I've got a couple of weeks of conferences coming up. Next week I will be at the Western Museums Association conference in Portland. I am so excited, because the WMA conference is the first one I attended, way back in 1995 when it was in Oakland. It was an event recommended by my professors when first beginning my program in Museum Studies at John F. Kennedy University, and I cautiously committed to making the time and funds available to attend. And you know what? The conference was a fabulous experience - and it was almost overwhelming to see so many people so interested in museums, in what I loved. (I do specifically remember mentioning in class, though, that there were a lot of ladies with scarves!) But I came away thinking - what a good idea - professional development, interesting trade show participants, opportunity to meet new people / network and events at that highlight local institutions. I felt a little like I had found my tribe, my home, and an annual way to reconnect on a personal and professional level. And next week will be a homecoming of sorts, seeing colleagues and former classmates, and putting names to faces to new online connections I have made recently.
That WMA conference experience way back inspired me to look into other professional organizations, and to see what their conferences had to offer. I joined the American Association of Museums and traveled to their conference in Atlanta in, I believe, 1997. I scraped together airline points so I didn't have to buy a ticket, stayed at a nearby but not the conference hotel, and carefully selected the events and sessions I would attend. This precise planning did nothing to prepare me for the number of people that would be there. Just being from the West made me different - there are SO MANY museums on the US East Coast, so many staff in attendance. There were seas of people. The keynote speakers were in giant rooms, and there were screens to watch the talking head, as if it was some sort of political event. But I had my name on the lanyard around my neck, and I set out to meet new people and talk about my master's program and project. And it was good. Overwhelming, but very good. I recognized some names from the museum-l network - when I took an elevator with Stephen Weil, I even said 'Hi! I know you from the listserv!!' - silly eager girl. But, again, this conference experience made me realize there is a lot of history to the work I want to do with museums, and that I had a responsibility for making sure I understand who and what that has come before me in this sector. I love museums, but (thankfully) I am not the only one.
This stuck. When I returned to Canada in 2003, I immediately joined the British Columbia Museums Association. I had a fabulous transition year where I attended a WMA/BCMA joint conference in Reno, Nevada. There I got to say good-bye to my US colleagues while making new connections from BC. I found out that there were definitely nuances that I was going to have to learn about working in BC museums. I also found out that the BC museum professionals have such a wry sense of humour... I was going to be okay. I had lots to learn about my new home, but I would be okay.
So in 2004, I attended BCMA's Nanaimo conference. Population-wise, it's much smaller in BC, and the conference reflected this. In fact, it felt like a little bit of a club that I had entered, and was actually a little more intimidating than the conferences with hundreds of attendees. The multiple sessions and events, though, made it so I was running into the same people and so I just got my gumption together and introduced myself, and started conversations at events, joined discussions at breaks and actively participated in the sessions. (We even had a midnight fire alarm and we all were evacuated to the street in our jammies - now THAT'S getting to know people!) And I didn't try so hard just get my way 'in'; I did so because I wanted to belong to my group of local fellow museum professionals. Attending conferences has allowed me to gain the confidence - and given me the opportunity - to network with other people. I was so rewarded when, in 2004, I struck up a conversation with a table-mate at the Awards Dinner and got a tip on a need at a local National Historic Site: I followed up and won a contract that lead to a 4-year job. Who could ask for anything more from a conference??
So I have been left with, really, why would I not attend conferences? I have build them into my yearly budget, it is such a priority for me to attend. Note I have only ever had an institution pay my whole way to a conference once and that's okay; this type of professional development and networking is actually a personal tax deduction. But even without this, it has always been worth it to attend a conference or two a year.
Yes, I go to conferences, and I love them. The other one I am attending this month is BCMA's, back in Nanaimo, and, as I have mentioned, I am the Program Chair. This work - begun in January - has made me realize that there is A LOT of effort in putting these events together. From pulling together a committee (mine was amazing!!) to putting out the call for sessions to the facilitation of the development of said-sessions to how the theme and the keynote all fit together to scheduling and simply tracking all the details -- it's pretty intense. And we don't yet know if BCMA Conference 2010 will be successful, of course, but I feel good in that I have given back some of what I have loved so much about attending conferences, and hopefully I have organized intriguing keynote speakers, thoughtful sessions, interesting events. I wish for attendees to walk away with new things to think about in our museum world, fond memories of the conference, and knowing they have a lot of support and camaraderie in their professional community.