What I learned at the Virginia Association of Museum's annual conference
By Matt Gilliland
With increasing diversity in the world’s communities, people like to see themselves represented in history. To understand the representation that people would like to see in relation to the topic at hand this needs to be done through public opinion and discourse. Generally speaking, there are ways of tying in the history your museum is trying to represent to the cultural and historical landscape of the surrounding population. For example, if people wanted to see more representation than a few unknown slaves within Sandusky, we could teach the history of the surrounding region as the estate was sold off and became enmeshed within Lynchburg itself, as well as the legacy this estate has left on the community as a whole. Another thing I think institutions need to consider is the Eurocentricity of the exhibits and information being presented. As another example, how would the owners of Sandusky appear to the slaves that lived on the state. Would they have thought them as glorified and magnanimous as their deeds and documents suggest? Measures can be taken in the museum to observe the language with which we engage with the public to make this history their shared history as well. I know that given the focus of the museum's objectives, as well as the evidence that we have to work with; that this is likely a very difficult task. However, we can try to interpret their history and perspectives through artifacts and other available resources to try to paint the best picture that we can.
I also learned about the concept of heritage management within museums. That being; how does a museum interpret the heritage of the community it is based around? The answer is to interpret it how the community itself interprets it. Heritage is not static; the feelings and virtues associated with the history of a culture are constantly held under scrutiny and interpretation of heritage changes to reflect that. Museums should ask themselves if the truths they are presenting are objective or subjective; and how much context plays into this notion of what the truth is. I find this especially true within museums that explore those themes related to the multicultural dynamics of a time and place. I also learned about the role of volunteers within a museum, and different ways that volunteers engage with the museum, and vice versa. Volunteers always are going to volunteer on their own motivations, but there are obviously plenty of pros to volunteering for both parties. Volunteering provides the museum greater access to the community as a whole. One can try to think of how to implement volunteers beyond just structured labor for the museum, but how the museum can implement peoples insights into the subjects that the museum is interested in. For example, could this museum use an African storyteller to recall an experience of the slave? Can the institution draw parallels between their art and the museum's instruction? I believe that this balance is something that can only be discovered through a discourse with the museum and the people the museum serves.
In conclusion I found the VAM conference to be a very informative and insightful look into the roles of museums in their communities landscape; and how some institutions are trying to change to reflect the cultural landscape of the present and future, so we can better understand and articulate the knowledge of the past to the public. It was really a pleasure to get to meet some prestigious professionals within the field and get to hear their experiences with the challenges they have faced throughout their careers, either trying to find employment, implement fresh and positive policies, or how to adjust to dramatic shifts like the COVID pandemic. I hope that in the future what I learned can be applied to my career in the future, as I believe the core emphasis of the lectures I attended at the conference were to approach the public with empathy and be willing to listen to their perspectives as well.