This is the first time in fourteen years that for me, fall has not meant being together with my museum friends and colleagues at the MMA conference. In fact, there have only been nine years since 1994 that I’ve missed it completely and I have been at every conference since 2007. I participated as an MMA member for several years, and then as an MMA Board member and part of the conference planning team another few. Since 2012, I have been MMA’s executive director. With each role, my involvement increased exponentially. For the past eight years there has been at least one month of intensity leading up to the event, followed by a glorious and energizing chance to see friends and friendly faces, and to meet new people and hear about amazing things happening in Michigan museums. The void this fall has been enormous.
I have no regrets that we cancelled this year’s conference. Since the board made the decision, I have watched many conferences online and talked with my state museum association colleagues about their experiences in hosting virtual gatherings. I have no doubt that, despite reduced capacity for all due to the crisis, the stellar MMA volunteers and Claire and I could have pulled it off - and it would have been a great conference! But I also know it would have taken all of our energies and we would have been able to do nothing else, which would have been awful. When I look back at what we have done since last March, it is pretty amazing. I have never spent so much time with members and the Michigan museums community. While we could have done a virtual conference, I’m really glad we didn’t because it meant we could do much more. Again, it was the right decision to make and we have served our community better because of it.
But agreeing with something doesn’t necessarily mean you are happy about it. And as almost anyone who has talked with or seen me in the past month will know, I am NOT happy about missing the conference. It has been a challenge to set my disappointment aside, and I have been surprised by how much I’ve struggled with motivation without it. Although I will continue to whine about not basking in the experience of being in the midst of so many people that I admire and respect, two recent experiences have reminded me that there is more than one definition of being together.
First of all, last week’s Annual Meeting via Zoom was amazing. I wasn’t sure how many people would attend. One state museum association colleague said they had seven people for the annual meeting they hosted online this year. I knew we would have at least 16 because board members, Claire, Yitzack and I all had to attend, but I wasn’t sure if anyone else would sign up. Imagine my delight, then, when we had 65 people on the call. Of course, it was not the same as being in a room together, but it was pretty fantastic to get to scroll through all the screens and see so many faces and names. Also neat and unexpected was the use of the chat function! People regularly made comments and showed their engagement in this way. So while it was a poor substitute for being together in person, it still felt together.
Another wonderful thing that has been happening this fall has been the awards. We decided to forgo the usual program this year to really focus on acknowledging the unique circumstances of 2020. And instead of just giving a few awards, we decided to honor as many people as possible. We won’t have the official celebration of the awardees until next month, but I got to notify the recipients last week and it was lovely. People have been so grateful and excited. It makes me grateful and excited and helped me see how connected we all are even when we are apart.
Both of those experiences helped me shake off my personal pity party and notice the other ways we have been coming together, despite not being together. I have had multiple volunteer teams helping me navigate this crazy year and those regular meetings have been wonderful. Our idea to form different member groups around professional development goals has started to take root, and it is great to see these groups connect with each other and form relationships. And reporting out at the Annual Meeting has helped me reflect on all that the MMA Board of Directors has accomplished this year. In addition to their regular bi-monthly meetings, strategic planning team meetings meant something going on every month for them. And even though all of their own organizations have been in crisis, we have been able to do so much to set MMA on a strong path forward. That’s a lot of togetherness for a group that didn’t actually get together.
I wish I could end this piece talking about the joyous reunion we will have on a certain date and in a certain place next year. I wish even more that I knew exactly what next year’s conference would look like. But alas, we are still driving through fog and I have no idea when or where we’ll be when it lifts. Until then, I will keep focusing on what we ARE able to do, and all the ways we are still together.
Lisa Craig Brisson