Museum Camp: Can you take it with you?

In her comment on What I learned at Museum Camp, Nina Simon elaborated on why she is doing a “camp” and not a conference: “One of the reasons we do this weird format where there are two full days and two half days is so there is as much opportunity as possible to sleep on something and refresh the following day … It is my suspicion that a one-day workshop spread over two days will always be more effective than putting it all on the same day, even with the same number of hours of content sharing. There’s a sense that anything that exists within a single day can wash over you and disappear. A night in the middle helps you come back in the morning on your own terms to make it your own.”

Can you take it with you

Nina makes a very important clarification. Museum Camp is designed to encourage internalization. It is creating an environment for learning that gets us much closer to conference Nirvana: a place where learning can be taken with you and applied in your regular life.

An admittedly extreme example

I’m reminded of a conversation I had 25 years ago with the abbot of the monastery in Thailand where I was then studying. I was describing how well suited Theravada forest style monastic life seemed for spiritual growth and learning. Somehow it came up that I wanted to take what I was learning with me out into the world. This is what he said: “You won’t be able to do that. If you want to take it with you, you’ll have to stay here at least five years.”

I was devastated and incredulous, but his prediction proved true. After months of quiet study and meditation I was confident that I had learned a lot (and I had). I also felt I would be able to take it with me when I left. I could not.

I could see my equanimity, my insight, and my understanding being stripped away.

I vividly remember trading in my robes, retrieving my regular clothes and my sundry worldly possessions and walking out the front gate. I remember using money for the first time in months to buy a ticket on the bus back to town. I could feel myself slipping back into the selfish and turbulent social environment that makes up normal life. As I was forced to negotiate a hundred daily compromises that is the very stuff of living, and as the highly proscribed monastic routine was no longer there to insulate me, I could see my equanimity, my insight, and my understanding being stripped away.

I still retain certain small things from my time there, but they are very distant now. I do remember the difference between my state of insight and its opposite—the state I live in now—the one that closed in around me beginning the moment I walked out into the world. It’s a kind of helpless blindness or fog that surrounds all of normal existence. What I had learned was taken from me and there was nothing I could do.

Can you take it with you?

And yet … when we readjust to our normal reality once again, all those thoughts dissipate.

This is the same problem Nina is working to solve. Normally, you can’t take it with you. We go to a conference and there, in the moment, we feel inspired. We have all these fantastic ideas and we possess every intention of doing something with them. And yet, when we actually do return to the wall of work that greets us back home, and when we readjust to our normal reality once again, all those thoughts dissipate. They recede, like my monastic equanimity. Those new ideas most often never quite find a context in which they can take hold. They are like delicate flowers that eventually die for lack of their native tropical breezes and rich black soil. And so, all that we learned, all that inspiration so carefully collected, gradually (or not so gradually) slips away into meaninglessness. OK, maybe that’s too harsh … into dormancy and neglect.

So it is. And so goes much of the learning we do at conferences (which I love, by the way, so I do not mean to disparage them).

It is this challenge against which Nina Simon strides up and and calls out, “Forget conferences. I’m going to camp.Museum Camp is now in its second year, and it is effectively leveraging fun and the act of doing things instead of just talking about them. It does so in a well-designed and highly intentional multi-day summer camp-like setting.

What do you get from that?

I get to prove my abbot wrong.

Stickiness. You get the chance to actually take chunks of learning back home with you like that ceramic birdhouse you made in summer camp. I get to prove my abbot wrong.

Two-time camper Katherine Gressel notes that “The exhibit I curated right after camp last year incorporated concrete suggestions from Nina’s ‘effective prompts for exhibition participation’ workshop (in addition to an overall “riskier” approach inspired by camp).”

This testimonial alludes to the problem. I added the emphasis on “right after.” Everyday life and everyday work have incredibly controlling power over us, especially if you work in a big institution. Even some of you other campers may be feeling the burden of this right now as you read this. Nina and her talented cohort are heartily struggling with something that has great counterforce. Museum Camp is seeking to find ways to inject the lessons we learn so deep under our skin that we cannot shed them, and she is trying to find a way to infect our thinking long enough for it to dent our obstinate surrounds. The changes in our thinking, the insights we gained must be pampered and preserved by each camper lest they be allowed to die in the climate change that is the transition from camp to the everyday.

What can you do?

The most obvious action is to set aside time that is wholly dedicated to addressing changes and improvements within an organization. If there is no space specifically designated for this work—not for tasks, reports or assignments, but for seriously asking bigger questions—such matters will be pushed aside by all manner of very urgent and important other things that are always going to be there. For our part, we have set aside three hours in the middle of every week just for this, and this past Wednesday the whole office spent the bulk of that time discussing the lessons learned from Museum Camp! (As a side note, we used to do these internal development sessions on Friday, but moved them to Wednesday so the material discussed could remain active in people’s minds while they were still in the work environment and not be allowed to simply dissipate over the weekend.)

Transmission needs its own space.

What I’m suggesting is that it is wrong for an institution to think that sending an employee to a conference is solely a career development benefit to be handed out and then forgotten about. And furthermore, institutions should not simply throw campers (or conference attendees) back into their regular work immediately upon their safe return. Transmission needs its own space. Campers can be the seeds of change, but to do so they need the opportunity to communicate their enthusiasm and acquired wisdom, and to do this before it gets covered over by new concerns. Museum Camp is more than a personal development opportunity. Every camper comes back a living conduit to valuable insights, and he or she should be given the opportunity to communicate and explain what they have learned for everyone’s benefit. On receiving this transmission, who knows what ideas may come to the rest of the staff or how they might be able to translate this learning into something they could actually use?

Museum Camp could do more to actively facilitate this transmission. Every participating institution should be strongly encouraged to have at least a debriefing session for camp returnees. These could involve their peers, their superiors or everyone, in some circumstances. Given that Museum Camp has become intensely popular and will only become more so in future years, this could be a part of the price of admission for participants who come as institutional employees (or emissaries). At the end of the day, follow-through is important. If you are going to send a staff person to Museum Camp, you must also be prepared to give them a serious forum for imparting what they learned once they get back.

Nina is helping to start a revolution. Let’s do our part to make sure that she succeeds.

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  1. says

    Well said, James. Time and again I’ve vowed to harness conference energy and inspiration while staring at my pile of notes, business cards, and brochures and other assorted ephemera. With mixed results. Years ago, at the Baltimore City Life Museums, we (sometimes) had post-conference brown bag lunches with colleagues. Those discussions helped. I think.

    My Qm2 colleagues Mary Case and John Durel have long advocated a “learning agenda” for museums and other nonprofits–at both the staff and board level. Part of your culture, as it were. Love what you’re doing in your office, especially its hump day timing. Likewise, Nina’s camp concept for using desired outcomes to shape the experience. That bodes well for the future, and for ideas like the ones you suggest coming to pass.

  2. says

    Hi James:

    I really enjoyed this article and it is a long time coming, so thank you for speaking out on this issue. It resonated so strongly with my own feelings regarding years of attending conferences and workshops, becoming inspired and excited by unique perspectives and new ways of thinking and doing things..yet, when I return to my office, it has most often been a tough sell to many museum clients to incorporate any of the new enlightened approaches I have learned…the ‘you had to be there’ syndrome comes into full play…so yes, absolutely yes, institutions must get behind their staff and teams BEFORE they head to the conference…determine what it is they are hoping they and their organization might gain from this experience as a TEAM…and even have the individual post daily ‘notes from the field’, getting their organization excited by the prospect of their collaborative learning and sharing together post-conference/workshop.

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