A few days ago, I visited the final day of Investing in Women and Girls, an exhibition presented by the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Art Museum of the Americas (AMA).
The exhibition featured 30 finalist entries from the Colors of Life photo contest organized in collaboration with The World Bank Art Program. It was held in the F Street Gallery, an off-site exhibition space located in the OAS’s F street building. Actively advancing the museum’s overt social justice mission, the photographs celebrate and affirm the achievements of women and girls, and advocate for advancing women’s social and economic rights.
The exhibition was accessible only by appointment so at 2pm on Friday, I arrived at the OAS ready to see the exhibition. My failure to confirm the required meeting spot in advance caused some confusion at the front desk. Luckily, the friendly reception staff called ahead to the museum and confirmed that I should wait in the lobby for the museum staff person.
This awkward start to my visitor experience was quickly redeemed by the warmth and genuine enthusiasm of the museum staff member, Fabian, who arrived promptly and took me through security to the gallery. He apologized for the security screening causing a less-than-ideal prologue to my visit, which instantly put me more at ease.
As he showed me around, he spoke enthusiastically about the exhibition and pointed out his favorite artwork. He explained that the artists would ultimately sell their works and donate the proceeds to various charities, allowing the project to make a very real social impact. He also chatted with me about my background and museum career aspirations.
The ‘likeableness’ of this museum experience continues to resonate with me days later. What stays with me is the impression that the museum and its staff believe wholeheartedly in the museum’s social mission and are warmly and unassumingly proud of the museum’s work. (My visit later the same day to the main AMA building further confirmed my impression of the museum as a sincere, proud, and humble institution.)
In her recent post on Intentional Museum, museum blogger, Amanda Krantz, talks about the value of raising awareness through even small changes in visitor attitudes and knowledge.
I suggest museums may be in a unique position to raise awareness in subtle and visceral ways that contribute to the ‘baby steps’ of understanding that Krantz talks about (Amanda Krantz, Intentional Museum). The understanding need not always be intellectual, but can be emotional and intuitive—in this case, perhaps a greater appreciation for the abilities of women and girls, or (for female visitors), a sense of social empathy.
As we’re seeing from the Ice Bucket Challenge, part of raising awareness about a cause is getting people personally engaged in some way. Thanks to the enthusiasm of my guide, I came out of the AMA exhibition feeling a true sense of possibility—both for myself as a woman, and for the exhibition’s imagined future of a more just world.
So how might museums engender a sense of excitement about their social service work and a sincere belief in its value? Perhaps creating this kind of institutional culture is one thing while conveying it to the visiting public is another challenge. Or does one naturally lead to the other?
After my visit, I can’t help feeling that museum staff are a valuable resource for ‘selling’ the social work of the museum. I wonder how museum leaders can help staff feel invested in that work—so that visitors feel invested too.