American Alliance of Museums Honors Kathleen McLean with 2018 Award for Distinguished Service to Museums

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The American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the only organization representing the entire scope of the museum community, announced today that Kathleen McLean is the recipient of the 2018 AAM Distinguished Service to Museums Award.  The award recognizes an individual’s excellence and contributions to the museum field for at least 20 years.

Kathleen McLean is principal of Independent Exhibitions, a museum consulting firm specializing in exhibition development, design, programming, and strategic planning. Since 1974, McLean has designed and developed a wide range of exhibitions for public audiences in museums of history, art, and science, as well as interdisciplinary and children’s museums. Many of the exhibitions she has developed focus on social issues and public participation.

“We’re proud to honor Kathleen for her many contributions to the Alliance and to the museum field,” said Laura Lott, Alliance  president and CEO. “She was an early champion of visitor experience and community access, and she continues  to lead institutions toward new and better ways of fulfilling their  missions and enriching the lives of their communities.

“Kathleen has dedicated her 44-year museum career to professionalizing exhibitions and programs, advocating for diversity, advancing community engagement, and promoting experimental participatory practices in museums of all types,” said Barbara Henry, principal of Barbara Henry & Associates, who nominated McLean for the award. “She still believes that museums have the capacity to change the world.”

McLean began her museum career at The Oakland Museum in 1974. From January 1994 through September 2004, McLean was the Director of the Center for Public Exhibition and Public Programs at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. During her tenure there, she initiated a process of re-evaluating the mission, culture, and impact of the organization, with a particular emphasis on visitor experience and community access. From 1986 to 1990, McLean established and led the first exhibitions department at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in Crown Heights, New York. And she recently was Creative Director and lead consultant on the Oakland Museum of California’s major gallery reinstallations.

In 2006, Kathleen McLean was selected for AAM’s Centennial Honor Roll as one of 100 museum professionals to have made a significant contribution to American museums over the last 100 years.

McLean is co-author of the IMLS-funded book, The Convivial Museum; co-editor of the IMLS-funded book, Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions; co-editor of the NSF-funded book, Are We There Yet? Conversations about Best Practices in Science Exhibition Development; and author of Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions. For 10 years she was the exhibition review editor of Curator: The Museum Journal, and has widely published and spoken on museum design, informal learning, and exhibitions. She has served on panels and committees of AAM, the Association of Science-Technology Centers, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Academies of Science, and the National Science Foundation, among others.

McLean will accept the award at the Alliance’s Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in Phoenix on May 7. 


About the American Alliance of Museums

The American Alliance of Museums has been bringing museums together since 1906, helping to develop standards and best practices, gathering and sharing knowledge, and providing advocacy on issues of concern to the entire museum community. Representing more than 35,000 individual museum professionals and volunteers, institutions, and corporate partners serving the museum field, the Alliance stands for the broad scope of the museum community. For more information, visit

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Chris Burda's picture

Congratulations, Kathy! This is so wonderful to hear. An honor so well deserved.


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