The first time I worked at a museum, I was an art student and had just landed a gig assisting a professor with mural painting at the Denver Museum of Natural History. It was mind-blowing to have an insider’s access to exhibits, to stroll through the back offices and see architectural models of museum spaces on desks and faux taxidermy animals hanging from the ceiling. Who knew museums needed so much to operate – offices, staff, budgets, and marketing – and yet, still manage to make magic with so little?
A few decades and a half-dozen museums later, the thrill of working behind-the-scenes in museums is just as potent. But, my naivete around what museums need to operate has been replaced by a drive to provide strategic support to staff and volunteers who dedicate themselves to making museums welcoming, relevant and well-run cultural institutions.
Like most museums, the Womens Museum of California is grappling with what it means to be a museum in the 21st century and on the heels of a global pandemic that rocked arts and cultural institutions to the core. It is also thinking about its role in promoting meaningful and lasting advancement in diversity, equity, access, and inclusion, starting internally with the museum itself.
The co-founder and first president of the Women’s History Reclamation Project, Mary Maschal, planted the seed for change decades ago. She persuaded women from all walks of life to join her in building an archive that documented the unacknowledged achievements of women in the annals of U.S. history. I am honored to stand on her shoulders and the many presidents who came before me, as incoming president of what we now call the Women’s Museum of California.
There is much good work to be done.
We must bring new voices to the table and shine a light on the overlooked and missing histories, and when necessary, explore and unpack the reasons for these omissions. We must enable all women and girls to see themselves represented on our museum walls, in our educational programming, and in the diversity of our board, staff and volunteers, to ensure that the lived experiences of all women and girls are shared, authentically represented, and woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Strictly speaking, the mission of the Women’s Museum of California is to educate and inspire present and future generations about the experiences and contributions of diverse women by collecting, preserving, and interpreting their stories.
But we strive to be so much more than a traditional museum. While grounded in history, we are a living institution that utilizes stories of the past to better understand our present-day struggles and activate change. Since its inception, the Women’s Museum of California has never been neutral in its stance to use history as a tool for social change.
Post-pandemic, the needs of the communities museums serve are shifting. In response, we have begun to ask ourselves how we must also shift to meet those needs?
Can we be a museum with walls – and sometimes without – to go and be where needed, and not just where convenient and comfortable? Can we serve as a laboratory for education, storytelling, academic training, and museum practice and still be considered a ‘museum’? How do we partner with schools to fill the gaps in women’s history, and if so what might that look like? At a time of escalating rent, how do we claim more space to broaden our collections to represent more women whose stories are waiting to be told? Can we leverage our expertise and resources by serving as a forum on today’s issues and join others in building a more connected and civically engaged community?
At a time when women’s rights remain under attack, this is not a time for the timid, but for those who are willing to challenge norms, be bold and take risks.
The future of the museum is full of possibility. Our organization is in excellent hands with Felicia W. Shaw—an experienced executive and phenomenal leader at the helm, and staff members who bring deep knowledge of the museum field rounding out the team. We have a passionate board comprised of (quite frankly) the most collaborative and effective group of people I have ever been privileged to lead.
Most importantly, we have loyal supporters who even in a global pandemic, did not abandon us, but doubled-down on their support to keep our museum afloat. Our work is enabled by the extraordinary generosity of the many whose commitment to our mission dates back to our beginning and has never stopped.
On behalf of everyone at the Women’s Museum of California—the board of directors, volunteers, and staff – let’s seize this moment and continue this journey together.
I am honored to serve and can’t wait to get started!
Nicole Miller-Coleman, President, Women’s Museum of California
A skilled, insightful and ethical nonprofit professional with expertise in capacity building, fund development and nonprofit business operations who brings 20 years of experience working with organizations ranging from design studios to universities to aircraft carrier museums. Her early career included extensive experience in arts administration and art exhibit production.