Children's Museum colleagues from around the world (including representatives from Bulgaria, El Salvador, Korea, Israel, Nigeria, Australia, and China!) recently converged in Connecticut to meet, learn, and discuss about topics of common interest during the annual InterActivity Conference put on by the Association of Children's Museums (ACM).
I attended the entire conference, so I offer my impressions here for those who were not able to attend, but also to give a sense of the current state of the Children's Museum field.
The theme of this year's conference was "Collective Impact." Building on the notion that no single organization can create large-scale lasting social change, but rather we have more impact when different parts of the community work together.
This theme of collective impact --- of learning together and changing the world through common cause was evident throughout the sessions and keynote talks at the conference.
Here are my impressions of the sessions and events that I participated in:
Welcome Dinner and Opening Program
This was a great way to start the conference by getting everyone together. A nice opportunity to eat and chat with old friends, and to meet new colleagues. In addition to the meal the program featured Jeff Edmondson, the Managing Director of StriveTogether, and a Children's Museum "Fashion Show."
Mr. Edmondson's talk, while energetic, felt a little too motivational speaker-y for my tastes. It also felt a bit like a generic talk that could be presented to any kind of professional group (in fact, Mr. Edmondson misspoke and said "Children's Hospitals" instead of "Children's Museums" at one point and got quite flustered apologizing for a simple mistake.) But extra points to Mr. E for his energy and brevity!
The Museum Fashion Show was quite fun, since every participant had a DIY outfit with elements highlighting some part of their museum's programs or exhibits. Pictured below is Megan from the Fairbanks Children's Museum with a book dress highlighting the Fairbanks "take a book" program that allows young visitors (who are often upset when they have to leave the museum) to take home a children's book from a designated book shelf near the front desk and entrance/exit door.
Thursday Morning started with a great Professional Networking Breakfast where I found out a little bit about the "Mind in the Making" program -- a way for the public and organizations like museums to plug into children learning research, and also the Daily Vroom app --- a way for parents to discover "brain building" activities with their kids using their everyday activities. I'll definitely be looking more into both of these resources, based on my fortuitous breakfast conversations!
Thursday morning I attended the Material Matters 2.0 session, which I found interesting and useful. I love a session that gives me practical takeaways! Panelists spoke about the pros and cons of using specific materials in exhibit projects and brought samples for folks in the audience to handle and look at. For example HDPE is a good material to use for removable access panels since it holds up to repeated inserting and removing of mechanical fasteners. It would be great to have more deliberately practical sessions like this at every museum conference!
The other Thursday morning session I attended was called "Engaging a Community Through Social Media" and it also was a winner. Three museum practitioners and a marketing professional gave their practical tips and experiences with Social Media through examples. One great takeaway for me was the idea that nowadays people often come to your Social Media channels first, and then your website. So it's important to think about how best to use your resources for your institution's online presence.
The entire rest of the afternoon was spent inside Norwalk City Hall in a format of presentations inspired by New England Town Hall meetings. Let me start off with a positive by saying the local Soweto Melodic Voices musical group were amazingly entertaining.
As for the rest of the Town Hall program, it was, frankly, a train wreck --- if a train wreck could also be boring. The format of speakers pouring out dense bits of information very rapidly with little, if any, interaction with the audience felt like being forced to drink from an informational fire hose --- if drinking from a fire hose could also be boring.
I know the organizers' motivations for developing a Town Hall format were good, but I'd like to offer a suggestion for future ACM Conferences in the form of a Town Hall resolution.
RESOLVED: ACM and InterActivity Conference Planners shall offer interactive session blocks on selected topics such as the "Achievement Gap" instead of theatrical programs that force all conference attendees to passively be gathered into one large auditorium space.
If an entire session block of eight or nine smaller sessions had been offered around the topic of the Achievement Gap, for example, with each smaller session focusing on an aspect of the Achievement Gap like Education, Health Care, Literacy, etc. We could have then gathered as an entire conference group to have each session moderator report out on what was discussed in a more digestible (and actionable!) format.
(For context: when InterActivity was in Pittsburgh a few years ago, an extended session format of "Small Talks" (like TED talks) was introduced. It was fun and successful. Since then, subsequent InterActivity hosts have tried similar extended sessions for all the conference attendees at once that have been much less successful. People come to conferences to learn things and interact with their colleagues, not attend a multi-hour lecture.)
Stepping off soapbox now ...
Moving on to the Thursday evening event, hosted by Stepping Stones Museum. It was wonderful in every way. Stepping Stones has a super museum and their staff and sponsors offered plenty of inspiration (AND plenty of great food and drink!) for everyone.
Friday sessions included excellent presentations on working with artists and developing museum leadership, entitled respectively: "Need a New Knockout Installation? Try Partnering with an Artist" and "Strategies to Develop the Next Generation of Leaders." Both sessions were really well done and involved good takeaways. One interesting connective thread between the two topics that I found was the importance of clear communication and expectations making the difference between highly successful (or less successful ..) interactions between museum staff themselves or with museum visitors.
Another highlight of Friday was the ACM Marketplace, where vendors show off their ideas and wares to the Children's Museums community. There were a good range of folks showing interesting stuff, but I especially liked nWave letting me pet Owlbert the owl!
The 2016 InterActivity conference wound up for me with a morning session entitled "Mistakes Were Made." I was one of the speakers/facilitators that first shared our own mistakes and lessons learned, and then small groups shared their mistakes/lessons before one grand mistake winner was chosen, and awarded the coveted "Mistakes Were Made" trophy. You'll have to attend next year's InterActivity conference in Pasadena to ask Brenda Riley, the Director of Fairbanks Children's Museum to share her prize-winning story (and lesson!) with you herself.
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