This evening I was on the train heading home with a former colleague from the NMA, and we were talking about the conference we'd spent all week at. It was the Museums Australia 2011 conference, and there had been a whole variety of papers given. I was telling my friend about how I found the papers that were all about "This is what I did, this is what worked for me, this is what didn't" rather boring, and irrelevant. My preference was for papers that either made me think philosophically, or that linked back to something I found useful - like, "This is what I did, this is what worked, this is how YOU Can do something similar".
There was a guy sitting across from us on the train who decided to butt into our conversation, and told me that I was being selfish and intellectually lazy by expecting that from other papers. I couldn't really get much of the gist of his argument, because the train noise overrode most of what he was saying, but I found him to be a bit rude and arrogant, not least of all for butting into our conversation in the first place! I actually was quite reasonable towards him, explained my thoughts, he argued with me, and then I said that we were all entitled to our own opinion, at which point he seemed to take offense and chose to withdraw from the dialogue. Fine. I continued my conversation and the rest of the train journey was uneventful.
Mind you now I'm fuming. He has left me with a bad taste in my head, so rather than stewing about it I am going to try and articulate what it is that, for me, makes a good conference paper.
First and foremost, it has to be thought-provoking. I go to conferences and choose the sessions I go to based on the subject matter. I want to expose myself to material that I can engage with, and apply to my own practise. Now, that doesn't mean I'm looking for a "How-to", what I want is something that makes me think. It could be philosophical, it could be practical, but either way I think a good conference paper can be applicable even if it's because it gets your brain muscle working, or it makes you question previoulsy held assumptions, or it seems like a really great idea and you'd like to apply some part of it to your own situation.
Secondly, the presentation has to be good. Just reading off a piece of paper in a rapid-fire manner is awful, as is the sleep-inducing monotone. Equally bad are those who are completely unaware of time, and at the 5-minute warning attempt to cram in the remaining three-quarters of their paper.
A good presenter is familiar with their material, has a strong argument, makes eye contact, and speaks in a clear voice. A great presenter can do all that, and without the need of notes - those are rare but wonderful, allowing you a full engagement with the content.
Even papers that might simply be a recounting of a project can be worthwhile, if they make you think about the bigger picture. For example, one of the papers I saw was about establishing a tourist trail for the Tin Horse Highway in the rural town of Kulin, WA. Though it was largely the Interpretation Officer recounting the history of the sculptures and the Shire's plans for the project, it was interesting because of the story it told about community, the challenges of inetrpreting something in order to attract tourists, and also the issues of conserving the objects. Though not directly relevant to my own work, it still made me think. In that respect, to me it was a successful paper.
A less successful paper was one I saw yesterday, and you know what, I can't even remember what it was about! I could go to my Program and look it up, but I figure if I can't remember the content the next day it's probably not worth remembering! It's quite possible that the main problem was the monotone adopted by the speaker, a droning hum that made me want to go to sleep. Snore! Another less successful paper was one that talked about a now-non-existant display at the NMA from 10 yeasr ago - yes, the one that excited all the controversy at opening. But it's been 10 years - can we not get over it? That was the general gist of feeling among the NMA curators present, and I agreed with them.
As for my paper, well, it was a bit controversial really. At least, I thought it was - I was comparing Phar Lap's remains to saint relics. The session was chaired by a Benedictine monk - awkward! Unfortunately, rather than generating debate in the question time, all I got was testimonies - about how popular his heart and hide were, about how someone had been on holidays and gone out of their way to see him and what a wonderful experience that had been. So they just kind of proved my point. And maybe my paper wasn't successful either, because it didn't make people think - though I had some more interesting one-on-one feedback from audience members throughout the day, which makes me think maybe it wasn't unsuccessful after all.
But yes, as for my friend on the train - I wish I had been able to articulate to him that going to a conference is not about being an intellectually lazy receptacle, but about being stimulated, whether it's by pure ideas or useful application, or a combination of both. It's about engaging in the content of your industry, and coming away inspired and ready to take up arms again with a renewed enthusiasm. Either that or I wish I'd just told him to butt out and mind his own business!