tier is similar to the familiar membership program with online access to the resource library and lots of discounts on publications, training, and annual conference, but dues are based on staff size (not budget) and they’ve now included some attractive benefits for institutional members such as free online learning and discounts on individual memberships for all staff. A new entry level tier is the most surprising because it’s available on a “pay what you can” basis. While you don’t receive any discounts (what can you expect at this level?), you do receive AAM’s e-newsletter and listing in the online Museum Directory. The middle tier is well, in the middle, with benefits and discounts falling somewhere in between the two.
Why the changes? For decades, AAM has struggled with priorities (serving organizations or individuals?) and balance (internal demands of the profession versus external need to advocate for the field). I figured that was just the nature of the beast and endured the inevitable swings and tilts over the years. Research came to the rescue in June 2011 when AAM conducted an extensive survey of 800 members, lapsed members, and non-members that clarified the issues, such as the value of national standards and ethics and that tightened budgets limited the number of memberships in professional organizations.
The results seem to be headed in the right direction. Museums have been slipping as a priority in our nation. In the last few years we’ve seen government funding cut in extraordinary ways–Save America’s Treasures was eliminated, state parks and museums closed, grants programs trimmed to near extinction, and art, science, and history pushed out of the school curriculum. I sense that most Americans believe museums are a luxury, non-essentials in our community life, just as schools and libraries were unnecessary two hundred years ago. AAM is the only national voice for all museums and it is imperative to not only speak with one voice but also in a loud voice to change this attitude. Cost is no longer a barrier to membership in AAM, so I hope as many museums and historic sites join as possible and show their support for our field in numbers.
Secondly, AAM now recognizes that excellence happens gradually and in parts. Accreditation implied that you were either good or bad, in or out. This new “continuum of excellence” may not be ideal but it’s a good path to follow. If there’s any significant weakness, it’s in the five core documents: mission, ethics, collection, disaster response, and strategy. Museums are primarily aesthetic or educational in purpose, so there seems to be something essential missing: an interpretive plan. This weakness, however, is ours as a profession–we don’t have consensus on what good education or interpretation looks like or how to measure it. And given the controversies in our public education system, I’m not sure we’ll be able to figure this out in a museum field that includes historic sites, history museums, art galleries, science centers, zoos, nature centers, and planetaria.
If you are puzzled by the logo, join the crowd. I keep looking for As and Ms but I also see Vs and Ws. It’s a Rorschach test in a chain link fence. I’m sure they did a lot of studies and went through dozens of ideas with a designer, but truly, good logos are incredibly rare and sometimes you just have to grow and accept them (and hopefully like Apple or Kodak, they take on a life of their own).