A Whirlwind Tour of AAM 2013 in Baltimore

“I will be at the American Alliance of Museums conference next week,” I announce to our staff. Everyone says “great, we can’t wait to hear all about it,” and we move on with the business of the day.

I am extremely fortunate to represent the Gibbes Museum of Art at professional museum conferences each year. Upon my return from a conference, I try to fill our staff in on what I learned as soon as possible, usually during the first hour of being back at work. After that small window of opportunity, the real world takes over; emails and phone messages must be returned, new projects must be faced and lengthy “to do” lists (which have grown longer during my absence) must be tackled. More often than not, I am able to provide a general synopsis of sessions I attended, but that’s about it. I never really get the chance to tell anyone what I actually did at the conference! So Gibbes staff, this post is for you too! It’s been over two months since I attended the AAM Annual Meeting but finally, you will learn what I did at the 2013 AAM Annual Meeting!

Sometimes getting there is the hardest part!
Sunday May 19

This year the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) held its annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland from May 19-22. Over 5000 people representing museums in 50 different countries attended this conference. More than 170 different sessions and workshops were offered and the conference theme, The Power of Story, was woven into all activities.

Greetings from Baltimore

The program usually comes out a few months before the meeting so one has time to peruse the offerings and determine if attending would be beneficial to both the individual and the institution. While it seems like the answer would always be “yes, of course it would be beneficial to attend,” there is a considerable amount of expense involved. Registration fees, airfare, meals, events, workshops; it all adds up and sadly, professional development funds are often the first to be cut from an institutional budget. Even though AAM does its best to keep the conference reasonably priced, I can usually only attend every couple of years. However, this year the meeting was in Baltimore, a quick and reasonably priced direct flight from Charleston. I added the expense to my travel budget, crossed my fingers during the budget process and thankfully was approved for take-off! Of course the AAM dates were not convenient to my work world (they never are, you just have go) and fell during an exhibition installation. However, a quick trip (Sunday-Tuesday) was feasible and I was determined to make the most of it!

Flying to Baltimore was the easy part. Extracting me from my regular life and its crazy schedules was more of a challenge. My six-year-old daughter was competing in a two-day horse show on the days leading up to my departure. To complicate matters, my son and husband were out of town during the same time so all the horse show prep and logistics were on me. I am providing this detail primarily so you will have an idea of my frame of mind as I tried frantically to get ready for a major conference in the midst of the horse stuff. On Sunday, my husband returned to relieve me so I could race to the airport for a 1:00pm flight. I was finally ready to switch gears, focus on museums and the conference, and plan which sessions I would attend and how I would maximize my time. Thankfully, this year AAM came out with a free, downloadable, Annual Meeting “app” that provided detailed lists and summaries of daily conference sessions and activities. This app was a tremendous help in plotting my time. While I am certain the creation of an annual meeting app was part of AAM’s larger technology plan, I would also like to think that someone realized how useful it would be to those of us who left for Baltimore stressed out and in various states of disorganization; using this app helped me calm down, get organized, and regain my equilibrium!

Party on a boat….I promise it was business!

By the time the plane touched down at Baltimore Washington National Airport (BWI), my early morning at the horse show was a fuzzy memory. My thoughts had switched from ponies, equitation, and ribbons to museums, museums, museums. I was finally able to relax and enjoy the fact that soon I would be among my peers from all over the country. AAM does a great job of welcoming its participants; huge banners greeted us at BWI alerting every traveler in the airport that this week, Baltimore was THE place to be for museum professionals.

The Baltimore Convention Center, the nucleus for all AAM activities, was just one block from my hotel so I ran over to pick up my conference registration packet. These packets provide participants with all the essentials including name badge, event tickets, maps, etc. AAM has become more “green” in recent years, and my bag contained much less paper than in the past. Attendees were encouraged to use the app for conference planning and all session information and handouts were online.

To be honest, even though I have been to several AAM conferences, I still find them slightly overwhelming, particularly at the beginning. The convention center is huge, there are literally hundreds of people milling about and you need to really study the maps to figure out where sessions and events are located. I decided to take care of all that later; I had people to meet and places to be!

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Helpful greeters at the Baltimore Convention Center. Image courtesy of American Alliance of Museums.

I had one hour to unpack and get cleaned up for my big evening kick-off event, the famous Shippers Party! This greatly anticipated event is an annual party sponsored by a long list of domestic and international shipping companies for all Registrars and Collections Managers attending the AAM Annual Meeting. It is always held at a fabulous local venue and the organizers outdo themselves from year to year. It is a great opportunity to interact with our peers, network with shipping agents, make new contacts and enjoy a terrific evening. The 2013 Shippers Party was held on the Spirit of Baltimore, a two-deck sailing vessel, and included dinner, dancing, and a cruise around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. I connected with a few friends from graduate school who now work at the Mint Museum and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and we headed to the boat.

Spirit_of_Baltimore

The Spirit of Baltimore

Once on board, I was fully immersed in the business of museum conferences, talking, talking, and more talking about all kinds of museum topics. I searched out representatives from shipping companies I use to thank them for the party and for their assistance on my projects. I meandered around and introduced myself to registrars who I have worked with on loans and exhibitions but have only known through email. Finally putting faces with names is truly a fun experience. I found my colleagues from the Registrars Committee (RC) of AAM and discussed our upcoming RC business meeting. I reconnected with more friends from graduate school and previous museum jobs, catching up on everyone’s lives and careers.

Baltimore_Harbor

Evening view of the Inner Harbor from the boat.

As the night wore on and the boat sailed around the harbor, there was lots of laughter, genuine camaraderie and good fun among this group. There was dancing and there was singing; future projects and collaborations were planned; a good time was had by all. The boat docked at midnight. After being up for way too many hours, moving through all my various realities during the day, and talking non-stop at the party, I was done! Goodnight AAM.

Breakfasts, sessions, luncheons, receptions, dinners, oh MY!
Monday May 20

My alarm rang at 6am the next morning. I awoke in complete confusion wondering where I was and if my kids were late for school. Slowly, clarity set in and I realized, oh yes, I am at AAM in Baltimore and I need to be at the Fellowship Breakfast at 7:00AM! Buckle up folks… if you thought Sunday was a whirlwind, it had nothing on Monday and its many conference activities!

After my usual morning scramble and a short walk down the street, I arrived at the convention center in search of the AAM Fellowship Breakfast. This event was organized to honor the 2013 recipients of AAM Travel Fellowships which are awards that provide monetary stipends to attend the Annual Meeting. Recipients of these awards truly distinguish themselves as the application review process is rigorous and the competition is fierce! I currently serve at the Fellowship Chair for the Registrars Committee of the American Alliance of Museums. As such, I am also a member of the larger AAM Fellowship Task Force that reviews all applications across the Professional Networks (PN), and selects the recipients. I have been involved with the RC Fellowship Committee for ten years, but this was my first year working with the larger AAM Task Force. It was a lot of work but also enormously gratifying to be part of a process that provides well-qualified individuals the means to attend the conference. The Fellowship Breakfast was an opportunity for recipients to meet each other and make connections. This year, members of the Registrars Committee Executive Board were paired with each of the eight fellowship recipients representing the RC. The RC mentor-mentee pairing was a nice opportunity for us to get to know one another. The food was good, the coffee was strong and it was a great way to start the day.

After the early breakfast, the rest of the morning passed in an educational blur while I attended several different panel discussions. Sessions at AAM are huge and rooms are usually filled by 100 people or more. I have presented at AAM in the past. It is a wonderful, if somewhat nerve wracking experience. This year however, I was there to simply listen and learn which definitely took the pressure off. I tried to attend sessions that were relevant to my work at the Gibbes, particularly those that focused on museum renovation and movement and storage of collections. I learned a great deal at morning sessions about “green” practices for museums on limited budgets and how to remain a museum even when one’s doors are closed. I took many notes, poured over hand-outs, and introduced myself to presenters so I could follow up with questions at a future date. Sessions usually last about an hour and thirty minutes and time flies.

AAM_Conference_Session

A packed session! Image courtesy of American Alliance of Museums

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the morning was gone and it was time for my next scheduled event, a luncheon sponsored by Willis Fine Art, Jewelry & Specie, the Gibbes fine art insurance broker. Willis has a long tradition of holding this event at AAM as a way to show its appreciation for Registrars and all they do. This year, the lunch was held at the historic Pratt Street Ale House and was yet another opportunity to catch up with friends and chat with our insurance brokers, a team of individuals who I have known and worked with for many years and truly enjoy spending time with at conferences. I feel lucky to have such solid relationships with many of the vendors who provide services to the Gibbes and make my job easier.

After an animated lunch with the Willis folks, I headed back to the conference for sessions that taught me about grant opportunities with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the latest trends in sustainable preservation. By late afternoon I could have used a nap but I was on auto-pilot; the day was not over by any stretch of the imagination. After a few more sessions, I headed down to the MuseumExpo, a gigantic maze of an exhibit hall filled with vendors from over 250 companies that provide services to museums.

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The 2013 MuseumExpo Exhibit Hall. Image courtesy of American Alliance of Museums

Cruising the exhibit hall takes some getting used to and is another annual meeting activity that requires a plan. One must decide which type of service providers to make contact with; it’s ok to wander but it helps to have a strategy. I always visit vendors the Gibbes works with first; it helps me get oriented to the exhibit hall and is a good way to strengthen relationships. This year, I also visited booths of several companies that design exhibition furniture with an eye toward new and innovative ways to display our miniature portrait collection. I chatted with the sales people, asked lots of questions, took catalogs and contact information, and was on my way. At this point it was around 5pm so I sat down for a few minutes and gather my wits before heading to my NEXT event—a reception for Museum Assessment Program (MAP) Peer Reviewers, which began at 6pm. I have been a MAP peer reviewer for a little over a year and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to meet the MAP leadership and other peer reviewers from around the country. I walked in not knowing anyone and an hour later I had made a few new friends from the Mountain Plains Museums Association (MPMA), had good conversations about the ins and out of being a peer reviewer, and picked up some really great ideas for possible events for our state museum conference. For example, the MPMA folks do something called a “bar” session at conferences. It is held after hours and encourages free-form, spirited discussion on controversial (and possibly ludicrous) topics such as “is it really necessary for a museum to have a Registrar?” I would love to participate in that one!

It was now 7pm and I had to move on to the final event of my day, dinner with friends from Transport Consultants International (TCI). I have worked with the good people at TCI for many years on all our art packing and shipping needs. The TCI team has helped me with many complicated projects and I depend on their expertise and advice a great deal. This particular dinner included a group of us who work with TCI including colleagues from Chicago, Colorado, and Florida. We were an animated party from the get go and boy was it fun. We headed out to an amazing Baltimore restaurant, Kali’s Court, and enjoyed a wonderful dinner among friends full of museum tales and more laughter. Time passed quickly that evening and many hours later, after fabulous food, lively conversation, and an unexpected limo ride back to our hotels, I was finally back in my room, exhausted yet satisfied with my day. Good night, Monday.

Can it really be the last day already?
Tuesday May 21

Waking up Tuesday, it was hard to believe that this was my last day in Baltimore. What a whirlwind and strange to think that when I finished the day I would be home in Charleston! Thankfully I did not have any breakfast obligations but sessions did begin at 8:45AM; no rest for the weary. I had a few minutes before the morning sessions so I braved the very long line for a Starbucks coffee and made my way to my first session, “Balancing Preservation Needs of Collections with the Integrity of the Building.” This session was packed with curators, registrars, conservators and exhibition designers, all eager to hear the latest discussion regarding guidelines for temperature and relative humidity for the preservation of artwork. The session was led by both conservators and engineers who discussed ways in which museums can address the integrity of the environment and their obligation to preserve our cultural heritage in the context of new, much broader environmental guidelines. A very interesting session indeed and one that I may expand upon in future blog posts!

I finished out the morning in a session about utilizing off-site collection storage facilities, a situation the Gibbes will find itself in while the museum is under renovation. Next, I was off to the annual business luncheon for the Registrars Committee of AAM, a professional organization I have been involved with for many years. This gathering of the RC membership includes reports from the national officers and committee chairs. As Chair of the Fellowship Committee, it was my responsibility to report on the monetary travel stipends presented to RC members. This is a wonderful part of the luncheon and I am always thrilled to recognize the Fellowship recipients, many of whom are emerging professionals and first time attendees of AAM. Awards were given, pictures were taken, promises to see each other soon were made, and then it was back to the conference.

Zinnia_Willits_Melanie-_Neil

Zinnia Willits with RC Fellowship recipient, Melanie Neil, Assistant Registrar at the Chrysler Museum of Art.

Of course I stayed late at the lunch to chat with members of the RC Executive Committee and do some impromptu brainstorming about the coming year, and soon found myself rushing to the 1:45pm session. Simply titled, “Legal Issues in Museums,” this was a session I had been looking forward to! The room was filled beyond capacity with standing room only. I really wanted to attend this session so I sat down on the floor in the middle of the aisle. It was worth it. The session was led by a panel of lawyers and a curator who work with art law, intellectual property and other fields related to museums. The audience was encouraged to ask the panel general questions and the lawyers weighed in. There were definitely some crazy questions as well as interesting situations to ponder, including a great query about copyright related to a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes in a museum collection.

After sitting on the floor for an hour and a half, I was ready to move on to a comfortable chair… or any chair. My final session that afternoon was on facilities planning in the current economy and reviewed several recent case studies including the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2006 Gallery Re-Installation Master Plan, which aimed to create the most beneficial display of collections while addressing visitor circulation and existing building deficiencies. I picked up good information at this session but admittedly, was beginning to reach my saturation level with information retention. I took a final stroll through the exhibit hall to say goodbye to friends and caught a great hands-on demonstration about art shipping crates. One of the art packers actually retrofitted a crate before our eyes to fit a piece of delicate porcelain safely and securely into a custom cavity. It was really cool! Soon however, it was time to bid adieu to the Baltimore Convention Center and my museum friends, old and new.

I convinced myself that I had time to stop in at one last event before heading to the airport. This gathering was for those of us from southern states representing the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC). After a few days of interacting on a national level it was wonderful to see all my southeastern colleagues gathered in one place. SEMC is comforting, familiar and supportive and I am so thankful I had time to drop in. As an added bonus, another reception for alumni of the University of South Carolina Public History Program (that’s me!) was happening at the same venue and I was able to see more friends from graduate school! However, all too soon, it was time for me to rush out again. Typical to my entire 2013 AAM experience, I left the reception late, literally ran to my hotel to retrieve my bag, and paid a cab driver an exorbitant amount of money to get me to the airport on time.

And so my story ends where it began, with my arrival back at work and the limited amount of information I was able to convey to staff. But now you finally have it all, my 2013 AAM experience in a (very big and wordy) nutshell. It was two and half days of non-stop talking, learning, networking, laughing, reminiscing and planning. It was thrilling and exhausting and I am ever thankful to have had the opportunity to represent the Gibbes!

Zinnia Willits, Director of Collections Administration, Gibbes Museum of Art

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