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Let’s talk

by Jenna Weissman Joselit on March 15th, 2015

Over spring break, my students headed south to frolic in the surf while I lit out for the west coast to attend a conference.


A museum buzz phrase, ‘in conversation.’ Flickr/Sean MacEntee

Organized by the Council of American Jewish Museums, a.k.a. ‘CAJM,’ the three-day confab attended to the many issues — audience cultivation, career development, technology and more technology — that keep those of us who either work in museums or train others to do so awake in the middle of the night.

I learned a lot: about the limits of technology, the cultivation of fun, the mechanics of the ‘participatory museum’ and the importance of developing a staff that is “undeterred.” (I took a real shine to that one.) But what struck me with particular force was not substance so much as language. No matter the context, certain phrases circulated like mad, giving new meaning to “buzzword.”

‘Thinking holistically’ was one crowd pleaser; another was ‘meaningful.’ A third was ‘mission forward,’ and a fourth, the hands-down winner, was ‘in conversation.’

Everyone and everything was ‘in conversation.’ Museums and their audiences were ‘in conversation.’ Technology and content were ‘in conversation.’ Objects on display were ‘in conversation’ with one another and with the viewer. Supplanting ‘dialogue’ as the word du jour, ‘in conversation’ didn’t just happen along. It’s of its time, a reflection of the increasing value that many of us place on lively, active exchange — the kind of exchange that goes beyond tapping and texting. ‘In conversation,’ it seems to me, highlights the value of community.

My students returned home from their spring break with a tan. I returned home from mine with a new vocabulary.

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