Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Forget Conferences. I'm Going to Camp.

I just returned from the Creativity and Collaboration retreat (C2), a NAME/AAM program that I've been helping develop for about a year and a half. C2 brought together 100 exhibit-minded folks on the beach in Monterey, CA for 48 hours of making, learning, playing, contemplating, and celebrating. It was incredible. This is the second time this spring that I've participated in a professional development experience that is more like summer camp than a conference, and I am sold. Paul Orselli wants to dump powerpoint. I want to dump conferences and do these camp thingies instead.

There's a reason people who went to summer camp as a kid are cultists about the experience. It's heady and intense to plunge into a new community that is disconnected from the outside world. At its best, camp is a kind of aspirational play space where you can be yourself away from the stereotypes and burdens of your everyday life. I saw a lot of that at C2, and it allowed me to connect with new people in a space that acknowledged the intersections between personal and professional. Strangers talked about their fears and challenges honestly. The imaginative context of the workshops allowed us to get past petty sticking points and tackle big questions like how to balance creativity into your work, how to feel good about creating without evaluating the product, and how to deal with the tensions of working in teams. We had fun. We got inspired. And most notably (for me, at least), we felt really good about opening up to each other.

For me, most conferences are the opposite of this. Rather than feeling authentic, I feel like I have to project a professional caricature of myself. I'm wearing clothes I never otherwise wear. I'm doing things (hanging out late in bars, distractedly jumping from one conversation to the next) that I rarely otherwise do. I'm being rapidly and frequently evaluated as a one-dimensional version of me, and I'm meeting other people who are struggling with the same self-fictionalization. I get lost in the bigness of the crowds and end up gravitating towards spending time with a few close friends--the ones who "know me." That's great, but I'd much prefer to go on a hike with them than sit in a bar, and few conference experiences support that. I thought I would come home from C2 worn out, the way I feel after most conferences. Instead, my head is buzzing with energy and excitement about work.

When we first started planning C2, we were concerned that no one would come or that people would perceive it as frivolous in a time of extreme stress in the economy and museum industry. We tried hard to avoid designing a "kumbaya" weekend, though as it turned out, participants did spontaneously and unironically dance around a bonfire together. Instead of suffering for sign-ups, C2 was oversubscribed at 100 people, including many who paid their own way. We're already talking about some incarnation of "next time" with great enthusiasm.

And now, having experienced it, I have a different perspective on the frivolity question. Across the board, C2 provided more value to me than a standard conference. I met more new people with whom I have a genuine interest in keeping in touch. I learned more new techniques that I can apply directly to my work. I never had awkward forced interactions with people. There was always something interesting and valuable to discuss. And we got to do it all in a beautiful natural environment. As one attendee said after seeing ridiculously cute baby deer on the path for the umpteenth time, "cue the fawns."

I'm a big believer in seeking balance in your life between the physical and the virtual, the conceptual and the concrete. Taking time away to do professional development of any kind should be an opportunity to readjust the balance and get reconnected with what's been lacking. Most of us spend our work time on computers and in meetings, even if the work we do is ostensibly creative and related to a tactile experience. Most of us spend too much time indoors and sedentary. The frustration I have with conferences is that I wish they would inject more of the physical, the creative, and the active into my professional practice rather than reflecting my standard "sit down, learn stuff, and talk to people" lifestyle. That part of conferences--the content delivery and discussion--could be happily (for me at least) replaced with a digital experience. But the opportunity to build something with my hands with other people, to create mythic exhibits in an hour or redesign a card game or make food sculptures or fly someone in the air (all things I did in the last two days) cannot be digitized. That's how I want to spend my travel money and time. That's how I want to learn to be a better person and a better professional.

I'm not sure at this moment what this conviction will mean for the future. I spend a lot of time at conferences and don't expect that to go away. But if you are interested in helping develop camp-like alternatives to traditional conferences, a "camp" track, let me know. Now that I've seen the fawns, I don't see much reason to turn back.

8 comments, add yours!:

Caroline said...

Sounds absolutely awesome, Nina. Wish I could have gone!! I am, however, in charge of planning the 2010 British Columbia Conference. Methinks I should talk to you before I 'get out the template' of PowerPoint, et al... very interesting!

valeriealbanese said...

Definitely sounds like a GREAT time and I am a bit jealous that I did not participate!

Do you think that part of the reason for such a positive experience was the size and goals of the group? Could a "camp" environment work with larger conferences that cover a wide range of topics (just breaking them into smaller groups)?

Erin said...

I so wish I could have gone. Sounds like a great experience. I agree conferences would benefit from more interactivity. I don't know how many times I've just rushed from one session to the next and then collapsed in my empty hotel room at the end of the day. Conferences should make you feel energized and excited about your field. Sounds like C2 really accomplished that.

Nina Simon said...

Valerie,
The size definitely was important... in C2's case, 100, and in the case of FooCamp, about 150. However, I think with a bit of coordination you could do this with a very large group (as do real summer camps). It would require functionally splitting people into smaller camps by affinity or interests, coming back together for occasional whole-group events (think color wars).

Reflecting now, the level of engagement was more important than the number of people. EVERYONE was game for all the activities. No one opted out. The sense of 100% participation is what bonded us as much as the intimacy of the group. My impression is that this is why people who go to Burning Man have such a powerful experience--it requires 100% participation from 50,000 people.

Rebecca said...

Not once did I iron, although there was one in my room. Although I packed a stylish blazer, I wore my favorite hoody each day of the retreat (and it still smells of delicious wood smoke). Although I received business calls on two occasions, I did not use my cell to check e-mail. Why?

I was SO engaged with camp!

Today I play catch-up, but I am INSPIRED! The atmosphere at Asilomar was so open that insight not only breached, it prevailed.

Having the burning on our first full day set our aperture way open. I think that at future retreats, a similar secular "ritual" could benefit the group. However, I recognize how difficult something like this is to pull off! In a different environment we could have been WAY more cynical. When everyone went with it, I admit I was at first surprised. Later I was very proud of the whole group.

Kristen said...

Hey there - Thanks for being such an enthusiastic and inclusionary force at the retreat. I'll post more feedback over at the C2 reflections page, but just wanted to voice my thanks here first.

Paul Orselli said...

Hi Nina,

1)Smaller IS better (for all aspects of museums, IMHO.) The best conferences I've been involved with recently have been of the small/local/regional variety.

2)I offer a simple, economical, "green" fix for the stultifying nature of the BIG museum conferences --- do not offer computer projectors.

Andy Lloyd said...

Nina (and others)
In the UK we are lucky enough to have the annunal BIG Event (from the British Interactive Group) which has a lot in common with this. We used to have more of a "summer camp" experience when we were at a rural science centre, but we're all getting excited about holding our Best Demo competition in Faraday's lecture theatre at the Royal Institution this year. Check out www.big.uk.com, and we'll be tweeting en masse in July!