Saturday, May 21, 2011

Adult Swim

The last session of the 2011 ACM conference was about as raw and honest as any discussion I've ever heard among children's museums over the years.

Kathy Gustafson-Hilton of Hands-On Inc. brought us together for a new-to-ACM format call The Fishbowl. She set the ground rules: People in the front row of a circle of chairs would offer a tale of risk from their museum - they would give up their seat when they were ready, and someone from the back rows could go for it.

It was a little scary in the Fishbowl. Interestingly, the group seemed to be mostly executive directors and others in leadership in the field. People told stories of faith, trust, betrayal, deceit, glory....if you had to sum it up in a single word, I'd have to say "Passion". The details of each story weren't important, but the sentiment was: we love what we do. But for a moment - and this is hardly typical of the conference - the vibe was less of the self-congratulatory and more of the confessional.

The topics ranged as widely as the museums themselves. Some museums are making hard exhibit choices - especially the question of whether traveling exhibits (a sacred cow in the industry) were really worth the money and loss of creative control for the hosting museum (um...can you tell where I stand on that issue?) Others were diving into challenging social issues where they felt driven to make a difference, but full of worry about the impact on their operations.

A few were excited about new opportunities and expansion plans, and others talked about the role that their boards play. For non-profits, it's the board that sets the policy and strategic direction, and the executive director who follows that plan. I hope I don't shock anyone when I say that this is a complicated dance in the best of organizations, and has wrecked havoc in more than a few.

This was a great format for an ACM session - I loved the chance to hear directors talk so openly about the issues they face. Since we're in true confession mode, I'll say this: I often leave the conference wishing I'd spoken less and listened more. This format let me hear from many people I've met or known for years, but I'd just never heard them speak so clearly, and from the heart.

Maybe it's because I came to be a children's museum director as a Mom fresh from the supportive atmosphere of the Playgroup circuit, but I really value hearing about how people feel about the work they do. In some ways it's less "professional" - but it also re-energizes us for the work ahead.

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