AAM 2019: Learnings in Digital Immersion and Diversity

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What does the near future hold for museums? Last month, creative technologist Kean-Chuan Lim and our director of sales Lauren Jensen caught a glimpse at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in New Orleans.

For museum professionals, AAM — as it’s come to be known — is the quintessential career experience. It’s huge — more than 160 interactive sessions on offer with diverse perspectives on a huge range of topics, and ample opportunities to have meaningful conversations with like-minded peers from around the world. Then there’s the MUSE Awards, which celebrates outstanding uses of technology in museum spaces.

For Kean-Chuan and Lauren, AAM 2019 was a chance to explore subjects close to their hearts professionally: progressive new approaches in digital immersion, and best practices in accessible and inclusive design.

We sat down with Kean-Chuan and Lauren to hear about their personal reflections and highlights from the conference.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q. The theme for this year’s event was “Dynamic, Relevant, Essential: Sustaining Vibrant Museums”. How are museums embracing technology as a way to tackle challenges around community, diversity and the future of institutions?

Kean-Chuan: This was the first time I’d attended the meeting and it was great to connect with other practitioners and experience other approaches to exhibition design. That are addressing issues of representation and relevance with an increasingly networked audience. AAM New Orleans was a chance to celebrate these first forays into unpacking traditional notions of the museum becoming more fluid and without bounds.

I was really struck by projects like the award-winning Getty Unshuttered and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Teen Audio Guide as diverse examples of digital engagement to create new kinds of spaces. A third place where the most interesting dynamics and exchanges might emerge. Turning the inside out and letting the outside in so to speak. The tacit acknowledgement that these institutions are ultimately interacting with communities over time with technology enabling an idea of presence beyond the concrete.


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Free photo sharing app from the Getty Museum. Image credit: Getty Unshuttered.

Lauren: Many of the projects presented during sessions and at the MUSE awards were using technology in inspiring ways to make young and diverse audiences truly feel like welcomed, valued, and celebrated members of the museum-going community. These are the projects I often find myself thinking about weeks and months after the conference, and thinking about how I can apply their successes and lessons learned from challenges to new projects we undertake with our partners. 

I saw museums using digital to allow visitors to see themselves —  literally — on the walls of the museum, which is such a beautiful symbolic and tangible way of saying “we see you, and we value you, and you are a part of this museum and its mission.” The digital projects I viewed as the most impactful, relevant and vibrant also had another thing in common: the incorporation of the visitor was given a greater sense of longevity and permanence by being available as online collections on their app, as with Getty Unshuttered, or as with the Tenement Museum’s Your Story, Our Story, the museum’s crowdsourced digital storytelling platform. 

Helping all people see themselves in the museum is where I see museums being the most successful in being dynamic, relevant, and vibrant. Digital is often the tool to make it happen, but real success starts with thorough and inclusive conversations about the goals and impact of a project before the technology component is decided on or introduced.

Q. Were there any sessions that really struck a chord with you?

Lauren: The Is That Hung White? Getting Real about Diversity in Exhibitions session hosted by Museums and Race presented personal stories and recommendations for making changes both at the personal and institutional level. The session spoke to the fact the majority of exhibition team and spaces are still predominantly white-centered spaces, and why it is much more beneficial to have a diverse team making decisions on how information is presented and displayed in your museum. Jaron Keener (Exhibit Designer and Production Manager at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History) shared what it takes for a person of a particular identity to feel non-isolated in their institution is having at least 3 people of that identity in your workplace; three sounds like a very low number, yet it is one many workplaces still do not have. He also introduced me to the term representation burnout (definition: that feeling of exhaustion that comes from being the only person of a particular identity in an environment), and shared a humorous response he developed to deal with stress called an Invoice for Emotional Labor


Kean-Chuan: I have to admit I got the most from loitering around the Tech Hub and meeting other creatives and developers there. A brilliant, impassioned bunch of people with forward thinking approaches to projects ( Peabody Essex , Smithsonian et al ) and keen to explore different expressions of exhibition design. Sharing common experiences of success and failure – learnings from the first waves of XR, immersive theatre and multi-sensory design. I absolutely loved this sense of wonder and willingness to push further into unexplored territories. Besides that MCN karaoke was pretty damn great as well. 

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Group Discussion following the “Is That Hung White?” session at the Transformation and Justice Lounge hosted by Museums and Race. Image credit: Lauren Jensen.

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Group Discussion following the “Is That Hung White?” session at the Transformation and Justice Lounge hosted by Museums and Race. Image credit: Lauren Jensen.

Q. What were your top takeaways from the event?

Kean-Chuan: Personally the biggest takeaway for me was being able to see the quality of museum work on the world stage. The willingness to try new approaches out of left field, backed with an agile mindset and preparedness to fail. The commitment to trying new things and an almost guerrilla attitude, intrinsic to getting these projects happening despite a lack of funds. I was blown away by the ingenuity and creativity from some of these MUSE award winners and often inspired by simple but transformative concepts. 


Lauren: One of the key things I saw as a theme across multiple sessions was the importance of taking concrete steps toward making the overall museum experience inclusive and accessible to people of all backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, religions, abilities, and how it’s essential to include the communities you are trying to serve and reach in decisions and design from the very beginning through to a project’s execution.

The session An Intergenerational Arts Program for the LGBTQIA+ Community really spoke to me about the power museum programming and education can have on building community and fighting isolation, particularly in the 55+ age group. This session was led by Eli Burke (Education Director at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tuscon) and Carissa DiCindio (Assistant Professor at University of Arizona), and has inspired me to research more at home about MOCA Tuscon’s Stay Gold Vitality Arts program. 

Closing out AAM was the session Activating Material Culture to Foster Pluralism led by Wendy Ng(Manager of Learning at Royal Ontario Museum) and Jovanna Scorsone (Education and Public Engagement Manager at Aga Khan Museum) where they shared how they used educational programming to break down the monolithic representation and assumptions of culture. For those unfamiliar with the term pluralism, it is “…a choice to actively engage with the diversity of our communities, moving beyond mere tolerance of religious, racial, cultural, and social differences to cultivate deep understanding and acceptance.”


Q. What learnings are you sharing with colleagues and plan to apply to future Art Processors projects?

Lauren: The Museums and Race group hosted conversations and provided great takeaway materials, and I am sharing my learnings with Art Processors internally. I think the same lessons they shared about the importance of engaging and listening to POC in exhibition design applies to all of us who work as designers and consultants supporting museums as well. 

It is massively important to me to be aware of the issues museums are struggling with internally, and how they are responding to the outside world, and to ensure that myself and Art Processors as an organization are being the best allies and partners we can be to help museums continue to fulfil their missions of engagement, and blossom into relevant, vibrant, and diverse institutions that will continue to serve the public into the future. 

I have shared many of the lessons from the Is That Hung White? session including the power of 3, what representation burnout is and how to prevent it, as well as materials from other sessions. Margaret Middleton’s Family Inclusive Language chart is excellent, and the Freer Sackler’s extensive work on best practices for accessible museum design, which they have generously shared as a free online resource for all to use has been wonderful to reference and point others to as well.


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ANiMAL – Art Science Nature Society. Image credit: Taiwan National Museum

Kean-Chuan: I enjoyed seeing the varied approaches to projects presented at the MUSE awards. I remember Jeffrey Shaw from his pioneering VR work “Legible City” in the late 80s and it was super interesting to see his fine art sensibility and experience of digital media used to great effect in the ANiMAL – Art Science Nature Society exhibition at Taiwan’s National Palace Museum. Developed at the School of Creative Media ( University of Hong Kong ) its a stunning exhibition that seems to transcend the weight of its own execution. Producing a range of beautiful interactions.

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The National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Image credit: Gallagher & Associates.

Another highlight was the closing ceremony at the “ New Orleans World War II Museum,” and experiencing first hand Gallagher & Associates impressive realisation of walk in virtual realities at scale. I probably wont get a chance to check out “Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge” anytime soon either but found a new appreciation for the attention to detail and prodigious efforts needed to realise such spectacular work. Where the elements of interpretation, design and technology all come together to produce more than the sum of all parts.  

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.