May 14, 2020
This past week I participated in the annual New York City Museum Educators Roundtable (NYCMER) conference. I previously wrote about past experiences with the NYCMER conference in which I discussed not only the content presented and discussed but also about the locations each conference took place. It was different this year since we are in the middle of a pandemic, and the conference was moved to a virtual platform. The conference was free to attend with the option to donate money to receive NYCMER merchandise based on the tier level chosen. One of the ways NYCMER was able to transition as quickly as possible to move the conference to the virtual platform was, they found a computer platform that was specifically designed to host virtual conferences. NYCMER and the conference committee used Hopin, the first all-in-one live online events platform made for any size where attendees can learn, interact, and connect with people from anywhere in the world, to host this year’s conference.
When I first registered for the conference, I was not entirely sure how the conference is going to be held in the digital platform. I watched a ten-minute introduction video to the Hopin computer app, and was impressed with how much we would be able to do; to summarize the video, participants would be able to do what we usually did during the conference, including attending the keynote session, sessions, poster sessions, Peer Group meetings, and networking, but from home. Since we were exploring a new way of interacting with one another, it was not going to go smoothly. Every now and then there were some technical difficulties, but we all moved passed them. On the morning of the conference, I used my personalized link to log on and joined the rest of my colleagues.
I attended the Keynote session, and this year’s Keynote Speaker was Chloe Bass who is an artist and public practitioner, and the author of the book Art as Social Action: An Introduction to the Principles and Practices of Teaching Social Practice Art. Bass’s speech was a very inspiring and on point to what we are going through during this pandemic. One of the takeaways from her speech that I especially found to be important is to think about our staying away from others as “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing” since we can still communicate with one another without being physically in the same space; also she pointed out that “social distancing” implies that we should not be communicate with and be kind to one another. Then we went into our sessions in the Sessions section of Hopin.
As usual it was hard to decide which session I wanted to attend but I remembered that as a NYCMER member I would have access to resources from each session, and this year NYCMER members will also have access to all of the session recordings. In the end, I decided on sessions that not only interested me but ones I thought my professional skills will need improvement on. The sessions I chose were: Using Theatrical Techniques to Engage Your Audiences, History Engages Science: Connecting history and STEM programming, Addressing Absence: Telling the Stories of Underrepresented Groups, and Beyond the Walls: Museum Educational Programs in the Digital Space.
In the Using Theatrical Techniques to Engage Your Audiences session, participants including myself learned some best practices from professionals who use these techniques at their museums to encourage more effective engagement with their audiences. The speakers in this session were Erin Salthouse (Access Educator at the Intrepid, Sea, Air, and Space Museum), Elysia Segal (Lead Teaching Artist at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum), Julia Butterfield (a Program Associate at Historic Hudson Valley), and Maggie Weber (Director of Education of The Old Stone House of Brooklyn). They broke down the session into three sections describing what is a theater in museums, museum theatre performances, and third person living history. Museum Theatre is a live interpretive presentation with performers who engage visitors by portraying characters and conveying a story or dramatic narrative; when developing a program, they stated that it is important to keep in mind the age of your audience, the topic, style, format, and accessible. Third person living history means that the staff does not pretend to be characters from history, or anyone documented as living at the site. Also, they described process drama which allows students to be in the roles to learn empathy as well as being empowered by the decision-making process. In addition to the previously listed, they pointed out how theatrical skills can help every educator especially by using skills every museum educator can use: tone, volume, body language, et. cetera.
In the History Engages Science: Connecting history and STEM programming session, it was aimed to inspire connections and new ideas. The session speakers were Samantha Hartford (Miller/Historian in the NJ Morris County Park Commission) and Erich Morgan Huhn (Education Assistant at Historica Speedwell in Morristown, NJ). They broke down the way we approach both history and STEM, then took a look at ways these fields can overlap in effective programming and even collaborate to build something new. Both of them shared examples from their respective organizations that used both history and STEM to educate school, homeschool, scout, senior, and adult groups. Also, the conclusions they made were that incorporating STEM in programs allows museums to explore beyond the site, STEM connections are always appreciated but rarely sought at a historic site, and that living history, demonstrations, hands-on, and other types of education programs can sneak STEM in.
In the Addressing Absence: Telling the Stories of Underrepresented Groups sessions, participants including myself learned how educators at the Whaling Museum and Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor and the South Street Seaport Museum addressed these absences by developing new programs that told the stories of women and African-Americans through new programs. The speakers were Brenna McCormick-Thompson (Museum Educator at the Whaling Museum and Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor, NY) and Rebecca Manski (an independent educator currently based at the South Street Seaport Museum and Social Justice Tours). Both speakers talked about how they worked to refocus the narrative to include women more in the whaling industry narrative and African Americans more in the South Street waterfront narrative. McCormick-Thompson, for example, explained that by not telling women’s stories we lose the idea of what the economy was like in the whaling community since they were the ones who stayed behind to run their husbands businesses and fill their roles in advisory boards while they were out on the sea.
Also, both speakers split the participants into three separate groups (by providing links to two separate session spaces to split over 100 people into smaller groups by birthday month) to discuss the following questions: How can things change in society when we reintroduce these stories? What are the things stopping us? How can we effectively engage audiences? By discussing these questions, we begin to think about how we can create more inclusive programs and be able to share ideas to take steps towards creating new programming in our own museums and sites.
Between sessions in the morning and afternoon, we had opportunities to participate in networking, poster sessions, and peer group meetings. The Hopin conference platform has a networking section that allowed us to click on a connect button that selects a participating individual at random to connect with others at the conference. However, the challenge was to keep within a certain time limit that first began with a two-minute limit then it continued to increase after a number of participants told conference organizers that they kept getting cut off mid-sentence. The poster sessions were numerous case studies that discussed various topics in museum education, and we were invited to hop around in the Expo section of Hopin to listen to each one. Also, the peer group meetings this year were split into two booths: one was a video overview of the Peer Groups and the other was NYCMER Secretary & Peer Group Liaison, Sierra Van Ryck deGroot will be on hand to answer questions. After the break, we went to the last sessions of the day.
I chose to attend the Beyond the Walls: Museum Educational Programs in the Digital Space session that explored whether and how the physical “third space” of the museum can shift online from the perspective of the Bronx Museum, which is a small museum with very little digital presence until March. The speakers were Nell Klugman (Education Programs Manager at the Bronx Museum of the Arts) and Patrick Rowe (Director of Education at the Bronx Museum of the Arts). Klugman and Rowe described what their programs were like before the pandemic and converting to the virtual platform. After describing their programs that involved teens in interviewing artists, designing graphics for posters, and participating in art programs on anti-gun violence campaign, the speakers revealed how they adapted existing programs to the online platform and keep teens involved in the existing programs they were previously involved in before the pandemic. Also, they led an interactive discussion of how best to share resources, reach communities, and achieve goals during the COVID-19 pandemic and the future beyond it. Once the last sessions ended, we went back to the Stage section of the Hopin platform for concluding thoughts and thanking everyone involved in setting up this year’s NYCMER conference.
While I missed being able to meet with colleagues in person, I liked that we were still able to have the conference in the virtual platform. Also, the number of individuals who have signed up for the conference had doubled compared to the previous year; normally about 250 people attend the conference in New York City and this year over 500 people have registered for the conference (with more on a waiting list). There were more individuals outside of the New York area who have attended the conference. They came from places including but not limited to Texas, Arizona, San Francesco, California, Chicago, Illinois, et. cetera. Also, there were individuals from England and Canada attending the conference, according to the president and vice president of NYCMER. Even though I would like to attend NYCMER in person once again, if it is decided to do another virtual conference, I would be happy to attend to connect with more museum professionals.