Some co-workers and I were talking about conferences recently—namely, how enjoyable and beneficial museum conferences are.
I’ve had the opportunity to attend both academic history conferences and conferences aimed at museum professionals, mostly because my own professional background has straddled the divide between academic and public history. My training has followed the route usually taken by academics, but a lot of my work experience has been in public history.
Here are some of the differences between academic history conferences and museum conferences that I’ve found most striking:
- Museum conferences are far more collaborative. You get the sense that you’re part of a group of people who are all engaged in the same enterprise, and they’re getting together to help each other out. It’s not about listening to individual presenters report on the results of their separate investigations. It’s about sharing hard-won experiential knowledge that attendees can reapply to their own situations.
- On a related note, museum conferences are far more practical. In most sessions, practitioners discuss how they’ve tackled problems that are common to the profession, and they explain what worked and what didn’t. You leave armed with stuff you can use.
- Museum conference presentations are far more engaging. You’re unlikely to hear a single paper read verbatim. Even single-presenter sessions are geared more toward facilitating a conversation than conveying information from presenter to recipients.
- Museum conferences tend to be less cliquish. I don’t mean “cliquish” to come across as pejorative as it sounds. I just mean that I’ve noticed more cross-pollination between different groups at museum conferences than at academic ones. I should note that there are exceptions to this. I once attended a large conference for presidential history sites, and it was interesting to see how the various sub-groups coalesced. Folks from the big Founders’ homes tended to hang out together, as did people from the Gilded Age presidential sites, people from the twentieth-century presidents’ libraries, etc. But I don’t see as much self-sorting of this kind at museum conferences as I do at academic conferences of comparable size.
- For what it’s worth—and, again, this is a totally unscientific conclusion drawn solely from personal observation—museum conferences I’ve attended have been more gender-balanced. Not long ago I went to a museum conference with a session aimed specifically at site directors—that is, people in positions of executive leadership at their respective institutions. I’d say the audience was at least 85% women, and the panel itself consisted solely of women. Now, I should stress that I’m not saying the museum profession doesn’t have problems with gender inequities in promotions, pay, and hiring. It does, even though women make up a majority of U.S. museum employees. But let me ask you this: If a regional academic history conference offered a session specifically for full tenured professors, what would be the odds that women would make up 80% or more of the attendees?
Not to put too fine a point on anything, but I think the world of academia could learn a thing or two about conferences from museum people.