are museums guilty of navel gazing?

If a museum conference happens and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The 104th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Museums just wrapped up in Los Angeles, California.  Although I couldn’t afford to attend physically or virtually, I avidly consumed hundreds of attendees’ blog posts and tweets detailing the proceedings.  But with over 5,000 museum professionals from all over the world descending upon the City of Angels, why the media blackout?

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of professional development.  The best practices, information, collaboration and scholarship that result from regional, national and international conferences  are invaluable to the museum industry.  But a common thread exists among these gatherings:  museums talk to each other about each other–and that’s where the conversation stops.

Where are the press releases announcing the findings of these meetings? Where are the articles regarding the latest groundbreaking museum interactive? Where are the stories detailing how museums are bridging educational gaps in struggling school districts?  Why the heck aren’t museums tooting their collective horns to the outside world?

With 60 AAM-accredited museums in California alone (including the Granddaddy of them all, the Getty), their namesake annual gathering didn’t merit a mention by the Los Angeles Visitor & Conventions Bureau or the Los Angeles Times’ exhaustive Culture Monster.   A cursory Google search finds some announcements, but they are overwhelmingly posted by organizations and individuals related to the museum industry.  (I did find one art fan’s write-up here.)

During a recent conversation with three museum directors regarding the current state of the field  (Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Maxwell Anderson, Julián Zugazagoitia of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Selma Holo, USC Fisher Museum of Art) Sarah Spitz, of KCRW‘s Politics of Culture, bemoaned the lack of “mainstream” media coverage for an event that she deemed “quite stellar.”

Although Ms. Holo mentioned hearing a notice on her local National Public Radio affiliate that morning, I think Mr. Zugazagoitia was spot on when he described museums as “very inward looking sometimes.”  He urged museums to “engage major communications firms or media in joining some of these sessions and make it public what we’re discussing” while noting that “there are very, very many relevant conversations that are addressing societal issues at large that happen to be reflected through the prism of the organizations that we lead.”

[For the sake of full disclosure, I must mention that Mr. Zugazagoitia (or JZ as I have affectionately nicknamed him) is the incoming Director & CEO of the museum where I am employed.  I wanted to shout “Amen!” when I heard that remark.]

It is my belief that museums are entirely too modest when it comes to self-promotion.  They have no problem with proudly displaying their wares when fundraising, but what better way to raise funds and awareness  (and possibly attendance) than to make sure that your programs,  events and staff accomplishments are prominently covered by local, regional and/or international media?

Museum expansions, acquisitions, deaccessions, theft and  scandal are covered ad nauseum.   While those subjects are definitely worthy of attention, news about how museums have become culture centers, community gathering places, industry think tanks and educational hubs is sorely lacking.  For that, museums must accept some of the blame.

Rather than limiting themselves to inside conversations, museums should invite their respective communities into the clique.