History of IMTAL

IMTAL was founded in 1990. It became an Affiliate Group of the American Association of Museums (now known as the American Alliance of Museums) in 1994, and combined with the Professional Interest Council (PIC) of AAM in 2002. 

In 1999, IMTAL endorsed and supported the formation of IMTAL-Europe, a UK-based sister organization with the same dedication to promoting theatre in museums all over Europe. We're also happy to have a very active presence in the Southern Hemisphere with IMTAL/Asia-Pacific.

Some  seminal  moments  in  IMTAL’s  history  were:  
• The  melding  of  IMTAL  with  the  Museum  Theater  Professional  Interest  Council,  headed  by  Tessa  Bridal.  
• The  first  international  festival  and  conference  in  1999,  hosted  by  the  Museum  of  Science,  Boston.  
• The  shift  from  an  executive  director  as  primary  staff  (volunteer)  with  advising  board  of  directors  to  a  more  operational  board  of  directors.

What follows is a first-hand account of the beginnings of IMTAL by our founder, Catherine Hughes:

I worked for the Museum of Science, Boston as an actor in the late 1980s. One of the characters I played was Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, an early 19th century mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron. When I decided to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in 1989, I wrote to the London Science Museum to offer myself as a performer who could do a British character. I was unaware at that time that The Science Museum had been using theatre in its galleries for a number of years. In response to my letter, I was invited to audition for them. After I was accepted, I adapted how I played Ada according to their gallery style of performance. When I returned to Boston in the summer of 1990, I went back to the Museum of Science to work. The two museums were very different in how they approached theatre, but both had professional and creative programs. My knowledge that these two institutions were using theatre inspired me to look for more and see who was doing this kind of work. My idea to form IMTAL grew out of the realization that many others were doing the same thing, but we had no formal way to communicate, learn from or collaborate with each other.

Then through two different museum conference panels I was on in the fall of 1990, I met the late David Parry from the Canadian Museum of Civilization and Robert Swieca from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. We all agreed that a networking organization would help various museums to communicate and could serve to encourage others to pick up theatre as an interpretive technique. I asked Pippa Richardson, who had supervised the drama programme at the London Science Museum, to be part of this effort. I then asked my superiors at the Museum of Science if they would allow me to use the museum’s infrastructure to create this group. I was given one day a week to concentrate on IMTAL.

The combination of my work in two museums in different countries with Robert, David and Pippa’s participation led us to form an international organization from the outset. Additionally, I reached out to Candace Barrett, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Children’s Museum to be a West Coast representative in the U.S. Thus, an informal board made up of these four representatives was formed. With the Museum of Science, Boston, these were also the founding member institutions. The name: International Museum Theater Alliance and its acronym, IMTAL, were coined at this time. It was the end of 1990. This marked the start of the organization.

I began efforts to apply for 501(c)3 non-profit status. I was able to get free legal advice from Vance Koven, a lawyer who did pro bono work through Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts of Massachusetts. Vance was instrumental in guiding us through the maze of paperwork to become a non-profit. I got help from the Museum of Science’s publications department on a logo. I put together the first newsletter, printed on orange paper, in February 1991. I continued to speak on regional and national conference panels about museum theatre and the newly formed IMTAL. Museum staff and individual theatre artists began to sign on as members. Information Technology staff at the Museum of Science added an IMTAL page to the MOS’s website. The MOS accounting department allowed me to open a separate account to manage IMTAL funds. They provided oversight of my use of funds and an annual audit.

From new members, I recruited the first officers for the Board of Directors. My intent was to get a cross-section of disciplines represented: art, science, history, zoo, aquarium, etc. Diane Brandt Stillman, Director of Education at the time for the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, accepted the position of President of the IMTAL board. She became a driving force for our discussions on strategy and development of IMTAL as a non-profit membership organization. Marilyn Weiss Cruickshank, Director of Education at the USS Constitution Museum, was the first Secretary. Margaret Chase, an independent museum theatre practitioner who had worked at the Science Museum of Minnesota, was the first Vice President. Christy Coleman Matthews, head of the African-American Interpretation Program at Colonial Williamsburg, was the first treasurer. The board and I, as Executive Director, worked to create a White Paper, setting out IMTAL’s purpose, governance and goals, and to successfully complete the 501(c)3 application to the IRS. The first meeting of the IMTAL board took place in a restaurant in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1991. We then met in a couple different offices arranged by Margaret Chase, who worked with various non-profits in NYC. In 1993, the Central Park Zoo invited the Board to meet annually in its conference room, which we did until 2002. This NYC location allowed several international representatives to attend board meetings and be part of strategic planning.

Next, we applied for and were granted Affiliate status to the American Association of Museums. This was a long process of deliberation between IMTAL and AAM, but it established IMTAL’s legitimacy within the museum community and put it at the same table as much larger Affiliate organizations, like the Association of Science-Technology Centers and the Association of Art Museum Directors. AAM’s Councils and Affiliates attend a joint annual meeting with AAM’s Board of Directors. I attended these meetings as Executive Director and whoever was President of IMTAL’s board attended with me. This facilitated communication between these groups and IMTAL, and served to get the word out about museum theatre. It established the annual IMTAL luncheon and sessions on museum theatre at AAM’s meeting.

One of our first projects was to apply for a planning and implementation grant from IMSL to have an international festival and conference of museum theatre. Though we applied twice and were unsuccessful, the process enabled us to further clarify the organization’s policies and procedures.

The primary business of IMTAL for the first years was to put out the newsletter, an annual directory with script listings in the back, promote discussion to define museum theatre and best practices, and serve as a conference session organizer. Participating in other organizations’ conferences annually took up most business. I either attended and chaired the session myself, as I did for ASTC conferences because I was going for the Museum of Science, or wrote the session proposal and recruited others, as I did for the American Alliance for Theatre and Education. Other conferences at which IMTAL sponsored a session include the New England Museum Association’s, the Association of Children’s Museums’, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. IMTAL was a presence at an average of three conferences per year from 1991-2001.

In 1993, AAM published a compilation of papers on museum theatre, called Perspectives on Museum Theatre, which I assembled and edited. Also in 1993, the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television hosted the first international conference on the use of theatre in museums in Bradford, Yorkshire (UK). During a plenary session, the merits of an international organization such as IMTAL were debated, versus one based in Europe for most of those in attendance. Eventually, this discussion produced the sister organization IMTAL-Europe. Those members who represented Europe on IMTAL’s board, such as Pippa Richardson, Fiona Mitchell-Innes and Andrew Ashmore, were instrumental in organizing this effort. IMTAL-Europe maintained a strong connection to IMTAL, while allowing for a European identity and focus.

I resigned from my position as Executive Director in 2002. Jonathan Ellers, who was at the time at the Central Park Zoo, picked up the baton as Executive Director, and then in 2004, the organizing structure changed to have a more active Board of Directors, and dissolve the voluntary Executive Director position. There have been many strong and influential leaders who have taken IMTAL through various iterations and accomplishments. Past presidents after Diane include Dale Jones, Sheli Beck, Lynda Kennedy, George Buss, Paul Taylor, Jill Finkle, and Simone Mortan. They and others have had the vision and talent to ensure the organization stayed true to its mission to further the field of museum theatre and support its members.

Past IMTAL Presidents

2019-2021 - Todd D. Norris, Children's Museum of Indianapolis (Indianapolis, IN)
2017-2019 - Douglas Coler, Discovery Place Science (Charlotte, NC)
2015-2017 - Elizabeth Pickard, Missouri History Museum (St. Louis, MO)

2013-2015 - Stephanie Long, Science Museum of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN)

2011-2013 - Jillian Finkle, Providence Children's Museum (Providence, RI)

2009-2011 - Simone Mortan, Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, CA)

Jonathan Ellers, Central Park Zoo (New York, NY)
Paul Taylor, Franklin Institute (Philadelphia, PA)
George Buss
Lynda Kennedy
Sheli Beck
Dale Jones

Diane Brandt Stillman, Walters Art Gallery (Baltimore, MD)

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