Written by Makenzie Stewart, EMP, UW Graduate Student, and WMA 2023 Wanda Chin Scholarship Recipient
The Western Museum Association held its 2023 Annual Meeting in Pasadena this past October, and I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Wanda Chin Professional Development Scholarship to help fund my trip. As a young and anxious graduate student, this was my first ever professional conference, and I had spent the past few months researching what to expect, how to act, and even what to wear. I arrived in Burbank Thursday afternoon just before the opening reception, having just flown by myself for the first time. I checked into my hotel not far from the conference center and tried to relax and recover from my flight—my first time taking a flight alone, thankfully the lovely couple next to me spent the two and a half hours asking about my graduate program and showing me photos of their new grandbaby—until it was time to leave for the opening reception. I took a rideshare to the conference center, and when I entered I was met with a sight quite unlike what I was expecting.
There were no stuffy businessmen in suits sitting half-awake around tables, fainting interest in a slideshow full of stock images. Instead, there was laughter and energy; strangers and old friends shaking hands while balancing a cup of coffee or glass of wine in the other, people leaning on tables sharing pictures of their kids or dogs or latest work, business cards being handed around like trading cards… My anxiety was replaced with excitement, I put on my lanyard, straightened my nametag, and headed into The Unknown.
As an Emerging Museum Professional (EMP) and former professional conference ‘first-timer,’ here is my list of tips to help you feel prepared and confident, and make the most of your first conference:
1. Think about a business card! When handed a business card for the first time by a wonderful and friendly seasoned museum professional, she asked for a card of mine in return, to which I responded, unsuccessfully hiding my panic, “I don’t have any business.” There may not be such a thing as a wrong answer in this sort of situation, but I think I got pretty close. If you are not in a place yet where business cards are a normal part of your professional life, be prepared to offer some other form of professional identification instead, like your LinkedIn or even a personal business card. And don’t forget to collect those business cards and follow up with the people you connect with to thank them for their time!
2. Attend all the evening events you can! The most valuable, memorable, and inspiring parts of my experience were during the excursions, namely the excursion to the Gamble House and the Autry Museum of the American West. I had passed through Pasadena a number of times growing up, but these beautifully catered outings offered not only a new perspective on the city and region but also on the industry as a whole. Part of life for an EMP is anxiety about job opportunities and the future of the industry. However, my adventures in Pasadena and Los Angeles helped me realize that our collective future is full of innovation and inclusion. Plus, the food was amazing and, if you’re lucky, you might get to see a former professor of yours kill it at karaoke.
3. Just be yourself! You don’t need to invest in a $200 blazer just to fit in or be taken seriously. You will be your most confident self if you are comfortable (and hydrated!). Attend all the sessions that interest you, but don’t overdo it. Most of the most meaningful interactions you will have will be in those in-between moments, on the bus to events, during morning coffee, or sitting down for drinks in the middle of a busy day. Take breaks to reflect on your experiences and the new things you’ve learned. Know you are doing great to have made it this far, and remember you have even more amazing things ahead of you!
Remember that we all have to start somewhere, and take advantage of the opportunities that come with being present in these new and uncertain moments. The theme of the WMA’s 2023 Annual Meeting was CONNECT, and they certainly delivered on this promise. Have fun at your first conference, you’ve got this!
Makenzie Stewart is an Emerging Museum Professional and current graduate student, completing her MA in Museology from the University of Washington in June of 2024. She has a BA in Art History and Anthropology from UC Davis and is a current early learning educator at Woodland Park Zoo and the Tour and Volunteer Coordinator at Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden. She is currently working on her thesis project that intends to improve the docent training process at zoos and aquaria, equipping volunteer educators with the necessary skills to enhance interactions with young learners that involve biofacts and the subsequent discussion of the social and scientific processes that occur when beloved zoo animals pass away. Makenzie is fascinated by the intersection of informal learning, natural science, and visual arts, and plans to pursue a career that further combines her passions for wildlife and the humanities.