A welcoming museum environment for visitors starts with a welcoming museum environment for museum employees. Employees who feel heard and valued and are not plagued by communication issues or extreme overwork are likely to be better equipped to have conversations about what makes museums friendly and inclusive for their visitors. One of the best ways to have those conversations towards a dynamic visitor experience is by learning new ideas from other museum professionals, and sharing best practices. Where does this professional development and network of folks to share ideas with come from? Often, conferences!
One thing about your girl is that I am ALWAYS trying to get out of the office. Without a regular change of scenery she wilts like a neglected house plant. Therefore, I love going to conferences because I get to be overstimulated, which I need sometimes, and I get to do a little traveling, even if all I see are the inside of a hotel ballroom and an airport.
But boy, there are a lot of things to not love about conferences. I asked the Instagram folks what their conference “hot takes” were (yes, I made a hot take exception this once). The responses ranged from things like “boring and tortuous if you go by yourself” to “too expensive” to “rarely result in any real implementation.” In short, we don’t feel like they’re giving us what we’re hoping for, and overcharging for it. As with most things, I believe that a lot of what’s wrong with conferences in the museum field is the expectations constructed around them. We look to these few-and-far between opportunities to meet new people and network, and learn new skills and best practices, and we hang our hopes on this once yearly or every other year excursion to turn us into better people and open new doors.
At my first museum job, there were $0 budgeted for Professional Development per year, but I also was not trying to stay up in that office every day, so I got real creative about finding ways to travel for work and get the museum to cover a little bit while I paid some of the expense out of pocket. This meant that I went to a lot of half-day or full-day workshops, rather than conferences, which were targeted towards one area of learning. In addition to these workshops being more targeted, therefore I was more likely to actually implement the strategies, they are obviously more affordable than a full conference. In addition to being more affordable, I typically would only need to take one day away from the office to attend them. As someone who was managing 5-8 weekly programs at the time, that was really important. I could get a little refreshed, gain new skills to bring back to work, and not need to rearrange my entire life. The footnote to this is that my job was in New England, where I could easily drive to approximately one million other museums within 1-3 hours for this type of day trip. However, I also revelled in the part of the pandemic where there were several of these half-day or two-hour workshops online. Didn’t satisfy my travel bug, but those other important elements – affordable, didn’t have to rearrange your whole life, targeted new info – were all still there. I also am bad at small talk, so I love these targeted experiences because it’s easier to connect with the other folks who attend, instead of open-endedly waltzing up to new people and asking them about where they’re from and what session they’re going to next. I find this format to be so much more welcoming, especially to people who are “in the trenches,” rather than department heads who are in a bigger-picture role, people who are at that weird not-quite-an EMP but not-quite-“established” place in their careers, and small museum employees.
There are two types of people, as far as I’m concerned: people who attend conferences to network and people who attend conferences to learn. (I still believe this despite the fact that several people were adamant that it’s both for them.) I don’t dislike networking, actually – again, see above where my boredom is constantly imminent. I like meeting and talking to new people. Also, having a network is great, and important, and like many people in our field, I rely on my network to do good work. It’s rough that having a network is so great, but networking sucks so hard. What I don’t like about networking is that I’ve been in one too many scenarios where I initiate conversation with someone and they realize that I’m from a museum they’ve never heard of and decide to go talk to someone else. This is the same name-recognition gatekeeping that makes internships unnecessarily competitive and makes small museums feel unseen by museum associations. “Emerging professional” meet-ups at conferences are great, but some of us have already “emerged” but haven’t had time to form a robust network.
It’s nice to bring people together. But the chasm between who can and who can’t afford, or afford the time, to attend big conferences, is huge. And the chasm that creates when it comes to networking and who gets opportunities because they were in that room and they know those people is as vast and deep as the one the Balrog takes Gandalf into in the Mines of Moria.
I know that museums associations and conference organizers are really trying. They’re acknowledging that networking is hard and arranging peer-to-peer match-ups. They’re seeking way to make themselves more accessible and affordable. AAM has many opportunities to volunteer and receive discounted or free admission. There are always scholarships. I was fortunate to attend a conference on a full scholarship when I first graduated from my MA program, including my flight, hotel, the whole shebang, and it was an amazing experience that really helped to cement my relationships with people in the field. (But it was also fun because all of my friends were there, because again, networking when you’re a nobody is a drag.) Perhaps these conversations about what sucks about conferences will continue to result in incremental changes that eventually make them better for future generations of museum-employees. That’s fine but I’d also like a solution for right now – which ultimately I think is, no museum association is going to be everything to everyone. Pick what types of convenings and conferences and workshops and networking Slack channels work for you, and leave the circuses of CAA and AAM to the people who feel like it works for them.
My dream is to create the museum group that I really want and need for myself. I drag AAM as I think many of us do, but I don’t really have any issues with AAM. I just simply feel like it isn’t for me. One lovely thing I loved hearing said aloud at a conference I was recently at was that the museum field is plagued by a scarcity mindset. That’s the way of thinking or belief that opportunities and community for some people means that there’s less opportunities and community for other people. From that lens, we ought to keep in mind is that sometimes smaller is better. Embrace the community-oriented because, it makes it more feasible to create an actual network! I’m sure that everyone who created a new museum group had the same ambition as I did when they launched. I appreciate the intention behind creating spaces that serve museum professionals to do their best work – even if now it’s falling flat for many of us. With that in mind, how can we shift the expectations to not place so much value on the big conferences, but think about how smaller, shorter, more affordable workshop days can cater to a broader subset of museum professionals? How can we make it so that when I sign up to go to a conference these days, my inner monologue stops saying, “no question about it, I am ready to get hurt again”? What are your pros and cons to big conferences?
Shout out to some great organizations that are shaking up the narrative and offering community and smaller workshop opportunities, such as:
National Emerging Museum Professionals: https://nationalempnetwork.org/
Association of Art Museum Interpretation: https://artmuseuminterp.org/
And I guess that’s all I have for now. 🙂 Please recommend more!