For the Love of the Small Museum: Propose Conference Sessions

strodeCinnamon Catlin-Legutko was the plenary speaker on Feb. 22 at the 2012 Small Museum Association Conference in Ocean City, Maryland.  Below is an excerpt from her speech, entitled “For the Love of the Small Museum: The Making of the Small Museum Toolkit.” She reminds us about the importance of not only attending conferences, but of bringing the small museum voice to conference panels.

“Small museum people like you can do more to promote a dialogue.  Time and again I have sat on conference program committees looking, searching for, and not finding many session proposals from small museum leaders.  These are few and far between.  More often, panelists from larger museums will propose a session that focuses on nuts-and-bolts work, and because of its basic topic, it’s touted as being for the small museum audience.  And there’s no one on the panel who works in a small museum.  ALL museum practitioners benefit from nuts-and-bolts sessions from time to time. This is not a “small museum thing;”  this is a “continuing education thing.”

Advocacy groups, like AAM’s Small Museum Administrators Committee and AASLH’s Small Museums Committee, work hard to ensure conferences provide ample opportunities for small museum attendees.  But I can tell you that too few of you are providing the proposals.

What the museum field needs are more session proposals from small museum practitioners sharing case studies, best practice strategies, and overall museum excellence with panels of colleagues from small, medium, and large museums.  This will change the mistaken – and certainly short-sighted – perception that Steve Friesen, from the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, writes about in Chapter 1 of Book 1 of the Small Museum Toolkit:

“To many people a small museum is a museum that has too little money, too few staff, too small facilities, and even too little knowledge. This negative approach to the small museum brings with it a stereotype that the small museum is a place that is somehow incomplete or needs desperately to learn from big museums.”

Your participation in conference panels will focus attention on small museums in the best light.  Yes, money is tight; it is for everyone.  But please, find a way to attend AAM or AASLH (or both) each year, and be a session chair or panelist.  Maybe hatch a plan with some of your closest museum colleagues to take turns attending these conferences.  Apply for scholarships.  Get grant funding to attend.  Many of you already attend, and I’m glad you do, but the small museum field needs you to prepare session proposals and show our colleagues how awesome we all are.

What will we get in return?  More seats at the table, as we talk about the museum community’s future.  More resources shared with us by our museum peers and awarded to us through grants.  More visitors to our museums, allowing our missions to spread more broadly and deeply across America. This is our highest purpose and the reason why we do the work we do.”


Working in museums for nearly 20 years, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko has been a museum director since 2001. Cinnamon became CEO of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine in 2009. Before that, she was the director of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where she led the organization to the National Medal for Museum Service in 2008.  She is co-editor of the recently released Small Museum Toolkit from AltaMira Press.

2 Responses to “For the Love of the Small Museum: Propose Conference Sessions”

  1. March 13, 2012 at 11:34 pm, Prudence Haines said:

    I agree but there is only one of me working on the History Affiliates program – two years of funding from the Barra Foundation – and I simply can not get to these meetings. Interactive webs seminars and blogs help but leave most of the networking opportunities out. Meeting people face to face really helps. Community building is a vital part of the HA program and that is a local activity.



    • March 14, 2012 at 10:53 am, Stacy Klingler said:

      It’s always a good idea to include funding to attend a regional or national conference when applying for a grant or make a pitch to a donor. You can justify it several ways. First, describe the conference as R&D [ripoff & duplicate 🙂 ] for your program. My colleague calls this finding “pre-tested ideas.” Second, assert that you will propose a session based on the program that will broaden the impact of the funding by sharing the program with the field (as well as sharing the funders name, when appropriate). You can’t guarantee that your session will be selected, but the possibility for recognition and sharing is there. Finally, if the funder is local, you might appeal to the notion that professional development is hard to come by in your area, and that you will share what you learned at a meeting with other local non-profits and/or cultural institutions.


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