Monday, April 28, 2008

A Landscape of Change

On our second official day in Denver, the impressive surroundings clearly have made an impression on annual meeting attendees. Today's general session—keynoted by environmentalist and author Terry Tempest Williams—focused on the land. AAM President Ford W. Bell welcomed a packed Wells Fargo Theatre to Denver, the highest city to host one of AAM's 102 annual meetings. At a mile above sea level, Denver is "the perfect place to discuss the high-minded and lofty ideals of this profession," Bell said.

But the snowcapped mountains don't reflect the ideals of this year's theme, leadership. "Unlike the topography all around Denver, leadership is not about hierarchy," Bell noted. All museum professionals, from newcomers to trustees, are critical to what Bell called a "simple bedrock truth"—that museums are working toward excellence. Museums are essentials, not luxuries, Bell continued, just as AAM is not a trade association but a cause. "There's no better cause in the world than our great museums, and that's how we're going to work," he said.

Williams joined in this assessment. Taking the stage after introductions from Denver Museum of Nature and Science CEO George Sparks and Mayor John Hickenlooper, Williams choked up as she thanked museum professionals, who she described as "storytellers and alchemists."

"Museums are wonderful places to quietly be subervise on behalf of the land," Williams said, noting that museums have found a place in every book she's written—environmentally focused works such as Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place and An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field. She worked at the Utah Museum of Natural History for 15 years, raising eyebrows by bringing in outspoken speakers and organizing unusual events. (Read Museum Editor in Chief Susan Breitkopf's recent interview with Williams for the juicy details.)

Williams honored museums for their capacity to break boundaries, create communities and, most importantly, tell stories. Today, "environmental stewardship is the new story, the old story which we forgot and now remember," she said. Museums have the power to draw attention to environmental issues, such as a recent display at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art that featured chunks of ice from the endangered Arapahoe Glacier in an incubator: a glacier in intensive care.

As Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights led Williams to spend seven years "watching" the work, eventually writing the book Leap about the experience, it only takes one museum experience to inspire change. "All museums are small museums," she said. "One person, one painting: transformation."


Anonymous said...

Sounds fantastic!

saracovla said...

Thanks for: filling me in, providing links to important elements of the conference (speeches,interviews,etc.), not making me feel like I'm a thousand miles away (which, sadly, I am). said...

I have just arrived back at the office and am paying the price for being gone a week but have taken a few moments to look over the comments and in reflection I have to say the first general session with AAM President Ford Bell and Mayor Higgenlooper was inspiring and energizing, loved the casual q&a and of course Terry Tempest Williams and Michael Chabon were the icing, thank you
Holly from Wyoming (my first ever blog)