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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