In-person museum conferences are finally back! But, after a two-year hibernation, many of us are struggling to remember how to take advantage of these professional development and networking opportunities.
This year I attended 2 museum conferences with other members of the Luci Creative team: the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) Annual Conference and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting. Although I felt a bit rusty going to AAM in May, by the end of ASTC in September, I felt refreshed and reconnected to our field.
Here are the 10 museum conference tips and aphorisms that I re-learned during my time at ASTC and AAM. I hope they help you at your next conference!
Sometimes, I feel intimidated by the incredible people I meet at conferences. I’ll attend one session where a researcher talks about their peer-reviewed academic publication, then pop over to another session where an executive director presents about the $100 million project they spearheaded. But, then I take a deep breath and remind myself that I don’t need to be Nina Simon or Gail Lord to have worthwhile contributions to make. We all have knowledge that is unique to each of us. Your colleagues want to hear your unique insights, even if you’re not the most experienced person in the room.
Earlier this year, the leaders of the AAM LGBTQ+ Research Agenda committee, which I am on, asked if any committee members could present our work at the AAM Annual Meeting. I was reluctant to step forward because some of the other committee members have more research experience than me. But, I tentatively volunteered and crafted a presentation and handout about the AAM LGBTQ+ Research Agenda for the Annual Meeting. I am proud to report that my presentation went well. A few of the older attendees told me they appreciated the unique perspective I brought as a younger Queer woman. And, I even recruited a few new members to join our committee.
When I first arrived at AAM, I was overwhelmed by the incredible offerings. At the end of every session, I frantically read the session descriptions for the next time slot then ran across the conference center to the next session. Every evening, I tried to attend multiple networking parties and spent most of my time running between them. At the end of each day I was exhausted and frustrated that I did not get to spend as much time as I wanted to at any one event.
For ASTC, I decided to peruse the schedule of time and put every session that I wanted to attend in my calendar as well as every networking party, scheduled breakfast, and dinner with clients. This way, I could prioritize what I wanted to see and do ahead of time. For instance, I skipped the plenary sessions at ASTC to grab coffee with colleagues. With the help of my comprehensive agenda, I knew exactly where I was going and when and I could walk at a leisurely pace.
Eloquent energetic speakers can make even the most mundane or esoteric topic fun and inviting, while lackadaisical speakers can make even the most fun topics boring.
I find that I enjoy sessions more and learn more when I select sessions based on who is speaking instead of the topic. Before attending AAM, I looked up a couple of the speakers, perused Angela Roberts Reeder’s writing in Smithsonian Magazine, and scrolled through her Twitter. After getting to know her writing, I was unsurprised that Reeder’s presentation, “Writing Engaging Exhibition Text,” was particularly engaging. She emotionally connected to the audience and conveyed information in simple, clear ways.
When you’re making your agenda for a conference, make sure to research speakers to find publications they’ve written and video clips of them speaking. Choose conference sessions based on which speakers you find the most engaging.
We all know it’s important to prototype our exhibits or that we need to engage our communities; that’s Museums 101. But, sometimes we struggle to find the best strategies to accomplish our goals. That’s why, when I’m deciding which conference sessions to attend, I seek out hands-on workshops that invite me to engage in real-world case studies (and try to avoid panel conversations).
Similarly, I try to design conference sessions that encourage active participation. At ASTC, I was excited to share how Luci Creative, our media partner RLMG, and our client Moonshot Museum collaborated to prototype Moonshot Museum’s experience with middle schoolers. To kick off our session, I invited attendees to playtest our \paper prototypes of Moonshot Museum’s digital interactives. Afterwards, several attendees told me that our session was their favorite because we gave them the opportunity to actually try out a real process for themselves, instead of just hearing other people talk about it.
While I appreciated the opportunity to hear from incredible leaders at the AAM Plenary Sessions, sitting in a huge ballroom with hundreds of people felt impersonal.
In contrast to large plenary sessions, more intimate sessions help to encourage more interpersonal connections. My favorite ASTC session was the Designing for Empathy Lab, an interactive intensive for which I pre-registered and was capped at around thirty people. Its intimate size allowed for attendees to not only hear from presenters, but also to talk to each other about the topic.
If you’re looking to engage in small group conversations, take a look at the conference center’s floor plan and attend the sessions in the smaller rooms. If you have the budget, prioritize off-site excursions and workshops with separate tickets, which tend to be limited to fewer people.
In-person conferences allow us to connect with peers in unexpected casual ways. In my experience, these kinds of serendipitous meetings formed the spark that ignited most of my substantive relationships with colleagues in the museum field.
To make sure you have as many impromptu encounters as possible, make it a priority to spend time roaming around the social centers of the conference: the exhibit floor, the coffee bar, the conference lounge, the main hotel lobby, and the parties.
Make an effort to strike up conversations with as many people as possible. Since it can feel awkward talking to strangers, you’ll want to create a strategy to start a dialogue. I usually try to catch a glimpse of the person’s name tag and start with a positive comment about their institution. Or, if I don’t recognize their museum, I’ll identify something I like about their outfit and compliment them.
Also, don’t feel like you need to end an in-progress conversation to run off to a session. It’s ok if you don’t make it to every event on your agenda!
Museum vendors work in this field because we genuinely care about cultural institutions, and we attend conferences because we want to help museums better serve their visitors.
I approached staffing the Luci Creative ASTC booth as an opportunity to conduct mini brainstorming sessions with anyone who came to discuss a project. I wanted to give people useful information about how to approach their design, as well as a taste of what it might be like to work with our team. I honestly hope that I helped people, whether or not they ever work with my company.
Whenever I explore the exhibit floor at a museum conference, I also discover new helpful solutions for my own projects. At ASTC, I saw a giant building set that matched exactly what I needed for a particular exhibit design!
After a few of my clients had asked me about museum apps, I was curious to learn about museum apps when attending AAM. I went to every booth of a museum app company and asked them why they thought museums should adopt an app, what made their solution unique, and what percentage of their clients’ visitors downloaded their app.
At ASTC, I was interested to learn how different vendors incorporate accessibility into their work. I spoke with media developers, turnkey analog interactive designers, architects, and more about their approach to universal design.
At both conferences, I discovered a number of useful tidbits from my conversations with vendors to bring back to my clients and my own work. If you want to transform the exhibit floor into a professional learning opportunity, try approaching multiple vendors with the same question about the museum field and compare their answers.
If you're lucky enough to be at a conference with co-workers, try to go to parties and explore the city with a buddy. Buddying up will allow you to bond with your colleagues and attending social events with a wingman will help you feel more comfortable. Afterall, the best way to get to know people is to just be yourself.
I went to the ASTC party at the Carnegie Science Center with my co-worker Rachel. We met a vendor and fawned over an adorable skunk together, chatted about model trains with a client, and met some museum educators while eating boozy sorbet made with liquid nitrogen!
Conferences are incredible opportunities to meet others in the museum field. So, don't forget to bring business cards! After I speak to a new acquaintance, I take notes on my phone so I can remember what we talked about. When I return home, I send follow-up emails to everyone I met. Then, I add my new acquaintances’ contact information to an Excel spreadsheet along with notes from our conversations. That way, even if my memory sometimes fails me, I can recover my notes when we cross paths again.
Speaking of staying in touch, my team at Luci Creative and I would love to hear your tips on getting the most out of museum conferences! Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org