Saturday, 5 November 2016

WORKING TOWARDS EQUITY, DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION AT #OMACONF2016

WEEKEND EDITION

BY: NATANIA SHERMAN

The Hon. Eleanor McMahon, MPP giving her opening remarks (Photo: Natania Sherman)
 This week, myself and a small contingent of Museum Studies students made our way to Mississauga to attend the annual Ontario Museum Association (OMA) Conference hosted by Peel Art Museum and Archive (PAMA).  Unfortunately the conference was held on the same day as our 6 am course enrollment, so bleary eyed from having woken up early, we took the Mi-way buses to the Novotel Hotel in Mississauga. The 6 am struggle is real, but MMSt students stop at nothing to stay current in the museum field.

Conference Selfie! From left: MMSt students Anja Hamilton, Katherine Seally,
Natania Sherman and Emily Berg
This year's conference theme was "Towards Diversity and Inclusion." Each day of the conference featured a variety of keynote speakers and panel presentations. It was interesting to see how the various speakers interpreted the conference theme. Many panelists challenged the idea of what diversity and inclusion means to visitors and urged conference delegates to consider the challenges and rewards in making inclusion and equity part of an institution's core mission. Below is a short recap of some of my personal highlights from the OMA conference.


THURSDAY NOVEMBER 3RD

Can't have a conference without coffee. (Source)
We arrived at the hotel in time for registration and immediately spotted the coffee stand. Coffee is conference fuel. An introduction to the conference was given by Anne Marie Hagan who urged us to recognize the dark side of Canadian History and to avoid maple-washing our heritage. Opening remarks were given by the Hon. MPP Eleanor McMahon, who is minister of Culture, Tourism and Sport. She drew parallels between what the ministry is currently doing in their Culture Strategy and the OMA's Museums 2025 strategic plan. 

One of the highlights of the morning, was the keynote and workshop given by Aletheia Wittman and Porchia Moore of the Incluseum.  The Incluseum is an online resource promoting critical dialogue around inclusion, community building and collaboration in museums. Wittman and Moore encouraged visitors to question what diversity and inclusion means as an action and not as a catchphrase. Their workshop functioned as an icebreaker because they gave every table post-it notes and pens and asked us to write brainstorm what inclusion means. The main portion of the workshop was an exercise in  building an inclusive museum. What would that look like? The results were both surprising and inspiring and it gave delegates a chance to get to know each other.

The Incluseum's Keynote and Workshop
(Photo: Natania Sherman)
One of the concurrent sessions focused on "Reconciling Heritage and Confronting our Past." This session's  featuring panelists were: MMSt alumna Emily Meikle, McMaster University's Indigenous Research Officer and Vice president of Research, Heather George, iSchool Professor Cara Krmpotich, and Assistant Project coordinator, at the Indigenous Knowledge Centre at Six Nations Polytechnic, Tanis Hill. To summarize the discussion, each speaker described how museums have a responsibility to to work towards reconciliation when it comes to the way Indigenous peoples have been represented in Canadian museums. This involves making space to empower others to tell their stories, unpacking our own privilege as educated museum professionals and taking a critical look at collections practices. Even though as museum people we love these institutions, it is imperative that we confront their colonial origins.

In an ignite presentation, entitled "Shared Authority and Inclusive Storytelling: A Grassroots Community Led Effort to Build Toronto's First Museum of Migration," current MMSt student, Anja Hamilton, and tour guide, Arlene Chan, spoke of their experiences collaborating on Toronto Ward Museum's Dishing Up Toronto tours. The work Toronto Ward Museum is doing is one example of the ways that Ontario museums are using co-creation to help Canadian immigrants tell their stories.

The Queering History Panel at #OMAConf2016
(Photo: Natania Sherman)
The conference didn't only focus on racial and cultural diversity but included a panel called "Queering History" which spoke to the need to include queer content in museums. This panel outlined a collaborative framework for working with LGBTQ communities. This can be as simple as including all gender washrooms in museums or in raising a pride flag. This year marks the first time the OMA has held a panel on queer content in museums and based on the turnout in the room, this is clearly a topic museum professionals are eager to include in their work.

The last panel I visited that day was titled "ROM Welcomes: Inviting Canadian Newcomers to the ROM in which Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen, the audience coordinator at the ROM, Yasmine Mohamed, the manager of Cultural Access Pass/Institute for Canadian Citizenship, and Lisa Randall, the program manager for Settlement Workers in Schools, spoke about how early access to cultural venues can ease the transition into Canadian society for Canadian newcomers. The day ended with a cocktail hour, an awards ceremony and a trivia night aimed at Emerging Museum Professionals.

FRIDAY NOVEMBER 4TH

The Plenary speaker on Friday was Franklin Vagnone of Twisted Preservation and author of The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums, who reminded us that museums are living history sites and that we as museum professionals need to recognize the living context of our institutions, embrace "death,"  and rethink what our best practices accomplish and who they are best for.

A few familiar faces, from left: Leah Moncada, Lindsay Parsons, Michelle Johnson,
Madeline Smolarz and Emily Meikle (Photo: Natania Sherman)

After that, I visited  the "Master's Panel" which featured a project by MMSt alumnae Madeline Smolarz, Michelle Johnson, Emily Meikle, Leah Moncada, Lindsay Parsons and Bethea Penny, about their "Museum Intercultural Education Program." The program, which consists of an intercultural outing is a perfect example of how intercultural exchange can be fostered through programs that encourage critical thinking and active listening.

One my favorite panels was Melissa Smith's talk on "Access to Art Programming @ The AGO." I was excited to learn about the outreach work that the gallery is doing in order to make art accessible to people with disabilities, people with mental health issues, the elderly and youth. I also loved learning about how their programs focus on empowering others to feel welcome in a gallery setting.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Conference Swag! (Photo: Natania Sherman)
Although I know there are many barriers (travel, cost) to visiting conferences as a student, it was a rewarding experience to be able to learn about trends in Ontario museums. There are so many museums in Ontario, many of which I had never heard of, despite having lived in this province for much of my life.

A powerful gesture by OMA organizers and many of the speakers was to acknowledge that we are living on indigenous land. The cynical part of me feels that dedications like this are not enough to undo the injustices that have been dealt to so many First Nations communities, but acknowledgement is an important first step towards reconciliation. Based on the emphasis that the OMA has placed on engaging with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call-outs to museums and archives,  I hope that building awareness of whose land we occupy is the first step of many steps towards telling the difficult stories of Ontario and Canada.


A beautiful day for a conference.
(Photo: Natania Sherman)

Finally, If like me, you have a fear of the word "networking" be not afraid! I learned that museum folks genuinely want to share stories of their work and to connect with young people.  To facilitate this, the OMA has a Conference Connections program to allow emerging museum professionals to connect with veterans in the field. I did not participate in this program but my friends who did had an overwhelmingly positive experience and made new connections out of it.  Even though there was downtime built into the schedule for networking, it wasn't awkward. The OMA conference had many  ice-breaking events, like a trivia night, that made it easy to meet people. Don't forget that social media can also be a networking tool! Many museum professionals are active on Twitter and by live-tweeting exciting moments of the conference and following speakers whose work inspires me, I was able to expand my circle in a very low risk way. That being said, you won't go wrong if you bring a few business cards.

For those of you who could not make it to the conference, you can get a sense of the presentations by following #OMAConf2016 on Twitter. For those of you who did visit, what are your thoughts? Did it give you a better sense of Ontario's culture sector?

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