Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Dangerous/Ridiculous: Reflections on AAM

Last week, I was in Minneapolis for the American Association of Museums annual meeting. As always, the conference was a party mix of inspiring and dull, familiar and new. It's one of the rare settings in which you can see glimpses of the past and the future all under one roof.

Here, in no particular order, are the things that energized me most:
  • "No idea is too ridiculous." Kathleen McLean led a terrific session called "Dangerous Ridiculous" about risk-taking in museums. While I'm always inspired by stories of how we take risks to make programming more relevant and dynamic (thanks, Lisa Lee and the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum), I was particularly struck by Kathy's thoughtful framing of the session. As she noted, it's fairly obvious why it feels risky to do something dangerous in our institutions. What's less obvious--and potentially, a bigger problem--is the self-censorship we perform to avoid doing things that seem ridiculous in the eyes of our peers. Looking silly, Kathy argued, is a barrier to experimentation. I found this idea really powerful. Interestingly, at my museum, our team is naturally better at ridiculous than we are at dangerous. Our curator writes labels about licking the art. I host dating games. We dance out our bad times. This session made me see our silliness as a real asset as we keep pushing boundaries.
  • Talking about money, openly. I led a session with Eric Siegel and Ellen Rosenthal on museum business models and some of the issues we grapple with in managing money. Ellen shared the brilliant work at Conner Prairie to make finances transparent to all staff. Eric talked about how the New York Hall of Science is trying to fund risk-taking, not just talk about it or under-resource it. And I talked about some of the challenges of finding the right income and expense models for a museum that operates more like a community center than a traditional cultural institution. It was terrific to have a packed room and a long, open conversation (we split the session into half presenting, half audience discussion) about these issues. Attendees brought up questions about how they can get more involved with financial discussions in their institutions, how we can change the ways we approach fundraising, how we can think about earned income differently. This was a topic I was never interested in before I became a director. Now I think it's really critical to all of us advancing the field and making our institutions viable. Here are our slides and Ellen's handouts if you want to learn more.
  • Merilee Mostov and the Columbus Museum of Art. This woman is killing it when it comes to developing in-gallery interactive experiences around permanent collections. Merilee and I were on a panel together called Museum as Prototype (my slides here), and I got that delightful jealous feeling seeing all the amazing stuff she's doing. Handing out paper hearts on Valentine's Day so visitors could put them in front of favorite paintings. Creating her own versions of classic board games like Guess Who? for the galleries. Testing, refining, experimenting, and doing it all with style. The lead photo on this post is from a project I saw when I visited last spring. If you are interested in innovation in in-gallery experiences, get thee to Columbus.
  • Viability of meetups. A couple of weeks ago, I posted on this blog that I was interested in meeting some new people at the conference. I was amazed at how effective this was--almost immediately, my schedule filled up with short, focused meetings with diverse individuals about topics I really care about. In particular, we had a great group of 15 talking about participatory history experiences on Sunday. I was also thrilled to see Michelle DelCarlo do a pop up "pop up museum" during the conference, advertised only through Twitter. While the content of any one meeting wasn't mind-blowing, the fact that we're now sufficiently technology-mediated that these kinds of informal, spontaneous events can happen is really exciting. Frankly, as someone who attends fewer sessions every year, I wonder how long it will be before there is a shadow conference of people who come to the city just to meet up around the edges. AAM (and other conference organizers) might want to think about how to embrace and engage these kinds of folks before they become seen as annoying parasites on the conference itself.
  • Participatory art and co-creation on the rise. The conversation about community engagement at AAM has evolved, and this year, it had a distinctly social practice/art bent. The conference showcased many fabulous projects--Flux Foundation, Open Field, Shine a Light, Create Denver--that support substantive co-creation experiences for artists and amateurs alike. It's interesting to me that this year's conference seemed so art-heavy when it comes to participation. Art museums may have been slow to come to this party, but those that do are coming in smart and strong. History and science museums... time to step it up.
  • Staying with friends. OK, this one is personal, but I was amazed at how wonderful it was to stay with a good friend, in a house, away from the insanity of the conference. We hosted a dinner party for diverse museum people, made pancakes, and reconnected at the end of long days. Not every city has a good friend, but this does make me think about the option of renting a house for future conferences. AirBnB might make it viable... who wants to stay in a houseboat next year in Baltimore?
What did you get out of the conference? What excited you? 
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