Thursday, November 4, 2010

The British Columbia Museum Association Conference 2010

Thoughts from a Conference Program Chair . . .

Wow. Last week - Wednesday, October 27 through Saturday, October 30, 2010 - went so quickly in Nanaimo at the BC Museums Association conference. Once home, I realized that I have never been so tired in my life, but I have to say that I think it all went well. 

Okay, there were a number of details that needed to be worked out on-site and in-person - it was not a cake walk the whole time. But the team organized by the Host Committee, lead by Debbie Trueman of the Nanaimo Museum, made it all doable, manageable and DONE. And I have to say my Program Committee - Wayne Wilson, Kristin Fairbairn, Buddy Williams, Peter Ord, Laura Williams, Carol Mayer and especially Kate Kerr - stepped in and stepped up so all the presentations went seamlessly. And the events. And the Owl fun. And the VIBE! How lucky am I - what a group I got to work with. (I just wish I had remembered to take a group photo..... dang!)

Wednesday began with a couple of preconference workshops, followed by an opening reception at the beautiful new home in the Nanaimo Museum. Those first hellos with museum people from across the province that you haven't seen in a year are always so jubilant! There really is nothing like coming together to see your museum family like at a conference.

The keynote address was on Thursday, lead by Nina Simon, and you can see her presentation slides on slideshare here. Nina spoke to her book The Participatory Museum, and gave examples of what that looks like... and emphatically stated that small museums have a greater opportunity to experiment, to be this engaged with the community, than many larger institutions. I particularly like that because the majority of museums in BC - and all over, for that matter - are the small, community museums that are run by a couple of dedicated people on a shoestring budget. That this position as a small museum has its own power is an empowering thought. Nina also made an impression on me that resonated with the I, Museum theme of identity, and took it up a notch that said what we need is for museum visitors, participants, AND staff to believe "This is MY Museum". Yes! That's the goal - to gather together to celebrate and make the most out of what museums can do - and be. 

We also had the great fortune of having the new minister, Stephanie Cadieux, come speak to the BCMA conference delegates at the Thursday luncheon. She was appointed just Monday, October 25, to the newly minted Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development. She seemed genuinely glad to be there, to get a chance to meet with us. She was humble about needing
to read from notes, but I felt she had a good initial understanding of the cultural sector and spoke well. She immediately addressed the dropping of "the arts" from the ministry title, and I thought that was a very open thing to do. It was her first speaking engagement in this ministry - and the first as a cabinet member - and so she seemed sincerely touched when Debbie Trueman and the BCMA presented her with a Fred Peters image including the Bastion in Nanaimo. This luncheon was an opportunity that, I believe, really launched the relationship between the association and the ministry in a very positive way.
Of course there were concurrent sessions in there, both on Thursday and Friday. A big thank you goes out to all the professionals who volunteered their time and effort to put together and present a session. I am sad that I had to be everywhere all once, and thus couldn't attend any full sessions myself.... If you attended any sessions, or have thoughts as a presenter, please comment below to let me know your opinion.  

Thursday events were fabulously done by the host committee. BC Reports is always one of my favourite events, because I love hearing what all the museums have been up to in their five minute chat to the audience, this year emceed by Simon Radcliff of Simon Sees. This evening is also a chance to catch up, have a glass of wine, and just enjoy each other's company. (There were also some special guests - real owls! - which I will have to talk about in an entirely separate post because they so wowwed me!) And this conference had the bonus of SHOPPING after BC Reports - Debbie from the Nanaimo Museum arranged for 18 downtown shops to remain open for us. We did not disappoint, and I bought a particularly cute bracelet to commemorate the conference. (And, no, I don't think it was the wine that made me want it - it was pretty and also a really good deal. Honest!)

Friday came and so did a thoughtful plenary session, "A Sense of Urgency: Museums and the Future", a discussion lead by Rober R. Janes, and Jacqueline Gijssen. Bob is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship, and author of Museums in a Troubled World (also a course running at the University of Victoria in December 2010). Jacquie has been involved in the BCMA for many years, and is now the Senior Cultural Planner for the City of Vancouver. They both set the stage for a discourse on the BIG things in our world that need attention - poverty, world hunger, climate change - and how museums, if they choose to, can play a greater role in discussing these issues in our communities. They stated that museums have potential to make a real difference, but that it was going to take courage to both rethink some truths we as museum professionals hold, as well as putting our institutions 'out there' as a safe place to bear witness. Yes, it was an awesome discussion, and one that I have been asked to write about for the Center of the Future of Museums blog. Stay tuned.
After the plenary, everyone kept talking about these issues - and then there were more concurrent sessions. After self-sponsored, self-sorted networking lunch meetings, and then afternoon workshops, I must admit I was beginning to feel like we had covered a lot of territory - and quickly - and was hoping I hadn't run the delegates ragged with the programming. There is a lot to fit into a couple of days, and I hope the pace was appropriate. 

The capstone of the conference is always the Awards Dinner, which was on Friday night. (I wonder if I can get a guest blogger to write about this event?). Again, the Program Committee came through with a lot of 11th-hour work on the presentations, and there was much gratitude to them and the beautiful spread put out by the Host Committee and the Vancouver Island Conference Centre. And as it was "Owloween", there were some fun things thrown in there, some silly prizes given out.... it was very much a feel-good event.  

Saturday had the Annual General Meeting for the BCMA, and then the final session that critiqued a temporary exhibition at the Nanaimo Museum. Based on what I had seen in previous Western Museums Association conferences, I thought this might be a thoughtful way to wrap up the one for BCMA by all coming together. A number of professionals reviewed and critiqued "Discovering Chinatown", which will eventually be condensed to a couple of display cases in the main gallery. I think it takes an institutional openness to put your work out there like this; I thank the Nanaimo Museum for agreeing to the critique, and hope that the feedback was useful.  

So all-in-all, I thought the conference went well from the programming side of things. I think we accomplished all we set out to do! I am still digesting many parts of what happened and how, and hope that I have thanked all the people who worked so hard to make it happen. I am a firm believer that conferences in person ARE important, but I also recognize that we have to make the most of our time without burning out the delegates, the hosts, the people who present, and the people who, like me, organize the programming. Is it sustainable to have an annual conference where all these people volunteer their time? I think it is a valid question to ask ourselves, and our association. And so I will be reviewing what work I did since January, and figure out what programming and planning methods were successful and what wasn't. I will also be brave and post this blog further afield than I have done so far because I would really appreciate any feedback you have, either as a conference delegate, committee member, volunteer, presenter, or someone who has something to say about the British Columbia Museum Association, or museum conferences in general.

See you in Cranbrook in 2011!!


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  2. And now we go to big spaces... but it does seem easier. This, I do believe, will be a living blog post. :)

  3. I regret that I didn't get to see Jacquie and Bob's presentation, but the question I couldn't help to ask myself when I saw the summary was "why museums?". Aren't there other organizations in our community already well-equipped to help with those discussions and doesn't that changed focus take us away from our (important) core competencies as collectors, preservers, educators and, researchers?

    Just some of the thoughts rattling around in my head...


  4. Yikes! I just saw this, Chris.

    I think the point that they were trying to get across is that museums can address these subjects as well as other organizations, and have the added value of being able to use the collections, educational programs and researchers. it's not at all about changing the focus, but it is about being relevant to the world around us, and taking a look at some pretty serious issues out there. As I see it, what they were putting out there is it's more a 'why not museums?' situation.