Featured Speakers

Big Idea Speakers

Big Idea sessions feature leading and premier voices from outside of the museum community who will share perspectives, innovations and experiences with museum professionals. 

Franz B.M. de Waal

The Evolution of Connectivity: Primate Social Skills

Tuesday, April 28, 10:45 a.m.–12 noon


As a researcher into the social skills of animals—particularly in monkeys, apes and elephants—biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal is interested in cooperation, fairness, acts of empathy and altruism, reconciliations after fights and generally the sort of behavior that expresses or promotes connectivity. His distinguished career in research and study suggest that we are not the only species to value a well-integrated society, and like us, many other species seek this integration as a survival strategy: we do better together than alone. Gain greater insight on this research for inspiration in your own work to advance the social role of museums and museum practices that promote greater empathy and connectivity in visitors.

De Waal’s first book, Chimpanzee Politics (1982), compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. He is currently C. H. Candler Professor in the Psychology Department of Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Center in Atlanta.

Pearl Cleage

Between Engagements: In Search of an American Audience

Tuesday, April 28, 1:45–3 p.m.

Pearl Cleage, Mellon Playwright in Residence at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, explores the challenges facing artists and audiences as American arts institutions begin to more accurately and joyfully reflect America’s rich cultural mosaic.

Her 13 plays include Flyin' West, the most produced new play in the country in 1994; Blues for an Alabama Sky, currently in production at the Alliance Theatre; and What I Learned in Paris, which premiered last season. She is the author of eight novels, including What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day, which was a New York Times bestseller and an Oprah Book Club selection. Her memoir, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter, was published last year by ATRIA Books. Her first play for young audiences, Tell Me My Dream, will premier next season.

Copies of her poem, "A 21st Century Freedom Song: For Selma at 50," commissioned by Oprah Winfrey for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, will be available in the Hospitality Lounge. 

Generously supported by Alexander Haas

MuseumTALKS Speakers

MuseumTALKS feature preeminent voices from within the museum community who will share special insights inspired by the 2015 annual meeting theme, "The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change". The MuseumTALKS format consists of 15-minute presentations followed by 15 minutes of Q&A. 

Elizabeth Silkes

Inside/Out: Transcending Inspiration
Monday, April 27, 3–3:30 p.m.

How can museums move beyond inspiring change to actually catalyzing community transformation? By creating opportunities for engaged dialogue and community involvement, museums can play a critical role in driving change through reflection and exploration. This presentation will explore the different ways in which museums can create transformative spaces by connecting what happens within exhibitions to events and experiences taking place outside the museum’s walls.

As executive director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, Elizabeth Silkes guides the strategic growth and direction of a thriving coalition of 200 museums, historic sites and memory initiatives in 55 countries. Through regional and issue-based networks, the Coalition supports Sites of Conscience across the globe in developing innovative public engagement and human rights programs through exhibit design and methodological guidance, peer-learning exchanges, project grants and joint advocacy initiatives.

Spencer Crew

Giving a Voice to Forgotten Americans
Monday, April 27, 3:45–4:15 p.m

This talk will explore the challenges of trying to insert the artifacts, stories and contributions of the not-so-famous in the narratives of museum—and why it is important to do this not as exceptionalism but as an integral part of storyline.

Spencer Crew is a Clarence J. Robinson Professor of American, African American, and Public History at George Mason University. He has worked in public history institutions for more than 25 years, including 20 years at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—serving as director for nine years. His most important exhibition was the groundbreaking “Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915–1940,” which generated a national discussion about migration, race, and creating historical exhibitions. Throughout his career, he has sought to make history accessible to the public through innovative and inclusive exhibitions and public programs.

Valerie Fletcher

21st Century Bodies + Brains: Inspiration for Creating Richer Experiences 
Tuesday, April 28, 3:15–3:45 p.m.

Difference in ability is part of the world’s diversity; it is not the fixed condition of a few. This is an extraordinary time of creative opportunity in which the goals of expanding audiences and creating even better experiences must be married to a vision of human diversity as a creative catalyst. We cannot look at bodies and brains that work differently as special and separate but as inspiration to celebrate our collective good fortune of surviving more and living longer. Museums are ideal places to explore these new realities, to stir together physical, information and communication environments in unfamiliar ways to deliver more for everyone. Fletcher will share global examples.

Valerie Fletcher has been executive director since 1998 of the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD), an international educational, consulting and design nonprofit organization based in Boston. The organizational mission is to advance the role of design in expanding opportunity and enhancing experience for people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design.

Lois H. Silverman

Exploring Museums and Transcendence 
Tuesday, April 28, 4–4:30 p.m


According to the American Alliance of Museums, museums can “nurture and sustain the human spirit.” What does this look like for today’s visitors? How might research on transcendence and spirituality shape future aims and approaches? Come explore why needs of the spirit constitute a challenging yet compelling dimension of museums’ expanding social service and value.

Lois H. Silverman is an international scholar, project innovator and consultant to museums and social service agencies. For over 25 years, she has worked to expand museum theory, practice and potential through interdisciplinary approaches. Author of more than 55 publications, including The Social Work of Museums (Routledge 2010), she is a frequent leader, evaluator and provocateur on such concepts as meaning making, museums as therapeutic agents and the “next age” of museums.