Your Roving Reporter

By Betty Brewer

Laura Lott became President and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums in June of this year. I thought we would all enjoy knowing a little more about her passions and drivers. Meet Laura Lott!

What attracted you to the museum field and where did you start?

I grew up in a small town in the Hudson Valley, New York and was the first person in my family to go to college. I was always a bit of a curious explorer, so much so that I lived in Tokyo for a year as an exchange student when I was just 15 years old. At the same time, I’ve always been practically minded and goal oriented, which led me to business school and to achieve licensure as a Certified Public Accountant. With that practical business and management background, I could work in any field – but quickly found my way to the very special nonprofit world, and specifically found my passion in education-related nonprofits.

It’s where I find my deepest passion for museums – their role as vital education institutions. I’ve seen first-hand with my three-year old daughter the importance of the kind of experiential education only museums can really offer. My prior work at National Geographic taught me the importance of sparking inspiration before real learning can occur – something at which museums excel.

I leapt at the chance to work in and learn about the museum field five years ago, at a critical time in AAM’s history. I’m really proud of how much AAM has accomplished through its last strategic plan – and look forward to building on that strong foundation.

It has been – wow! – 3 months already (almost). Have you come up for air yet? How are you feeling about your new role so far? What would you like to share with other museum leaders – either new to their roles or steeped in their roles – that could offer some insights or give us a boost?

I have been so honored and excited to step into my new role; I’m still pinching myself to be so fortunate to work in this amazingly diverse field with the greatest people. It’s really all about the people – the talented and committed AAM staff; the passionate volunteer leadership throughout the Professional Networks, Accreditation Commission, Board of Directors and others; and the wonderfully smart and collaborative colleagues from partner organizations and member museums. I am so inspired by the work of our members and allies every day.

I know there’s always work to do, and we all see so ways to improve, to do more. That focus on continuous improvement is good! But we also need to stop and reflect on how far we’ve come as individual organizations and as a field from time to time – and celebrate our successes. Museums do truly awesome work every day, and we should let ourselves be proud of and inspired by that unique claim. 

In the July/August issue of Museum, you gave us a “sneak preview” into some of the plans for AAM for the next several years. Care to add to that, or elaborate any?

Over the last few years, we broadened access to AAM membership and resources, engaged more museums in the Continuum of Excellence and worked on being a better partner with museums and other museum service organizations. We now represent 60% more museum members and 40% more individual members. But membership is only a means to an end. Our mission is to strengthen museums.

I am spending much of my first year meeting with and listening to museum professionals from all types of institutions about what they expect from AAM, what being an “alliance” means to them and how we can further strengthen the field for a bright future. So far, I’ve heard urgency around museums struggling with how to effectively engage more diverse audiences, staff and leadership. There are concerns about the financial sustainability of especially smaller museums in this rapidly changing economy – and anxiety about what the disruptive forces of the new “sharing economy” mean to museums’ business models. And, of course, the ongoing rapid advances in technology are a challenge and opportunity to our institutions – both operationally and in terms of what guests expect from museums. I hope our thought leadership work and the forums we provide for museum professionals to share with each other can help address some of these major issues.

I am proud of the strides we have made in advocacy – but there is so much more to be done to ensure decision makers in Washington, D.C. and around the country understand and invest in the vital role of museums in their communities, in the economy, and particularly in our education system. I look forward to engaging partners throughout the field and in related sectors to strengthen and further spread these messages.

Finally, you really had to hit the ground running in the public advocacy arena with the threatened government closure of the Illinois State Museum. Would you share the comments you sent to Governor Rauner in support of the museum? How else is AAM offering support to the museum’s leadership team?

Speaking of the work left to be done to educate decision-makers! The Illinois situation makes me so mad. I told the Governor that I appreciated the budgetary challenges, but that closing the well-regarded Illinois State Museum System is at best a dubious short term gain, and will certainly be a devastating long-term loss to the state and to the local communities and people it serves.  

Closing the ISM System will cause incalculable and devastating costs to the state of Illinois that it cannot afford, including losing its top notch researchers and historians, missing the opportunity to educate and inspire the 40,000 schoolchildren who visit every year and reneging on Illinois’ 138-year charge to protect its cultural and natural heritage for its citizens.

I wish we could do more. We are 150% behind the museums’ leadership and staff. What is happening to them is appalling.

Betty Brewer serves as President and CEO of Minnetrista, a 40-acre site with a museum, historic homes and gardens. She has held this position since 2005. Ms. Brewer has served the museum field for 30 years, including being a past chair of the Leadership and Management Professional Network and presenting sessions at national, regional, and state conferences and webinars.