By Emily Schmierer
This post was written by a recipient of a Wanda Chin Scholarship to attended the 2013 Annual Meeting
The Western Museums Association (WMA) 2013 Annual Meeting, Drive On! Museums and the Future in Salt Lake City was my first professional museum conference. I am a graduate student in the University of Washington (UW) Museology graduate program, and have worked on numerous projects with museums, done my fair share of slave labor—I mean internships—and read more museo-literature than I care to admit. But I learned a lot by attending this conference; the kind of learning that I imagine could only take place in such a blissful environment. When I was telling friends that I was going to a museum conference, I sheepishly and jokingly referred to it as just a nerdy conference for museum professionals (I get a lot of flack for my career choice; someday I’ll show them!). But in all honesty, this Annual Meeting took all of the positive connotations crammed into the word “nerd,” and put an interesting context to it, like a more appealing fashionable outfit. Professionals from different museum departments were let loose to mingle, network, and talk openly about the goings on at their respective institutions, as well as get excited about what they were working on while surrounded by people who could relate. And that’s what being a nerd is all about: owning your passion, and reveling in your community. I definitely feel like I gained a sense of self-empowered nerdiness that week in October 2013, and have been basking in it since.
In my application letter for the Wanda Chin Scholarship, I discussed how attending the Annual Meeting would re-enchant my passion for museums during a time in my academic life that would be swampy and dark. I am in the throes of planning my graduate thesis research, and am going through the ups and downs of IRB submission, literature reviews, and pilot testing, etc. Just as I may have lost sight of the bigger picture while entrenched in my own project, I came to the conference, engaged in conversations pertinent to topics I had only read about thus far, and met diverse members of the professional community—many of whom I have read their work, and saw the light. It dawned on me that while my thesis is very important, it will not be my biggest contribution to the field, nor should it be. This realization has allowed me to regain focus and remember the bigger picture: being a member of the larger museum force means continually shaping the development of these dynamic institutions, and doing so at whatever stage you are in.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to experience WMA 2013 Annual Meeting first hand. I would not have been able to attend this meeting if I had not been awarded the Wanda Chin Scholarship. Everyone I met was gracious, welcoming, and interested to hear my story. I appreciated the chance to catch up with past internship supervisors, and of course getting them to dish on what was coming up next at their museums. It was also fun to meet students, and others interested in becoming students, as well as to have the opportunity to share about my graduate program and learn about others.
Each session I attended offered valuable information, interesting stories, and a glimpse of what is to come in our museum future. The conversations that occurred during some sessions were very inspiring and encouraging. The session titled, Driving into 21st Century Diversity: What Identity-Based Cultural Institutions can Teach Us about the Coming “Minority-Majority” America evoked such an incredibly engaging conversation. I feel that the welcoming environment of the conference allowed participants to be confident to share their stories and questions, which a larger conference might not allow. The powerful processes discussed in the session, Taking a Stand: The Next Generation of Community Engagement resonated with my own aspirations for the field. The insights I gained from those sessions have endured, having the strongest impact on me as I continue with my graduate research and other projects.
Another session was very thought provoking, but in a different way. Reflections and Projections: Perspectives on the Museum Profession was the session I was most looking forward to since I first looked through the program. I was riveted and touched by the personal stories so graciously shared with the nearly full room, and enjoyed hearing about different paths these professionals took to get to where they are today. Museum professionals as a whole have some of the most interesting and diverse backgrounds, and I am proud to be part of a community where interdisciplinary minds can collaborate to produce such impactful social offerings. That being said, what was missing from this panel was diversity, namely someone who is entering the field now.
While all three panelists had distinct paths, they all had similar starts to their careers, and all within a similar time frame. Today museum studies degrees are becoming more common, and many entry-level museum positions are reserved for individuals who hold masters degrees in the subject. One attendee asked the panelists how some of their projections and reflections incorporated museum studies degrees, since no one really addressed that during the session. Their responses seemed to correlate and suggest that it’s the practical experience and relationships you form outside of class that really matter. However, most museum studies programs today require internship hours and class projects with client museums, offer many opportunities for work-study positions, and involve thesis projects to be completed with and for a specific institution. There is a significant amount of professional growth and networking as part of the academic experience that deserves recognition. The Seattle museum community is chock-full of UW Museology alumni, and I can tell you, that there is great networking to be had through these relationships! The experience and guidance emerging museum professionals can gain on their own is extremely important, but the impact of these academic programs on the generation of museum professionals entering the field now cannot be denied.
It was also suggested by one panelist to ignore trends in the field, to save those for “hipster museums on the coasts,” and to just maintain focus on your own institution’s big ideas. While I see great merit in focusing on one’s institution, especially aligning projects with your mission and vision, I cannot help but disagree with this categorically negative sentiment towards trends. Though many trends come and go, many more will stick around whether we like them or not. I think it is extremely important to pay attention to any trend, be it social, political, technological, or even in the weather, because any movement belittled as a mere trend probably reflects something much larger. Some of the topics addressed in either of the other two sessions I mentioned previously may have been regarded merely as trends, but I see their relevance for museums now more than ever, and only growing from there.
For example, learning about the steps the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) is going through during the Taking a Stand session (down to their very institutional structure) to address the community’s needs is something that struck me as an “aha!” moment of enlightenment. OMCA has taken this business of shifting from being about something to being for somebody, and put it into transparent practice. As discussed during the panel, they have moved away from “I’m sorry” programs and advisory boards used to push the predetermined institutional agenda, and now have community councils that are involved in formulating these goals. They no longer ask what community does a visitor belong to, but rather how many communities they might belong to. As discussed in the Driving into the 21st Century session, society used to rely on pigeonholing everyone into distinct labeled categories, especially in regard to gender, race, and ethnicity. In many settings, this is not a sustainable practice. Individuals that were considered outliers now reflect the emerging norm. Even if museums choose to see them as trends, these emerging processes are impacting the world around us. Museums have long had the reputation for being stagnant, elitist, and unreceptive to the general public. I believe it is through the acceptance of a changing world that we have begun to shed that stigma, which I see as progress. Granted, I am from the West Coast.
Above all else, the ability to discuss these matters was the most important opportunity of the 2013 Annual Meeting. If I’m not mistaken, nowhere does it say that all museums have to have the same goals, perspectives, or strategies. The diversity in purpose and perspective is what makes museums so great. As I encounter new challenges and opportunities, I continue to reflect on my experience in Salt Lake City and consider how I could share these questions and experiences to keep the conversation going. I have just co-submitted a session proposal for WMA 2014, hoping to address a challenging situation I believe many museum professionals have dealt with in the past. I am excited to continue to attend professional conferences, and welcome fellow emerging professionals and future scholarship recipients with the same warmth I experienced. I want to continue to contribute to the field-wide conversations and keep the field evolving.
Emily Schmierer was recently hired as the Public Programs Assistant at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, WA. With a strong interest in arts and cultural museums and visitor studies, she is pursuing a MA in Museology from the University of Washington. Since graduating with degrees in Cultural Anthropology and Spanish from Willamette University in 2011, she has held internship and project positions with numerous institutions and organizations in collections management, exhibition design and evaluation, and audience research departments. Emily hopes to continue working in exhibition design/evaluation and audience research after graduation.
The Wanda Chin Professional Development Support Fund helps support travel and registration for Western Museums Association members and students. The Fund is underwritten bya 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.