Writing about Museum Education: Using Professional Development to Our Advantage

Originally posted on Medium. October 26, 2016

I truly believe professional development is important for all career paths, especially in the museum education field. Professional development in the museum education field have many opportunities to help museum professionals develop their careers to make sure they are up to date with latest theories and skills. There are many ways any professional can develop their skills in their chosen careers. For instance, there are conferences, networking, courses, online and workshops professionals can develop their own skills and use those lessons to share with their organizations to continue to grow. These options allow every professional to gain insight in their own professions, and by sharing my experiences in participating in professional development I hope this would inspire both emerging professionals and seasoned professionals to take advantage of what our organizations can offer. As a museum educator, I participated in various professional development programs including conferences and workshops.

I attended annual New England Museum Association conferences held in various cities in the New England states. The ones I attended were at hotels in Newport, RI in 2013, Boston/Cambridge, MA in 2014, and Portland, ME in 2015. The first conference’s theme was called Who Cares? Why Museums Are Needed More Than Ever; this theme touched on exactly how museums can still be relevant today. The second conference’s theme was called Picture of Health: Museums, Wellness, & Healthy Communities which explained how museums can promote health and wellness. The third conference’s theme was called The Language of Museums which discussed communication within the museum, among the staff, and with museum visitors to best serve the surrounding community. Each conference lasted for three days, has various sessions related to each department in the museum field as well as to the overall conference, and some off-site sessions allowing participants to explore the area where the conference is held. The conferences start with Keynote Sessions lead by speakers related to the theme and discuss how the conference’s theme advances the museum field.

Also, the conferences provide various networking opportunities including opening events at local museum, and Professional Affinity Group Lunches; the Professional Affinity Group Lunches (or PAG Lunches) allow professionals to meet with other professionals in the field, such as museum educators, take a boxed lunch ordered ahead of time and participate in discussions as well as group activities. NEMA conferences also provide a couple of sessions for professionals who were attending the conference for the first time; there was a session on the introduction to the conference and newcomer’s reception for networking opportunities. When I attended the newcomer’s session and reception in 2013 as a graduate student, I was introduced to how the conferences were set up and the panelists gave me and other newcomers advice on how to choose sessions as well as how to take advantage of networking with colleagues. These newcomer’s sessions are very helpful because it made me feel comfortable about navigating through the conferences, and when I introduced a friend and colleague to the NEMA conference I made sure she went to these sessions. As I transitioned to the museum community in New York, I took advantage of attending conferences and events in New York City.

I attended my first New York City Museum Educators Roundtable (NYCMER) conference in May 2016. The NYCMER conference was located at the Morgan Library & Museum near Penn Station. While it was like the NEMA conferences I attended in the past, the differences include the focus was professional development for museum educators, and all on site sessions were at the museum not at a hotel. NYCMER conference started with a keynote session with many sessions related to the museum education field. The keynote session at the beginning of the conference featured speakers Steven Seidel, Faculty Director of the Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Jennifer Ifill-Ryan, Associate Director, Education & Community Engagement at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Learning, introducing the overall importance of storytelling in the museum education field. Unlike the NEMA conferences which had some sessions related to museum education, all NYCMER sessions were more focused on subjects related to the museum education field. For instance, I attended a session that shared how to engage new audiences through playful experiences presented by staff from Museum Hack, a program designed to engage individuals with museums and to help museums develop their skills in creating interactive programs. Not only have I taken advantage of attending conferences, I also participated in a workshop in New York.

Last week I attended a workshop hosted by NYCMER and El Museo del Barrio called “Exhibition Designs for Educators”. The workshop event started with an activity on creating an exhibit related to one object; we were split into four different groups and were given a task to create an exhibit using prompts to interpret the object in four different ways. The challenge was we were not told what the object was, and we were expected to create an exhibit with an unknown artifact. What I can describe about the object is it looked like a cement block with a whole in it, and had nails sticking out of it. This group activity allowed us to discuss with each other ideas about how we can achieve our mission. My group’s prompt was to create an open exhibit that has a warm, inviting environment. We decided to create a model of our exhibit; our model had the object on a pedestal in the center of the exhibit with seats around it and wires between the seats. I asked the group what if we included inquiry-based questions to allow the visitors of our exhibit to be able to talk about the object, and we agreed in addition to inquiry-based questions on the wall we also included a box next to the pedestal with answers related to the object. To create that warm, inviting environment, we decided to use bright colors associated with comfort for the wall and seats then used a darker color for the floor to complement the object. After a few minutes, each group presented their exhibit ideas.

The rest of “Exhibition Design for Educators” workshop had three panelists discuss their involvement in exhibition and how it can be translated to education. NYCMER’s event mission was to make sure everyone attending will have a better understanding of the relationship between exhibition design and interpretation, and how educators can take advantage of their colleagues’ strategies in their own practice. These panelists explained their approaches to the practice of designing exhibits and their approaches to integrating interpretation. The first panelist was Ricardo Mulero who has been involved in exhibition projects include the National September 11 Memorial Museum and James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia; he discussed his experiences working on projects for these museums and revealed at the end the object we created exhibits for was a cast of Kodak Camera packaging foam (circa 1970s). The second panelist was Sofia Reeser Del Rio who is the Curatorial Programs Coordinator at El Museo del Barrio; she discussed her approach to exhibit design as a form of storytelling and used a seed as a simile for an exhibit. Like a seed, ideas need to be nurtured and supported by research, emotions, imagination, appropriate gallery space, and planning to become successful projects.

The last panelist was Paul Orselli, the President and Chief Instigator at Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc. (POW!) who discussed about creating prototypes or a tool to engage in co-creation outside museum, exhibit diplomacy (or how to try things quickly, answer simply, and let visitor answer you), and hybrid museum. Orselli also used Elvis Presley to explain exhibit prototyping by using each letter of his first name to discuss each step for prototyping; use everyday materials to make it easier, looseness in opportunities during development, have exhibits be vermicious or to worm around on different subjects, have iteration or in other words keep trying, and sharing ideas with visitors and other professionals. What I took away from this experience is being able to come up with ideas for integrating exhibit and education programs, and will hopefully use these discussions to assist in planning future programs. I believe I left the workshop with a better understanding of the relationship between exhibition design and interpretation.

These are only some of the emerging and seasoned professionals can develop their skills in museum education. Volunteering is another great way to get involved to not only help an organization but you can also continue to utilize and develop your skills. I volunteer as a Parish Historian for the church I grew up attending to keep track of the collections and figure out ways to utilize the collections; also, I volunteer for the Historical Society of Greater Port Jefferson and the Long Island Maritime Museum teaching school programs and working within the visitor services department. The previous experiences I shared with you all will hopefully show how much we can learn from professional development, and how important it is to take advantage of these events. I will leave you with the following questions to ponder on: What are ways you take advantage of professional development? Is there a session or workshop that inspired you? Have you presented at a conference before, and if you have what did you like most about your experiences?

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