This is a blog post I wrote about attending the Western Museums Association conference in September of 2016. It was a requirement for receiving the scholarship I did, but I greatly enjoyed writing it and I hope you enjoy reading it!
A fourteen month redesign of a 20-year-old museum. The Western Museums Association annual conference. The election of a reality TV demagogue. What do they all have in common? Change.
Phoenix, the city where the annual conference was hosted this year, is the capital of my home state. It’s where I was born, though not entirely where I grew up. Being able to return for my first ever conference—and for a gathering of west coast museums no less—after having left for graduate school in San Francisco and starting my career in Los Angeles, felt calmingly full-circle. The events of the week there left me more connected with Arizona’s cultural institutions than ever before. The welcome dinner at Heritage Square greeted us with an array of local food, drinks and peers. The Shipper’s Party at the Arizona Science Center took me back to a childhood favorite museum I had last been to on a field trip in 6th grade. The Arizona-themed dinner at the Desert Botanical Gardens was a beautiful evening surrounded by the grace of the Sonoran desert, and the night at the Phoenix Art Museum was my first time ever there. These events alone allowed me to know my primary community in a way I never had before, and that is all thanks to the Western Museums Association granting me the Wanda Chin Scholarship!
The 2016 WMA annual conference was themed around ‘change,’ which was fitting both personally and professionally. I’m currently in my fourth role (in a span of nineteen months) within the first museum I was hired at post-grad, and thus I’ve been constantly adapting to an ever-evolving environment and set of responsibilities. The Petersen Automotive Museum underwent a dramatic transformation in 2014, closing its doors for fourteen months and reopening in December of 2015. The design team was wholly collaborative, consisting of the museum’s curatorial, design and marketing teams; a design firm called The Scenic Route; Matt Construction; and architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox. My first role was as a curatorial assistant with The Scenic Route doing research, writing and editing for the museum’s didactics, interpretive literature, and digital interactives.
This A-team took a chronological, singularly focused, static museum and brought it into the 21st century. The redesign added an impossible-to-miss exterior, an entire floor of exhibitions and an expanded scope of mission, content and collection. The process of working with a 20-year-old museum going through a rebranding and reinventing of itself to this scale was a marvel to behold and be a part of. But beyond the physical, the museum also expanded and diversified its program offerings; I’m proud to say I played an integral role in both aspects of the Petersen’s evolution.
When the museum reopened I took on my second role as a gallery facilitator in our main educational space, the Discovery Center. After six months of doing that part-time and staying on as a curatorial assistant for various Scenic Route projects, I was promoted to my third role. Becoming the School Programs Assistant allowed me to join a small but extremely passionate team of museum educators who were tasked with creating and fulfilling an educational mission from scratch. All of them were new to the museum and the industry its content represents, but had done a beautiful and frankly miraculous job shaping the Education department into what it is now.
I came on board as the team was on the cusp of re-launching the school tours program. We were wrapping up our curriculum-based tour content at that point, but were still in the midst of transforming the preexisting program and policies, making it fit (and often creating it entirely anew) for a completely different space. There was a lot to be done: Teacher Preview Days were our way of letting local teachers know that we were back up and running; intradepartmental meetings were necessary to explain what we do and how we do it to an unfamiliar staff; and amongst ourselves and our Getty summer intern, we had planning meetings constantly to think of every possible scenario we might need to be prepared for. It was a lot of work, but it was fun and rewarding to be a steward of educating the future in a city like LA.
I went to the WMA conference a few weeks after assuming my fourth role: interim manager of the Education department. A change in budget and departmental priorities resulted in my team leaving all at the same time. We went from a department of four to a department of one, so it was fitting that the panels and sessions I attended spoke to a shifting landscape not only in our field but on the West Coast and in North America as a whole. Those changes in our communities, our cities, and our society directly affect the work we do. I left the conference with a renewed passion to make the world a better place through museum education, and with a better sense of the tools at my disposal.
Upon returning to LA from blazing hot Phoenix, I was excited to put my new knowledge into practice. I launched a departmental green initiative, the basis for which I learned during Museums and Race 2016: Transformation and Justice. The community oriented panels I attended such as Picking Up the Slack: How Museum Summer Camps Are Changing Educational Priorities, Museums Collaborate with Homeless and Foster Youth and Trends in Museum Education: Embracing Change, Effecting Change gave me programming and partnership inspiration that directly related to the work I was already doing with our Title I field trip scholarship program.
Our biggest push towards inclusive and diverse programming coincidentally happened the same week that saw Donald Trump elected. Candacy Taylor, an author and cultural historian, was scheduled to give a talk about the history of Green Books, which were travel guides from the Jim Crow era that made it safe for African-American families to travel along major highways. The Petersen, for all its external progress, had never done a program like this before. In an effort to keep the conversation going throughout generations, I organized a youth and family program centered on the same topic which happened the same weekend as Candacy’s talk. We did a reading of Ruth and the Green Book, a fictional account of a family in the 1950s using a Green Book to travel from Chicago to Alabama, followed by a discussion about race, identity, perception and community. The success of both of these programs is undoubtedly due to the skills and confidence I gained at the Western Museums Association conference this year. Receiving the Wanda Chin Scholarship changed my life, irrevocably.
It is my hope that the Petersen and our society continue to reinvent themselves (especially in the light of our political landscape), and incorporate the ideas of inclusion and community that were so prevalent at the WMA conference. It is natural to be reluctant of change because there’s always a degree of the unknown that accompanies it, but that doesn’t mean we can afford to be daunted by it. As museum professionals we are safeguards of both the past and the future, and as such must always be the ones to embrace change.