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News & Press: Annual Conference

A Seat at the Conversation Table

Monday, November 26, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Carl Aldrich
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At the last UMA conference, we tried a new session format: conversation tables. I had the privilege of holding the inaugural session and would like to share some thoughts with you as you decide which format to choose for your conference session proposal. At my session, we discussed diversity, what it means and how museums can embrace it.

The Good Stuff

  • So many sessions are people sharing their research or their professional experiences. In other words, they are experts professing their knowledge to a willing audience. Conversation tables are the opposite. No one in the room necessarily needs to be an expert.

  • Participants seemed much more comfortable in the setting. Space was limited to around 15 participants arranged at a table. It was perfect for asking questions or making comments that may have been uncomfortable in a packed classroom setting. We ended up having a very good discussion in which people were free to ask questions, make comments, agree, and disagree without judgment.

  • I left the discussion feeling like I had a better handle on the topic of diversity. People often need to have a frank discussion to pick apart theories and ideas that come up in our field. Again, the not-a-lecture format is a game changer.

The Work Stuff

  • The conversation will only be productive with a strong moderator in charge. It is our human nature to hear something and veer the discussion in a totally new direction on a whim. This can be helpful if the timing is right--but the leader should be ready to redirect when the discussion starts to take a turn.

  • While doing the above, the same moderator should be prepared but flexible. For me, the preparation was writing down a handful of questions that I had about diversity. I had around ten questions and didn’t ask half of them. They were mostly handy to have in those first awkward minutes when everyone was still figuring out if it was safe to be honest.

  • The conversation table format is definitely a go with the flow session. We went in directions that I had not prepared for at all, but that the group needed to talk about. A moderator should be engaged, forming follow up questions to keep the discussion going, and watching the people who are not participating as much. Often the quiet ones will have the most important contributions!

If you are thinking about presenting at the 2019 UMA Conference on a topic that you are passionate about, but maybe you are not the one with all the answers, consider trying a conversation table. I am very excited to see where these sessions go in the future!


Carl Aldrich manages Fielding Garr Ranch at Antelope Island State Park and serves on the UMA Board as Secretary.

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