Monday, August 8, 2011

The Conference and The Conversation

Just like everyone loves a great party, everyone loves a great conference.

In a way, it’s high season for planning great museum conferences. The Visitor Studies conference recently concluded. Early Bird registration is here for the October ASTC conference. In mid September, the Association of Children’s Museum’s program committee meets to plan InterActivity 2012. And here in the Twin Cities, committees are in planning mode to host AAM’s annual conference April 29 - May 2.

I enjoy and, in fact, rely on a really good conference and have written about the 2011 InterActivity in Houston and the VSA Conference. I catch up with colleagues, hear about exciting work and new (or continuing) challenges, and push my thinking. Much as we all look to the conference itself to inspire our work, I have been thinking that the year surrounding the conference is overlooked.

This idea started taking shape in a thought-provoking session at the end of the VSA conference. Joe Heimlich, Jessica Luke, and Kris Morrissey challenged the group to think about strengthening the critical practice of the conference. A spirited discussion pushed the boundaries of the topic. Comments ranged across structuring the conference as a journey, experimenting with session formats, and finding more time for critical reflection.

The thinking was quick and lively. The intensity, though, had the end of-the-conference feel. This is when personal connections have been renewed and fueled; the energy of shared experiences runs high; and a momentum built over three days has taken hold. Intentions about continuing the conversations back in our museums, universities, schools, and practice are good and true. Yet, they fade as we each grab a suitcase, step onto the elevator, catch the shuttle, and speed to the airport.

Regrettably, the sense of urgency to know more about and build on each others' work disappears. Remembering to share articles, references, and links is interrupted. The remarkable opportunity of bringing people together from Portland, Houston, and Boston all in one place has evaporated.

I’m no different in this respect. That last session at the VSA conference, however, has pushed my thinking about what sustaining the conference throughout the year might be like.

What if a conference were a node or a moment in a rich flowing conversation among many colleagues over the course of a year, and moved from one year on to the next?

Both extending the conference and strengthening the conversation are necessary. Conferences should be no less rich, while the surrounding conversations should be more inclusive and robust. This would enhance what conferences are intended to: grow professionals, open the field to new ideas, advance professional practice, strengthen our institutions, and deepen our community value.

Conversations do take place throughout the year among colleagues, across projects, and between partners. Listservs are active; blogs are growing in number and followers. My sense is that overall they are relatively small, brief, and unlikely to build momentum. A broader reach and shared energy would allow the conference to energize the conversation and let it do more of its work.

An unimaginable amount of planning occurs far in advance of a conference in our association offices, on committees, and in museums. A really good conference is everyone’s responsibility. So too is a sustained and satisfying conversation that wraps around it and draws us in.

Extending the Conference
Extending the conference is not a matter of making it longer, but of giving it a bigger tail.

•            Build up to the conference in varied ways. People arrive at conferences fresh from pre-conference workshops and events. Project meetings can occur then. This brings energy. What other conference appetizers and desserts are possible?

•            Plan the conference as a journey that continues beyond the final sessions. This builds on Emlyn Koster’s suggestion at VSA to think about next year’s conference as having a beginning, middle, and end. And I would add, a new beginning.

•            Wind the conference down in a way that moves the conversation forward and invites participation. It’s true that by the last day of a conference, numbers dwindle. A day with a decidedly forward trajectory might stem attrition.

•            Actively engage attendees in next year’s work at the conference end. Right after the conference theme is introduced and summary or critical reflection sessions are happening, sessions are fresh, connections are strong, and resolutions are firm. Make time for people to find each other and start talking about next year’s sessions.

Strengthening the Conversation
The conversation is really many conversations, with voices and channels added to build connections, spread ideas, and nourish the sense of community among museums.

•            Launch the conversation from the conference. Agree on a book to read as a group about next year’s topic. Frame a question or topic to explore on the listserv and in readings over the coming year.

•            Generate ways for more people to be involved in different aspects of the conference conversation all year long. I know of program committees, host committees, and reviewers for session proposals. What are other roles?

•            Use online formats to channel energy and exchange on a conference theme or shared question. Joanna Fisher has started a Museums, Community and Social Responsibility conversation on LinkedIn. 

•            Add your voice and bring someone to the conversation. We are all part of other conversations. I read museum journals and often have silent conversations with the authors; these sometimes become part of conference sessions, blogs, an email to a colleague, or a search for more articles on a topic.

More Questions
Change happens from the top down and the bottom up. These are initial thoughts from the bottom about an attenuated conversation around museum conferences. Admittedly, some may not be new ideas at all and others may be unrealistic. But perhaps this will invite you and others into the conversation to share and explore these and more questions. And frame your own.

•            What encourages on-going conversations in other settings? Does your museum do this fairly well? Do you attend a conference that is attempting to do this? In the VSA session, Mary Ellen Munley mentioned Open Space Technology and World Café. I just googled, “café conversations” and found two sites that look interesting: Conversation Café and Public Conversations Project

•            What are on-line equivalents to conference session formats that might work? 

I'm looking forward to the conversation and the conference.

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