Written by 2022 Wanda Chin Scholarship Recipient Elizabeth Beutel
I had the honor of attending the 2022 WMA Conference in Portland, OR as a Wanda Chin Scholarship Awardee. While there, several events reminded me of an important lesson to keep in mind as I navigate the museum world: Simple questions almost never have simple answers.
I attended sessions by the fantastic presenters. I learned about disaster preparedness, the concept of restoration versus preservation, grant writing, and so much more. Every presenter was captivating in what they said, but even more, they were captivating in their humility of what they didn’t know. Often, the speakers used examples of learning from experience but were open in laying out the conditions of how their examples might not translate to other museums. The running theme in all the presentations was that the problems they encountered did not have a one-size-fits-all answer. It was up to the audience to utilize the information given to apply it in the most practical way applicable for each of their individual museums.
Earlier in the year, I underwent gender transition surgery. At this point, I’m very much used to answering questions about the process, but I had not done any professional development conferences since the surgery. Now, my surgery wasn’t just a personal experience, it was part of a larger conversation about LGBTQ+ issues in the museum sphere. Despite publicly coming out and being open about my experience as a trans museum professional, I found I didn’t have answers for many of my peers. Questions about talking about queerness to donors, including queerness in exhibits and programming, and bringing more diversity into the museum space went half answered, but I realized that my advice wasn’t what other museums needed.
The Wednesday before the conference, my museum had an interesting experience. We had recently joined TikTok, taking the leap into branching out to a new social media platform. Our fourth video posted went viral that Wednesday. I supervise our TikTok manager, meaning that I got to see, in real time, how the video increased our engagement and outreach. What was more astounding to me, however, is that other attendees of the Conference had seen our video on TikTok that day and recognized my institution from the video. I had never seen such immediate feedback, and it was extremely encouraging to see our work delight people I met. However, when it came to explaining our process and how to continue it, I really couldn’t answer any questions. This was extremely new to us, and we got incredibly lucky. When I asked attendees in marketing circles, even they couldn’t give a straight answer on how recreate this success. There was great advice, but no straight answer.
In some ways, I left the WMA Conference with more questions than I entered with. However, in terms of professional development, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Questions mean engagement and curiosity in the Museum Field. Not only that, not having a complete answer means that better, more rounded answers can develop from conversations and the diverse experiences of multiple museum professionals. The field will change, as will the people working in it, but that means that next year, when I return to the conference in 2023, I will bring new questions and look forward to the conversations to be had from the lack of simple answers.
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