Moving Forward—and Questioning—Together

The Minnesota Association of Museums (MAM) held its annual conference this fall, gathering museum professionals from across the state to delve into the theme Moving Forward Together. As a regular partner of arts and culture clients, 8 Bridges Workshop attended to gain insights into the challenges, trends, and debates facing the museum field today.

MAM members vary from historic house museums to science centers and arts venues, but despite these differences, shared concerns arose throughout the conference. Participants emphasized the relationships their institutions cultivate, above and beyond the collections they showcase. Challenges were also echoed across disciplines, from communicating relevance to connecting with audiences and using social media tools to generate excitement.

A common refrain was to be “more than a museum.” This follows a long trend of museums repositioning as cultural hubs, committing resources to education and community engagement, renovating to improve access and welcoming, and developing savvy digital features. Although these developments have been underway for decades, one could still hear echoes of museums shaking off comparisons with musty cultural mausoleums in an effort to underscore contemporary vitality.  

The ongoing work to shift audience assumptions corresponds with a shift in institutional stance—from aloof authority to expert collaborator. In this vein, communities were highlighted throughout the conference, with roles including:

  • creators who contribute content, particularly via social media;

  • informants who add nuance to challenging histories;

  • advisors who influence decisions and strategies;

  • activators who participate, play, and explore;

  • teachers who incorporate museum resources and platforms into lessons;

  • students who benefit from different approaches to learning; and

  • collaborators who help develop new programming.

In contrast to this approach to museums as lively community spaces, other institutions seek to craft contemplative spaces, minimizing crowds and facilitating quiet reflection in our noisy world. Museums offer a spectrum of experiences, but one element in the conference that crossed disciplines stood out in our contemporary political climate—the potential of museums to function as nodes of inquiry, instigators that prompt examination, reflection, awakening, and questioning.