Sunday, May 17, 2015

Show Me, Don't Tell Me: Thoughts on ACM's 2015 InterActivity Conference in Indianapolis

I love going to the Association of Children's Museums (ACM) InterActivity Conference for many reasons. First and foremost, Children's Museums folks are FUN to hang out with!  Also,  InterActivity is consistently one of the most thought-provoking professional conferences I attend.

So here are some of my InterActivity 2015 thoughts for those ExhibiTricks readers who were unable to attend this year's conference in Indianapolis.

My main takeaway is that the most effective sessions and speakers were those that could SHOW examples or ideas, and trust the intelligence of their audience to synthesize and apply the ideas back at their museums, rather than TELL the audience how to implement specific ideas or approaches.

The conference started with a series of "Small Talks" (similar to TED talks) with short, impactful messages.  Three talks stood out, and each covered very emotionally-charged topics.  Leslie Lagerstrom from Transparenthood shared her experiences as the parent of a transgender child, and spoke eloquently about the value of inclusiveness in museums.

Erica Hahn's son Spencer suffered a stroke in-utero, and doctors thought he would never walk or talk.  But Erica, a single mother, used an access pass to visit the Children's Museum of Indianapolis  every weekend to help her son learn to walk and talk.  Erica's presentation finished with Spencer coming on stage with Rex, the Indianapolis Children's Museum's mascot!

The last Small Talk that really stuck with me was a short dramatic presentation by an actor portraying Anne Frank's father, Otto.  It was part of the programming from the Children's Museum of Indianapolis  exhibition called "The Power of Children."  Even though I have read Anne Frank's diary recounting her experience hiding from the Nazis, I was touched by this portrayal of her father, and reminded of Anne's optimism about people despite the hardships she suffered.

Of course, it wasn't all about tugging heartstrings --- I also got to ride in a real Indianapolis 500 race car during one of the evening events, as you can see in the picture at the top of this post!

I'll quickly share two less than positive experiences at IA 2015, and finish with two positive ones.

One session on Intellectual Property was a real disappointment --- definitely more about telling, than showing.  In fact I haven't encountered more whining and finger shaking (outside of a preschool classroom) in a long time. Plus an added bonus of jamming an entire semester of intellectual property law into an action-packed (yawn!) PowerPoint of black and white slides filled with nothing but legalistic language.  IP is an important discussion for museums, but could benefit from a range of opinions in a presentation on the topic, as well as showing specific good and bad examples.

The other "tell-er" not "show-er" was a keynote speaker on transmedia topics.  What started as an evocation of childhood memories of Star Wars, soon devolved into a commercial for Disney products and some really off-target suggestions for how new technologies could be implemented inside museums that betrayed a basic lack of knowledge regarding the day-to-day realities of running a museum.  It's not surprising that at the end of the talk the audience could not muster the enthusiasm to raise even one question.  A real bummer that a smart person with a potentially interesting topic couldn't land her keynote before a receptive crowd. 

To end on a more positive note, the session entitled "Using Research and Evaluation to Inform Practice with Exhibits" featured two of my favorite PhDs!  Lisa Brahms, from the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, and Robin Meisner, from the Providence Children's Museum, as well as their colleagues showed some great examples of museum exhibition projects benefitting from evaluation. Take a look at the website to dig into some of the reports featuring Lisa or Robin's work!

Last, but not least, I was delighted to share presentation duties on the session entitled "Material Matters: Thoughtful Choices for High-Impact Visitor Engagement" with Marcos Stafne (Montshire Museum of Science); JJ Rivera (Portland Children's Museum); and Reid Bingham (NY Hall of Science).  We showed how to take common Children's Museum tropes, like mini-grocery stores, dig pits, and block tables, and shift them through the introduction of new materials and environments.  Then we finished the session with roundtable discussions and playing with materials based on the the four topics in our talks. 

So InterActivity 2015 is a wrap!  Thanks so much to the dedicated staffs of the Association of Children's Museums, and our host institution, Children's Museum of Indianapolis , for SHOW-ing us the way to have fun with colleagues while thinking about how to move our museums forward!

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