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The Future of Carbon-based Conferences

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

As the AAM staff races to get ready for our annual meeting in Philadelphia at the end of the month, I am thinking a lot about the carbon footprint of such conferences and, more broadly, the environmental impact of the museum field. I think this is worth each of us thinking about—as individuals, organizations and collectively as a field.

As is common in most fields of professional endeavor, each year thousands of museum practitioners travel to dozens (hundreds?) of local, state, national and regional conferences. In the past these gatherings have served as the bedrock of professional development and networking. Is this sustainable in the future? I suspect not.

AAM has been taking steps to “green” its meeting (for example, providing reusable water bottles, supplying handouts as downloads and choosing tote bags made from recycled materials.) The California Association of Museums looked at this issue very thoroughly at their 2008 meeting. Maybe there are further steps to be taken at the AAM meeting as well—less “loot” given away in the vendor hall (much of which I suspect ends up in the landfill); totebags intended to be reused at the meeting year after year with “add a badge to your bag” provided for attendees who want to commemorate their attendance over the years; maybe even handheld devices that exchange contact information in lieu of physical business cards.

While these are, or would be, worthy steps I worry that they merely tiptoe around the edge of a much larger ethical dilemma. What is the impact of having such physical meetings at all?

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I recently played with a cool carbon calculator at the Choose Climate website. Assuming the average participant’s trip for an average AAM meeting is from the center of the country to one or the other coast, the emissions per trip total .12 tons Carbon (as CO2) per attendee. Choose Climate proposes that to stabilize CO2 levels, we need to cut emissions by 60%, to .4 tons C per person. It this case, a trip to a national meeting (like AAM) eats up nearly a third of each attendee’s total sustainable carbon emissions budget for the year. Ouch! CAM addressed this issue by purchasing climate credits to offset the conference energy use, but they acknowledge the need to examine the long term effects of this method of managing carbon emissions.

Right now many people are reconsidering travel anyway because it is not affordable. This will continue to be a challenge—even though the economy will (eventually) rebound, energy prices will (eventually) soar as we pass peak production of oil. But even if we solve our money and oil supply woes and travel miraculously becomes inexpensive, we still have to face the deferred costs. Energy use is never cheap—it is simply that the price is charged to the future. The bill for affordable travel over the last fifty years is now coming due in the form of carbon buildup in the atmosphere, increased climate instability and rising sea levels. Mitigating or adapting to these risks will not be cheap, for museums or for society as a whole.

I think it is time we start considering the alternatives. One thing that immediately springs to mind is conferences in virtual worlds such as Second Life. My reaction is: eh, maybe, eventually. I have attended several and not been blown away by the results. Perhaps it will work better in a future when everyone shares an intuitive grasp of how to navigate virtual realms (the result of growing up using such environments and improved design.) And I certainly believe that the technology supporting such experiences will improve in ways we cannot yet imagine, as well as those we can – faster connection speeds, higher speeds in the average PC processor, better and more realistic graphics. What are the elements of the meeting that can be performed well virtually (e.g., content delivery) and which parts are harder, if not impossible, to recreate (e.g., schmoozing and socializing?)

My friend Nancy Lutz, from Tucson, Ariz. proposes a mix. “My thought is to move to a virtual meeting where people sign onto seminars (pay as you go) and participate via skype or something similar. Museums in a region could host these web-based sessions so that there’s a component of people sharing ideas in the same room afterwards, sparked by the panel/experts, but a manageable number and not just large Q&A sessions. Then every other year there could be a big trade fair in Vegas where those who are interested could view/test the latest products.” (Note Nancy has cottoned on to the availability of cheap hotel rooms in Vegas. How appropriate. Aren’t museum people inherently, at heart, gamblers? I mean really, can one rationally expect to make our budget numbers work?) How best to mix virtual and physical components of a meeting is one interesting question. Another is: What things are possible in a virtual conference that would be impossible in the real world? Perhaps we could hold workshops where attendees actually design and build virtual exhibits or whole museums. Perhaps speakers can lead attendees in tours of museums and cultural sites across the virtual equivalent of the real world to illustrate their points. Maybe hundreds or even thousands of attendees can give real time input to ideas, proposals or forecasts presented in a single session.

What are your ideas? What does the conference of the future look like, and would you go? Leave comments on this blog, or visit the AAM Annual Meeting Blog.

And a note to CFM Blog readers! CFM is running the real time interactive game FutureQuest at the annual meeting to help attendees explore a futurist theme and encourage them to push content out to colleagues who cannot attend. (And just to demonstrate that not all games require technology, players can earn points by sharing their insights through mechanisms as low tech as sending postcards and writing on the Wall of Ideas. Though use of blogs, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter are great, too!) If you are attending, I hope you will play. If you are not, recruit a colleague who is going to join FutureQuest and share what they learn at the meeting with you via the game.

For those of you who are coming to Philadelphia, I hope to see you at the CFM New Connections and Ideafest Reception we are holding from 5:30 – 7 pm on Friday, May 1 at the Loews Hotel. We museum folk will be joined by a contingent of interesting Philadelphians from other sectors eager to share their ideas for what museums can be in the future, and talk about what we can learn from their fields of endeavor. The reception is free, and open to all attendees.

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  1. And here is this thought from Seth Godin regarding the best use of physical time spent together:
    “What would happen if trade shows devoted half a day to ‘projects’? Put multi-disciplinary teams of ten people together and give them three hours to create something of value. The esprit de corps created by a bunch of strangers under time pressure in a public competition would last for decades. The community is worth more than the project.”

    See the whole post at

  2. A couple ideas/thoughts

    *Spontaneity – any solution to the meeting would benefit from considering opportunities for synchronicity and spontaneous discussions. For many attendees, the meeting is as much, or more, about the meetings in the hallways – with a 'structured' alternative (virtual seminars), this element is missing. [Not that the replacement needs to be a single option, could be several and sold as an annual fee vs. event fee]. Nancy's suggestion carries some of that opportunity by bringing together local people. One of the advantages of a national meeting is stretching those connections outside the 'comfort zone'.

    So here are a couple thoughts to toss out there.
    – building off the local groups connecting to a national presentation: could the 'conference' be more focused on an issue (saying 'greening the museum' for example),
    1. a charge set [how can institutions with existing building redude their carbon footprint by 20%].
    2. Local regional assocations or states host 2-3 meetings in advance to generate ideas/create proposals
    3. Proposals posted to a shared learning space
    4. A national virtual symposium meets to discuss the options and create a shared body of knowledge.

    – Use video conferencing to allow for traditional presentations with Q&A (I mean, for the typical presentation, do we *really* need to be in the room?). Much of this software allows for the whole session to be captured and viewed later. As already exists in other venues, registration fees cover access to the materials for a year following. (whether people actually go??? dunno) A nice additional would be the creation of a wiki that over the year would continue to grow over time.

    – Finally (sorry this is so long), a discussion in the technology and learning world is how to support and incorporate what is called 'back channel discussions' into the structured learning experience (or is that an oxymoron.) An example of back channel is attendees in the session Twittering about the content – discussing, disagreeing, fact-checking. I haven't seen good solutions yet, but they are coming…

    Karen Bellnier
    Instructional Designer

  3. Another option: the National Museum Socialnetwork Simul-conference. Use twitter to arrange group meet ups at bars and restaurants around the country, and people post the best insights to the web as they talk and drink!

  4. Hi Beth

    I have some ideas but am still working on putting them together for you. You are right about the same 5000 people getting together each year but in a different city. It was always my experience that one had to find the few cutting edge sessions at the conference and attend those but most of the real conversations happened in the evenings around drinks at the hotel bar or some cool place someone discovered and told us about. Sometimes it was a pool hall or a country western bar or the Elvis look alike bar called the Liberty Bell in Philly. Have no idea if of is still there.

  5. I am fascinated by this, esp. as I have stepped up my volunteer participation in the Western Museums Association.

    One, despite this post the WMA still hopes and expects to see you in San Diego in ’09, bringin’ it on like you are doing here.

    Two, it is so necessary that professional associations break the complete reliance on the carbon-based conference. this is why I have pushed for the WMA to get a blog and start getting LinkedIn, etc. Please see

    And I insist we broadcast post-conference as a reference tool, as most conferences have been doing on-line for a long time and perhaps Museums and the Web is very best at that. ( ) And maybe because as Archivists and Technologists it was one of their founding purposes.

    Museum general-practitioner type conferences like AAM and “the regionals” definitely have to get their act together to stay relevant and sustainable. AAM is doing a good job — CFM, for example and their active use of on-line sessions through out the year.

    And it is important to recognize that some museum professional organizations only exist on-line. Please see the Center for the Future of Museums (e.g., here) and museums 3.0 ( )

    Three, and or lastly — awwwww. conferences are fun. people. places. smiling. touching. crying. laughing. visceral, life-affirming, human exchanges that transcend space and time and help us find the real and emotional space that can define the professional life we are all forced to find meaning through in capitalist society.

  6. The benefit of offering conference materials and experiences online is that there are many museum professionals who can’t afford to attend far-flung conferences. There are many voices that haven’t ever been heard (although the benefit, of course, is that they also haven’t had a large carbon footprint from travel). I like the idea of an online component with a local gathering.

  7. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves what the purpose is in attending meetings? If it is for the information presented in the sessions, then that is something that could be presented in various formats on the web. If it is to visit the trade show, much could be done on the web, but at the cost of one-on-one, face-to-face, feel-the-product interactions. I suspect the main value of meetings is neither of these, however–it is the interactions with colleagues, which is much harder to replace. Perhaps a series of scaled-down, regional meetings (in more regions that AAM presently uses) is one option.

    Two comments about carbon offsets. (1) It is a way for those who have money to go ahead and pollute, guilt-free. (2) The real need is for means of transportation that have a lower carbon footprint, but that is an infrastructure problem beyond the means of AAM to solve (e.g., why can’t we all take the train to Philly? Because few trains run to Philly).

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