Written by Aubrey Feyrer, Collections Assistant, Tempe History Museum, and WMA 2023 Wanda Chin Scholarship Recipient
At the time of writing, it has been a little over a month since the conclusion of WMA 2023 held in Pasadena, California. October 2023 ended up being a very busy and special month for me professionally, and now that I have my grad school commitments under enough momentary control, I can finally reflect on the event that kickstarted the month. This edition of WMA’s Annual Conference was my first, and while that distinction made my attendance unique in itself, I had the added opportunity and privilege to go as a Wanda Chin Scholarship recipient. As my dad and I drove through the Arizona desert into the greener and more hilly reaches of California, I told myself that I needed to maximize this experience for my own growth as a young professional, my museum back home, and for WMA themselves for graciously supporting my efforts to be there.
My arrival was a bit helter-skelter, because after driving throughout the day to get to the hotel on October 5, suddenly I was getting my conference attire on and off I went with little time to stop and think. Thankfully, the quaint and soothing atmosphere of the events that night at both the Pasadena Museum of History and the Gamble House was the perfect opening to the conference overall, and for my own experiences with fulfilling the meeting’s theme of “Connect.” I made a handful of new connections and had wonderful conversations about navigating the museum field and advice I should consider for my academic goals, which were all invaluable to me.
The next day, Friday, brought an amazing and highly motivating keynote from speaker Sandra Jackson-Dumont. Among the excellent points she made, two of them have stayed with me more than all the others. The first is remembering that museums are better when people of all demographics and backgrounds are put at their center. I find this important not only in general for all museums but particularly my own here in Arizona, as we are positioned as a community museum that is trying to preserve Tempe’s local history. However, where is that story without the community we serve and represent, and without the people in it? That part of the keynote was a reminder to me that museums will only be successful if shared authority is practiced and we as professionals work alongside the groups and individuals that visit and support our institutions, instead of going off on our own and not considering the community’s needs and wants. The second point Jackson-Dumont made that resonated with me is that objects should not be THE mission, but rather items that help SERVE the mission. I find this important to remember because one of the main reasons I wanted to work in collections and archives was so I could access unique and significant historical materials, items, and documents. However, that part of the keynote helped me put that desire into context: while it is fair to want to indulge in the historical pieces museums have, those items are not the end-all, be-all for my role in collections or a museum’s larger purpose. Whatever that purpose is, community members should be at the heart of it, and so the objects that I am interested in are used as needed to accomplish that more important goal.
For the rest of the conference, from Friday to Sunday, the sessions were all brilliant and informative. Of course, none of us can be everywhere at once, and so while it is unfortunate I missed some sessions and roundtables, I am grateful for the ones I did participate in, especially Monumental Reckoning (shoutout to Ralph Remington for being awesome and tackling a tough topic! Tempe forever!), When Museums Close – Why Communities Matter (shoutout to Janice Klein for salvaging this session and leading a riveting discussion about the realism of museums closing! Let's go Tempe, and Arizona in general!), and The Intelligent AI Museum roundtable (shoutout to Nik Honeysett for amazing advice on creating digital exhibitions that I will use to finish my master's degree at ASU). These three individuals I am highlighting do not even do this conference justice because I met so many amazing, welcoming, and knowledgeable people who made me so happy and proud to be a part of the museum field. Even more so, probably my number one favorite quality about the WMA meeting was how close-knit and homey it all felt. This was my second major museum conference, as I attended the AAM conference in Denver, Colorado earlier this year in late May. Do not get me wrong, that conference was incredible too and I am very grateful I went with a bit of financial help from my museum, but we all know AAM is huge, and brings so many different things together into one place. That is all good and necessary for this field, but WMA is the place to be to forge long-term connections and to properly engrain oneself into the museum community, particularly here in the Western regions of the United States, and if you are still a new museum professional like I am. Lastly, WMA had the WMA-Lympics, which alone gives them a 10/10. That activity was the most fun I had at either conference and I really hope that sort of thing can catch on at more meetings like this. Team Collectors, we are getting the gold next time!
Aubrey Feyrer is the Collections Assistant at the Tempe History Museum in Tempe, Arizona. He has had this position since June 2022. He earned a B.A. in History and a minor in Philosophy with honors at Arizona State University in December 2021 and is currently working towards an M.A. in History with a focus on Public History, also at Arizona State. He will earn his M.A. in May 2024.