Intercom 2015: What We Heard; What We Talked About

Elaine Gurian

Anne and I returned Friday from a quick trip to Intercom 2015 in Washington, D.C. The three-day conference of global museum leaders, which began Wednesday evening, was Intercom’s first meeting in the United States. Unlike many conferences this one was small enough (140+ attendees from about 20 countries) to meet in museums around the city. Centered around three themes: The Essential MuseumThe Enduring Organization, and The Sustainable Leader, the conference drew a number of thoughtful folk and unleashed some deep conversations. Our panel, which included our colleague Marsha Semmel, was titled The Sustainable 21st-Century Leader. Marsha talked about VUCA leadership (here’s a good link for what VUCA is all about) and we gave a broad overview of some of the findings from our book. At some point in the future, we believe Intercom will post the conference PowerPoints if you are interested.

Below is a collection of random thoughts, comments, quotes and websites from our 36-hour trip.

  • Elaine Gurian opened the meeting (that’s her picture up at the top).  She cautioned her audience that while a portion of the museum-going public wants the same iconic museum it has always known, many institutions are expanding programs and collections access to include traditionally disenfranchised audiences–moving, as she put it, from formal temples to less formal gathering places.
  • Gurian reminded us that museums’ primary function is idealogical, and that by their very nature they often reinforce belonging or exclusion. For her, the essential museum of the future looks more like a drop-in service space and less like an occasional day-out museum. She said, “”All public institutions have a role in creating peaceful environments for strangers and thus bringing diverse audiences together.” And also asked, “Have you wondered about the diversity of the library and why libraries are more democratic than museums?”
  •  Gurian believes we need to change our basic mindset, understand each visitor’s questions, and create spaces that are in service to the visitor rather than the gallery. Her mantra: Institutions that are welcoming, porous, accepting.
  • From Laura Schiavo’s panel on Next, Not Best: Workshop on Sustainable Practices we heard from Tony Butler, executive director of the Derby Museums. What an alluring concept to engage community with museum-making and, in doing so, making meaning of the world.  We recommend you visit their website, which is equally alluring and fun.
  • Also part of that panel was Gretchen Jennings, creator of the blog The Empathetic Museum, who said that museums must undergo an inner transformation; and that museums must have a civic vision.
  • And from the Dirty Money session, Bob Janes’ quote via video, “that museums are sleepwalking into the future.”
  • Last, for everyone who thinks New York City is the apex of all things museum, think again. There is a lot going on in the nation’s capital.