‘Sharing knowledge’: why going to conferences is a good thing

Connect December 2016

MGS conference 2013
Fortune Favours the Brave – MSG Conference, Hampden Park 2013.

As a sector, we share information with each other in a number of ways – for example, about exhibition and programme design or knowledge about practice and ideas. But there are often examples of great practice taking place that those outside the sector don’t know about.  We need to celebrate and share this knowledge and one way to do this is conference attendance.

Having had a bumper year of conference attendance myself – this being a fallow year for the MGS conference – I thought I’d jot down some thoughts about how I feel going to conferences can be useful to both share information and also to build your profile. I’ve also highlighted some of the work MGS is doing in this area.

So here are my trusty top 5 tips on how you can make conferences work for you:

  1. Keep up with the latest trends/research/developments

This is probably the most commonly cited reason to attend conferences. Finding out about the latest trends can inform your work and future direction. I recently attended a conference on Community Planning and it really made me consider how we could use the latest thinking to inform how we support museums in this area.

  1. Sharing your best practice… but also thinking about CPD

Presenting at conferences is a great way to share best practice as well as build profile and confidence.

I was lucky to be selected to present at a range of conferences this year including the American Association of Museums (AAM), Museum Development Network Conference (MDN) and European Museum Advisors Conference (EMAC). Presenting to different (and especially international) audiences gave me the opportunity to develop my presentation style but also learn from the other speakers. I found it so beneficial that I have decided to push myself to get involved with more presenting and have set a CPD target for myself about number of conference presentations I deliver per year.

So – if you have the opportunity, and are tempted, to submit a paper or session proposal to a conference, do it! It really helped my confidence and knowledge, and raised my profile, and that of MGS and the sector, with key organisations.

  1. Marketplaces

Marketplaces are a key offering at most conferences. They can range from organisations presenting on their work to commercial organisations offering their services. Both may equally be useful.

At MGS we’ve started to take a strategic approach to our marketplace involvement, prioritising marketplaces outwith the museum sector to raise awareness about the sector with external organisations and the relevance of museums to cross-cutting agendas.

My colleagues Heather, Devon and Loretta recently ran a marketplace at a large NHS conference. They were able to strike up conversations with attendees (as the connection to museums was not immediately obvious), resulting in follow up meetings and plans to develop better links between museums and the health sector, with an underlying recognition of heritage contributing to the health agenda.

  1. Networking

Networking has an important social function and is a key part of the conference experience. At the AAM Conference I met Julie Hart, who runs the US Accreditation Scheme. My colleague Jenny and I followed this up with a Skype call where shared information on our respective schemes. Julie has also now offered to be a critical friend for any future work, so this was a truly beneficial meeting.

I also recently met Laura Crossley, a museums and cultural consultant, when we both presented at the EMAC conference in May. I was really interested her PhD research, we clicked socially and knew we’d like to work on something together in future. But we weren’t sure what, if anything, we could partner on. We ended up finding that link and working on a Creative Europe project application together – a partnership that would never have happened if it weren’t for us meeting at the conference.

The other thing that’s important to remember is that networking doesn’t only rely on a physical meeting. Don’t forget to tweet! Tweet reportage is a great way for people who cannot attend the conference to follow proceedings, and for other attendees to find out more about you and your organisation. And it can be used by the organiser to evaluate the event.

  1. Chance to get away from the day job and get creative!

I have saved the tip I’m most passionate about for last! It’s difficult to take time to attend conferences and often you have to put across a very robust case for taking the time out. However, the payback in terms of immersing yourself in new ideas, meeting like-minded folk and having the space to think creatively is invaluable. It is great having that lightbulb moment and coming back to discuss it with colleagues.

Well that all sounds great, but…

There is no denying that conferences are resource intensive. You’ll need time away from your job and there will obviously be expenses. However, you can be selective about conferences you attend, and ensure you maximise your time there – for example, arranging meetings with other attendees while you’re away. You can also make a conference ‘work harder’ by attending sessions that are relevant for other colleagues, and then sharing that knowledge when you return to work.

Basically, making a case to your organisation to attend a conference shouldn’t stop at merely the conference content. Ensure you include details about who you will meet, potential partnerships you are looking to broker, learning and CPD you will achieve (either as a delegate or a speaker), and potential to raise your organisation’s profile with key contacts.

In short, make conferences work harder for you and the rewards will certainly outweigh the expenditure and resource. And the results for you and your organisation can be considerable.


Alison is the Head of Research and Development for Museums Galleries Scotland and a prolific conference attender! If you’d like to get involved with the MGS Conference, our call for papers for the 2017 Conference will open on 12 December 2016.

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