Sunday, May 7, 2017

InterActivity: 27 Years, 15 Recollections

InterActivity 2014

It’s May, a seasonal start of sorts for museums. May is Museum Month in many cities and states and Thursday May 18th is International Museum Day, celebrated since 1977. It is also the season of museum conferences beginning with ACM’s InterActivty 2017 in Pasadena (May 2-5) and AAM2017 in St Louis (May 7-10).

(Carol Scott (c) and Catherine Horne (r)
ReImagining Children's Museums (2012)
Professional conferences bring us together for what email, Facebook, GTM, Tweets, and Instagram can’t do even with their remarkable immediacy and connectivity: to encounter, engage, and explore, personally and professionally. Seasoned professionals and enthusiastic newcomers travel and meet in a new city where a host museum opens its doors and welcoming arms. We reconnect with colleagues in new positions and at new museums and hear of others whose careers and life journeys have taken them on other paths and to other conferences. Part family gathering, class reunion, and professional development institute, it’s a work party wrapped in a 3-day conversation.
Countless hours of planning by the host museum and ACM’s experienced staff shape a shared identity and build capacity to strengthen our museums and communities. This occurs at an increasingly larger scale with more registrants, exhibitors, and colleagues from more countries every year. In formal sessions, roundtable discussions, casual gatherings, and memorable evening events, we share accomplishments, meet new colleagues, navigate new realities, and learn together.

A platform for field-wide growth, the conference kicks off with the emerging museum conference. It channels fresh ideas to museums such as the Promising Practices awards (1999 – 2005) and host museum training for the (first) Asian Exhibit Initiative (2006). In 2014 participants from the 2013 Museum Study Group Tour to Reggio Emilia shared experiences at a pre-conference, Bringing Reggio Home, in Phoenix. The launch of Reimagining Children’s Museums in Portland in 2012 was followed by a preview of reimaginings in 2013 in Phoenix. Since 2011, representatives from international museums gather annually. Presenting the annual Great Friend to Kids award closes the conference, sending us off reflective, reconnected, and recharged.

Each year’s conversations inevitably conjure up past conferences. I often remember the first InterActivity I attended in 1990 hosted by Chicago Children’s Museum. I think the idea for YMEC (Youth Museum Exhibit Collaborative) started taking shape then as did lasting friendships that came from it. I loved the quirky, “makery”, and creative mail art exhibit. I still remember Karen Dummer, then Executive Director of Minnesota Children’s Museum, wonder out loud whether our museum should house an immunization clinic. The idea seemed outlandish to me at the time. I now realize Karen was 20 years ahead of the rest of us with museums now alert to ways of serving their communities in meaningful ways.

This year I asked friends and colleagues, what continues to stand out for you about your first InterActivity? A seemingly simple question, it elicited powerful impressions of personal relevance, connection, belonging, and gratitude.

Elee Wood (l) and Mary Maher (r) (2017)
Elee Wood, Museum Studies Program, IU School of Liberal Arts. ”My first conference was in 1996, the year it was in St. Paul where I then worked. Mr. Rogers received the Great Friend to Kids award. That was back when ACM was AYM (Association of Youth Museums). As a young professional, I was beyond thrilled to be able to meet all of the ‘big kids’ of the children’s museum field from Brooklyn, Boston, and Indianapolis. Of course it was a fantastic opportunity to meet Fred Rogers and show him around our new museum. That was also the first conference presentation I organized; I think the session title was “For the People, By the People” and centered on community involvement in exhibit planning. I had connected with others who created community-centered exhibitions that included people from the Troppen Junior Museum (Amsterdam), Chicago Children’s Museum, possibly Boston and highlighted the One World gallery at Minnesota Children’s Museum.” 

Collette Michaud, Children’s Museum of Sonoma County. “What I remember from my first InterActivity in 2005 in Indianapolis (IN) was how scared I was because I didn’t know anyone or anything about the children’s museum industry. All I knew was that I had a ridiculous dream of starting a children’s museum in my community and was hoping to learn all I could about how to do it.  What I found at the conference was an incredibly warm and welcoming group of people - mostly women, who selflessly took the time to share with me how they had started their own museums. I realized that they had been like me at one point  - just a person with a dream.  They confirmed that anything was possible. Ten years and as many Interactivity conferences later, I was able to open a museum in my community. I will forever be grateful for the generosity of so many people at that first conference. Their stories and willingness to share have deeply inspired and encouraged me over the years.”   

Julia Bland, Louisiana Children’s Museum. “My first conference was in 1998 in San Jose. I felt so overwhelmed and exhilarated - all mixed together. I probably looked like a reporter - asking questions constantly and taking notes from everyone I met. I moved through the conference days bursting with pride, with full confidence that children's museums were addressing the most important issues of the country!

What I remember from that conference could be said of any one since then - really committed professionals, passionate about their work and its hierarchy in the national ecosystems, explosive creativity (even on the tables as centerpieces), a learning environment that made me wish for cloning, nationally significant speakers (Hillary Clinton accepted the Best Friend to Kids Award) and a lot of really nice people.”

Tsivia Cohen, Chicago Children’s Museum. “My first Interactivity was in 2004 in Houston. Our presentation was called Presto! You’re There! Using Pretend as a Vehicle for Learning. We presented with two other museums, and my colleague Elaine Bentley and I were thrilled to hear how this same concept was being explored in completely different ways. We were in a hotel attached to a shopping mall outside of town. It was extremely hot outside and the only way into the city itself--and the museums--was on busses. I loved getting to see the Children's Museum of Houston as well as the Art Museum. For me the best part of the meeting was the opportunity to chat with colleagues whose roles were similar to my own. The connections I made led to new connections and a sense of a broader community of colleagues.”

Carol Scott, Children’s Museum of the Desert. “I was a new Director of Kidspace which was struggling when I attended my first InterActivity in Indianapolis in 1997. I was overwhelmed by TCM’s grandeur and wondered how I could ever compare what we could do with what Indy was. After more research, I came to realize that their museum was the exception, not the typical model.”

Aaron Goldblatt, Paul Orselli and Jen Alexander (2012)
Photo courtesy of Paul Orselli Workshop
Paul Orselli, Paul Orselli Workshop. “I don’t think it was my first ACM, but one of my most memorable and fortuitous conferences was the one in 2007 (I believe) in Chicago during which I met Vessela Gercheva from Bulgaria.  Vessela introduced herself after a session I presented in, and I thought, I’m never going to see this person again. I’m never going to travel to Bulgaria. Little did I know that chance meeting would lead to my involvement with Muzeiko, the first Children’s Museum in Bulgaria!”

Tanya Andrews, Children’s Museum of Tacoma. “The first IA I attended was Indianapolis--it must have been 1997. I was recently engaged! I think what struck me was the size and diversity of our field. How many small fries there are amongst some giants. It's like the ocean--small little fish swim peacefully with the big whales.  Everyone is in support of one another. I felt that right away.”

Kathy Gustafson-Hilton, Hands On! Studio. “My first InterActivity was 1997 in Indianapolis which makes this my 20th I/A; how time flies when you're having a blast. What a memorable combination, attending my first I/A conference and visiting the Indianapolis Children's Museum for the first time! I didn't know what to expect from the conference and didn't know many people. Of course, I had heard a lot about the legendary ICM. Neither disappointed. The thing I remember most about the conference is how friendly and welcoming everyone was - that hasn't changed in 20 years. And what I remember most about ICM is the joy of riding on the beautiful carousel. Both were whirlwind of uplifting experiences!”

Catherine Horne, Discovery Place. “My first impression at InterActivity at Minnesota Children’s Museum in St Paul in 1996 was that I had finally entered a museum that demonstrated good design, great learning, and wonderful play. A triple threat.”

Mary Maher, Hand To Hand.The first InterActvity I went to was in Seattle in 1994. Actually ACM hired me as conference manager. It had just hired Janet but her start date wasn't until June 27. The Great Friend to Kids Award went to Peggy Charren. The biggest standout over the years has been how the leadership and "character" of each host museum colors the conference. Host museums play a role in defining the program, but they also play a much bigger role in truly welcoming attendees, opening their museums and their communities to us as visitors, and inviting us to sample the resources and local expertise they live and work with every day. They give a good feel for the place. At the best conferences, you come away thinking, I see how this museum staff thinks, how they operate, and who their community is—and now I understand how they became who they are.

Brenda Baker, Madison Children’s Museum. “I remember sitting crossed legged on the floor of Elaine Gurian's hotel room, as she held court perched atop a double bed. 20 or 30 people crammed into her hotel room for a session on navigating our field's future. This was before ACM had a professional staff, an office in Washington, or a conference with more than 80-100 people. I listened and absorbed. But mostly, I was in utter awe, swept up with inspiration and enthusiasm when I realized I had met my tribe.” 

Jen Alexander, KidCity. “I'm pretty sure I got my money's worth out of my first Interactivity. It was 18 years ago in New York City. To this day, I'm still inspired by two presentations I saw there. I listened to a pair of playground designers describe their collaboration on the incredible Battery Park City playground - the one with a multi-kid cycle-carousel and waterspout lion heads made of stone. It became the standard by which I've judged every playground ever since! 

1999 is also the year Neil Postman gave a breathtakingly brilliant speech titled, Five things we need to teach our young. He made a pitch that we should stop thinking about learning in terms of subjects like math, English, science and instead teach things like rhetoric and methods of persuasion, appreciation of art, and understanding of religion. It would be hard to overstate the impact of that speech on my parenting and my work as a children's museum designer.  It was later published in the 1999 Hand-in-Hand (Vol. 13, #2).

I always learn something new at InterActivity. It also works as a mirror -- I see things about my own work that I hadn't noticed before. As we say in the tourism business, worth the trip!”

Aaron Goldblatt, Metcalfe Architecture and Design. “I attended InterActivity for the first time in Houston in 1993. It was a watershed moment. At the time I had been at Please Touch for 2 years and I still had a solo studio practice. In Houston, the world cracked open. I saw this world as full of people doing stuff that was exciting, fun, and challenging and thought, this is what I should be doing. I decided to close my studio practice and join this collaborative, challenging work.” 

Erik Schurink, Long Island Children’s Museum. "My first ACM conference was in Indianapolis.  The year? 1997 or 98. I remember loving the storytelling exhibit (the car, the hair salon), and a tween stationed at the porch of the house in that exhibit beautifully reciting a poem by Langston Hughes. What also struck me about this exhibit was its intimacy in contrast to the size of the museum itself. I remember how my childhood memories were triggered by the model trains and the impressive model landscape. I remember a session about teamwork explaining its 4 stages: forming, storming, norming, performing. It's an awareness still very useful to me. However I'm not positive that this was at my very first or second ACM conference. 

I remember visiting the Eiteljorg, how its art resonated with me in relation to the first children's exhibit I designed, To Walk in Two Worlds, an exhibit about indigenous people living contemporary lives in America, while carrying on their cultural heritage. I remember meeting Jane Clark Chermayeff, and having a chat with her at the hotel's breakfast setup. I remember sitting in on a YMEC meeting brainstorming ideas for the next exhibit round." 

This is a very small selection of recollections from only a few people who have attended InterActivity over the decades. Yet even just these memories speak to the remarkable, committed people who come together to fulfill the hopes of our gatherings.

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