When Large-Scale Professional Development Can’t Keep Up

AAM7964-2704Image: Courtesy of the American Alliance of Museums

By Guest Blogger Jackie Peterson
(See Jackie’s bio below)

Prior to launching the independent consultant phase of my career, I coveted the experience my museum-employed colleagues had going to AAM’s annual meeting. I used to think how wonderful it must be to learn what’s happening across our field, to meet new colleagues, to explore museums in a new or favorite city. But since striking out on my own, it has become clear this experience is no longer for me. Here’s why:

COST: Having to cover all of my costs to attend a conference now directly impacts my revenue. I’m only a few years into building my independent practice, so I’m not raking in 6-figure projects (yet). So I’ve had to be incredibly strategic about how I devote my resources to professional development. Like many others, I can no longer justify the cost. For all AAM talks about equity and inclusion, the cost of attendance continues to rise without addressing how it affects attendance. I am no longer a member of AAM, so even registering early would have cost me $695. Add the flight and lodging, and that’s a minimum total of $1850 – this doesn’t include meals or other networking and evening events. The response is always “We’re doing what we can to offset costs by offering scholarships.” The reality is that AAM estimates that 5,000* people attended the conference this year, and yet less than 1 percent** of attendees received a scholarship. That’s not equitable. I’m not saying every attendee needs a scholarship, but there are barriers inherent in the general pricing and pricing structure of this conference that prevent so many from being able to attend.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: The Museum Expo is supposedly the largest generator of conference revenue, yet AAM continues to miss opportunities to be more equitable within this space. Rarely – if ever – have I seen AAM highlight vendors that are women-owned, LGBTQ+ – owned or POC-owned or any intersection therein. Like the overall conference, it seems like whoever can foot the bill gets to come. Yes, bringing in revenue is necessary, but surely there are ways to allow smaller businesses, especially local or regional vendors, to participate. To add to that, rarely does AAM advocate for local businesses (beyond museums) in the host city by providing attendees with that information and encouraging people to patronize them. This is information that is easily available from local chambers of commerce and other business organizations, and even easier for AAM to distribute. Every year, I continue to be disappointed by who appears in the Expo space, and who does not.

MEDIOCRE, STATUS QUO SESSION CONTENT: Very often I attend a session based on the program’s description (as many do) and find the content presented is much different than the description or the presenters just rattle off their latest professional achievements to a captive audience. On top of that, the same names and faces keep showing up. I spent some time combing through the presenters on the first full day of the conference (Monday, May 20). After some unscientific analysis, I found that of the 65 or so sessions that day (exclusive of those that took place in the Museum Expo), roughly nine had panelists that were 50-percent or more people of color. And a majority of the panelists (almost 75-percent) were managers, senior managers, department heads, directors or chief officers. Again, for all the talk of equity and inclusion, the conversations that happened that first day were led or facilitated by an overwhelmingly white group of people in senior positions. With some exceptions, this means the perspective on content being presented is very limited. And I am no longer interested in these kinds of conversations. It reinforces the idea that “leadership” is a position rather than a skillset that can be embodied and enacted at every level of an organization. More importantly, it limits opportunities for more junior staff and staff from underrepresented departments (security, facilities, maintenance, front-line visitor services staff) to engage more formally in field-wide conversations.

While I recognize that some of these issues are deeply systemic, many of them don’t require upending AAM as an organization to fix. Organizations like the National Council on Public History (NCPH), the Association of African American Museums (AAAM), and regional museum associations have already been making strides and taking measures to actively include people and keep conference content relevant, rather than simply posture. As a large organization, AAM is in a unique position to be the change, so to speak. But the more I witness personally and hear anecdotally from other colleagues, the more AAM seems to lack credibility and relevance to museum work.

** https://twitter.com/AAMers/status/1132670274648891393
Jackie Peterson
Jackie Peterson is an independent exhibit developer, curator and writer based in Seattle, WA. She loves nothing more than working with museums to unearth and share their most meaningful – and more importantly, untold – stories.

Prior to establishing her independent practice, Jackie spent six years learning the museum trade at Ralph Appelbaum Associates in NYC. There, she served as a content coordinator and developer for a wide variety of projects from the NASCAR Hall of Fame to the S.E.A Aquarium at Resorts World Sentosa to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. She has always loved the intersection of public service, cultural institutions and education, and has landed in the exhibit design world in order to pursue this work.

Jackie currently serves on the steering committee for the Museums & Race initiative and on the Northwest Regional Council for the National Parks Conservation Association.


6 Comments on “When Large-Scale Professional Development Can’t Keep Up”

  1. Raking in 6-figure projects (yet). I was happy to get 4 figure projects – ie $1500 for work I was sure would cost the client way way more of they tried to do it themselves or shopped it around – and I had 30 years of museum and HP experience before I became a consultant. Its not easy

  2. What is the point of this comment? The author made a really valid point about the conference being inaccessible to people in positions similar to hers. I fail to understand how saying the field is not an easy field to break into adds to this discussion. To me, it reads as telling her she needs to “pay her dues” when she’s brought forward a valid observation about the state of the field.

  3. Thanks for this post! I declined to attend AAM this year, mostly due to the factors addressed here. I went to AAM in Phoenix last year and was underwhelmed. It was a lot of the same “best practices” content. What I’d like to see is more conference presentations from people who are really doing things differently within ethical bounds. Increasingly, I’ve found AAM to be a bastion of traditionalism in our field. As mentioned, NCPH, AASLH, and other organizations that seem to be smaller and more nimble, are much more inspirational and innovative. If we’re going to change anything, we need to start lifting up those who are doing the ground-breaking, risk-taking, work. I sense that panels are selected based on the prestige or connections of the panelists, rather than the inventiveness of the content. What bugs me about this is that new professionals take away this frequently humdrum content and replicate it. It would be nice to have a whole conference one year of “first time AAM presenters,” or at least 50% first-time presenters. Our field is small, I’m tired of the same stuff from the same people.

  4. Thank you, Ms. Peterson, for this thoughtful analysis. You raise concerns that I’ve had myself, and as a museum director interested in building leadership skills among our staff as a whole, rather than just at the top, I made the decision this year to not attend, and rather invest the money I would have spent to bring IN to our museum skill-building and leadership training that more of our staff can attend, digest, and implement together.

  5. Janice Klein says:

    The selection of sessions by AAM’s National Program Committee has gotten increasingly insular and obtuse. Where it used to be possible for experts in the field to comment and make suggestions as proposals were being developed, the Professional Networks (which represent the rank and file of the membership) have been shut out of the process. Smaller museums, which make up over 75% of all US museums are rarely included (and no, the Smithsonian and the National Park Service are not small museums and cannot speak for them). It seems that the Annual Meeting has more for external consumption (i.e., how museums look to the outside world) than much of use for the AAM membership.

    The AAM leadership seems unconcerned as long as the appropriate number of bodies show up to cover costs; it doesn’t really appear to matter if they have a valuable experience or even come back.

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