By Meris Mullaley
This post was written by a recipient of a Wanda Chin Scholarship to attended the 2013 Annual Meeting
How many times have you thought, “If only I knew then what I know now, I would have done [blank] differently.”
While perpetual second-guessing is not a productive way to live and work, my recent career change from field archaeologist to museum educator has given me the opportunity to critically evaluate and improve upon my past professional development tactics. Prior to the Western Museums Association (WMA) 2013 Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, I was in a place professionally similar to where I had been as an archaeology graduate student in 2006. I had a basic academic knowledge of industry practices, substantial volunteer and internship experiences, and my professional network was limited to the city where I worked.
I was eager to attend the WMA meeting this year because I remember the benefits that professional conferences had on my archaeology career. They provided opportunities to build stronger ties with other archaeologists, learn about best practices in the field, and gain more topical knowledge. However, with hindsight being a crystal clear 20/20, I realize now that I could have taken a stronger approach to my professional development, particularly in the areas of networking outside of my comfort zone and looking at my development in relation to my organization’s needs. In order to be successful in Salt Lake City, my conference strategies would need to be revised.
What follows are the lessons I have learned about successful professional development strategies, and have tested some of them at the WMA 2013 Annual Meeting:
Slow down: Focus on a few panel topics and stay to discuss those with other attendees in the room. As a graduate student, I mapped out my conference schedule down to 15-20 minute windows, the average length of a paper presentation. I would start the day in Session A, listen to a paper or two, then sneak out and dash across the convention hall to Session B. I might return to Session A or I’d move onto Sessions C & D, and continue this game of musical chairs for the remainder of the conference.
Thankfully, Salt Lake City would not allow me to repeat this strategy. After the sprawling four-block walk from my hotel to the conference, I arrived (embarrassingly) out of breath and occasionally a little lightheaded. The high altitude slowed me down physically, and pushed me to be much more deliberate and thoughtful about my panel choices because I planned to stay put for the full session.
Choose your focus, but widen your perspective: My professional development does not occur in a vacuum. The knowledge I gain and the connections I make also benefit my museum. Early in my career as an archaeologist, I chose panels topics that simply interested me, regardless of whether the topic could inform a project my company was actively working on. It would have been more beneficial to me and my employer if I had sought out panel sessions and networking contacts that helped me develop into a specific role at my job.
The WMA 2013 Annual Meeting was the first time I attended a conference as the only representative of my organization. I was acutely aware that I was there for the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) as much as I was there for myself. My adult public programs role puts me on the front line of visitor engagement, either on the phone or in person through tours, lectures, and workshops. Therefore, my professional goal for the next few years is to become a stronger presenter and educator by learning storytelling skills and being aware of the approaches other museums are using to engage different types of museum visitors through public programs. I selected panels that would help me reach this goal, but I remained aware of other topics that came up in during networking meet-ups that would contribute to MOHAI’s development as well.
I am attracted to adult education and public interpretation because I liked to share history with people. After an inspiring Keynote Session and multiple sessions on storytelling strategies and visitor engagement, I have acquired a different perspective on the work I do at MOHAI. Session panelists reminded me that it is the responsibility of museum educators to turn the mundane into the extraordinary, to help visitors fall in love with a subject to the point that they are motivated to learn more independent of us, and to build personal connections between the content and the public. I had not thought of my job in those exact phrases before, and I am not likely to forget them.
Go to one panel that you know nothing about: This suggestion comes from my manager and it is brilliant. If it weren’t for Lisa Eriksen’s intriguing presentation during the WMA Business Breakfast, I would not have attended Saturday’s panel session on Strategic Foresight. I had never heard of strategic foresight and initially dismissed this panel as something better suited for a member of a museum’s executive staff. But something about this type of futures outlook appealed to my organizational and planning nature. I love data and speculating about the future of society and technology. This session ended up giving me great insight into the museum profession. I gained a stronger understanding for issues museums throughout the Western region will be facing in the near future, and how I can contribute as a new member in the field.
Don’t be shy: Early in my professional career I avoided the Expo Hall because it was full of people. This would not work if I wanted to build professional and personal networks throughout the region for future consultation and collaborations. Something I learned from giving tours at MOHAI is that no one knows I am shy unless I act that way. I recommend walking up to people and just talking to them about anything. What is true for visitor engagement is also true for networking: build personal relationships. If you find commonalities with someone, you are more likely to stay in touch. (I write this knowing that I owe emails to three of my new colleagues.)
Speak up: I resolved to ask one question or contribute at least one comment to the discussions. My younger self used to just silently absorb information from panels and seminars. I did not feel empowered or knowledgeable enough to share my thoughts or perspectives. It was time for that to change.
I appreciated that every WMA2013 session had an implicit expectation that discussion would happen, and I wanted to take advantage of that. As it turns out, the panel discussions in which I participated the most (Strategic Foresight and Partnering with Community Colleges) are the ones that resulted in the most networking connections after the panel adjourned, and they are the subjects that have affected me the most.
Bring business cards EVERYWHERE: You never know when you are going to make a professional connection, and I have found that it is easier to ask someone for a card if you offer one up first. Then once you have someone’s card, write on it. Write what you talked about so that when you review your stack of cards in a month you will remember why you wanted that person’s information. Was it a job prospect, a new friend with a common interest in Doctor Who, or someone you wanted to collaborate with on a program?
I am so grateful for the Wanda Chin Scholarship, without which I would not have been able to afford to attend the WMA 2013 Annual Meeting. This small regional meeting was a fantastic way to delve deeper into my new museum career. I returned from Salt Lake City with some knowledge about storytelling and accessible programming strategies that I can immediately put into action for our 2014 programs. I also picked up perspectives on diversity, controversial exhibit content, and strategic planning that will be useful during future staff meetings at MOHAI. It was wonderful to meet so many of you. I hope I will bump into some of you again at the AAM meeting in Seattle next May!
Meris Mullaley works at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) on the Adult Public Programs team. Beyond the realms of history and museums, Meris spends a great deal of her time absorbing an assortment of science fiction and fantasy media, sewing costumes, knitting gifts, and learning to identify the many bird species of the Pacific Northwest.
The Wanda Chin Professional Development Support Fund helps support travel and registration for Western Museums Association members and students. The Fund is underwritten by a Silent Auction in the Exhibit Hall of each Annual Meeting. Thank you to all donors and purchasers who have supported both the Fund and professional development it makes possible. For more information, please click here.