Sunday, March 7, 2010

the value of conference

One of the best ways to find out what exciting things museums are doing is to attend a conference, and my experience this past week at the 2010 California Association of Museums Conference in San Jose really got me thinking about the way museums share their expertise. Something that was asked in a number of sessions I attended at the conference was, “Where can I read about other museums’ experiences with this problem I’m having?” Wow. Good question.

I recommended checking out the Association of Science-Technology Centers, which aims to meet this need in two ways. One is ExhibitFiles, a site that provides a space for exhibit designers and developers to share reviews and case studies, but lacks a forum. The other is the ASTC listserv which can operate as an exhibit troubleshooting forum, but whose activity is not easily accessed online for non-subscribers. These otherwise incredible resources are further limited by their focus on science centers and folks who want to make the member/subscription commitment. What if I am a curator at a small art museum and I’m having trouble creating meaningful web content for my show of 19th century silver? What I’d really want is to pose my questions on a forum for museums of all kinds that welcomes the input of anyone- museum professionals and visitors alike. What I don’t want is to commit to an entire website or listserv. It seems simple, but why is it so hard to find? One answer might be in the historically guarded institutional culture of museums.

In my work with several museums, I’ve experienced a phenomenon in which institutions fiercely guard their ideas and methods from other institutions. I think that much of that thought process comes from a feeling of competition between museums and I believe that that owes itself partially to the non-profit scramble for funding we all face. But our ever-present financial worries might be the same reason we send delegates to conferences like the one in San Jose. At a conference or an online forum, the currency we trade in is ideas, not cash. The more we share, the more dialogue we stir, and the more ideas we get to go home with. Museums are the most successful when they are innovators with unique offerings. And we can become unique and innovative if we listen to one another, share what we’ve learned, learn from others’ mistakes, and continue to be inspired by one another.

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