By Ruth Hyde - 2019 Wanda Chin Scholarship Recipient
If your question were chosen, as one-of-three to be discussed on stage in front of a room full of conference attendees, you may have all kinds of different reactions. For me, on the last day of WMA 2019, when my note was read aloud from the stage, the pit of my stomach churned, and my chest tightened. I was excited to hear what the panel of experts thought, but I was equally worried that my question was inadequate, or that my lack of museum know-how could be exposed.
As a relative newbie, with 5 years’ experience within a museum setting and only my second attendance at a WMA conference, I can identify facing a certain level of “imposter syndrome” as I walked the conference halls and bolstered enough confidence to introduce myself to other seemingly more experienced attendees. I was thrilled to receive a Wanda Chin scholarship and knew from my previous experience in Tacoma, that the few days I spent in Boise at WMA this year would provide inspiration and enrichment for the year ahead.
On the final morning of WMA, after a long weekend of Boise-at-its-BEST, I was exhausted, and already thinking about my drive home as well as an important upcoming exhibit opening. I took a seat for the general session, coffee in hand, feeling relieved yet fulfilled at the conference’s conclusion. The topic for panel discussion derived from our overarching theme of engagement, but more specifically, it connected with the experience of four select museum leaders and their approaches to institutional change. Unprepared as I was to be further enlightened, I quickly realized this was a session pre-packaged for my pursuits - and the selection of panelists was stellar! Discussion ranged from emotional connections with audiences, to considerations of adequate family restrooms, students and volunteers on boards, to cartoon content for admissions literature. A completely awesome mash-up of visitor engagement with many more take-aways than I could have imagined!
When it came time to add a notecard question, to be curated by the general session moderator, I knew exactly what I wanted to ask - I wanted to know how the panelists balanced the necessity to earn income through admissions, while also being accessible to those for whom cost would be a barrier. What were their thoughts on reduced admissions offerings, and was being free important to being welcoming?
Welcoming people to experience the museum is central to my role in visitor services, but it is also vital to our museum’s wide-ranging work, our mission, and our continuing viability. By helping our community recognize that our museum as a place for them, we create the critical connections which allows for engagement and truly transformative museum experiences. I believe strongly that museums are for everyone, and that it is my job as a museum staff to create welcoming environments that integrate inclusion - ensuring that there are opportunities for everyone to learn and experience.
How do we maintain the sense of value in our museum, and create avenues for earned income, while also indicate to our audiences wholesomely that we wanted to remove barriers which may prevent a them from attending? I had spent considerable time thinking about these issues, and I imagined I couldn’t be the only one doing so. The panelists graciously provided their thoughts.
What did I learn from the WMA experts? The answer that resonated with me most was that offering free admission options eliminates risk. From the perspective of a visitor, if they have an option to attend a free day, or use a coupon, they can experience a new thing – our museum – without committing their money. (Keeping in mind that time is also a precious commodity which will be expended in order to visit.) So, if we do the important job of engaging our visitors, they are going to want to come back. I also learned from the discussion about the creative ways monetary donations can be sought during free admissions offers, as well as the potential for earning income through reserved seating at special events – ideas which are simple to execute, and potentially very beneficial.
My general WMA take-away however was – turn up – take coffee – and be prepared to have your questions examined.
Through the support of, and collaboration with our Western Museum Association, we can propel our shared mission with fresh ideas, renewed energy, and experiential knowledge that only comes from the mix of institutional perspectives. I feel privileged to have attended the annual WMA conference for a second year and I am already looking forward to WMA 2020, hosted in the fabulous city of Portland, Oregon – I hope to see you all there!
Ruth Hyde is the Membership and Visitor Services Manager at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History.