In the words of Alfred North Whitehead: “You can’t learn anything until you fall in love with the subject.” Well, I don’t think he said it exactly like that, but that’s the general concept I became captivated by when I attended the Western Museum Association’s 2013 Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, UT in October, kindly funded by a Quick Grant from the Rising Arts Leaders of San Diego.
I’d never been to any type of conference before, and while at work, I’m forever hunchback in front of my computer administering away, so it was quite the experience to be able to step away from my daily duties and convene with like-minded people who are all interested in one agenda: sharing stories.
Sessions at the conference explored storytelling, content-driven design, community connections, technology, collaborative staff development, family programs, engagement strategies, project management and curatorial writing—and those were just the sessions I attended. Being able to experience these diverse areas of museums, all of which collectively inform my position in the education and curatorial departments at Mingei International Museum, equipped me with direct experience, tangible examples and applicable theory that I could take with me to expand my perspective, knowledge and role at my museum.
Back to Whitehead. The most memorable session was likely my first, which was entitled “Stories in Space – Design Strategies for Museum Interpretive Materials.” It was here that I was introduced to Whitehead’s The Aims of Education. In the book, Whitehead relates three stages or phases of education, which the speaker, Alice Parman, cunningly linked with dating:
1. Romance – the idea that learners start with interest, inspiration and awe about a particular subject (or person)
2. Precision – once they’re romantically tied, every detail about that subject (or person) becomes interesting. If subject: its history, its milestones, its nitty gritty. If person: where they grew up, what they ate for lunch, how many moles on face.
3. Generalization – finally, learners discover meaning in what they’ve learned and synthesize their knowledge. They continue to carry this knowledge with them and apply it in new contexts when they stop reading about a subject, when they leave an exhibition or when they continue a relationship.
Whitehead’s idea that you can’t learn anything until you fall in love with the subject is applicable not only to exhibition design, but also didactic text, docent tours, gallery handouts, programming and really, life in general. This particular session and the conference as a whole made me fully consider our visitors. Although art museums exist to preserve art, ideas and history, we don’t, and we can’t, exist without our visitors, and we should approach every exhibition with the goal of having every visitor continue our mission when they walk out our doors.
A final note about networking: Networking isn’t my forte, but I must admit that it was my most unexpected pleasure of the trip. Meeting colleagues from the nation over, ranging from tiny, tiny museums to large institutions, I was reminded by the significant and incredible museum community that exists. Although we have our own unique missions and collections, we all have something to share and tell. Whether it’s the largest hammer collection in the world (it’s in Alaska, by the way) or the history of the resort town of Park City, we’re all in it together.
Many thanks to the Rising Arts Leaders and The San Diego Foundation for making such experiences possible.