Friday, October 21, 2011

A Convivial Conference

An invitation to the dance
The recent ASTC Conference in Baltimore was a convivial gathering. It held together with a quality highlighted in Wendy Pollock’s and Kathleen McLean’s session about their book The Convivial Museum.

I hesitate to use the term convivial. The rush to use a fresh and evocative phrase or image soon flattens and dulls it. I so like their idea of being alive together. A range of offerings, an invitation to be open to new ideas, and a spirit of collegiality came together at the conference.

We come to professional conferences to step back and recharge our batteries; to have our sense of the possible expanded; to connect with friends and colleagues; and to mark changes in our profession’s growth. We find that some ideas have blossomed over the year and others have faded. We discover useful connections between our work and that of our colleagues. We expand our understanding of how to be helpful and valued in our communities. We take away more than we realize in ideas, thoughts, connections, inspirations, and probably business cards. If we are fortunate, this harvest will perplex and nourish us in interesting ways over the next many months.

Thumbing through my conference notebook, I catch phrases, fragments, quotes, and ah-ha’s that are underlined, *asterisked*, and bolded. I like rereading them again now, recalling what was said before and after, thinking about why they struck me at the time, and focusing on ways they sharpen and consolidate my thinking. They are all over the place: macro and micro with both bottom up push and top-down energy. Many have an elegance and a brevity in spite of their yoking together seemingly mismatched elements. Thoughts I’ve carried away and will noodle on follow in no deliberate order.

         A playful mindset. Karen Wilkinson, Tinkering Studio Director, used this wonderfully evocative phrase to describe the Exploratorium’s approach to encouraging interdisciplinary inquiry and materials exploration in its Learning Studio

Working with a playful mindset in the exhibit hall
         Art is essential; people are primary. Betsy Adamson, from Explora gracefully negotiated the seemingly competing priorities of a museum’s works of art and its audience by valuing both in different ways in her presentation in The Convivial Museum.

         Logical necessity is an experience we are not told, but that we know. Ricardo Nemirovsky engaged participants in experiencing his meaning in physical demonstrations and movement exercises in Learning Math With Your Body. I liked the primacy of direct, first-hand experience in knowing.

         Planning for imagined audiences. In one of the early sessions, Reinvention Redux, a young woman who expressed a strong interest in cultural theory made this astute observation. I take as a caution that we often assume we know more than we do about our audience, the people we should know the most about and be learning from.

         If you don’t give parents something to do, they might not do anything. Lorrie Beaumont, Evergreene Research, made this simple, straightforward connection in Assessing Caregiver-Child Interactions in Museum Exhibits. We know how critical parents are to children coming to science centers and museums, to scaffolding and extending their learning, and to taking experiences home. And yet, we fall short in finding ways to fully engage parents in exhibits and programs. 

         You can’t judge what happened in the past by what we’re capable of today. Michael Specter, keynote speaker and author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives farmed this basic and critical idea: managing multiple, and sometimes conflicting, perspectives at the same time.

         The only visions that take hold are shared visions—and you will create them only when you listen very, very closely to others, appreciate their hopes, and attend to their needs. Ace Everette from Randi Korn & Associates shared this from, “To Lead, Create A Shared Vision” by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (Harvard Business Review). Developing and acting on a shared vision–a vision of a museum’s future, a shared understanding of learning, or a shared commitment to the audience–is an everyday best practice at all levels of an organization.

         The maker movement feels like a transition point from being a consuming culture to a producing culture. This seemingly targeted observation made by Eric Siegel from NySci is, in fact, a very big idea with enormous opportunity for museums.

         Conversing with phenomena. Karen Wilkinson quoted Hubert Dyasi Professor of Science Education and Director of the Workshop Center at CUNY. This rich image captures the poetry in play and science expressed in the 100Languages of Children and explored in Playing With… Paper.

       We know it. Why don’t we do it? KathyMcLean posed this question in talking about creating convivial museums. It insists on the obvious and we could–and should–do in evaluating alternatives, making choices, allocating resources.
Viewing, wondering, and laughing high atop the Maryland Science Center

The thinking and sharing, conversations and questions at a conference are revisited and drawn on throughout the year and over the years. This engagement serves as a strong point for our work. It moves us forward in many ways including towards creating museums as places for being alive together. What words, images, and questions engage you and will push your thinking and practice forward?  

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