Small Museum Association Conference Was Really Big

For the first time, College Park, Maryland hosted the annual Small Museum Association conference, which was previously held for decades in Ocean City, Maryland (a seaside resort town where the rooms are cheap in winter).  The relocation was controversial but it attracted a record attendance of 315 persons, plus the facilities at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center were much better suited for a national conference.  Not only were there a nice assortment of rooms and places to meet (not just for sessions but informal chats) but it features an outstanding art collection from the University of Maryland in its hallways, not the usual hotel pablum. Paintings and sculptures mostly by Maryland artists lined the hallways and in their own galleries, curated by Jon West-Bey (formerly at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum).  Were we in a hotel? a conference center? a museum?

While some people might assume that a conference for small museums means that it’s for beginners, you’ll find that like most professional conferences it has a variety of sessions for different levels of experience, except that it’s aimed at institutions that have a small staff and budget. Flexibility and speed are among the characteristic advantages of small museums, who sometimes forget they can innovate much faster than their bigger brethern. Some quick highlights from the education sessions I attended are:

  • Amanda Figueroa and Ravon Ruffin of the Brown Girls Museum Blog discussed ways to engage the local community, noting that small museums can “become vertical rather than horizontal” in their programming to “re-energize local communities.” That’s definitely an idea that historic sites can explore.
  • Laura Heemer and Julie Gannaway at the Wharton Esherick Museum discussed their experiences in managing an organization when the executive director departs. It was a surprisingly honest explanation of the good and bad experiences, and among the lessons learned is the need for a human resources handbook (written policies and procedures to confirm the benefits and expectations for outgoing and incoming staff), hiring an interim director (that’s a specialized consultant, not simply hiring someone on an interim basis), and using the transition as an opportunity to step back to consider possibilities and establish priorities.
  • Gretchen Jennings and Stacey Mann discussed empathy in museum practice, suggesting that organizations could have empathy for their community just as individuals do for one another. Gretchen began this effort when she noticed that museums were notably silent when there were national crises such as the Trayvon Martin shooting and Ferguson.  They’ve been working on a model or rubric to evaluate a museum’s level of empathy (aka Maturity Model), and presented a draft for discussion (although we ran out of time).  To learn more, visit the Empathetic Museum.
  • Joanna Reiner Wilkinson at DataArts (which started as the Cultural Data Project in Philadelphia) discussed some techniques for using financial data to make decisions, including the LUNA ratio and uncovering patterns in a revenue mix.  Self-paced financial training is available free online at
  • Lauren Silberman at Historic London Town and Gardens discussed their experiences with a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system this past year, noting it has increased memberships and online appeals 28 percent compared to the previous year.  Lauren stressed that CRM programs vary widely and organizations should prioritize their needs to be sure they get what is necessary, not what would be nice to have.  She provided a chart comparing the CRM systems they considered.

If you’re part of a small museum, whether board or staff, you’ll find this to be an ideal conference for you.  It will return again to College Park in February 2018, so join their mailing list to stay informed.

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