Where Our Professional Conferences Fail Us

Why failing to provide certain courtesies and services at conferences are costly discrimination tactics.

 I’m cold and I’m starving. It’s been two days and there’s another long one ahead of me before I can leave in search of food. My mind is tired. My body is tired. And I’m trying to find my compassion for the conference organizers as I explain for the dozenth time that I’m gluten-free (gf) and dairy-free (df) and yes, cheese is dairy. I’m at a conference and unfortunately this is typically how it goes. What are my options?

  • Be hungry and angry – hangry. No fun for anyone. (Personal Cost)
  • Hope and pray the city/town has gf & df options and that those options deliver. (Financial Cost)
  • Leave the conference and miss educational sessions or valuable opportunities to network with colleagues so that I can find real (non-salad) food. (Financial and Professional Cost)

None of these options are good and all of them cost me. Not only did my registration fee go towards food I can’t eat and sessions I’ll potentially miss, but now I’m also spending more money to buy food I can actually eat.

This is my own personal conference issue, but there are more issues that exist and they’re all rooted in fundamental exclusion. Or, to put it more plainly (and no, this isn’t hyperbole), it’s discrimination.

Where’s the DEAI in “Conference”?

Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) are not a trend. Each is a principle that has a long history and these principals are experiencing a renaissance. Right now, in my museum and archive conference circuit, I see DEAI play out in presentations with a few institutions beginning to experiment with what DEAI can look like. What’s ironic, and sad, is that we as a conference community don’t even think about how we can apply DEAI to the conference experience.

Gender and the Right to Pee

In our growing awareness and support of the LGBTQIA community one of the actions we are taking is to provide gender neutral bathrooms. Everyone has the right to choose which bathroom they wish to pee in and the right to do so in peace and safety. An added benefit to this change is that there are now even more bathroom options available for those that tend to pee more frequently and often suffer longer lines – women. The museum, library, and archive fields are statistically dominated by women and yet every conference location offers the same number of men’s and women’s toilets. Stripping the gender requirement from toilets helps to bring equality to the conference experience for both the LGBTQIA community and women.

I now challenge us to more fundamentally change how we support the LGBTQIA community. Here are some recommendations:

  • Stop asking for “preferred” pronouns and just ask for pronouns.
  • Offer educational sessions or pamphlets with suggestions on how we can transition our language to be gender neutral. No more sayings like “you guys”, people.
  • Review and actively alter our collections to be inclusive of the LGBTQIA community. Libraries, you’ve made a great start. Archives and Museums? We can do better.

Conferences Don’t Need be Religious but People Are

Larger conference centers have non-descript prayer rooms. Some conference programs will assist with directing people to local religious centers, but there is room for improvement. Our conference season typically occur during religious holidays. For example, Ramadan often takes place while the weather is heating up and conference season is upon us. Ramadan requires fasting from sunrise to sunset for those who observe the Muslim faith. Our conferences tend to happen in hot places during hot times of the year because that’s what’s cheap. Can you imagine attending an all-day conference while fasting and in 100+ degree heat? Do you know what makes it worse? People who ask why you’re not eating and then apologize (while still eating), turning the conversation to you and why you’re not eating – and maybe that’s just none of their business?

Here’s how we can begin to do better:

  • Offer education and awareness to all conference attendees about what religious holidays may be taking place during the conference and what those religious times require of those who observe the faith.
  • Offer dedicated prayer rooms with appropriate items of all faiths and make sure it’s clearly marked on the conference program and website.
  • Be thoughtful about when and where our conferences are and make better decisions around how we support people who are practicing their faith while they’re conferencing with us.

 If I Have to Eat One More God Damn Salad I will Scream

Salads are great, just not as entrees and certainly not as entrees for every meal. It’s absolutely incredible to me that conference food organizers forget the simple principle that everyone’s meal should meet nutritional standards. Each meal should offer protein, starch, and vegetables. Instead, I’m often left to ask the conference hosts which foods I can eat only to discover I can have the salad and maybe the red meat.  How hard is it to put the cheese or cream sauce on the side and offer steamed rice? Additionally, dairy-free options would help to nutritionally support those who eat kosher or halal.

Dietary restrictions exist for many reasons: religious, health, or none of your fucking business. My dietary restrictions are in place to help manage my chronic pain and autoimmune issues. I adhere to them in order to function and this is especially true while at a conference where I need to feel my best in a place that’s not my home.

Here’s how to do better:

  • Require that each conference meal offer protein, starch, and vegetables that meet every dietary restriction.
  • Clearly label food!
  • Have the local arrangements committee or conference staff research restaurants that accommodate dietary restrictions and clearly identify those on the conference website and program.
  • Support food delivery to the conference site, especially if the food options are inadequate.
  • If the conference can’t or refuses to provide appropriate nutrition then provide a discount for conference registration.

Conferences Are for Extroverts

Conferences are geared toward extroverts: those who are energized by being with other people. Introverts and those living with conditions where they can be emotionally or sensorially overwhelmed need a place to retreat to in order to take care of their needs and reenergize. My attendance at the American Alliance of Museums was the first time I encountered the Quiet Room. The Quiet Room also served as the Nursing Room, which was not the wisest decision as kids don’t care to be quiet. But, the room had the lights dimmed, talking was frowned upon, there were comfy chairs, and water and tea were provided. It was seriously heaven within the conference din. Studies show that at least 50% of the population are introverts, so why are conferences extrovert-centric? We need to find a more balanced approach in order for both personalities to thrive within a conference setting.

We Are Not Kidless Automatons

Kids are a thing. Many people have them and yet you wouldn’t know it due the complete lack of acknowledgement or support from our places of work or professional conferences. Some conferences are beginning to offer nursing rooms and that’s a start. But can we get a daycare in here?! By not offering subsidized childcare, conferences are forcing professionals to choose between personal or professional sacrifice. As a society, we know this burden impacts women disproportionately. And again, women make up the majority of the library, archive, and museum communities. So, certainly we should be doing a better job of supporting women and families, right?

Also, kids or not, conferences need to take place during the work week. In our profession we already sacrifice a lot, we shouldn’t be required to sacrifice our personal time, time with our families, to attend a work conference.

We’re All Here to Learn, But Can We?

There’re the above issues I’ve mentioned and each have their own nasty outcomes when needs aren’t met. The universal outcome of not supporting these groups is that their opportunity and ability to learn will be negatively impacted.

We’re also (still) failing those who live with different physical abilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 and almost 30-years later we still suck at including this community.

Here’s how we can do better:

  • Collect all slides ahead of time and provide them on the conference website for download so that screen readers and other ADA tools can be used during presentations.
  • Require the microphone to be used at all times. I don’t know what it is with people thinking they’re loud enough that they don’t need a mic. You may not think you need a mic, but guaranteed there are other people who need you to use the mic. Additionally, I’ve been to locations where microphones weren’t automatically provided. They need to be there every time, no matter what.
  • Presenters need to audibly describe the images and text on their slides so that all contextual information to the presentation is conveyed.
  • Make sure your font is at least font size 22 and clearly legible.
  • Resources should be provided to presenters and speakers to assist them in crafting their presentations to be as accessible as possible.

This is Costing Me and It’s Costing Us

Conferences cost money. It costs money to attend (which goes towards all my salads). It costs me more money to feed myself outside the conference food. And it costs me money if I have to leave the conference to find food. If I or others can’t attend a conference then it costs us the professional development opportunity and the ability to connect with colleagues. This can have a repeated negative impact on our careers.

And it costs the profession if I or any of the persons who fall in the groups I’ve covered decide we can’t attend a conference because our attendance isn’t supported. That means the profession misses our contributions to the professional community with the compound effect of limiting diversity within the participating profession.

 Can We Do Better?

Can you imagine discriminating against the following?:

  • LGBTQIA persons
  • Women
  • People of faith
  • People with dietary restrictions
  • People with health issues
  • People who need mental and/or emotional introversion
  • People with children
  • People with varying physical abilities

That’s a long list with many on it belonging to communities that have been repeatedly and systematically discriminated against. Discrimination doesn’t have to be an active act to prevent or stop a group or persons from participating. In this instance, discrimination can be passive and impede or prevent a group or persons from participating through thoughtlessness or lack of prioritization. By not providing a conference experience built to include everyone in the library, archive, and museum communities we are discriminating against these groups.

With so much focus on DEAI we (as a conference community) need to start our practice by including and caring for the very people who attend our conferences.

Museums in Financial Trouble: Sell, Close, or Plan a Museum Merger?

“It’s no secret that since The Great Recession of 2008, museums, cultural heritage, and cultural arts organizations in the United States are still suffering financially. For each of these organization types, the expense of owning or leasing a large building, maintaining a staff, and offering compelling programs can make it difficult to survive year to year.”

Read the full post at Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog.

Reimagining Museum Engagement for Younger Generations

“Over the course of the next seven years the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) will embark on a renovation of its original museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to the tune of $1 billion dollars. NASM is reported to be the most visited museum in the United States and the 3rd most visited in the world, with 8.6 million visitors through their doors in 2017 and hundreds of thousands of digital visitors who frequent NASM’s website and collection search center.”

Read the full post at Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog.

Museums Can No Longer Ignore Colonizer Narratives

On October 8, 2018 (Columbus Day for some states and Indigenous Peoples Day for others) a protest took place in New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The protest was led by activists from Decolonize This Place. The event was their third annual Anti-Columbus Day event. While a main point of contention is the AMNH’s outdated and racist exhibitions, their position is detailed and multi-faceted. Visit this link to read more on Decolonize This Place’s  position, experience with, and request of the AMNH.

Neutrality Isn’t an Option

The continued existence of Columbus Day is just one example of the many things that still need to be addressed and amended when it comes to respecting and including traditionally underrepresented peoples in the United States, and indeed, the broader Western world. Museums are in a transitional state where their traditional claim of neutrality can no longer be accepted as reality due to obvious colonizer, racist, and white supremacist narratives present within many exhibitions. As a result, museums with outdated narratives are increasingly called upon to fix this broken and antiquated piece of their organization.

In an April 23, 2018 opinion piece for The Guardian, “Museums are hiding their imperial pasts – which is why my tours are needed”, Alice Procter explains why she gives Uncomfortable Art Tours. Procter states: “Museums are institutions of memory—they must stop pretending there’s only one version of events, and be willing to own up to their role in shaping the way we see the past.” She calls for telling a story that hasn’t been told—at least not publicly. She’s been called a sensationalist, and even UK Members of Parliament have taken the time to belittle and demean her efforts.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statements

In the last few years, museums as well as nonprofits and corporations have started to adopt statements for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). (Sometimes “accessibility” is also mentioned). Museums cannot have statements for DEI and refuse or be slow to acknowledge poor past practices, grievances, and atrocities perpetrated against the non-dominant cultural groups represented in museum collections. Museums have a proclivity for censoring catalog records and sanitizing descriptive panels, leaving only a sterile, basic description for an object. It’s a practice that’s becoming less and less tolerable as the call for transparency rises — being the first of many steps necessary toward full reparation. By exposing and confronting colonizer attitudes and practices, museums can begin to evolve.

Letting Go of Neutrality for New Learning & Engagement

Museums need to shake off their tacit commitment to presenting a biased, one-sided, and white supremacist view and acknowledge our collective, diverse, messy, controversial history. This work should be done because it’s the right things to do; however, museums are slow to evolve and unfortunately require inducements to validate any evolution. In that vein, think of the potential new learning and community engagement that will occur once efforts to address colonizer narratives are underway. These are two items that are typically very desirable for museums and their strategic plans.

Where Do We Begin?

There’s not a tried and true, nor perfect path for museums to follow that will adequately address this problem. However, that’s not to say they shouldn’t try. Here are seven things a museum should begin doing right now:

  1. Be transparent and acknowledge bad acquisition practices in object panel descriptions and catalog records.
  2. Adjust docent tours to incorporate discussions of how colonialism and racism have contributed to the artifact being on display today.
  3. Change whitewashed exhibit narratives to inclusive historical narratives.
  4. Create and adopt specific actions the museum will take to work towards true diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  5. Address concern and calls for correction from (currently) external, directly impacted groups.
  6. Hire qualified individuals from the different cultural groups and geo-political regions represented in the collection to curate and construct exhibits.
  7. Acknowledge and open the dialogue with groups who call for the repatriation of their artifacts. Actively work towards a resolution with benchmarks and a timeline in place.

Some of these items can (and should) be quickly employed, while others will undoubtedly take time. Though I caution any museum against taking too much time, as it indicates insincerity and a lack of commitment to solving the problem. This isn’t something to be metered out in a 10-year plan. There needs to be action, plans, transparency, and communication right away. As Decolonize This Place and other activist groups accurately point out, the continued existence and access to colonizer narratives is harmful, and museums should take the safety and well-being of all their patrons very seriously.


Image courtesy of Jasn, via Flickr’s Creative Commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lewishamdreamer/447537371/), and follows the Creative Commons Attribution License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. Image downloaded for use November 2018, and was not purposefully altered. 

2019 Master Plan for Museum Professionals

“Winter is my favorite time to prepare for the year ahead. Regardless of when the fiscal year ends, the end of the calendar year is a natural point in time for us to take stock of the year that’s passed and prepare for the next twelve months. This is an opportune time to review goals for the year ahead and what it will take to get there. Much like we do in our personal lives with New Year’s resolutions, I advocate we should identify professional benchmarks to achieve in 2019 and the activities that need to be undertaken along the way.”

Read the full post at Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog