Showing posts with label NEMA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label NEMA. Show all posts

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Newport News: Impressions of the 2013 NEMA Conference

The 95th Annual NEMA (New England Museum Association) Conference just finished up in Newport, Rhode Island.  Having never been to Newport before, I couldn't help thinking of something Mark Twain said in his autobiography:

"Newport, Rhode Island, that breeding place, that stud farm, so to speak, of aristocracy; aristocracy of the American type."

And since the first night's evening event was a fabulous party held at The Breakers, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt's "summer cottage," it was hard not to see the point of Twain's quote.  

But despite being surrounded by many incredible historic mansions, the 2013 NEMA Conference itself was quite accessible and filled with lots of practical information.  The conference theme (which was crowd-sourced last year) was "Who Cares? Why Museums Are Needed Now More Than Ever."
This year, NEMA offered a conference app, and many session handouts were made available via a download section of the NEMA website. 

Obviously I couldn't attend every session and event at the Conference, but here are some impressions of the things I did see and participate in:

Is Your Museum Ethical?  Hats off to Session Chair Rebecca Smith for being willing to raise a set of tricky issues that come up in the museum business.  The session was well-attended with good opportunities for session attendees to participate in resolving hypothetical ethical dilemmas.  Julie Hart, from the American Alliance of Museums, also spoke about resources available from AAM in this regard.  Check out the PDF handouts from the session on the NEMA website.

Telling a Better Story Outside the Walls of Your Museum  Session leaders gave some great tips on "setting the stage" for indoors experiences with outdoor installations.  Among many pieces of common sense advice that stuck with me were exhortations that "little impressions add up" so maintenance and repair, especially of outdoor exhibits and signage are important, and that it is important to test outdoor components, especially those involving digital technology or electronics, to ensure they work as intended.

Creating Experiences for Visitors to "Think with Their Hands"  Of course I'm biased since I was a presenter at this session with colleagues from Art, History, and Children's museums, but this deliberately "hands-on " session gave participants many different ways to think about how content could be translated into meaningful gallery activities and/or exhibits by letting visitors (and staff!) "think with their hands."  One resource mentioned during this session was the Great Big Exhibit Resource List, a constantly evolving list of exhibit materials and suppliers.

Gaming in Museums: From Low-Tech to High-Tech  This active session gave us opportunities to play with and evaluate actual museum game concepts.  We also discussed the broad concept of "barriers to entry" and ways to make games and museum game installations most broadly accessible. You can check out a session handout here

Valuing Neurodiversity: Interns with Asperger's Syndrome in a Museum Gallery Guide Program  Of course museums and museum people constantly strive for accessibility in our programs and institutions, but it is often difficult to think about the practical steps needed to accomplish those goals.  This session provided great background information, as well as practical tips and case studies, on how to provide access and opportunities for people on the autism spectrum.  Two takeaways here were to break tasks into small chunks, and to look for ways to minimize "surprises" or unexpected situations for people along the spectrum (whether visitors, staff, or interns.) Great handouts available via the NEMA website. 

Perfecting Your Elevator Speech  The title is pretty self explanatory, but Dan Yaeger, the Executive Director of NEMA gave a funny and engaging presentation on a topic that we could all probably benefit from thinking about a little more.  Excellent handouts here.

The two last things I'll speak about are: 

1) The "Demonstration Stations" (short demos on focused topics that took place in the Exhibit Hall) which seemed from all reports to be a resounding success.  I think this idea could be replicated at other museum conferences as well.

2) The PAG (for Professional Affinity Groups) Lunch Sessions were another great way to network and gather with colleagues from like-minded  groups (like Exhibits folks, or Museum Directors).  The Exhibitions PAG described several interesting exhibits collaborations, including the "Curiouser" exhibitions that took place at the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium at Roger Williams Park.

Of course it wasn't all work!  I got a mini-lesson on how to balance on the "spinning globe" ball from circus and vaudeville master Reg Bacon (pictured below) during Friday's coffee break!

All in all, I found this year's NEMA Conference to be extremely well-organized --- filled with many opportunities to learn, as well as many chances to network with peers.  Major, major kudos to the NEMA staff and this year's conference organizers for a job well done!  I hope to meet more ExhibiTricks readers in Cambridge, MA at the 2014 NEMA Conference.

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Visitor Voices: Cacophony or Chorus? Thoughts on NEMA 2012

I just breezed out of beautiful Burlington, Vermont as the 2012 NEMA (New England Museum Association) wrapped up for another year.

My big takeaway centered on all the session (and hallway!) chatter involving the issues and challenges regarding the increasingly greater inclusion of visitor input into museum exhibits and programs.

Certainly fostering cultural organizations that are more responsive to, and inclusive of, the many different communities that interact with each museum is important, but I was struck by an odd little nuance during many of the conversations in Burlington.

So many NEMA folks seemed hesitant (or downright ashamed) of sorting/curating/editing the vast piles (physical and/or digital) of visitor-generated content they were gathering.  Somehow it seemed that unless many square feet of inane sticky note comments weren't allowed to remain posted at "Talk Back" boards across New England's museums, we were inherently insulting (or censoring?) visitors by sorting and organizing more meaningful comments for display.

The "signal to noise" ratio at most of these comment boards really makes me question if this technique is becoming a painfully overused cliche akin to mini grocery store exhibits inside Children's Museums.  Crafting careful "prompts" or thoughtful questions that elicit more than repetitive and banal responses from visitors can be tough.  But why bother to even waste the sticky notes if you're only going to ask such overly open-ended questions as: "Tell us about your favorite memory about (insert exhibition theme here)?"

If you do come up with good questions for visitors to answer, have you provided a comfortable environment where they can focus a bit to produce a thoughtful answer?  Or did you just slap up a board on a wall right in the middle of a bustling exhibition gallery?  Again, why waste the sticky notes if you've set up the situation to realistically produce only the most cursory, dashed-off comments?

But let's say you've come up with great questions, and really crafted an environment that encourages the careful expression of thoughts as well as an opportunity to review and ponder what others have shared.  Do you really want to present everything in an undifferentiated mass like an intellectual "town dump"?  (It's great to keep past comments accessible, but what's your mechanism for allowing visitors to easily search through older contributions?)

Two analogies that I heard in Burlington really helped me think about the role of museum staff in this process:

The first compared visitor comments and community contributions to a museum's physical collections.  Curators care for physical collection objects and keep them, but museums only put their most interesting, most significant (perhaps even most upsetting) things on display, not everything!  Shouldn't we treat visitor and community contributions in similar ways?

The second analogy compared the role of museum staff to that of a conductor with an orchestra or choir.  You keep things a bit organized, and let individual contributions shine through, but you also help prevent everything from completely going off the rails.  It's important for community members to feel that their contribution "counted" but you can do that in many different ways.

I thought the analogies neatly balanced both sides of the visitor contribution "coin." One focused on careful curation and sorting, the other allowed for the recognition a broader collective effort.  I'm glad that the opportunity to interact with colleagues from around the region during the NEMA Conference got me to think more deeply about this topic.

What do you think?  What techniques have you used to "orchestrate" thoughtful visitor and community input?  Let us know in the "Comments Section" below.

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hobnobbing with the Historians (NEMA 2011 Wrap-Up)

Different types of museums seem to foster different "tribes" (or affinity groups) of both staff and visitors.  So I was happy to get outside of my science center/children's museum/interactive exhibits comfort zone to attend the decidedly history-oriented NEMA (New England Museum Association) Conference that just recently concluded in Hartford, Connecticut.

To be sure, not everyone at the Conference was in the History racket, but the majority were.  So this is a group that takes the twin foci of the museum business, "Stories" and "Stuff" very seriously.  (Of course that's a tricky task when you have such artifacts range from whaling ships to original Silly Putty packaging.)

You might expect such a conference to be overly concerned with "When" and "What" type questions, but I was pleased to find that this year's NEMA conference kept bubbling with "Who" (as in who are we as museums, and who will our visitors be?) and "How" (as in the process of creating engaging, community-centered, and community co-created, offerings) type questions.

What follows are a few highlights from the conference sessions and activities:

Tuesday night, before the official Wednesday morning start, began with a nice social opportunity by offering a "Pecha Kucha" evening event.  I've written about Pecha Kucha before, but briefly it is a presentation format that limits each presenter to a session of 20 slides of 20 seconds each (for a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds.)  The format is great for getting presenters to focus and sharpen their ideas.  The NEMA crew delivered with presentations ranging from "The Pickle Project" to reflections on Route 66.  I think every museum conference should start this way!

In keeping with the "Who" and "How" focus, the Wednesday morning Keynote Presentation was actually a panel presentation on "Reflecting Relevance in a Diverse Society."  The speakers eloquently and forcefully emphasized the disconnect between the past, and for the most part current, offerings of museums and cultural institutions in the U.S. and the changing demographics of our potential visitors.  Basically, museums that attract older and whiter audiences can't expect to keep doing more of the same programming and expect to interest and attract audiences that do not have a museum-going tradition.

Another nice aspect of NEMA's programming format is that they allow individuals (even those running a business or independent museum professionals) to present for an entire 90 minute session by themselves. In my experience,  this worked really well and allowed in-depth consideration of such topics as developing apps for your museum (by Rob Pyles of TourSphere),  building a strong social media presence (by Caitlyn Thayer of Barefoot Media), and exhibit project management (by Todd Harris of 42 | Design Fab Studio.)   The presenters were all thorough and thoughtful and absolutely did NOT turn their sessions into sales "pitches."  Bigger conferences like AAM, ASTC, and ACM should take note, and loosen their session formats a bit!

Of course not all the important conversation happens during sessions, and I was happy to reconnect with some old friends and meet some new folks as well.  I even went to a Tweet-Up!  If you find yourself in Hartford, you could do worse than eating at Trumbull Kitchen or Black-eyed Sally's!

The only false note in the conference evening festivities was the trip to the Connecticut Science Center.  Both the event itself, and also the entire museum, were lacking.  It's amazing to think of all the money and political capital (not to mention a "starchitect") that went into producing such a fizzle of a place  --- a true museum NOT worth a special trip.  (But I'll save the specifics for a future post ...)

Luckily, I was invited to present during two sessions.  I gave a short talk and helped moderate an activity during the Exhibits PAG (Professional Affinity Group) Lunch on the topic of "Green Exhibits" where I referenced the "Green Exhibits Checklist."

I also was on the panel of "critiquers" for a session that reviewed the "Making Connecticut" exhibition at the Connecticut Historical Society.  (Which despite being a history exhibition, had some nice interactive opportunities for visitors, like the spindle component pictured below.)  I applaud the staff and designers for putting their work up for review in a public forum before their peers.  This, to me, is how we grow as practitioners and share ideas on how to create better exhibitions.

Kudos to the NEMA staff and museum hosts for doing such a great job with the 2011 Conference!  Their hard work is a big reason why NEMA continues to be one of the strongest regional museum associations in the U.S.

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