Kristie Sheppard recently brought up the question of professional development for museums at AASLH's Small Museums Community blog: To Do or Not To Do: Professional Development.
I argued in the comments there that museums should always encourage professional development, that it should at least be partially paid for by the institution, and that it should be freely available to all staff, not dependent on seniority. I realize, however, that that's the ideal. What should museums who have few or no resources do to encourage learning among their staff? Here are ten ideas that are free or very low-cost.
1. Organize staff trips to other museums. Most museums have at least one day during which staff is scheduled but the doors are not open to the public. Why not take a few hours and have the whole staff meet at a nearby institution for some peer review? This can be done formally - including a meet'n'greet with the other staff members - or informally - everyone just shows up at the new exhibition and then talks about what they saw and what they thought over lunch.
2. Host a workshop, seminar, or exhibit critique. Many professional committees for regional and national museum associations are always looking for space to hold their events. Volunteer your space, and in return, bargain for a few seats in the seminar for your own staff. You can also invite the exhibits or programs committee of an association to one of your exhibits or programs and ask for a critique, which is a great learning experience all around.
3. Cross train. Sometimes professional development is as simple as adding new skills. Sit down with someone else who does a different job and ask them about it - maybe over lunch, maybe by shadowing them for a bit. Have a development person train to give school group tours. Have the director learn the cash register in the shop. Have the education person sit down with the registrar for a morning. Adding skills strengthens individual employees, deepens your own talent pool, gets people thinking out of the box, and increases camaraderie and understanding among staff.
4. Book clubs. There are so many brilliant books out there that offer great advice for museum professionals. Many of us read them in our spare time - I keep my own ongoing bibliography on this blog - but the benefits of having an institutionally-sponsored book club can be huge. Pick something that's general, or has good ideas, or even has nothing specifically to do with museums but espouses a particular ethos you want people to talk about. Encourage everyone to read that book over the course of a month, and meet together to discuss over lunch. This would work even better if staff could read a few pages at a time to clear their heads during work time.
5. MOOCs. This stands for "Massive Open Online Course," and it's a trend that's gaining speed right now. Websites like Coursera and MIT's OpenCourseWare offer college classes for free - all it takes is some time and commitment. It might take a little bit of searching to find something applicable to museums, but the payoff can be huge.
6. Free online certifications and webinars. There are a nearly infinite number of online certifications and webinars that are entirely free. FEMA has an entire online certification, complete with supporting classes, that is great for museum professionals. The Wild Apricot blog does a monthly roundup of free nonprofit webinars; here's their January 2013 listing. There are great resources at AASLH's Connecting to Collections website, including free courses. This is just the tip of the iceberg: spend a few minutes Googling and there's almost certain to be an online class that you'll be interested in. Are they always high quality? No. But they're free, and even in the worst of them you'll be presented with new ideas. For sensitive information - such as collections care - stick with reputable distributors.
7. In-house papers & presentations. Have your own mini-conference or lecture series! Set aside time every few months for staff members to present on a topic they're familiar with. If you want to have fun with it, try out some Pecha Kucha. Have the curator take an intriguing object out of the collections. Have a staff member who just got back from vacation talk about the heritage programs in another part of the country. Invite someone from a neighboring institution who just presented at a conference to repeat their presentation for your staff and thank them with dessert. Keep this fun, informal, and open so that no one feels intimidated.
8. Product demonstrations. Curious about that new exhibit case/archival box/software program? Want more training? Most companies will make a representative available for you to talk to. I've had great success at conferences walking up to product booths and being honest: "Your product is not in my area, and I don't have power over purchasing decisions, but I'm curious and I want to learn. Talk to me." Try the same thing over the phone; find out if someone will be in your area and try to connect. Great conversations and great learning happen.
9. Online conferences. These aren't usually free, but compared to the time and the cost of flying across the country and staying in a city for a week, they're a bargain. Here's the upcoming AASLH Annual Meeting's online registration; here's their page of previous sessions available for purchase. Here's AAM's roster of past annual meetings.
10. Socialize. Wait, what does this have to do with professional development? Trust me: on a basic level, many of the big professional development opportunities, like the AAM and AASLH national conferences, are about meeting people. You can encourage this even among your own staff. The better your staff knows and likes each other, the better they'll work together. We don't always have time to socialize with each other, and I might not know that you have the carpentry skills I desperately need to build the exhibit case I've always dreamed off. You can also enlarge this beyond just your organization: many professional organizations offer happy hours or cocktail meet'n'greets at local watering holes (#drinkingaboutmuseums comes immediately to mind, with branches in more and more cities); encourage everyone from your museum to attend.