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AASLH’s Annual Conference: All in the Family

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, TV talk shows were different. They were therapeutic, serving more as a national psychiatrist’s couch (unlike today’s cathartic shout-and-slug fests). Whatever the topic each show covered, the audiences and guests often shared practical ways to resolve the issues. Best of all, fewer people felt alone with their problems.

Those of us toiling away in remote outposts often harbor doubts about our work in small museums: “How do others deal with the problems I confront every day?” “I wish others took my work more seriously.” “What is our small museum doing right?”

Feelings of loneliness and alienation among small museum workers are perfectly natural. Still, you ask, “Is anyone in my corner?”

Regardless of our facility’s location, its size, or the level of our education, we all want to use best practices when promoting our museums’ missions. There’s always another challenge on the horizon: “How can our exhibit interpretations be both accurate and sensitive?” “How can our small museum weather economic storms?” “How can we connect with the surrounding community?” “How do we handle obstinate board members?”

Relax. You aren’t the only person in this field who wonders and worries about this stuff. It’s ok to ask any question about the personal, practical, and theoretical. Just don’t let these questions drag you down; think of them as calls to action.

Economic upheavals are stressful for anyone. The trick is to turn them to your advantage, and re-assess the directions your life and your small museum are taking.

Sure, you’ll find some answers online or by reading books. Nothing, though, beats sharing time with someone who flashes a reassuring grin and says, “Been there. Done that. Here’s how I tackled it.” And there’s no better place to learn and share innovative strategies – to recharge your personal, professional and psychological batteries – than at AASLH’s Annual Meetings.

These meetings have something for everyone. Every year, conference organizers choose numerous session topics dealing with small museums. (In fact, the only problem is in choosing from the smorgasbord of session topics. But hey, you work in a small museum. Juggling people, tasks and time is in your DNA.)

Eight years ago, AASLH addressed the needs of small museums by forming the Small Museums Committee. Many committee members work – or have worked – at museums with modest means. They know professional development funds at these places aren’t always a priority.

The committee quickly realized that a strong presence by small museum representatives at the Annual Meeting would provide a grassroots perspective straight from the trenches. They knew the best way to maintain that presence was to sponsor an annual scholarship for promising advocates drawn from our ranks.

From the committee’s first year (when it offered two scholarships), to last year (when it provided five), the financial support by the extended museum community has been overwhelming, resounding, and gratifying.

But there are other ways to offset registration and travel expenses. For example, why not form a local or regional consortium of museums and pool your resources? Rotate your representation by sending 1-2 members from your group to these conferences. This doesn’t have to be a yearly event. Going every few years is better than never attending.

We museum folks know how to take care of our own. All it takes for us to survive and thrive is to lend a helping hand at every level and from every direction.

Sustainability is more than a goal for a small museum’s mission and operation; it’s a guide to govern the future of relationships among our colleagues. Think of it this way: we’re not only members of a profession; we’ve become a family.

2 Responses to “AASLH’s Annual Conference: All in the Family”

  1. March 09, 2012 at 4:20 pm, Mary Warner said:

    Great post, Garland.

    In order to combat those feelings of loneliness in small museums in central Minnesota, we’ve have started the Region 5 History Coalition, choosing our geographic area based on the region’s economic development commission, which covers five counties. Minnesota is a big state, so it’s difficult for all of us to effectively participate in a state-wide museum organization. (Five hours of travel from the middle of the state to the north or south border for a meeting really hampers participation for a small museum. Asking folks to travel from the north to south border is almost lunacy. 😉 )

    What we’ve discovered through our quarterly meetings is that we have a lot of expertise among our small museums; we just need to recognize it and tap into it. Merely getting together to talk to one another is cathartic. Plus, because we’re developing relationships, it’s a lot easier to pick up the phone and call each other for help in between meetings.

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  2. March 09, 2012 at 5:04 pm, Garland Courts said:

    Thanks Mary, it was actually Bruce Teeple who wrote the blog post for me. I agree whole-heartedly with your comment, being on my state’s museum association board for 4 years I got to know a lot of small museum staffers who share valuable information and can be great resources that are just a phone call away. The trick is to get out there and meet other museum professionals, some of the most friendly people around!

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