Last week, I participated in the "Let's Talk" convening organized by the University of Washington Museology Program with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services on Bainbridge Island, Washington. The goal of the time, led by Kris Morrissey and Robert Garfinkel, was to explore the what, why, and how of dialogue-based programming in museums. The twenty or so participants included colleagues from science, history, and art museums, along with graduate programs faculty, evaluators and an outlier or two like me. Everyone was incredibly ready to dive in--to try and figure out what we're doing, what we hope to be doing, and what we hope to accomplish.
It was thrilling, in a way, to be a part of contemplating this big shift in our work and inspiring to hear from people at museums who have already made this a center of their work talk about the transformation. But it was also sobering to realize how much work we have yet to do. We wrestled with even defining what dialogue-based programming is. Is it always a program? How can we think about dialogue in exhibits? Guided tours? How do we define impact? The two evaluators in the room helped all of us in keeping ways to evaluate impact and value on the table.
In small teams, we took on a number of different issues--and in our Community of Practice group we explored how to build the capacity of the field for dialogue. One of our first steps: we tweeted out our team's first thoughts and shared this Google Doc. Please take a look and let us know what you think.
What were my main take-aways?
- Risk and experimentation will continue to be a part of this practice--and should be. Every situation, every community, every museum, every group of dialogue participants, is different. But at the same time, an understanding of what works and what hasn't, shared in an open way, can help inform each new effort.
- The practice of dialogue in museums can be transformative on multiple levels. Several participants spoke movingly about the ways in which dialogue-based work can transform internal cultures and, radiating outward, can also begin to place the museum more clearly at the center of community relevance (if you haven't read it yet, be sure you check out Nina Simon's recent posts on that topic).
- Listen, listen, listen and keep talking together. Not surprisingly, it wasn't just in the sessions that learning and dialogue went on. Over meals, over dessert in Island Wood's garden, and over the most complicated card game I've ever played, you could see this particular community building take place. Our small team's first steps in building this community of practice were already accomplished by the time we boarded the ferry to head back. My work doesn't take me into the science museum world so the chance to learn more about that expanded my own thinking; a long late night conversation with my roommate did the same as we shared experiences and knowledge. It always feels a bit of a luxury to have the time to talk deeply--and we all need to make more time for such efforts.
- Reflect, reflect, reflect. Just after returning the long trip from Bainbridge Island to my Catskill hamlet, I headed off to my book club meeting. In the conversation, which ranged from discussing this month's book, H is for Hawk, to our county fair's refusal to ban selling of the Confederate flag, I reflected about why museums need to change. When a fact-based question came up in conversation--what does a goshawk look like? What was the name of that other book? we looked it up online. That simple. We don't come together for information, we come together for conversation, the same kind of conversation that museum-based dialogues can provide. As museums, I think we're risking even greater irrelevancy if we persist on sticking to a solely fact-based role. As museums, I think we have unique opportunities to expand those conversations beyond that go beyond those groups of people we might already converse with; to bring us in conversation with different perspectives than our own.