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Letters from Erika - Get Out and Talk to Strangers: Lessons from AAM 2018 in Phoenix

May 29, 2018 12:10 PM | Anonymous

I grew up in New York City playing on blacktop surfaces and walking along rivers bounded by concrete walls. I now live in a 200-year-old farm house on three acres of land adjacent to a “kill,” in a county with a population of less than 160,000 people. Learning the names of plants and trees does not come easily - Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory would place my skill set firmly in the visual-spatial category. Activities that call upon naturalistic intelligence can be a challenge.


When walking through the Phoenix Desert Botanic Garden during the 2018 AAM conference, someone turned to me and asked, “What is that sound?” I genuinely surprised myself when I quickly responded, “That’s a mourning dove.” It didn’t sound exactly like the mourning doves in my backyard in New York, but it was close. As she and I scanned the trees together to find the bird, we talked of the places we lived and worked and became acquainted with each other and the garden.


Attending the 2018 AAM conference reminded me how important it is to seek out opportunities for professional development, to listen and learn from colleagues, to be present in rooms where people are sharing their best work, to take to heart the opinions of others, and to hear meaning in the words of someone you don’t know.


Many of the concurrent sessions, roundtable discussions, and keynote speeches I attended at the 2018 AAM conference in Phoenix centered on the work of AAM’s Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Committee. Those sessions and the committee’s report are a call to action to change the way we recruit and train our staff, work with our communities, and share our exhibitions and collections. No matter the museum in which we work, or the community we call home, it is time to get a bigger table for our meetings - or maybe even move the meeting to a bigger room - to create a place for multiple perspectives when decisions are made in and for our institutions, and to listen to things that may be difficult to hear.


With the geographic and demographic range of New York State, each museum and community will have to define diversity for themselves. We each need to do our part to represent all of New York’s history, art, and culture within our museum spaces. What we know or don’t know should not impede the process. The collective intelligence of New York’s museum professionals is there to support us. There is no right or wrong way to partner with a community or train an emerging professional if we are responsive and dialogic, listen closely, and create fearlessly together.


When I left New York City, I knew that every individual’s experience was different from the millions of others that call the city home, but tone deaf to much of the natural world. Patient friends taught me the sounds of the field and the forests. The sessions I attended and museums I visited in Phoenix reminded me that as I have learned to distinguish the song of a mourning dove, whether it looks like the one in my backyard maple or the one perched on a cactus, we all have much to learn from the stories that are told by our colleagues and our museums.  


Tomorrow, we launch our e-newsletter for MANY members. Each month we will feature original reporting by our Marketing and Social Media Coordinator, Sarah Heikkinen. Her articles will share the work of three MANY member’s programs and achievements with three themes:

  • how museums are growing institutional resources, including welcoming new staff and board members and securing funding for projects;
  • how museums are working with their community and visitors;
  • and how we use our exhibitions and collections in new ways.

We’re excited to share this newsletter with our members and hope that, if you are not a member, you will consider joining our growing New York State museum community today.


With thanks,


Erika Sanger

Executive Director, MANY

The Museum Association of New York strengthens the capacity of New York State’s cultural community by supporting professional standards and organizational development. We provide advocacy, training, and networking opportunities so that museums and museum professionals may better serve their missions and communities.

Museum Association of New York is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization. 

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