WMA 2011: Perspectives from a First Time Attendee

By: Jean Nels

I sit here reminiscing that just a week ago I was in Hawaii at the WMA Annual Meeting.  As a first time attendee, I had many high expectations about the knowledge I would gain and the information I would bring back to my small museum in Mount Shasta, California - the Sisson Museum. I am happy to say that many of my expectations were met and I can sense many ways for my museum to improve.

My first impressions were that there were many workshops to choose from and how could I possibly know which ones would serve my purposes?   As the days went on, I realized that I could politely leave a session if I happened to choose incorrectly and go to a second choice that better suited my needs.  Since I read the brochure carefully, my first choice usually turned out to be good.

An overall impression from the Annual Meeting is that all museums, big or small, are experiencing many of the same issues, and that we are all struggling to find answers.  The exchange of ideas, the swap of email addresses so the conversations could continue in the future, and the information gained from the experts made for a very full, rich experience for me and a fellow worker and board member at our museum.  Adequate funding, the multitude of tasks that one person must do, relationships among workers and the public, how to run an effective store, how to implement an environment of “niceness”, how to “brand” your museum, how to engage the community, and how to show respect and involve the native population of the area were just some of the issues discussed.  I have many pages of notes that I still want to type onto my computer, so I will remember the lessons learned.

Of course, Hawaii was beautiful.  We went three days early so we could visit places we wanted to see.  Luckily, we visited Bishop Museum, one of the featured museums, on our own, as the event at that museum did not give us enough time to really see it.  My colleague and I spent six hours at the Bishop Museum, reading about the history of the Hawaiian Islands and its people, going to the research library to find information on King Kalakaua, and doing the activities in the science hall.

We knew the Bishop Museum had just had a major makeover, so we were curious what they had done.  In our own museum, we had just completed an exhibit on water, as Mount Shasta is known for its plentiful supply of water and its quality.  This is the anniversary of the deadly spill of metam sodium into the Sacramento River 25 years ago, so it seemed like a pertinent subject.  We had struggled with many issues on how to present the immense amount of information, how to connect with the audience, how to use technology to compliment the information, what font size and type to use, what height to place the photos and text, and the annoying element of the reflection of lights onto the glass cases.

When we walked through the Bishop Museum, we could see that they had struggled with the same issues.  Overall, I was very impressed on what they had done with the Victorian building and how they used it tell Hawaii’s story.  I learned so much and enjoyed viewing their many displays.  The short, information-packed DVDs were easy to access and had archival photos and current people in them.

When I attended the critique of the Bishop Museum at the conference, it was interesting to hear the experts echo the same things that my colleague and I had discussed.  We are all learning from our mistakes.

In conclusion, going to the WMA Annual Meeting was a very valuable experience.  I would highly recommend it.  I can imagine that WMA will be on my agenda for years to come. See you there!

Jean Nels
Executive Director
Sisson Museum



so much is so true...and it's wonderful to hear these fresh, first-person impressions. As a member of the Board, it's so satisfying to know the impact the conference had. I was particularly moved by the first keynote and the performance...you've encouraged me to blog about it here -- thank you!

Yes, I loved the keynote address too. I was very moved by it.

I appreciated your comments Jeans about the conference and convergence of friends and colleagues. I had a similar experience with the Bishop Museum spending a 1/2 day before the conference started to explore the Hawai'ian Hall and grounds - it's spectacular how they adapted a 19th c. museum/display system to a modern platform for interpretation and the storytellers were impressive (if you caught that program). I also enjoyed learning more about your museum Jean! For those of you who haven't virtually visited, please do so - they have some interesting programming and as anyone from the West knows water is a central issue for us all.

Yes, water is a central issue. Docents from the Oakland Museum just came up to visit the Mount Shasta area. The Oakland Museum is planning another exhibit on the geology and hydrology of Mount Shasta. I'm looking forward to seeing that and working with them more in the future. It is great how we museum people can work together, share information, and help each other to be even more successful.

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