Monday, June 24, 2019

4 Things I Learned from Attending 4 Museum Conferences in 4 Weeks

You might think my first answer to the title of this post would be: "DON'T go to 4 Museum Conferences in 4 weeks!" but you'd be mistaken.  My experiences in Denver, New York City, New Orleans, and Copenhagen (by way of Helsinki!) were certainly a bit taxing at times, but ultimately extremely rewarding professionally and personally.

So where did I go?  In order, the organizations whose Conferences I attended were: Association of Children's Museums (ACM) in Denver; New York City Museum Educator's Roundtable (NYCMER) in NYC; American Alliance of Museums (AAM) in New Orleans; and the European Network of Science Centres and Museums (ECSITE) in Copenhagen.

And what did I learn (or re-learn) during my conference travels?  Four main things that could be applied to any conference experience really:

1) Content is King

2) Social Interaction is Queen

3) Location, Location, Location

4) Size Matters

CONTENT: Ostensibly as life-long learners we should be excited about the content offered at conferences.  But that works both ways -- conferences should be interested in providing interesting and exciting formats that engage participants with meaningful content also.  (As a related sidebar, does anyone really remember or care about the Conference "Themes"?)

I give high points to ACM, NYCMER, and ECSITE for having excellent keynote speakers.  I really enjoyed Temple Grandin and Gever Tulley extolling the virtues of self-directed learning and "making stuff" during their talks in Denver.

The keynote speakers at the ECSITE conference completely enthralled me with presentations on two unlikely topics -- Hyperbolic Space and Slime Molds!  I'd recommend clicking over to the ECSITE YouTube page to see the videos of each of those keynotes.

Of course, the other essential part of the content equation is how the sessions are framed and presented. I think ECSITE did the best job of this by presenting truly thought-provoking content through formats that left the traditional "A moderator and 3 talking heads with PowerPoints" framework in the dust.

Two examples from Copenhagen were a "House of Commons" session where the room was literally divided in half with a tape-line down the middle and all the chairs set on one side of the room or the other. Speakers each presented a short, provocative statement about science centers, then participants "voted with their feet" by choosing the "FOR" or "AGAINST" side of the room, followed by a discussion with audience members about why they voted the way the did.

My other favorite session was one that I presented in that followed a "Yes, and ..." format.  In this case, each presenter had one minute to present a wild exhibit idea that they really would like to see implemented, followed by one minute of audience members adding positive ideas (Yes, and ...) to the original ideas, but no BUTS or naysaying allowed!  Then the original presenter summarized (and added a title) to their original idea based on the audience input.  A great fast-paced session that left everyone (audience and presenters) with a whole set of cool exhibit ideas!

You can often find out more about conference sessions (including digital copies of handouts and session materials) by going to the respective Conference webpages (like ACM's here, or ECSITE's here.)

SOCIAL INTERACTION: In many ways going to a conference is like attending a reunion.  You look forward to seeing folks you haven't seen in a while and meeting new folks as well.  So how are conference organizers creating opportunities for socializing and networking outside the formal sessions?  Dear colleagues in the United States museum community, I am here to report that the ECSITE Conference stands head-and-shoulders above every U.S. museum Conference in that regard.

So what does ECSITE do, that others don't?  For starters, every lunch is a communal hot lunch at big tables. Rather than everyone scattering for an hour or two, all ECSITE attendees receive these large group lunches every day included in their registration.  For reference, there are about 1200 people or so who attend the ECSITE Conference, so just about every other Museum Conference in the U.S. (except AAM which is really too big, to begin with, but more about that below) could create these communal social gatherings if they really wanted to.

Maybe my European colleagues are just cooler, but the evening events at ECSITE were better too! Our first ECSITE evening event (again, for everyone) was held in a historic Copenhagen Circus building with dinner and a show!  If you really believe that at least half the value of attending a conference comes from the social interactions outside of sessions, then what are the conference organizers doing to really foster those interactions?

Although I always award extra points to the National Association for Museum Exhibitions (NAME) for the best social event at AAM, and the 2019 party at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum was no exception.  I mean, at what other AAM party could you wear a bean jacket?

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: This isn't just about the city where a particular conference meets (although Denver, New York City, New Orleans, and Copenhagen were all awesome) but also the logistics of getting around to different conference events and the quality of the host institution(s) as well.  ACM, NYCMER, and ECSITE all handled this aspect pretty well.  AAM's handling of logistics in New Orleans, on the other hand, was a BIG fail.  Events in "conference hotels" were far away from the main Conference Center and even with shuttle buses, many people were late for events they paid for.

SIZE MATTERS: Bigger is NOT always better when it comes to Museum Conferences. Once the number of conference attendees exceeds 2000, the quality of the overall conference experience decreases exponentially.  I really believe there is such a thing as a museum being too big, and similarly, a museum conference being too big as well.

I'm afraid the AAM Conference is just too enormous to be able to handle content, social interactions, and even location logistics in a way I find personally and professionally satisfying.  I'm going to be taking a break from AAM for a while, and instead focusing my conference time on smaller regional, national, and even international museum conferences to continue to hone my professional practice.

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul is an instigator, in the best sense of that word. He likes to mix up interesting people, ideas, and materials to make both individual museum exhibits and entire museums with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.)

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