The 2015 American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting, April 2015

The theme for the 2015 American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting, held this year in Atlanta,  the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., was “The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change”. It was a theme that took on increasing relevance as the week went by, filled as it was with news of the rioting in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.

The “Behold Monument” commemorating the historic principles that guided King’s work. At the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.
(artist: Patrick Morelli)

“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”—Martin Luther King Jr.

As human beings, one thing that makes us unique is our ability to look back and interpret the past, as well as plan for, imagine and influence the future. Museums and monuments do a great job of preserving the past and making meaning. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, established in 1980, is a fine monument to the life of one man who changed the world. I visited the Baptist church where he was minister and where his funeral was held; I sat in a pew and listened to a recording of one of his impassioned sermons. The neighbouring Visitor Center, that documents his life, was alive with school groups.

Back of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King was baptized.

King was also a pastor at this church throughout his adult life.

I also visited the new Center for Civil and Human Rights opened last year in a prominent location beside The World of Coca-Cola museum attraction. According to the Center’s CEO Doug Shipman, the dramatic architecture of the Centre represents two hands cupping something important—the people and history inside. The goal was to make the architecture part of the storytelling. (video interviews) 

The Center for Civil and Human Rights is built to resemble cupped hands and is cladded in colours that resemble those of multiple human complexions.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”—Margaret Mead

Museums can be seen as a safe space to engage in conversations about what matters most to communities. In a lively AAM session, “The Social Value of Brick-and-Mortar Museums in a Digital Age”, panel members were asked to choose and defend one key word that speaks to the essence of museums. The words they chose were: public, time, real, identity and threshold. The Center for Civil and Human Rights encompasses all of these key words. Its primarily media-based collection was upheld as having the power to hold your attention longer than the on-line world could. An immersive experience at the Center, that reduced more than one conference delegate to tears, re-created the famous Woolworth’s Lunch Counter in Greensboro, North Carolina where in 1960 four African American students sat in a passive demonstration against segregation. This event ignited a series of sit-ins and demonstrations throughout the South. In the re-creation, you sit on a stool and place your hands on the counter while being subjected to escalating threats directed against you. I could not stay seated for more than a minute. 

A section of the famous Woolworth’s Lunch Counter of Greensboro, North Carolina as exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, RadioFan

So what can we do in our new museum at the Bank of Canada? The keywords identified by the panellists resonated with me, encouraging me to apply them to our own undertaking. In our preliminary work we have confirmed that we will be the public face of the Bank of Canada, and that we will look back in time to learn more about Canada’s developing economy and showcase the collection to better understand our history. Having a real museum, rather than solely a digital one, means that we will provide a meeting place for the discussion of ideas, for people to connect with and explore issues in a thoughtful, non-threatening way. Money touches everybody and our relationship with money affects our sense of identity— how we see ourselves. And finally, our new entrance sweeping skywards towards the Houses of Parliament will be visible as the threshold of the Bank of Canada, an institution whose responsibility is to play a central role in the economic wellbeing of all Canadians.

The Bank of Canada Museum’s new entrance looking toward Parliament Hill.

With close to 4500 delegates attending this year and over 190 sessions to choose from, the American Alliance of Museums conference is the largest museum conference in the world. Handouts are available for download and the AAM provides an invaluable source of information for museum professionals.