Learn, Change, Grow, Repeat: Lessons Learned from the WMA 2016 Annual Conference

I’m going to start with a confession: it often takes me several weeks after a professional conference for the information I’ve to crystallize into useful lessons. Being a typical introvert, the conference and networking can render me feeling highly energized and highly depleted at the same time. Once the overstimulation wears off and I am back in my routine, the lessons and conversations shared at the conference must then compete with the shards of thoughts of daily life, such as: “when did I last do laundry?” and “where did the dog go?” After some time passes, I finally reach a place of synthesis. The everyday practices of my job collide with the new ideas from the conference, and new plans and behaviors start to form. Consequently, I am only now reaping the rewards of attending the 2016 WMA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Attending this year’s annual conference was of special import to me, as it marked a transition from a student to a full time museum professional. Over the last three years I’ve attended the WMA annual meeting twice while I was a graduate student at San Francisco State University. My previous tactic at WMA annual meetings was to have a broad educational experience, absorb variety of information, and to network extensively. In contrast, my approach to the year’s annual meeting changed: I had specific goals for which sessions to attend, and what knowledge to gain that would apply directly to my current position. For these reasons, I am extremely grateful that I was able to participate, and I would not have been able to attend without the generous support of the Wanda Chin Scholarship for Emerging Professionals.

The theme of this year’s annual meeting was CHANGE. Over the last eighteen months I've experience a fair share of both personal and professional change: I earned my MA in Museum Studies from San Francisco State University, moved to a new state, started a new job full time job in a museum, bought a car, went through a divorce, and experienced and recovered from a rare form of vertigo. Throughout this time of change I needed sound advice from family and friends to keep my bearings. Similarly, a strong network is what sustains our institutions through change. Whether it’s a change in leadership or a change in engagement strategies, growing pains can be difficult for any institution. Conferences such as WMA’s annual meeting are a great opportunity to seek advice, friendship, and knowledge from our peers. The following are the three big ideas that had the most impact to me from the annual meeting:

  1. Be inspired – During the opening general session a speaker quoted President Obama’s speech at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture: “…hopefully this museum can help us talk to each other. And more importantly listen to each other. And most importantly, see each other.” This sentiment truly resonates with me in my work here at the Center for Creative Photography. While the quote can be taken literally, (the photographs in our collection help us to physically see one another regardless of time and distance), I prefer a deeper meaning. The photographs in our fine print collections and archives help us to understand one another’s humanity, how we live, what we struggle with, and how we change. This quote not only stokes my passion for museum work, it also helped me set a mental tone of openness and positive energy for the rest annual meeting. Inspiration can come from more mundane sources than an opening session, but experiences like this help me remember to harness and carry forward all the momentum a moment of inspiration brings.
  2. The future doesn’t just happen, it’s created - This idea was also broached by a speaker in the opening session. While I ponder variations of this maxim frequently, the idea had so much more impact for me when discussed in a forum of colleagues and peers. When I think of the future I want to create in our profession, and at my institution, I am lead to ask: how can I make the most impact each day of my work, and how can I be more intentional about what I do at the Center? This idea challenges to set aside discreet portions of time in my week to work towards larger goals, such as examine departmental practices to find hidden efficiencies. Although this goal is broad, I choose to create the future by taking small steps in the present.
  3. De-mystifying change at the top - While I have spent years as a part-time employee, as an intern, and as a volunteer at museums and arts non-profits, this is my first full time museum job. A week after I started it was announced our director was retiring and we would have an interim director while our leadership created a new vision for our institution. Changes in leadership are common in our field, and I personally have never experienced the entire arc of the transition from beginning to end. Being better informed through sessions such as Search Process Revealed: Perspectives from Three Recent Director Candidates, and Moving On and Moving In: Strategies for Ensuring a Smooth Transition in Museum Leadership helped me understand how I can help the process go more smoothly, and what to expect, as a staff member.

Now, while the three ideas outlined above may not be revolutionary, they are also not impotent. My experience at the annual meeting, thanks to the Wanda Chin scholarship, had a genuine and sincere impact on me and my work. I feel a renewed sense of purpose in my work, driven by the question this conference made me ask about my role in my institution, my work, and my goals. Conferences such as the WMA annual meeting facilitate different moments of realization and inspiration for all who participate, myself included. They are a time we can come together and share the challenges and lessons of change in our field and in our own lives. Whether your next conference is your third conference or your thirtieth, it is important to let each session and conversation have the power to transform you and your approach to your job. Openness and the access to knowledge are things we museum professionals value, and we must open our arms and our institutions up to change to be able to grow.

Rebecca Drudge works at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She is a Licensing Specialist, which means she helps make the fine print and archival collections of the Center more accessible through her work with rights and reproductions and visitor services. Ms. Drudge graduated in 2015 with her MA in Museum Studies, with an emphasis in Collections Management and Registration, from San Francisco State University. In her spare time Ms. Drudge loves exploring her new home in the southwest.



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