Last week’s annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums was held just 30 miles from my house but I wasn’t able to attend due to other commitments. I missed seeing so many of my friends! Fortunately, Terri Anderson, a colleague working at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, shared her experiences:
I had a great time attending the American Alliance of Museums annual conference this week, held in Baltimore, Maryland. AAM put on an excellent conference, full of interesting sessions. To be completely honest, I haven’t said that about an AAM conference in a while. I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting and informative each session was. Also a first for me was being completely blocked from a session. “How We Did It: The Move of the Barnes Collection” was so full, the AAM volunteer had to close the doors and wouldn’t let in any more people even to stand in the back. All the sessions I attended (in the collections management track) were full or over-full—I hope AAM can get arrange for bigger rooms for its collections sessions next time.
A great feature of this year’s conference is that all session handouts are freely available online. How nice it is to be able to look up the handouts for sessions you aren’t able to attend. Better yet, the handouts are accessible to everyone, whether you’re an AAM member or not, and whether you even attended the conference or not.
One session I wanted to attend, but which conflicted with something else, was “Is it Real? Who Cares?” with panelists Roy Campbell, Darcie Fohrman, Judy Gradwohl, Steven Lubar, and Rainey Tisdale. The session’s abstract:
Although museums are valued as keepers of “the real thing” many museums face the occasional need to display replicas, models, casts or other non-accessioned artifacts. Both authentic and inauthentic objects can lead to meaningful or insignificant experiences. “Real” and “Fake” may seem absolute and obvious to museum professionals, but visitors may have different interests and criteria. Many factors affect how visitors experience artifacts, and each situation is individualized. The panel will employ case studies to practice decision-making about how and when to use non-accessioned objects. Questions listed below outline some of the criteria that can be used in situational decision-making.
This is a great topic in and of itself, but what really piqued my interest is that, in addition to an in-person session and a handout, the panelists created a Tumblr to accompany their session. What a great idea! As you can see, the session speakers populated their Tumblr with all sorts of interesting examples in the months leading up to the conference. While session-goers probably didn’t know to look at this prior to the conference, what a great way to keep the conversation going, and continue to stimulate thought, after the conference. One of my lunch breaks this week was completely taken over by scrolling through and thoroughly enjoying the photos and accompanying captions. I commend the speakers for finding such an easy and fun way to bring value and context to their conference session, as well as prolonging its interest and impact.
In the Expo Hall this year was a “crate exhibition” in which several art packing & shipping companies—Artex, USArt, Bonsai, DAAN Crating, among others—provided examples of different types of crates. They also held a couple of demonstration sessions: packing with Oz clips, cavity packing, and working with a Butterfly crate. It was a great resource for museum professionals who may be unfamiliar with all the terms and techniques that are used when you are planning and pricing out a shipment. By touring the crate exhibition, you could become familiar with all the standard interior and exterior features of a wide variety of crates. Hopefully this is another new conference addition that will stick around in future years.
Thanks for sharing your experiences, Terri! How did others fare at AAM this year?
AAM was great. One of the most thought-provoking sessions was presented by staff members from the National Trust, who talked about the Trust’s plan to accession their interpreted historic buildings so that they are able to use deaccession funds to care for them.
Accessioning buildings so that deaccession funds can be used to care for them is an intriguing one. After all, the biggest artifacts at an historic site are the buildings and landscapes, and they are typically the reason for the museum’s existence. AAM’s code of ethics restricts the use of deaccession funds for acquisitions and the direct care of collections to discourage the sale of collections to pay for operating expenses, such as salaries and utilities (there are a few famous cases from the 1980s when a few museums did that). That leaves buildings and landscapes in a netherworld between collections and operations, and it would be great if they could be better defined.
When I was on the collections committee about five years ago at the National Trust, this nebulous situation led to strange dilemmas. Deaccession funds could be used to repair a table lamp but not a wall sconce. They could be used to conserve a stained glass window in the collections but not if it was mounted as a window in the house. Perhaps these could be acceptable with some more guidelines, but should deaccessioning funds be used to replace a slate roof, fill a pothole in the driveway, or plant pansies in the garden?
These are vexing questions and could be resolved if some smart folks put their mind to it, but as in politics, you have to look at the entire process and follow the money–the source of deaccession funds. In the case we were considering on the collections committee, the deaccession funds came from the sale of a few rare books in the collections of Lyndhurst. The claim was made that Lyndhurst couldn’t care for these original, authentic, and valuable books, thus they should be sold to some one who could. The troublesome issue is that there was no written scope of collections to define what was in and what was outside of the collection. Taking a big step back, we were selling authentic original objects to care for authentic original objects–a process that would lead to an ever smaller reason for existence and a diminished distinctiveness. I’m not sure that’s the right path to follow if museums and historic sites seek to improve their relevance and financial sustainability by re-imagining themselves. What do you think?