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Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums Conference Report

The annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums (MAAM) which I attended was held in Tarrytown, NY, on October 7-9. The conference rotates locations and since this year it was only a few miles away and had many sessions related to New York, it seemed worth attending. It is unlikely that I will attend next’s year conference in Washington, DC, but it definitely was worth attending this one.

New York was well-represented at the conference. Barbara Bartlett, NYSOPRHP Lorenzo State Historic Center was one of the organizers. The students from the graduate programs in museum studies at Syracuse and SUNY Oneonta attended in droves. And the distinguished achievement award went to New York’s Sally Roesch Wagner, executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.

The program itself began Sunday afternoon with the historic visits. Interestingly the overwhelming majority of participants were the graduate students. One observation about the attendance at the conference was while many of the students were their for the duration or until their carpool left for Syracuse or Oneonta, many of the speakers especially the local ones attended only for their session. So some people were gone in the blink of an eye and were easy to miss which detracts from the overall unity of the event.

The opening guided tour as well as the reception the first night were at renovated theaters. The Tarrytown Music Hall is now operated by Karina Ringeisen, the daughter of the parents who rescued the abandoned theater from dilapidation and oblivion. This once former mainstay located on Main Street and right across from the Lyceum, which no longer is a Lyceum, harken back to the days when such facilities were the life of the community and deeply intertwined into the social fabric. Everyone went there. The same is true of the Irvington Town Hall Theater also located on Main Street that now is above the town hall. With its 400 plus seats it attracts different performers than the 850 seat Tarrytown theater or the 1800 seat Port Chester Capitol Theatre one block from Main Street which had just opened a few weeks earlier with Bob Dylan. By contrast the newly renovated Paramount Theater in Peekskill may be headed for foreclosure. This topic of downtown theaters that once were the lifeforce of a community is worthy of a post in its own right. There are many stories to tell from around the state of such restorations.

One session of particular interest was “A New Look at WWII: Making Global History Tangible and Local” with Marci Reaven, New York Historical Society, Aileen Chumard, Brooklyn Navy Yard Center, and Rachel Herman, Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Here we have sites or exhibitions focused on the 20th century examining the role of New York in World War II. Personally this was a great opportunity to meet the people, another key ingredient in attending a conference. This led to an invitation to them to present at the annual conference of the NYS social studies teachers to be held February 28-March 2, 2013 in Rye Brook. They all accepted and are looking forward to working with the teachers and perhaps putting together a visit to each of the sites in the summer. Regular readers of my posts know how I push for greater collaboration between historic sites and schools so scouting the conference for people to present at teacher conferences was one of my objectives. Mission accomplished.

A similar experience occurred in a presentation about the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor where I meet Jean Mackay, Director of Communications and Outreach who put me in touch with Lori Duell. We talked at the conference and by phone about the possibility of creating Paths through History along the Erie Canal. The state project for now is focusing on designating sites and erecting signs, not creating paths for tourists and teachers to take. I have mentioned this before in previous posts. So while the Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor is one of the designated sites, has co-chaired some sessions in the Mohawk Valley region, and has its own signs and regional website, putting together packages for people to take is not yet being done. With the contacts and knowledge of the Heritage Corridor by the staff, it should be possible to create pathways that include a multiple number of sites along the Canal including those that might be too small on their own and be overlooked even though they are part of the story. This is something which should be done statewide. Mission accomplished.

Another successful session was the final one of the conference, “Serving Visitors Takes a Village! Case Study: How the National Museum of the American Indian-New York (NMAI-NY) engages its staff and volunteers with FOCUS on the visitor” with John Haworth, the director, Margaret Sagan, Visitor Services Manager, Lucia DeRespinis, Development and Communication, and Isabel Byron, consultant. NMAI-NY is much bigger than many historic museums so some of the lessons presented may not apply in smaller organizations where individuals have multiple roles. In a museum of this size, people often have specialized tasks such as guard, educator, shop sales, custodian, etc., yet they all are part of the museum experience for the visitor. Everyone with whom the visitor can come in contact needs to be aware of being a representative of the museum who can make or break a visit with a curt tone or a warm smile and engaging interaction with the visitor. The presentation focused on the staff training relating to this reality. My interest in meeting John, whom I knew only by email although I had met Margaret, was also in inviting him to participate in the social studies conference. Now there will be a session on the Peoples of America with presentations by NMAI-NY and Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Mission accomplished.

Not all the sessions or encounters were as successful as these in leading to possible future programs but I think by now you get a sense of why I enjoy such conferences. Besides the material being presented, there is a chance to meet with people face-to-face to discuss future collaborations which then can be done by phone and email. These conferences are a place to experience new ideas, meet new people, strengthen bonds, and nurture the history community in the broadest sense…which is why I keep touting county history conferences even though nobody is going to do them.