“We see ourselves as a living museum, but we’re a little different,” ZooMontana executive director Jeff Ewelt told the crowd. “Our collection is messy and dangerous, and they don’t clean up after themselves.”
Deb Arenz, MPMA’s executive director, said the association's 1,000 or so member institutions look forward to meeting each fall “to expand our networks and get answers to our questions.”
“It helps them be better museums,” said Joyce Mayer, representing the Billings Cultural Partners, a 35-member organization that helped put conference details in place, with an emphasis on having fun and seeing local sights.
“We pick one project every year,” Mayer told attendees, “and this year, your conference is our project.” The museum leaders applauded that announcement.
Kevin Kooistra, executive director of the Western Heritage Center, chaired the committee that laid out this year’s conference, which includes visits to area attractions including Pompeys Pillar, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Red Lodge and a walking tour of downtown Billings.
While welcoming attendees, Billings Mayor Bill Cole reminded them it’s their role to "help people to remember.”
“We need to take better advantage of telling our stories,” he said. “We appreciate what you do back home and are glad you could join us.”
History, art and children’s museums represented among conferees range from large institutions like the Denver Art Museum to the Great Plains Art Museum on the campus of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where Casey Seger is the registrar — one of only two employees on site, “and we’re currently hiring the second one,” he said while enjoying a meal of beef, beans, biscuits and dessert during the opening festivities.
Part of the joy in journeying to Billings, he said, was to see old friends, including Amanda Daniel, assistant curator at Yellowstone Art Museum. “We met in grad school,” Seger said.
The conference, this year called “Stronger Together: New Museum Solutions,” gives attendees “the chance to collaborate and see what everyone has to offer,” Seger said. “Everyone is all in for each other.”
Ideas are as varied as the museums themselves. Ronette Rumpca, curator of interpretation for the South Dakota State Historical Society in Pierre, coordinates a backpack program at her institution. Inside the backpack guests find historical and educational objects and a card inviting them to experience exhibits as, say, a Lakota woman or a homesteader. They roll dice periodically to discover the good and not-so-good events that have happened to their character.
Arenz, the association’s executive director, said institutions do well when they can offer people the chance to see the unexpected.
Two examples came to her mind: The Museum of World Treasures in Wichita, Kansas, has, as the museum is fond of saying, “artifacts from around the world and throughout time.”
And the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, also the association’s home, displays roller skates of all kinds — some a little too high-octane for young skaters.
This month’s featured model isn't for everybody: A pair of gasoline-powered roller skates manufactured in the mid-1950s helped fearless skaters reach speeds up to 40 miles per hour.