Monday, November 19, 2012

New England Museum Association — Annual Conference November 2012 in Burlington, VT

Guest post by Adriene Katz.
Read Adriene's blog here

Thanks to the funding from Vermont Humanities Council, I had the pleasure of attending the full annual conference of the New England Museum Association. This year’s conference theme was “Pushing the Envelope: Innovation and the Future of Museums”. The conference co-chairs describe the theme here.

With Mountain-Plains Museums Association annual conference in mind from last year, I missed my conference mentor that I was assigned for MPMA very much (Hi Jan!), to navigate my first ever NEMA conference. However, the conference smartphone app on my iPhone, made by TourSphere, provided me navigation literally at my fingertips.

Unfortunately, as an emerging museum professional, I noted well after the fact on the NEMA website that the career conversations were for emerging professionals. Fortunately, however, I was able to catch some of the conversation with Ann Lawless of American Precision Museum. (By the way, Ann was wicked amazing!) Sincerely, I wish I could have been in two places at once, and attended more of these unique opportunities to dialogue in a small group, about issues facing our careers.

While I caught the session Curatorial Authority with the Public, I am especially sorry to have missed Michael Taylor of Hood Museum of Art lead the chat for his own “Career Conversation.” Hood Museum of Art has been on my radar this year ever since the exhibits of progressive Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky & the museum’s acquirement of Duchamp’s valise. The article about the valise in our alternative weekly Seven Days, here in Burlington, VT, actually inspired my personal visit to Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the Duchamp collection in May 2012.  I would have loved very much to hear Michael Taylor speak.

However, I ended up at that very time of the “Career Conversation” in another session, that was just as brilliant for me. In the second half, all the six states of New England were divided up into different groups. As a Vermont resident, I was able to hear regional issues and strategies in regard to collections management and the choices made for handling unclaimed property.

To my delight, I discovered post-conference that I was not the only Vermont professional who feels we need to do a better job of connecting statewide. Amy Mincher of Slate Valley Museum emailed Vermont museum professionals, saying she had set up a Google group for us. Whether it is once weekly or on occasion, now we can all check this single online location for requests for help, for networking, for general ideas, and for collaborations on grants and projects. It is a terrific improvement. Thanks, Amy!

It is also very nice to extend a listserve for Vermont residents who are actively involved with museums, but who did not have the fortune of attending NEMA 2012 in our home state. I definitely passed on the group information to a couple of contacts of my own, whom I thought might have interest.

As for another surprising element of the conference, I found it fascinating — and fitting — in the session “Conversations about Advocacy” to include social media. I wrote a 20 page social media procedures manual for a non-profit in the mountains of Colorado in 2011, and I presented for the session “Social Media 201: Marketing Museums” at Mountain-Plains Museums Association’s annual conference that year as session Chair. Social media advocacy — it’s something new to think about when crafting a procedures manual…

The handouts from the social media aspect, featuring ideas such as skillfully weaving in communication about what museums do, are worth a look. Discussing topics, such as social justice and equality, should go without mentioning that this is murky area for museums, and controversial. In fact, there is an entire panel being devoted to the discussion of this, and whether or not museums should be involved, at Seton Hall University in New Jersey this 27 November 2012. More about the Institute of Museum Ethics:

From perusing #nema2012 hashtag, I love scrolling through Twitter to see what professionals, especially with perspectives differing from my own, take away from the same conference. I aim for two things in writing my tweets: one, capturing ideas I wish to remember, and two, in case the reader of the tweet was not present, to communicate the gist of the idea.

Rarely, will you find any of my tweets about “meals I had last night” or other fluff. Primarily, I utilize my Twitter account for disseminating information, usually about museums, but I also use Twitter to get a multi-perspective scope of the museum field. I follow a LOT of accounts… I never know who or what might turn up useful.

As much as I advocate for the benefits of Twitter, I struggle personally with the idea of tweeting during conference sessions and presentations. It is important to disseminate ideas, but it is equally important to me to be fully present. I do not want to split my attention using a mobile device, and miss out on a point which is made in person. I also like giving my attention to the speaker. Politeness is important! On the other hand (haha – smartphone in hand), I captured and communicated information to many sorts and types of audiences, which was reaching far greater audience(s) usually than I or the speaker(s) could ever have imagined.

I also found my tweets were a conversation starter, as well as a way of presenting myself and my personal interests — sometimes well before I met the professional in person. Having tweeted during the conference connected me with professionals in the field that I might not have encountered at the conference in any other way. The tweet-up (the physical meet up of all the tweeters) was a terrific example.

While attending the conference, I truly appreciated all those who were posting from Museum Computer Network in Seattle on Twitter, who made it easy for me to find their thoughts with the hashtag #mcn2012. I am highly interested in digital humanities, new media, and “pushing the envelope” with new technologies. I want to stay informed. I hope at the NEMA conference next year, there will be a greater population of us who will tweet and who will see tweets as a valuable, interactive, and useful source of information.

During the conference, as I refilled my Shelburne Museum ceramic mug with tea during breaks, I strove to strike up a conversation with as many other attendees as I was able. My foremost goal for this conference was to absorb all the information as I could. I may never get to learn this kind of perspective, or meet this professional, ever again. (Good example: “Career Conversation” with Charlie Browne of Fairbanks Museum. He started as an intern way back when, but now he is retiring as director, This conference was such an excellent opportunity to engage on all things museum, and start envisioning the potential of museums for the future which I do not get to talk about in my every day.

Before the conference started, I read through the descriptions and I noted down exactly which sessions I would attend. Being that I am intellectually curious and an interdisciplinary thinker, I strove for a few things: to skip any session I could obtain information for, and to focus on sessions which could teach me new things. The sessions did not have to immediately link to a job, or to my career aspirations.

In a sense, I was “pushing my own envelope.”

As an emerging museum professional, I found it valuable also to attend the session presented by NEMA Director Dan Yaeger, “Your Best Foot Forward: Personal Skills for Professional Success”. I also learned how to put your best conference tag forward…or, more usefully, our museum-issued ID badges (-:

On a serious note, I got great tips about self-branding, project management, networking, work/life balance… this was all in an hour and a half. I could only imagine the benefit from his day-long presentation.

Professionally, one of the other most useful aspects of NEMA were truly the exhibitors in the exhibit hall. As my primary interests are American furniture and decorative arts, I was delighted to collect a stack of auction house catalogues to study, and to examine to see what exactly is on the market. This collection of catalogues was most magnificent to me, after several months this year at Shelburne Museum in Vermont, interpreting early American furniture (the colonies, until just after United States was an independent nation) to have a catalogue of Vermont Federal period furniture. What a treasure!

If only I had the luxury of unlimited funds — and I was not seeking to advance in the museum field and thereby not have a lot of stuff to move — oh, what I would purchase at auction! Perhaps, on second thought, given my great love of American furniture, decorative arts, and modern design, that would be quite dangerous!

On a realistic side, I have some ideas bubbling for a smartphone app of early American furniture.

In conclusion, I found participating in the New England Museum Association annual conference totally motivating, and energizing. I am crossing my fingers and toes right now to have the fortune to attend the conference next year in Newport! I hear that the Goddard and Townsend families of furniture-making had produced elegant pieces there…

Adriene Katz earned a MA in Museum Studies through the School of Museum Studies at University of Leicester, where she studied museum administration, collections management, exhibition design, social responsibility, and sustainability. Since 2007, Adriene has been involved with Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, and is looking to advance in the field of museums. Her interests include early American furniture and decorative arts, and digital humanities.

You can find her on Linked In, and follow her on Twitter, @appleandthebee