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What’s Doing in New England?: The NEMA Conference

The review of conferences continues with the New England Museum Association “What’s In It For Me” annual conference held November 6-8, in Burlington, Vermont. As the conference title suggests, the theme was “It’s your career. Take charge of it.” I was unable to attend this conference. What follows then are abstracts from the website and come comments.

Let me start with some education sessions as these have a general applicability.

EDUCATION SESSIONS

Giving Teachers What They Want: How to Foster Deeper Connections Between Sites and Schools
How do we inspire local teachers with immersive professional development experiences at our museums to foster sustained school-museum partnerships and engagement? As barriers to traditional field trips become more prevalent, focusing education programming on supporting educators can lead to more quality student-site interactions, a deeper valuing of our museums in the community, and an expansion of museum capacity. Join us as we discuss and practice practical and more nuanced strategies for collaborating with teachers.
Facilitator: Beth Beringer, Director of Education Programs, Essex Heritage, MA
Speakers: Luis Bango, Educational Technology Specialist, Woodstock Union High School/Middle School, VT; Joan Haley, Director of Partnership Education Programs, Shelburne Farms, VT; Courtney Richardson, Director of Education and Public Programs, Cape Ann Museum, MA

By coincidence, this issue came up at the Putnam County Historians’ Roundtable which I just attended on December 7. The current dialog between schools and historic sites is inadequate. Typically, historic sites don’t know what schools want and schools don’t know what historic sites have. Even in the absence of field trips there needs to be more contact between these two groups. In New York, for example, history organizations are chartered by the Department of Education which suggests there should be a connection between schools and historic sites. There should be history organization sessions at every social studies conference and school sessions at every history conference. Although it varies from local community to local community, the present situation in general is abominable.

There were two sessions about summer camps.

Creating Community Through Summer Camps
For museums, creating summer camp programs that provide a fun, interactive, and educational experience for children has its own logistical and educational concerns beyond those already existing for the institution. This session will be a round table for camp staff to bring up their concerns, find creative solutions with the help of other museum camp staff, and brainstorm what has worked well in our respective institutions so that we can share those positive experiences.
Speakers: Barbara Jarnagin, Associate Director of School and Family Programs, and Mary Koehler, Educator Specialist and Director of Summer Day Camp, Mystic Seaport Museum, CT

Pitching Camp: The Hidden Benefits of Summer Camp Programs
This session will break open the world of summer camps! Discuss the barriers to starting and maintaining camps. Brainstorm how to use camps to draw in new audiences and strengthen ties to schools and community. Hear from teenagers inspired by camp experiences to stay engaged with museums into adulthood. Take time to examine the assets of your institution, generate ideas for innovative programming, and discover how summer camps could benefit all aspects of your museum.
Facilitator: Rebecca Coppola, Director of Education, Strawbery Banke Museum, NH

Admittedly, not all history organizations have the site for a summer camp. However if you do, then you should consider a summer camp program. It would be interesting to know what sites offering such programs already are doing. There is a benefit to sharing that information. In the second session, we have a brainstorming session and not a presentation. There was supposed to be a discussion. What if any ideas were generated? Will they be shared? Is the proper infrastructure in place so summer camp experiences and ideas can be shared with other history organizations? Please note the reference to teenagers in the abstract, an often overlooked group in the history site experience.

Two sessions addressed high school students among others.

Getting Their Foot in the Door: Strategies for Mentoring and Working with High School and College-Age Volunteers, Interns, and Staff
Stumped on how best to engage young interns, volunteers, and part-time staff at your museum? Join a discussion about strategies for mentoring and working with teen and college-level interns and employees in museums, facilitated by experienced staff from a range of institutions. Participants will have an opportunity to put themselves in an intern’s shoes, work through common challenging situations, and walk away with concrete strategies for mentoring their young staff, interns, and volunteers.
Facilitator: Christina Errico, Coordinator, Informal Engineering & Computer Science Learning, Museum of Science, Boston, MA
Speakers: Katia Christakis, Studio Art Program Coordinator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Martha Schnee, Youth and Teen Programs Coordinator, Portland Museum of Art, ME

Tapping into Social-Emotional Learning within Middle and High School-Museum Partnerships
How can museum educators create an effective school partnership that meets the needs of administration, teachers, students, and the museum? This presentation will showcase how, when art museum educators and teaching artists focus on social-emotional learning, they can craft interdisciplinary, dynamic, and personal curricula that are appealing and meaningful across stakeholders.
Speaker: Jessie Magyar, Community Outreach Coordinator, Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston, MA

These two sessions broadened the scope of historic site/school interaction. It did so by age by going beyond the elementary school. And it did so by format going beyond the facts to consider other ways of learning. The description focuses on art museums where individual expression and therefore emotions are more visible. I wonder if this approach would work in a history museum. Then again, such museums frequently having paintings and other works of art plus some often dramatic and traumatic stories to tell. I suspect the training required to do this well may not be part of the typical history educator’s background.

Hands-on Learning for Grown Ups
Museum professionals think extensively about providing engaging learning opportunities for visitors, although often the target demographic is school-age children or families with children. Adults love hands-on learning opportunities too! In this session, museum educators will present experiential programs that not only appeal to adults, but also attract first-time visitors. You will take part in a group brainstorm and develop ideas for active learning programs for adults that could be done in your own institution.
Speakers: Brindha Muniappan, Senior Director of the Museum Experience, Discovery Museum, MA (NEMA Board); David Rau, Director of Education & Outreach, Florence Griswold Museum, CT

I do not know what was presented, but the message is clear. Adults are students too. Once again, it would be nice to know what the ideas were that were developed in this brainstorming session. Once again, this is the type of session that should be part of every history conference.

STORYTELLING

We are a storytelling species. Where would history be without stories to tell? How do history organizations go about the process of telling the stories of their community? Here are some examples from this conference.

Cato & Dolly: Engaging Audiences and Sharing Unheard Voices Through Theatre
The immediacy and intimacy of theatrical performance can engage visitors and enhance their museum experience while amplifying exhibit content and challenging questions. The Bostonian Society created a new play, Cato & Dolly, to expose audiences at Boston’s Old State House to often unheard historical voices, as their institutional mission became more expansive and inclusive. Learn about the potential to use theatre to expand and diversify the perspectives and voices you’re sharing at your institution.
Facilitator: Patrick Gabridge, Producing Artistic Director, Plays in Place, MA
Speakers: Jon Ferreira, Interpretive Programs Developer, The Bostonian Society, MA; Courtney O’Connor, Associate Artist, Plays in Place, MA

Telling Other Stories: Adding More Voices to History Museums and Historic Sites
How can museums and historic sites expand their stories to include a wider audience? Presenters share examples of changes that helped engage communities and visitors in new ways. Hear how John Jay Homestead used community voices in an exhibit, how the Vermont History Museum added a photo booth to expand interpretation of a mid-century mural, and how Fort Ticonderoga included diverse stories in teacher workshops, all to reach beyond the traditional stories and engage today’s audience.
Facilitator: Victoria Hughes, Museum & Education Manager, Vermont Historical Society, VT
Speakers: Richard Strum, Director of Academic Programs, Fort Ticonderoga, NY; Bethany White, Interpretive Programs, John Jay Homestead State Historic Site

Interestingly two of these presenters are from New York including one from my own county. I note that because the local social studies conference is about to be held this Friday, December 13. I don’t know exactly what was presented but I do need to find out if it is school related so it can be presented in next year’s social studies conference.

CIVICS AND RELEVANCE
These two sessions address areas that may be difficult for many historic sites. It may seem too risky. However as the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution begins (2020 for the Boston Massacre), the events of the birth of our country are about to be relived. As I write this we are in the process of impeaching a President who has petitioned the Court to recognize that under Article 2 of the Constitution, the President is not bound by Congressional checks and balances. Let’s remember that according to King George III, the American Founding Fathers were disloyal traitors. Let’s remember that according to the American Founding Fathers, King George III had abused his powers as listed in an indictment we call the Declaration of Independence. It may become more and more difficult for historic sites connected to the American Revolution or the Civil War to ignore the resent as we relive the past and struggle to survive until 2026.

Civic Engagement and the Museum: Inspiring Our Audiences to Action
While many museums seek to create spaces for collaboration and conversation, Americans are hungry to talk about and engage in the civic process. To better serve our audiences we can continue learning from one another about how best to present civic issues in exhibits, interpretation, and institutional messaging. Come hear quick examples from the speakers, continue the conversation and have time to reflect on next steps for your work or institution.
Facilitator: Paul Fenton, Senior Community Engagement Coordinator, New England Aquarium, MA
Speakers: Emily Dunnack, Director of Education, Old Sturbridge Village, MA; Kelly Kryc, Director of Conservation Policy and Leadership, New England Aquarium, MA; Christina Turner, Director of Education, New Bedford Whaling Museum, MA

Hands-On Relevance
Many museums offer hands-on programming to further engage visitors with the content of their exhibits. Often created for specific audiences, how can this content be expanded to become relevant to a wider range of people? In this interactive talk, you will learn how the MIT Museum has designed active learning workshops for students, educators, and adults that, without changing the overall framing, contextualize learning to be relevant to the interests and needs of these groups.
Speaker: Brian Mernoff, Education Coordinator, MIT Museum, MA

ODDS AND ENDS

The following sessions are one-off that don’t easily lend themselves to grouping.

Suppose you are an archaeological site:
A New Twist on Living History & Visitor Engagement: A Case Study at Chimney Point & Mount Independence State Historic Sites
How do you make history come alive for visitors when your highly significant historic site is largely archaeological? What are interpretive options when the landscape’s history is mainly evident through subtle archaeological features and your budget is limited? This case study shows the approach at Vermont’s Chimney Point and Mount Independence State Historic Sites, using the historic and archaeological record and creative twists on living history and experimental archaeology to engage and excite visitors.
Speaker: Elsa Gilbertson, Regional Historic Site Administrator, Vermont Division for Historic
Preservation

Suppose you like maps:
Historical Interpretation in the Woods: On-Line Mapping for Your Museum
The Dorset Historical Society has created several popular online maps of historic districts, historic sites, and old hiking trails. See the ways you can update your institution’s old walking tours with on-line maps.
Facilitator: Jon Mathewson, Curator, Dorset Historical Society, VT

COMMUNITY AND COLLABORATION

Suppose you are interested in knitting the social fabric:
Statewide Collaborations: What’s in it for me?
In January 2020, the Vermont Curators Group will launch the project, “2020 Vision: Seeing the World Through Technology.” Participating institutions will mount exhibitions around the theme, and the group will pool resources to market their efforts. Statewide collaborations—art and history trails, thematic marketing, acquisition consortiums—have proliferated in New England in recent years. Panelists representing several states and project types will have an open and frank discussion about their benefits and challenges.
Facilitator: Andrea Rosen, Curator, Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont
Speakers: Jessica Skwire Routhier, Arts Writer and Editor; Managing Editor, Panorama, the Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art; Gillian Sewake, Project Manager, “2020 Vision: Seeing the World Through Technology,” a project of the Vermont Curators Group; Carey Mack Weber, Frank and Clara Meditz Executive Director, Fairfield University Art Museum, CT

PROFESSIONALS AFFINITY GROUP (PAG): Attendees have lunches and sessions where they can meet and network with people with a similar background or position. It should be noted that this conference may draw over 800 people so dividing into such groups is a lot easier than for smaller conferences.
Library and Archives PAG
Membership, Development, PR & Marketing PAG
The Museum Directors’ Discussion
College and University Museum PAG Lunch
Curators PAG
Educators PAG
Exhibitions PAG
Registrars & Collections Care Specialists (RACCS)

Historic Sites Open Mic Lunch
When else do you have a group of beautiful brains to bounce vexing museum questions off of, free of charge? Over lunch, we’ll be opening up the proverbial mic for participants to share (in 3 minutes or less!) recent successes, roadblocks, or other questions with the group. Real-time feedback guaranteed. Come dish and dine with the most eclectic PAG at the conference.
PAG Co-Chairs: Kelsey Mullen, Director of Education, Providence Preservation Society, RI; Emma Bray, Executive Director, American Independence Museum, NH

This session is a new one for me. I don’t know if it works or not. It certainly sounds like a way to enliven a lunch break.

CLOSING LUNCHEON AND ANNUAL MEETING
Close out your 2019 conference by celebrating the winners of the 2019 NEMA Excellence Awards and commemorate the career of Marilyn Hoffman, NEMA’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Awardee. Hear about NEMA’s latest initiatives, then help elect the next NEMA board and officers during a brief annual meeting before heading home from a great conference.

On a personal note, I like this end of the conference. So often conferences end with a whimper as people drift out at different times. You dread being assigned the final slot for your presentation that you worked so hard on. A closing session provides an opportunity to create order out of chaos. Not that the conference is chaos but a lot does happen during one. I realize the intention here is to be brief so people can start their long drive home and arrive there in daylight. Still there is something to be said for trying to wrap things up and to get some verbal feedback besides from those evaluation forms which are handed out.

Historians Who Have Historians Are the Luckiest People in the World: The Need for Meetings and Meetups

To paraphrase Barbra Streisand, historians often exist in an isolated vacuum but need fellow historians to thrive. Consider this situation: you spend years in graduate school and then working on your dissertation. Finally you are done and you get a job at a college. How many colleagues will you have who share the same interest? Yes, there may be other history professors there but not necessarily with the same expertise or interest you have. So what do you do?

Once upon a time scholars believed that if you build it, they will come. As it turns back in the before time, first we gathered, then we built it. We are a social species and storytellers so we periodically need to gather with other people. That is human nature.

Last summer (is it really over!), I attended the annual conference of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). The conference provides an opportunity for scholars of similar interest to gather together and present papers (I will get around to writing about the conference itself). But it also provides an opportunity for people to see each other and break bread together. Finally after months of being trapped alone on a college campus with no adult who has the same interest, you are among your own kind, people who speak your language, who share your concerns.

Actually, this annual get-together at SHEAR is supplemented by a range of opportunities during the school year to be united with your fellow historians. Already emails have started about early American history seminars being held this semester up and down the east coast. There are programs in Boston, Providence, New York, Binghamton, Philadelphia and points south and west just to name a few. I get some of the notices and sometimes they include the possibility of downloading a paper if one cannot attend in person. Such presentations draw from scholars within a reasonable travel distance of the host site and generally include a meal. They exist because we are people who typically do not want to be limited to our silos but want to get together, catch up, share knowledge, and eat.

Earlier this month, I attended the annual conference of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS). The conference location rotates around the state (never in New York City!). The attendance varies depending on the location and who is in close driving distance to the site so they can avoid lodging charges. Again it provides an opportunity for the municipal historians of the state who typically work with no contact with any other historian to do exactly what the history professors and grad students at the SHEAR conference are doing.

In this case, there are no monthly seminars. The state is divided into 12 regions. Each region is encouraged to have a spring conference to provide a second chance to meet-up. As a one day event, the regional conference draws people who cannot attend the more distant statewide conference with travel and lodging costs that usually are not reimbursed by the municipality. They would be if the mayor, police chief, or town clerk attended a state conference but not so much for historians. With 12 regions, as you might expect, the success of the spring conference varies, but still there is a recognition and attempt to bring people together.

One of the reasons why I advocate for county history conferences including both municipal historians and history organizations is to bring such meetings as close as possible. People who live only miles apart and do the same type of work may have no contact with each other, a major problem of the job along with the lack of reimbursement for state conferences. Do mayors never talk to other mayors? Police chiefs to other police chiefs.

One organization that has fully embraced the concept of meetups is the Museum Association of New York (MANY). Like SHEAR, APHNYS, and the New England Museum Association (NEMA), it has an annual conference that geographically rotates around the region served. In addition it has a very robust series of regional meetings throughout the state. Part of the reason it can do this is it has fulltime staff. Executive Director Erika Sanger then has the good fortune of being able to travel around the state to the ten regions (versus the APHNYS 12).

These meetings provide an opportunity to meet and perhaps get a behind the scenes tour of the host site. But they also accomplish another goal. MANY has a lobbyist. It has someone who advocates with the State Legislature on certain bills that are relevant to museums. It also is able to learn about legislation originating outside the history community that may affect the history community. Either way, by having these statewide meetings, Erika is able to bring the members of the organization up-to-date on what is going on at the state capital. MANY also had had conference calls on the legislative status. But MANY is not yet at a point where it can arrange its own advocacy day at the state capital the way so many other interest groups do.

In addition, in five of the 10 scheduled meet-ups for the fall, there is day program prior to the afternoon/evening program. That day program does have a registration fee.

There are other organizations which also promote such get together. For example, tomorrow or for you today when you are receive this blog, the Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHHN) will be holding its annual meeting at Bear Mountain. Even in a region like Hudson Valley, it is sufficiently large to warrant rotating the location to draw people. GHHN too offers programs during the year. Some are technical in nature and require a fee; others are late afternoon/early evening get togethers and include a behind-the-scene tour of the host site.

This survey is not complete. It is meant to highlight the importance of people getting together with colleagues, with people who share similar interests and problems. My favorite session at the APHNYS session is the new historian session. You are the new historian. Now what? I love hearing the stories of people new to the position tell of the challenges to figure out just what exactly they are supposed to do (another area of weakness in the municipal historian position in New York State).

This year the sessions was doubly gratifying. I was able to prevail on the mayor of the village and town supervisor of the village and town where I live to appoint a municipal historian. It happens to be the same person but that’s fine since you really cannot tell the story of the former founded in 1868 without telling the story of the latter founded in 1660 and vice-versa. The new historian was also able to attend the conference (possibly even to be reimbursed!). And I know he greatly appreciated the chance to meet his fellow new historians and to learn about what other historians are doing.

If you can attend an annual meeting do so.
If you can attend a regional meeting in your state do so.
If you can attend a county meeting do so.
If you do not have a county meeting, create one.
You should never feel that you are in this alone and you should never be in the position alone.

Two P.S.’s.
1. When organizing a meeting keep in mind the National Park Service and state historic sites. Frequently these people are left outside the invited list. True they often are not allowed to attend such conferences unless on their own time, but the information at least should be sent to them to give them the chance.

2. I have omitted specialized conferences on specific topics. For example, following the GHHN conference at Bear Mountain there will be a James Fenimore Cooper conference including a field trip to Cooperstown. Maybe there are too many conferences! That is why I cannot keep up with reporting on them in these blogs.