In the midst of calls for desperately-needed reform to the museum field, the American Alliance of Museums, or AAM, has faced a lot of backlash and disillusionment from museum professionals for being out of touch or not advocating enough for certain subsets of the demographic it serves. AAM’s annual conference is massive and cost-prohibitive for many. Recently, AAM came under fire for deciding to disband member groups. (I saw this on Twitter; I can’t find a supporting link.) The Alliance Blog irks with an upbeat tone that doesn’t match the frustration of putting people-first ideas into practice.
All that being said, the criticisms of AAM lead me to ask the necessary question that must accompany disapproval: what would success look like? For an organization to serve ALL museum professionals – “372,100 workers directly employed by the museum sector” – what would it look like for the one organization to meet all those diverse needs? Recently, AAM announced a million-dollar investment and newly created positions within the institution to support year-round networking and professional development opportunities so that the conference is no longer your one and only chance to make connections. They also offer generous scholarships to attend the conference. And at the end of the day, they’re a huge organization that can meet certain career development needs, but not all of them.
I’ve never been to AAM’s conference, or “Annual Meeting,” and in my quest for knowing all the things about museums and how to make museums welcoming not only for visitors, but for the people who work in them, I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. What happens at the Annual Meeting doesn’t necessarily frame everything about the organization, but definitely gives us some more context. So I pestered someone who DID attend #AAM2023 to give me the lowdown. I famously might hate conferences, so it makes sense to get a review from a peer who is a little less biased when it comes to attending for the sake of both networking and learning. Read on for a quick interview with a colleague who has 10+ years of experience not just working in museums, but working across so many different types of museums and in different roles! Though this person identifies (or, I identify them) as a “Hot Ship Nerd” via my imaginary Museum Nerd Codex, they’ve also worked in a national history museum, art museum, and a performing arts center, in roles ranging from education to fundraising. Enjoy the below interview with this esteemed guest, which might answer some questions or ease some anxieties about attending AAM’s Annual Meeting (or not!) in the future!
- For those many folks who have not had the opportunity to attend AAM, what would a first-time attendee expect to see and experience? Set the scene.
It’s the largest single gathering of museum professionals, so of course it’s a good time! And of course it’s complicated, expensive, and has unfortunate barriers to participation. The convention center is like an airport or sports arena, but filled with museum-y people and things. It’s very choose-your-own-adventure. You’ve got sessions filled with audiences from 30-150 people, a couple big keynotes for everyone together, and the expo hall which is like a carnival midway except it’s vendors selling you mannequins, exhibition furniture, software, books, and a lot of free candy and pens. Plus there are offsite sessions (usually for an added fee) at area museums and other sites that provide extended time and expertise in single topics.
- How is it different from attending other conferences besides the obvious “its huge-er”? What sets it apart other than being “very big”?
It’s different from other conferences in how much it is cross-disciplinary, so you get zoos and historical societies and botanic gardens all in the mix. I’ve found the audience engagement and fundraising expertise offered at AAM to be particularly high, since those goals cross all visitor-serving institutions. If you’re a first-time attendee convincing your supervisor to fund your attendance, AAM actually offers an email template for that! It’s a one-stop-shop conference for many different professional development goals you may have. To me it seems like there are also more executives and board members who attend, with some sessions specifically for them. AAM provides a concentrated dose of the wonderful wide world of museum work, so a new leader from outside the field can benefit from that introduction too.
- Was this your first time attending? Did you attend as a presenter or attendee? Have you ever attended as (whichever you didn’t do this time)?
I was an attendee in 2015 and a presenter in 2018 and 2023. My employer or grants always paid my registration and travel (once was in my own city with no travel). So I’ve seen how some sessions are perennial favorites that always show up (like “Mistakes Were Made” or “60 Audience Engagement Ideas in 60 Minutes”). And the pandemic certainly influenced this, but in 2023 I noticed fewer handshakes and slightly fewer business cards, replaced with “let me write down your email” or something similar.
- Presenting has great energy because it feels great to share your work with your colleagues and have generative discussions! Is the conference equally inspiring for those folks who are attendees?
Yes, attending without presenting is great, you get to focus on taking it all in. As a presenter, it’s frustrating when the most compelling sessions or sessions with my friends presenting are always scheduled at the same time as my own! But presenting has often been my key to getting funded registration and travel. Successful proposals often include presenters from multiple institutions, so if you can find colleagues across the sector and get a session idea together, it’s worth submitting.
- Would an earlier career professional feel comfortable attending alone (are there baked-in opportunities to meet other people? Do people mostly travel in packs?)
Yes, they really do try to provide many different formats to meet and have conversations. There are coffee break areas, evening parties (for an added fee), and AAM spans multiple hotels, each with a bar where some people will have their conference name tag, ready to mingle. Use the conference app, often not available until the week of the event. Make some plans in advance but be open to spontaneity: this year, there was a 35 minute lunch break during a workshop and a few people said they were going to run across town to see the Clyfford Still Museum. I said no at first, then I opened my sad box lunch and changed my mind and ran after them, a whole city block behind, and we caught up and had a great museum visit. Absolutely take time to rest and recharge your social battery, too. The FOMO is unavoidable, so accept that up front. If you’re looking to chat, try stopping by the poster section, these show research from museum studies graduate students or other professionals who want to share what they learned. Some non-AAM smaller conferences have dinner sign-ups so you can go eat with strangers (if you’re into that, which I am). Get to sessions early and chat with people sitting near you. My go-to questions are “Where did you get good breakfast today? What other sessions have you liked? Isn’t it cold in here?”
- What about the sessions themselves? What were some of your takeaways?
I support shopping sessions and trusting your gut: if you’re not enjoying it, stand up and leave quietly. It’s really OK! I was reminded that the most compelling session speakers are often my BFF public programming or education types, which is not surprising. If you can’t choose, bet on the person who talks to people for a living.
I like a smaller discipline-specific conference for practical advice and true peer-to-peer connections. But I like AAM for reigniting my museum spark: scrolling through all the sessions reveals what I care about. This year I found myself fired up about mental health, budgets, civic engagement, and HR. And you can scroll through all those sessions without buying a ticket.
- There’s criticism from the field that AAM sometimes feels behind the curve (as any large organization would) on some of the more progressive agenda items from museum professionals. Were there any sessions about things like support for front line staff, museum unions, wage equity, etc.?
Wage equity and supporting front line staff did have sessions, but a behemoth conference can’t replace direct action. The multiple and ongoing criticisms of AAM are needed and valid. Still, the fact of the gathering has power, and we can shape that power for change. Let’s remember that #MuseumWorkersSpeak was conceived at AAM back in 2015 as described here, for example.
- AAM is all the museums! Art, history, etc., etc., – What’s that like? (As opposed to more concentrated art/history/etc.) What do ALL types of museums share?
All these institutions serve public audiences, so I see a common thread of attendees and sessions focused on community engagement, programming, marketing, and fundraising. I did not meet any curators this time.
- What else would you like to share about your experience?
This year the audio quality in some rooms was so bad I had to leave. But AAM does aim to meet the needs of attendees and checks some of those accessibility boxes: all-gender restrooms, ASL interpretation and captioning available, a note about where to find quiet space, and space for lactation and feeding babies. I was happy to see a few little ones in the convention center with their hardworking conferencing grownups.
- The most important question for last. Talk about the drip!!!!!!
The amount of highly stylish eyewear was off the charts. “Glasses of AAM” could be a whole sketchbook. Small numbers of masks were seen and appreciated in the most crowded settings. You’ve got your bold prints, chunky jewelry, a few snazzy suits, jubilant gender expression, and top-notch tote bags. Those articles for first timers mention “professional” dress and shoes, but in 2023 sneakers are here in a big way. That’s great because there’s so much walking!