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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