Friday, April 15, 2011

Relevance is the word, and other highlights from "Generation M"

"Your challenge is to make me
relevant to Generation M"
Earlier this week I attended the Ohio Museums Association's annual conference, presenting a session with two of my former students, and serving once again as an officer on OMA's board. This year's theme, "Generation M: Museums and Millennials" perfectly complemented the venue, as OMA was hosted by the Museums Studies Program at Walsh University, in North Canton, Ohio. While I admit to a certain amount of bias, I believe that from the special track of sessions developed specifically for faculty and students in Museum Studies, to the thought-provoking keynote address and follow-up break out session given by Beverly Sheppard, OMA met its goal of providing timely and practical professional development for its members and constituents.  For those of you who were unable to join us Sunday and Monday, here are a few of the take-away messages I noted from the sessions and discussions in which I took part.

  1. Relevance is really starting to matter to museums.  To many of you being relevant may seem like an obvious notion and therefore a "duh" comment, but for a lot of museums, especially those in the small to medium sized categories, this has not always been the case. For much of their existence smaller museums have had a dedicated following of patrons and volunteers who made sure that the museum kept its doors open, even if no one else was coming through those doors. However, this week I heard rumblings from staunch members of the esoteric museum community, who usually profess not to care about people who aren't interested in... (insert narrow subject area here). Instead of curmudgeonly curses, I heard ideas about how they could relate to their communities and where they might find new partners. These conversations offer hope that relevance is finally becoming relevant to all museums.
  2. Young professionals coming out of museum studies programs are smart, savvy, prepared, and driven. Hire them! It is certainly true that work experience matters. However, these recent museum studies grads will inject a dose of well-informed creativity, objectivity, and enthusiasm into your organization without costing you the 4 to 6 month learning curve typical of those unfamiliar with museum organizations.
  3. Networking is still as important as ever. While social media has become an important link for sharing information between individuals and institutions, it has not yet usurped the lunch table as a forum for the face to face exchange of ideas, business cards, and calendar openings that leads to potential partnerships and expanded collaborations. I watched several budding partnerships grow over soup and sandwiches at lunch on Monday.
  4. Conferences do have value, if we plan them with today's professionals in mind. Last year, as OMA conference attendance waned for a second year in a row, and the economy doggedly refused to release its grip on museum budgets across the state, I had a conversation with several of my colleagues on the organization's board about whether it was still important to hold an annual conference. A year later, the economy has begun to turn around, conference registrations were up, and the slate of sessions and programs selected to resonate with museums in the digital age inspired lively debate, hopefully sowing the seeds of purposeful change among attending museums. This conference was shorter, narrower in focus, and lighter on bells and whistles than those meetings of 5 to 10 years ago. However, as OMA has sought to change the conference format to reflect the needs of our membership, the high quality programming has remained. Content was top-notch, and participants were dynamic.
  5. Change is inevitable, so make it happen. This was the take-away message of my session. Rather than rehashing all of it here in paragraph form, here are the slides. If you are interested in learning more about any of the concepts and ideas presented, please feel free to post a comment, drop me an email, or reach out to other the panelists via their email addresses listed on the final slide.

If you missed the conference this year, OMA's 2012 conference will be in Toledo next April, and of course we would love to have you join us. In the meantime, the Association of Indiana Museums is meeting in Richmond, Indiana this September and OMA members receive a discount when registering. OMA is a sponsor of this year's AIM conference and is encouraging its members to attend.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Revisiting lessons learned from "Free to be You and Me"

Free to Be You and Me Foundation
has information on all things related
to the album, TV show, and movement.
Yesterday at my local library, while searching for kids' CDs that wouldn't drive me to road rage in the car, I came across an old favorite from my childhood, "Free to Be You and Me." It had been years since I'd heard any of the songs, but after briefly scanning the playlist, I immediately wanted to share it with my daughters. After all, these songs helped shape my identity and sense of self back in the '70s when I was their age.

I remember my parents playing that vinyl record for me over and over again, at my request, and together they taught me not be afraid of being myself, or following my dreams. As I listened to each of the tracks I recalled the childhood joy those songs and stories brought me, but as an adult I heard them through older, yet new, ears. As a woman, professional, wife, and mother, I thought about how the meaning had changed. Still, it is hard to believe that the album turns 40 next year when so many of its lessons continue to resonate today.

An informal poll of a few of my girlfriends confirmed my suspicion that many of us were influenced by Marlo Thomas and her upbeat songs casting off tired stereotypes. The 30- and 40-something moms and dads of today, who fill your museum galleries and classes with their children are likely products of this "free to be you and me" generation. Are there lessons in the album for museums who serve this audience? Here are a few I found.
My dad's birthday, April 3, 1977.
  1. "Parents are people... They used to be kids." Moms and dads had a life before kids, and while most of us are intimately aware of this fact, it's important to remember parents when planning programs and experiences aimed at children. Sure, parents want their kids to have a great time, but if there is a little bit of smart, funny, and interesting content for the adults who brought the kids, those grown-ups are probably going to want to come back to your museum again. Sesame Street, while not a museum, is a great example of children's programming that sneaks in a bit of humor for the adults in the audience, and what parent doesn't love Sesame Street?
  2. "Ladies first" was already passe in 1972. That is to say, if most of your programming for women is aimed at ladies who like starched cotton dresses, finger sandwiches, and luncheons in the middle of the day, you are missing an opportunity to connect with the next generation of power women. Try hosting a book club, or girls' night out event, like the ones hosted by the Cincinnati Museum Center focused around their latest exhibit. Perhaps, plan a "Toddler Thursday" like the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and add some content for the moms too. In any case, accept that today's "ladies" often put their families and careers first, and when they get free time, they want to connect with others, not be the youngest woman in the room by 20 or 30 years.
  3. "Don't dress your cat in apron... People should [do] what they like to, a person's a person that way." Museums often try to unnecessarily control visitor outcomes and experiences, but people are happiest when they can drive their own experience and make their own meaning. Everyone is different and no two people will experience the same exhibit or program in exactly the same way. Attempt to make your visitor interactions open-ended experiences that give people a chance to engage your content in a way that makes them comfortable and allows them to draw their own conclusions. 
  4. "Some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without." You know what I'm talking about. The unreliable volunteer you can't count on, but who expects to have high-quality projects to occupy his or her valuable time. The trustees who think they know how to do you job better than you. The donor who would really like to give you money, but only if you sidestep your mission for a special interest pet project. I wish I had simple, one size fits all solutions for these and other common scenarios. I don't. Just a comforting reminder that we all run into help that really isn't, and from there we smile, nod, say thank you, and let our conscience and experience be our guide. 
If you remember this classic album from your childhood, check it out from the library and listen to the songs again. It is wonderful! See if it doesn't spark those childlike impulses to create something new, try something no one has tried before, dare to dream big, and not worry about what other people think you ought do with your time. 

Catch me on Voices of the Past