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Beyond the Talking Heads: an experiment in format at the AAM annual meeting

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

You may have noticed, when submitting session proposals for conferences, that everyone seems to be encouraging something more creative and interactive than the usual “talking head” panel format. My favorite responses to this challenge are skits, a puppet show and (of course) audience exercises.

Sometimes, however, the delivery of content and commentary lends itself really well to the traditional panel format. Before the AAM annual meeting I pondered how we might layer some element on top of this approach to provide more opportunity for interaction between audience members. Hence the introduction, in the CFM session “A Glimpse of the Future,” of what I dubbed “physical Twitter.” (You can follow CFM on the “real” Twitter.)

In this session James Chung and Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors presented a short overview of the CFM forecasting report, “Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures,” and directors Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko (General Lew Wallace Study & Museum) and Howard Taylor (San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts) offered commentary. Audience members were provided with notecards, encouraged to jot down their thoughts, questions and ideas—and then pass them around the room during the session.

I deem this experiment a success because it provoked strong reactions on either end of the spectrum. Some people loved it. Others hated it so much that they impounded the cards that passed in front of them, refusing to share the tweets with anyone else; or they twittered about how much they disliked the exercise. Sample comments:

  • It’s like, legal to pass notes in class now? Amazing!
  • Can you Twitter and listen? Not sure that I can!
  • Heck yeah. I prefer it!
  • If we are twittering instead of listening to the real person in front of us, we could do that with a CD and reduce our carbon footprint.
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The results were more like discussion threads than individual tweets—the entries were often more than 140 characters (sometimes considerably longer) and people added many layers of responses to initial comments. A sample thread flying about the room:

When “minorities” are the majority, will there be less demand for ethnically-specific museums (as we enter a post-racial society) or more?

  • Interesting! I don’t know!
  • We will eventually all share all backgrounds
  • Or be irrelevant
  • The ultimate melting pot—so we get “closer” instead of fragmenting apart
  • Interesting messaging challenge to attract new audiences and have them stick to you!
  • Or, does it move from minority groups to individuals, with everyone wanting to have a say and see themselves reflected in museums?
  • On target with youth expectations that they are the drivers
  • Race relations today are very different than 40 years ago. 40 years hence they will be twice as different.


Re: James and Susie’s presentation: what will happen with the “baby bust” Gen Xers who are squeezed between aging Baby Boomers and the myCulture generation? What will be their role in museums?

  • They will be consultants/freelancers because of layoffs/downsizing & the need to care for their aging parents.
  • Will this generation be stuck taking care of aging parents with no retirement $? Where does this leave museums that used to inherit retirement money?
  • Go back to the older sociological model of multi-generational families that take care of each other and do social activities (like going to museums) together. We’ve separated our family units and sanitized our experiences (daycare, nursing homes), which has had critical effects on society
  • Create incentives for parents & grandparents to share history and culture w/ future generations.
  • I have seen “grandparent memberships” as a category
  • And “grandparents” programs for grandparents raising their [children’s] kids

Other threads explored the future of the “green museum,” the tension between the virtual and the real (a very popular topic), and which museum functions could be performed by robots in the future.

You might give physical Twitter a try if it complements material you are presenting. However, my recommendation, based on this experience, is to establish a “no tweeting” section for people who are really irritated by physical (or virtual) messaging when they are trying to listen to speakers.

What else? I am interested in hearing your ideas for low- or high-tech interactives to enhance the exchange of ideas during sessions. Apropos of which, session proposal forms are up for AAM 2010 in Los Angeles. I hope you submit some great ideas for future-related sessions, with some innovative formats.

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