Navigating Uncharted Waters: Museums at the Forefront—The 2015 CAM Conference

By Jennifer Caballero

Museums are at the forefront of addressing issues facing California—they are tackling social justice issues, communicating about climate change, and serving audiences with specific needs, as well as experimenting with sustainable business practices, distance learning, crowd-sourced content, and new technologies.

As ominous as those issues might sound, 500 intrepid museum professionals from across California spent February 18-20, 2015 thinking about all of these challenging issues and more in beautiful San Diego. The harbor-adjacent location was the ideal setting to explore the 2015 California Association of Museums (CAM) conference theme of Navigating Uncharted Waters.  

In those three short days, attendees enjoyed a rich selection of opportunities to share ideas with colleagues, gain helpful insights about innovations happening at the forefront of the museum field, and get inspired about new ways to fulfill institutional mission.   

The San Diego host committee kicked things off with an array of “only in San Diego” pre-conference experiences, including customized tours of many world-renowned Balboa Park institutions, with a wide-ranging choice of lenses through which to experience the esteemed institutions, including interpretive technology, textile conservation, and living history. Those attending workshops found options to build new skills in the areas of strategic foresight, collections care, and EMP-targeted networking tips.

The opening reception took place at the San Diego Maritime Museum aboard an authentic steam ferry, where attendees were greeted by a live band festively attired in full pirate costume (perhaps to encourage pirating of good ideas in the days to come?). Then the group was welcomed with warm words from CAM officials, and treated to an unforgettable orange-pink sunset.

WMA #CAM2015 tweets during the Opening Reception

On board the ship that evening, serious discussion began in earnest of the #CAM2015 game pieces distributed in each registration bag. What were these mysterious puzzle segments that encouraged collaboration, problem-solving, and social sharing? Those following CAM on social media platforms discovered that some game-related Tweets and posts shed light about misdirection and could be a source of bonus clues. 

Highlighting the Director’s Dinner at The Natural History Museum of San Diego was the presentation of the CAMMY Award to Peter Ellsworth of the Legler Benbough Foundation, followed by an insightful “Foundation and Funder’s Forecast” panel discussion. Dialogue Dinners at the Museum of Man addressed topics such as collaborative video production, volunteer management, and creating contemporary art for non-traditional audiences.

The Opening Town Hall was an exceptionally moving first-person testimonial—facilitated expertly by The Museum of Tolerance—and established a powerful sentiment that had a ripple effect throughout the remainder of the conference, reinforcing how the storytelling that we do in our museums can make a lasting impact on those who visit and carry that lesson forward.

Inspired by the opening events and activities, CAM 2015 attendees began a two-day voyage into sessions tackling wide-ranging topics, many that transcended specific practice areas. One example was "License to Fail," which championed the fostering of a culture of experimentation, and promoted having the courage to share about projects that did not go as hoped, thus de-stigmatizing failures.  

Happily, a vibe of humor and excitement also prevailed during this gathering—more than a few jokes were flying around about the robot overlords, referencing a rolling videophone kiosk “attending” the conference. Another session titled “Putting the Fun in Profundity” really captured the conference theme of navigating museum exhibitions and programs forward into unknown territory, and wrestling with the ubiquitous conflict between serving core members and changing things to attract and retain new visitors in a sustainable way.

A rolling videophone participating in CAM’s San Diego conference generated some double-takes, as well as conversations and social sharing.

The maker stations provided CAM 2015 attendees with fun and creative break activities between sessions. Mixing it up alongside old friends and new, and enjoying the benefits of hands-on art making provided a perfect way to transition between session topics and stay energized. (The snacks helped too!)

The hallways buzzed with energy and follow-up discussions. Throughout two days, roundtable conversations addressed topics such as legal aspects of social media, winning tactics in crowd sourcing, evaluation best practices, perspectives on generational dynamics, and strategies for increasing access to museums. The conference’s nautical theme of navigating into the unknown proved to be a prescient choice, and all hands were on deck!

Inspiring content, stunningly beautiful weather, and access to nature and spectacular views of the magical place that is San Diego were not the only takeaways from CAM 2015. These testimonies demonstrate the impact the conference is already making:

  • I have a head full of new ideas to take back to my museum so I can help make our programs even more successful.
  • I have a long list of ideas for engaging the community, outreach to K-12 institutions, and developing substantive programming in the summer months. I was incredibly inspired!!
  • I came back from the conference energized and full of new ideas.
  • Having been exposed to some new ideas, and in some cases, being reassured that our challenges are not unique, will serve to support efforts moving forward.
  • Brought back a number of ideas that will affect marketing, membership, and operations. Many valuable resources were shared in the sessions.
  • I have renewed energy. I've met several interesting counterparts in other museums. I will bring everything I have learned to my job.

Now that it’s over, we’re charting a new course.  The next annual CAM Conference will take place March 2-4, 2016 in Riverside, CA, and plans are already underway for yet another exceptional conference experience. Hope to see you in Riverside!

Jennifer Caballero has served on the Program Committee for CAM since 2012 and is now thrilled to be the Co-Chair of the 2016 CAM Conference. She is the Marketing Director at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.



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Just want to see if you are a robot.