Eye of the Storm: Finding Your Stride as a First Time Conference Attendee

In this month’s blog post by Marissa Ulie, 2023 AMM Conference Solid Light Scholar, she shares her perspective as a first-time conferencegoer and the impact it had on her work.

This past July I attended the “Braking Point” conference hosted by the Association of Midwest Museums and Association of Indiana Museums. Even though I have been in the field for years now in a variety of roles, this was my first museum conference.

I was told beforehand that it would be a whirlwind, but it’s hard to take that to heart before you’re at the conference itself. Not having to travel for the conference, I thought it would be less all-encompassing to my days compared to if I was traveling. This was not the case. I was happy to sleep in my own bed, but the time of the conference was still dedicated wholly to the conference. One thing that helped me was having a buddy. I was fortunate to have colleagues also in attendance, and being able to plan which talks and events we would attend, and debriefing afterwards, was a wonderful way to keep the excitement of the event going and not get bogged down by how exhausting it all can be. We are in museum work because we love sharing information, and having a buddy meant I could share what I was learning and hear about sides to the conference in ways I couldn’t alone.

My attendance was linked to a scholarship opportunity made possible by Solid Light, Inc. wherein I got to present a project at the conference. As such, my preparation for the conference was a little different than if I were solely attending. I made sure to have an excess of business cards, and a space to file cards I received from fellow attendees. Additionally, I made sure to prepare talking points in relation to my project, so I had more to contribute to a conversation than just my card. I also prepared a physical example of the workbook project, as well an email sign-up sheet for anyone wanting more information. These were made for the presentation section, but I ended up finding them useful to have on hand throughout the whole of the conference. If I were simply attending the conference, rather than presenting, I don’t think I would have thought to bring so many of my individual work materials, but it was a valuable tool to have regardless. Consequently, for new or returning conference attendees, I would recommend having an example of your work ready to share. The excitement for museum work extends past the talks and workshops, and being able to easily share your work with others leads to interesting conversations and deeper connections.

The conference itself had some really wonderful amenities that I really liked getting to have and made the experience insightful to a new level. As I said, it’s exhausting meeting so many new people, taking in so much information, and finding the right room for the talk you want to go to. Between talks, I made good use of the quiet space. Seeing the puzzles on the table slowly get filled out and spending a few key moments with just the sound of my thoughts helped keep me from crashing and missing out.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, were the site visits. I appreciated the quiet space in part because the day did not end with the final talks. Each day there was a visit to a local museum (or two) where we were able to engage with fellow professionals in their environment. I live in Indianapolis, and even so I was able to see museums and exhibits I hadn’t had the chance to see before. The site visits kept the conversations of the conference out of the abstract by contextualizing them in the physical spaces where we do our work.

That contextualization was also accomplished at the conference itself through the Flash Talks – a series of short presentations by several speakers covering a wide range of museum issues. The Flash Talks session started the day’s programming and had no conflicts, which meant the talks were a shared experience for all conferencegoers. This was valuable for securing a tone for the conference and giving a mutually understood point of reference to link the subject matter of presentations to. Format aside, the flash talks and site visits were all deeply insightful and introduced me to a wonderful set of fellow professionals who have become useful professional contacts.

As I mentioned, I was sharing a project I started at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. It is entitled The Self Care Workbook for Gallery Interpreters. Designed for frontline museum staff by frontline museum staff, this workbook is about cultivating resilience, fostering self-awareness, and shifting the internal dynamics of museums to prioritize the well-being of their staff. Each module within the workbook delves into different aspects of self-care, providing a comprehensive toolkit for personal growth and self-support. Although I started the project as a tool for my team as a frontline worker, other teams within the museum were also interested in it to support frontline staff. Because of that, and for the joy of collaborating, I continued to work on the project as I transitioned into a backstage role at the Children’s Museum.

Marissa Ulie poses for a photo with “The Self Care Workbook for Gallery Interpreters.”

The response to my project has been tremendous, and sharing it at the conference has been a big part of that. People want to support frontline staff, there is clearly an understanding that it takes more than a pizza party to do so, and I am honored that I can be a part of that. Based on conversations at the conference about our field’s desire to support each other, but not always knowing how, I made the Facilitator’s Guide. This response document has been borne directly out of the conversations made possible by the conference and by the scholarship from Solid Light, Inc. It has reinvigorated my passion for the project, and I look forward to being able to share a completed product in the future, so we can make a museum culture that lives up to our hopes and ideals. Taking a project like this from the stage of an individual team to something that might be implemented in other institutions would not be possible without the collaboration that a conference can provide.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to attend this conference, as it built up my professional network, provided valuable feedback on my project, and bolstered my self-confidence as an emerging museum professional. This field is currently evolving at a rapid rate and conferences like this one allow museum workers to stay up to date and continue pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. I’m convinced that collaboration and connection is essential to museum sustainability, and I look forward to more chances to grow and learn from events like this in the future.