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  • Jingshu Helen Yao

You Can Make It If You Try: Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories

By: Jingshu Helen Yao


There are moments now and then that remind me of how COVID has changed my method of thinking. When I first heard about the Museums Canada Summit, the image that popped into my head was a Zoom meeting on my screen. The speaker’s slides flash between blocks of names and profile pictures: a gathering in the virtual world where we have no idea about each other’s appearances, expressions, and feelings behind the camera. Imagine my shock when the full schedule came out and I suddenly realized that it was an in-person conference in Kitchener, Ontario, that agreeing to participate in a panel entailed much more than logging onto Zoom for two hours between class and work, that for the first time in two years I would be attending an in-person conference.

After the initial shock came nervousness. Most conferences I attended before were student conferences; most participants were the same as me and the expectations were different. The summit, however, was a professional conference where most participants had years of experience in the field. What could I possibly bring to the table that they might find important?

Helen and Loren (left to right) seated at the table. Photo courtesy of the Author.

When I first entered the museum sector, I had very little idea about many aspects of the work. It took me a while to find the area that interested me the most — storytelling. Traditionally, museums are about objects and a story is what gives an object meaning. As a writer, I attempt to illustrate feelings, demonstrate characters, and build worlds through storytelling. Transferring this knowledge into my work as a museum professional, I realized that it is through stories that visitors could connect the objects, names, and factual knowledge themselves. Thus, I found my passion in interpretation, education, and community engagement.

I was thrilled when Robert Ferguson, the keynote speaker, brought up storytelling as a strategy for the future of the museum. It was brought up again later on in Gail Lord’s presentation “Time Is On My Side: The New Context for Revisiting History Museums”. It eased my nervousness when the sentiment around storytelling is shared among museum professionals despite the different focus of their work and the different experiences.

Photo courtesy of the Author.

During our panels, Loren, my peer in the Museum Studies program and in Museum Professionals of Colour (MPOC), and I were mostly telling stories. Our stories included going into the museum studies program as Persons of Colour and how our communities perceived our choices, seeking out the previous MPOC members for guidance and a sense of belonging and eventually deciding to continue their initiative, and our job hunting experience and what that entails for marginalized employees in museums. It was through these stories that we got our points through to the audiences and we were surprised by the positive responses from them.

To make the most of our trip to Kitchener, we cleared our schedules for the next morning and stayed to listen to other panels and talks. Stories were essential parts of most speakers’ presentations – stories about themselves, about people they work with, projects they took on, and every moment during their career that gave them insights about being a museum professional and how our work impacts the communities and people around us. From Karen Carter’s hard work that started off Myseum of Toronto; to Heather George’s reflection on seeing plantains that growing in parking lots; to Armado Perla’s experience with various types of leadership in museums across North America, Europe, and South America. It was through their stories that we reconsidered and resonated with the concept of inclusive leadership in museums.

The title of our panel discussion “Time Is On Our Side” took from a song by The Rolling Stones, connecting to a current exhibition by institution hosting the conference, THEMUSEUM. When we talk about the future we often look into the past for what has been done and then try to come up with a plan for the unknown. However, a lot of the time, existing history is only a part of the narration and what we need is more stories from different angles. It was for this very reason that I agreed to join the panel without hesitation when the session’s moderator Jordan Baker reached out to MPOC. My initial self-doubt still lingered in the back of my mind when I read about the decades of work Gail Lord had completed in the cultural sector. Very few people could claim to be as experienced as her, let alone two graduate students who had just stepped into the museum field. The panel discussion showed that the different positions in professional experience could spark interesting conversation, and I appreciate the opportunity to prove that.

There are always risks to speaking up: the voice of disagreement, misunderstanding, miscommunication… So, it isn’t a shame to remain silent. Yet we may also miss the chance to recognize the mind and voices that share similar thoughts, and these voices together might bring the changes we are hoping for. The courage to tell our stories not only comes from the need to express ourselves but also from the possibility to encourage other voices to emerge.


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