By Sue Lafferty
“I made some incredible connections! I reconnected with old friends and felt great to be able to mentor the newcomers during the conference.”
“I came away with a renewed enthusiasm for a career in museums and ideas to enhance the mission of my institution.”
“I am always so impressed by the spirit of community and reflective practice you and your team are able to cultivate at these conferences, and I cannot wait until next year in San Diego.”
“I feel invigorated and inspired again!”
These are just some of the comments made by museum colleagues, following their attending the 2014 California Association of Museums' Annual Conference March 5 – 7, 2013 in Napa, California. The conference title and theme, Cultivating Conversations and Community inspired a lively and wide-ranging selection of pre-conference workshops, sessions, special events and round-table discussions. And the setting, deep in the heart of the California wine country, couldn't have been more beautiful.
Pre-conference activities were a great way to get a head start on all the doings. Conferees explored downtown Yountville, the heart of the Napa Valley, to sample the area's wines (of course) and explore its art galleries and museums, or spent the morning at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art to learn about the successes and challenges in mounting a major, site-specific exhibit. Others attended intensive workshops on topics like strategic foresight, grant writing, and evaluation. In anticipation of all the networking opportunities over the next few days, Getty Scholarship recipients, CAM Fellows, and members of the Bay Area EMPs and EMP Los Angeles gathered to learn the ins and outs of networking from the pros.
The conference officially began Wednesday evening with a welcome reception at the hotel, followed by the Director's Dinner at the Napa Valley Museum. There, Jean Schulz, President of the Charles Schulz Museum, was given the 2014 CAMMY Award for her extraordinary and ongoing support of museums. It was she who enthusiastically made it possible for CAM to use Snoopy as the mascot for a new Snoopy California license plate that will honor and benefit museums. (Do you have yours yet??) During dessert, a panel discussion ensued about a recent and unfortunate situation, in which a museum was forced to close its doors just seven years after it opened. The panelists and the audience considered what can be learned from the mistakes that were made, and how to avoid suffering the same fate at their own institutions.
Elsewhere, concurrent dialogue dinners provided informal roundtable discussions on everything from a consideration of museum studies programs to using YouTube to heighten awareness of your museum.
Anticipation filled the room at the Opening Town Hall on Thursday. A museum rock star panel that included moderator Randy Roberts, Assistant Director, Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis; Kathy McLean, Principal, Independent Exhibitions; Lori Starr, Executive Director, Contemporary Jewish Museum; and Richard West, President and CEO of the Autry National Center of the American West were there to tackle the question of the “so what?” of museums, considering questions such as, “what is their core purpose?” and, “how exactly do museums contribute to individuals and society?” What an informative and provocative conversation it was, complemented by a video featuring interviews with James Durston, CNN correspondent and author of the controversial “Why I Hate Museums” piece that ran a few months ago, and got us all talking. Other perspectives on the essence of museums were shared in the video by Chris Norris, President of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections and Senior Collections Manager for Vertebrate Paleontology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History and Claudine K. Brown, the Assistant Secretary for Education and Access for the Smithsonian Institution.
Museum Royale, a clever game devised by the ever-creative Nina Simon and her team at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz challenged participants to spend the next few days contemplating the basic essence of museums and to join the kingdom of the essence of their choice (see ribbons above). This conference-long quest would crown a new monarch of essence, be it collections, wonder, collaboration, or any other purpose or function of museums, at what would be a very lively, and noisy Closing Session. The triumphant essence? It was a tie between ideas and humanity!
Two full days of engaging and relevant sessions, plus lunchtime learning opportunities and evening events resulted in a conference that had something for everyone. Session topics ranged from “Making the Big Ask” in fundraising, to measuring the success of traveling exhibits. The winners of the Superintendent's Award (see picture below) were honored at the annual CAM luncheon. Maker stations got attendees busy putting their creativity and problem-solving to work through super fun mini-projects to take home and replicate at their own institutions. A lovely evening at di Rosa featuring great wine, delicious food, art and performance concluded our first day. Wine, art, and good conversation with friends and colleagues – it doesn't get any better than that.
Attendees included excited young museum professionals attending their first conference, to veteran museum folk, all eager to make new friends, gather up new ideas, and learn everything we can to help make our museums better. The mood was friendly and fun throughout – laughter and conversation pervaded every moment both inside and outside the sessions and events. All in all, this could very well be considered CAM's most successful conference. Certainly it was the most attended, with over 520 participants!
You too can be a part of the fun and excitement. Plan to attend the next CAM Conference to be held February 18 – 20, 2015 in San Diego. Watch for details on the CAM website or Facebook!
Sue Lafferty is a Co-Chair of the California Association of Museums’ Program Committee.