Friday, June 27, 2008

Visitor Studies Association Replaces Keynotes with Dialogue

It’s not often I wake up and think: I wish I could go to another conference this summer. In Houston. In July. But the Visitor Studies Association is taking some chances next month with their annual conference, and it’s got me experiencing a new emotion around convention halls: excitement.

The VSA has replaced their keynotes with structured group dialogue. My first reaction was skepticism. “KEYNOTE SPEAKER: YOU” reminds me of when Time named “you” the person of the year. It smacks of substanceless pandering. But the VSA has taken an intentional approach to these structured conversations with the goal of putting the (arguably) best part of conferences—the side conversations and hallway discussions—front and center.

Why are they doing this? Joe Heimlich, the VSA conference program chair, explained that once the program committee settled on the theme of “Theory, Practice, and Conversations,” they decided to try to live up to the theme by focusing the whole conference around conversations. They felt that replacing the keynotes gave them a real opportunity to bring the whole audience together in focused participation which would hopefully spill out and over into the conference as a whole.

Joe explains some of the planned intentional dialogue events:
First, for the opening night dinner, we hired a local dance company that is putting together pieces about visiting museums, punctuated by an actor/dancer asking provocative questions to the group.

Then, for the first plenary, we’re starting with provocative statements, then splitting into small groups for structured dialogues about those questions. The groups can use three different approaches: physical, artistic, or traditional word presentation. This is the cocktail party, the hallway conversation, a structured time to meet and talk.

We’re going to use the group notes from that plenary and post the most interesting questions and topics raised on the talkback walls available throughout the conference.

Then at the last luncheon, we’re encouraging conversations based on ideas that emerge from the talkback walls. At each table there will be an envelope with questions inside. A person is randomly designated as the facilitator for a 15 minute discussion on each of the topics in the envelope.

I was particularly intrigued by the dance-initiated dialogue planned for opening night. Not only does the activity support local artists, it challenges how outsiders and insiders engage with each other and share knowledge in a conference setting. I spoke with Jane Weiner, the director/choreographer of Hope Stone, the dance company creating the piece. She was really excited about the opportunity to perform in a museum space (at the MFA Houston). Jane selected pieces from Hope Stone’s repertoire that juxtaposed with the space and the intended audience. As she put it:

We have a lot of pieces that I’m extracting from larger pieces that I think are really going to evoke questions. And we have a narrator between pieces, sort of Dr. Seuss-esque, asking questions to stir the audiences.

We have a duet between a woman and a stack of TVs. We have a superhot tango … And we’re dealing with questions like: why does our eye go to certain parts of the dance? Where do our eyes go to in art? How can we take eyes off of the TV and put them on art; how do we make the art as attractive as TV?

I’m sure many keynote speakers are honored to address their audiences at museum conferences. But the Hope Stone dancers aren’t just addressing—they’re engaging. And hopefully, the outcome of that multi-sensory engagement will be conversations that sustain and spread through the conference, both formally in the open plenaries and informally in the halls.

I was surprised at how generic the conference appears on the VSA website. Maybe it’s the marketing-speak to which we all succumb when writing event descriptions, but I didn’t get the energy and intentionality from the text that I heard from Joe and Jane. Joe commented that they didn’t want people to feel like they were getting into something radically different, that this is just an opening overture to potential changes in years to come.

It will be interesting to see how people react to the conference and whether they feel valued or put upon in the participatory sessions. It seems like a particularly useful format for people new to the field who may not have the social networks that grant access to the informal hallway conversations. But will the conversations improve the overall experience? The VSA will be doing post-conference evaluations to find out.

Whatever the outcome, I salute museum people actually living up to conference themes and the lip service paid to alternate conference formats. I'm helping plan next year's NAME/AAM retreat on creativity and collaboration, and those topics are certainly the driving force for the content of the experiences. Maybe the AAM program committee, planning The Museum Experiment for 2009, should consider replacing the big-name speakers with Bunsen burners, encouraging sessions that start with a hypothesis and see what precipitates.

Are you headed to Houston? I’d love to find a guest blogger who can report on how the conference feels from inside. Drop me a line or a dance move anytime.

2 comments, add yours!:

Elizabeth said...

I will be in attendance at VSA - It's a great conference and I highly recommend it if you can go.

Anonymous said...

I attended the conference. The keynote session was really interesting, and I hope someone will compile all of the participants' responses and make this information available.

It reminded me of something that occurred at the NAEA Museum Division's pre-conference in Miami a few years ago. Participants were able to propose the topics of conversation that would be discussed during the day's sessions and then everyone could choose which break-out sessions to attend.