HCLE At AAM2014

We finally made it. HCLE was represented at AAM2014, the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Alliance of Museums, a four-day event attended by thousands of museum professionals. While the program emphasized the formal aspects like the sessions and exhibits, the greater value for HCLE were the one-on-one meetings with potential funders and the informal networking. The parties were good too, so I hear.

Washington State Convention Center - Seattle
Washington State Convention Center – Seattle

Conferences and conventions aim at the mainstream. That’s where the majority live, so that’s where the majority are served. HCLE fit in nicely at the previous conference, Museums and the Web, because it was organized for more technical issues. Developing a virtual museum is dominated by discussions of technical issues. AAM2014’s main focus seems to be the big museums with sophisticated exhibits of physical artifacts that will be visited by crowds coming through the doors. We won’t have that, but AAM2014 was large enough to include subgroups of small museums, new museums, and technical discussions of digitization and curation. We felt that we were helping shift the mainstream because the issues we must resolve can benefit others that have less urgency.

Recently we’ve been busy applying for funding. Preliminary conversations with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH which also hosted a major lecture by HCLE Vision Club member Walter Isaacson) and various other agencies helped us submit proposals and inquiry letters to several potential funders. While most funders have submission guidelines, examples, and procudures online, and encourage phone consultations the communication is much better in person. An online document has no intonation. A representative reading the same document emphasizes the key points. A representative listening to our proposed proposal says a lot with body language. We witnessed enthusiasm as well as discouragement, even if no words were spoken.

We learned of the emphasis on including scholars, the importance of board donations, the meticulous attention to grammatical detail, and the legitimacy delivered by a proper program plan.  Decades have gone into defining HCLE’s architecture, but we’ve only just begun to implement the first elements; so, to many in the museum world HCLE appears young. HCLE’s status also means that our needs span the range from individual components to broad campaigns to implementing the main museum. The typical proposals, though, are aimed at incremental improvements to conventional facilities. Finding a good fit for innovative, small, and young museums is difficult.

Fortunately we met with representatives from NEH in several meetings; with representatives from IMLS (Institute for Museum and Library Services) including a mock peer review panel session; and even the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) who pointed out that understanding the effects of computers and computing on the history of education of music fits within their charter. We have a long list of potential grants to write proposals for. Prioritization will be necessary.

This was our first time at AAM’s meeting, but it felt that there was an emergent trend of funding from corporate and private sources. There weren’t any representatives as there were from the national endowments, but several sessions described direct or indirect funding from outside government. The projects tended to be more innovative, more responsive, and less reliant on proper proposal preparation though more detailed as the negotiations developed. Almost all of the projects were thanks to board members, volunteers, and advocates who made personal contacts with key people with familiar corporations. Scholarship wasn’t as important as results, but results had to be measurable and verifiable. A different culture and avenue, and also one that is less organized. Instead of lots of grants being produced by one over-arching entity like the Federal Government, there are at least one opportunities per corporation but each corporation is also a unique process and set of individuals.

The funding possibilities were readily apparent to us because, while we were attending the conference, we were also finishing a proposal for a private non-profit that had some of the structure of the governmental process and some of the flexibility of the corporate approach.

AAM2014 wasn’t all about money.

  • Microsoft Research was nice enough to spend a considerable amount of time building an HCLE exhibit with their Chronozoom timeline tool. Ours is unlisted, but other examples are available.
  • Liza encouraged the crowd of museum professionals to engage via the career development wiki (mlcentral) she built at the Museum and the Web conference.
  • We were even given a shout-out for our extensive live-tweeting of the sessions. Check our tweets (@HCLEmuseum) from May 18-21 for our real time notes.
  • Hopefully an interview or two of Liza will be posted so we can pass along her insights on education, technology, museums, and where we’re heading.
  • We tasked several exhibitors with the same new-technology issue we presented to the funders: How do we integrate collection, content, and constituency systems into one? Currently, each is separate, but we are likely to receive an artifact from someone who is also the subject of an exhibit and who is also a donor. We must pull the systems together, but current government museum funders rarely have grants that fit such tasks and most vendors live within narrow product niches. We are innovators by necessity.

Where we’re heading was a sub-theme to the conference. While most conversations were based on conventional museums and exhibits, the discussions were flavored with the changing technologies and expectations of new generations of visitors.

Because HCLE requires an understanding of computers, computing, technology, and how people adapt we found ourselves in the role of educator occasionally. For two people, we evidently managed to make our presence apparent well through twitter and by asking pertinent questions.

One message from HCLE is that education changed as computers were introduced to classrooms. The role of the teacher changed from lecturer to facilitator. Museum visitors are less likely to absorb static information and more likely to actively research through online sources (wikipedia). Instead of being quiet and eventually telling someone about what they saw, they are more likely to get out their phone and instantly share it verbally or via social media. Recharge stations and good wi-fi are more important than comfortable benches and potted plants.

We are taking the museum to the next step by making our first step a very large one. We can reach the largest community by having the smallest physical presence. HCLE can be more sustainable than most because it requires the least overhead; and, if done right, will evolve with technology rather than have to successively abandon and rebuild.

It was a busy event, and while we did make it to one party (the CEO event), we were busy enough with networking and proposal preparations that we missed the rest of the social events. Maybe next year.

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