2017 Conference


Truth & Trust: Museums in a Polarized Society

99th Annual NEMA Conference
Falmouth, Massachusetts
October 25 – 27, 2017

As the 2016 election confirmed, America is a divided nation. Political discourse is now so polarized, many people have a hard time relating to their ideological opposites. They believe the other side lives in an alternate universe, another planet, a reality completely alien and incomprehensible.

The political process has upended our sense of reality. Politics have always employed embellishment and truth-shading as means to ends. But this past election season mendacity has become the norm. We are living in what is being called a “post-truth society.” With so many lies, falsehoods, and obfuscations masquerading as truth, it is hard to determine fact from fiction. Reality has become relative. Will our society ever see eye-to-eye again?

In this context, museums offer a compass. Museum spaces and collections help people find clarity. When people encounter a work of art, an antiquity, a scientific breakthrough, a historical event, a wonder of nature, or any of the other things museums offer, they experience authenticity. This is why museums are considered among the most trusted sources of information today.

How should museums use that trust? Can they employ it to redefine reality for communities bewildered by political crosscurrents? Is it possible for museums to help unify and heal our polarized society? Restore civility to our civic dialogue? Help unstick the wheels of government?

Museums have an extraordinary responsibility to leverage their social capital in service to a divided nation. If there was ever a time when museums could demonstrate their value as essential to their communities, the time is now. Add your voice to this vital and timely discussion at the 99th NEMA Conference. Contribute to the conversation with a conference session proposal. Here is some food for thought as you develop your ideas:

  • How do your collections and programs convey authenticity?
  • Do you have a case study on how you or your museum has helped visitors with “breakthrough” moments to understand or clarify reality?
  • Has your museum ever had the experience of uniting opposing voices?
  • How do you make your museum a “safe space” for visitors overwhelmed by divisiveness?
  • How can museums encourage more civil discourse and promote the ideal of public service?
  • When should a museum push back and take a stand against political tides? When should museums remain neutral?
  • How does your museum handle internal polarization in your staff and/or board?
  • What is the power of culture? Can culture mitigate societal hatred?
  • What can museums do to gain trust and credibility with people who do not feel museums represent them?
  • Do museums have the ability to combat the falsehoods and conspiracies that proliferate through social media and the internet?

In addition to theme-related sessions, we also welcome sessions exploring issues of technology, future leadership, and public accountability in museums. Sessions on professional development topics for individuals such as networking, personal growth, and public speaking are also welcome. NEMA strives to offer sessions on topics including museum governance, administration, visitor services, volunteer management, human resources, education, exhibitions, curatorial and conservation, registration, membership, development, and marketing. In content and in format, all sessions should stimulate discussion, raise new ideas, debate solutions, and spark imagination. Join us and share your experience!

Submit your session proposals by February 6, 2017. Click here for the Call for Proposals.