Museums were a safe place for Elizabeth Yang-Hellewell, as she was discovering who she was and wanted to be in the world she saw around her. In the years that followed, she spent a great deal of time reflecting on the experiences of other people who visited the museums where she worked. How students, educators, families, and communities interact with their local museum spaces, and how they are reflected in the choice of artists and galleries selected for those spaces, are questions that we continue to work towards answering. It’s also one of her focus areas in her new role as CEO and CEO of the new Children’s Museum in January.
“Altogether, I have spent a decade of my career at[Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego]first in education/organizing and then in fundraising,” she said of her time at MCASD as Head of Development, working for company and enterprise relations, and in education programming . “Through different roles… I have had space to develop philosophies around leadership, engagement, audience development, partnership, community and mission-based fundraising. I will bring my collective experience in these areas forward at NCM.”
Yang-Hellewell, 38, lives in Bonita with her wife and two children, and has taken time to talk about the changes museums are seeing in light of the pandemic and focus on social justice, the role children’s museums can play in nurturing a more equitable and accessible society, and learning to be more authentic.
s: What was your first introduction to the new Children’s Museum?
a: I first visited the New Children’s Museum in 2008, as an educator with MCASD’s Teen Arts Council. We bounced in “No Rules…Except” Brian Dick’s reinvention of Allan Kaprow’s mattress room. The space was fresh, and the founding ideology entirely innovative – a contemporary art space designed for children, where members of the public of all ages can engage with big and bold ideas through play.
s: Why were you working with them in this role, something you were so interested in?
a: I have always been fond of the concept and the amazing creative execution of installations at NCM, first as a professional museum and community member, and now as a parent. The museum industry is undergoing a pivotal shift in internal structures and systems that will forever change, and for the better, the narratives (narratives) about what museums are, how they are funded, by whom, how they operate, and who they serve. I see NCM as an organization that has the potential to be at the forefront of this exciting change in the industry narrative. When I had the opportunity to lead this organization, I excitedly said yes.
s: What are your children most attracted/excited about when you visit the new Children’s Museum?
a: My 4 year old son loves hands-on activities. Her first stop is almost always the clay studio, where she’ll go on for 30 minutes or more making clay one by one. Wes Bruce’s installation “The Wonder Sound” is also a favourite. Specially captured with images of real and imagined animals all over the space. For a kid who spent a lot of time in traditional museum spaces, she was always happy with the idea of being able to touch and play with art in/on it.
What I love about Bonita…
We are quite new to our Bonita neighborhood, but I have lived in West Chula Vista for over 15 years, and my wife grew up in South Bay. We love the close-knit and diverse community, great restaurants and local businesses (TJ Oyster Bar, Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro, Holy Paleta). The proximity to downtown San Diego (and the new Children’s Museum!) is also great.
s: As a parent, how do you see and understand the purpose and potential of children’s museums?
a: Children’s museums are unique spaces for play, exploration, learning and personal expression. Essentially, it comes from the belief that investing in early childhood development and families is critical to the greater good of society. It is hoped that having positive and memorable museum experiences as a child will lead to a feeling of welcome and part of the larger cultural dialogue in museums as an adult.
I’ve thought a lot about the challenges that museums face today, as both societal resources and employers, and I believe that children’s museums are a place where we can push those boundaries and create new paradigms. As a young author, Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “You have to write the book you want to write. And if the book is too hard for adults, you write it for children.” We need to build and support the museum that our community needs, and if this museum is too hard for adults, we’ll build it for the kids.
s: What do you imagine when you think of developing more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible experiences in a museum?
a: I believe that real, real, and actionable change around diversity, equality, accessibility, inclusion, and belonging in museums begins within organizations. In practice, this begins with an examination of who is sitting at the table and making decisions, whether at the boardroom table or the staff table. If decisions are made about the public and the community, are the voices of those communities represented in clear and transparent decision-making processes? Continuing to do the critical work of making room for a diverse range of voices in how our Museum progresses is one of my priorities as I step into this role.
s: I majored in philosophy and majored in art history at Smith College. What are some of the most memorable museum experiences you’ve had as a patron?
a: In my early twenties, I spent a lot of time in New York City wandering around museums, drawing, reading, writing diaries, and generally using museums as safe spaces to engage with who I was and who I wanted to be in the world. I was going through the process of appearing as an eccentric, and found museums to free up spaces to explore my identity. I watched “Anna Mendetta: Earth Body, Sculpture, and Performance 1972-1985” at the Whitney Museum (American Museum of Art) during this time, and it made a huge impact on me. The disintegration of personal and societal history in Mendita’s work resonated deeply with me at this point in my journey. There are plenty of other museum, exhibition and program experiences like this that permeate my personal history and have influenced my career.
s: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
a: be yourself. We give children this advice all the time. It sounds very simple, but there is a lot that can get in the way of being one’s true self in life and work. I am now in a place in my life where I feel more authentic myself in all areas of my life, and that has made me a better leader, partner, collaborator, and initialer.
s: What’s the one thing people might be surprised when they find out about you?
a: I am the first generation besides my mother. My mother’s family immigrated from Macau as Chinese political refugees to the United States in 1963 after a decade of delayed and canceled attempts. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of immigrant experiences – they are multiple, personal, and unique experiences for individuals and families. However, I feel very close to my family’s experience of arriving in this country with no means, no language proficiency, and a desire to “fit in”, which came with its own set of complications. It’s definitely part of my family’s story, and mine in turn.
s: Please describe the perfect weekend in San Diego.
a: You’ll start with breakfast at Nate’s Garden Grill in City Heights, followed by a walk around the City Farmers Nursery (one of my kids’ favorite places). Sometime dumplings can be used, like some times outside (beach or mountains) and enjoy the museum!