NEMA 2015: “The Language of Museums”

“…The stories we craft, and the stories visitors to exhibitions both bring to, and craft from, their encounters, can expand empathy and create transformative experiences, provide new insight and catalyze action.” Marla Miller, Professor, UMass History

The New England Museum Association (NEMA) held its annual conference in Portland, ME, on November 4th-6th. This year’s theme was “the language of museums,” and many sessions explored the importance of communication. Students, faculty, and alumni from the UMass Amherst Public History program attended the conference, and several of us maintained an active presence in the conference’s Twitter conversation, #NEMA2015 (click the link to see our tweets on Storify).

UMass Amherst Public History faculty, alumni, and students at NEMA 2015.

UMass Amherst Public History faculty, alumni, and students at NEMA 2015.

Many sessions that we attended focused on making museums inclusive spaces that combat systems of oppression, but there were also sessions on visitor engagement and photographing museum collections. Other members of the UMass Amherst Public History cohort attended sessions on objects and emotion, creating empathetic experiences, legislative advocacy, statewide collaborations, having difficult conversations in museum workplaces, and graphic design.

Here are some reflections from faculty and students on #NEMA2015:

In “Gender and Sexuality at the Museum: Inclusive Practice for Visitors and Staff,” we discussed why and how gender and sexuality come into play in the museum for visitors and staff, and what museums can do to ensure that all departments of the institution maintain gender-inclusive practices. We talked about the notion of a “default” person (who is typically conceptualized as a white, heterosexual, cisgender man), and how this category designates anyone that does not conform to this “default” as “other”. The awareness that people come into a museum with multiple identities – including gender and sexuality – expands the museum’s capacity for empathy and engagement with its community. —Chelsea Miller, MA Candidate, UMass History

Prof. Marla Miller (@MarlaAtUmass) tweets during session on gender-inclusive practices in museums.

Prof. Marla Miller (@MarlaAtUmass) tweets during session on gender-inclusive practices in museums.

In a session called “Objects and Emotion,” the facilitators asked us to write labels for objects that would evoke certain emotions from specific types of visitors. This exercise revealed the difficulties—and possibilities—of harnessing the emotional experience visitors often have in museums in a way that’s productive for both the institution and the visitor. —Julie Peterson, MA Candidate, UMass History

How can museums engage visitors in dialogue around critical issues like climate change or mass incarceration in museum space and encourage them to keep those conversations going with friends and family after they leave? This difficult question was the foundation of my favorite session at NEMA. Museums are often considered learning spaces, and presenters from the Museum of Science (Boston), New England Aquarium (Boston) and Providence Children’s Museum (Rhode Island) showed creative ways to use museums as spaces of conversation and ways to bring the conversation to potential visitors through events within communities outside the museum. I was most impressed by the presenters’ commitment to having visitors (rather than the museum) ask questions and start the conversation. Their focus on curiosity, which drives many people to come to museums, may help visitors feel more comfortable engaging with these tough questions. The case studies presented in this session show that museums can be advocates for big issues connected to their mission without alienating visitors and doing so may even increase visitation. I continue to be intrigued by the idea of museums as a space for social dialog around hard questions, and the session sparked many ideas about how the upcoming HAL exhibition might engage the community in the challenging issue of mass incarceration. —Sara Patton, MA Candidate, UMass History

My big take-away was from the morning session on empathy moderated by NEMA Executive Director Dan Yaeger.  The conversation in the room showed that many museums now aspire to provide their visitors with transformational experiences that lead them to care about a social issue and act on it.  That’s a high bar, but why not? —David Glassberg, Professor, UMass History

Katherine Fecteau (@defactofecteau) tweets about empathetic experiences in museums.

Katherine Fecteau (@defactofecteau) tweets about empathetic experiences in museums.

My coursework this semester has prompted me to consider the role that museums can play in pushing visitors to be more open and aware when exploring exhibits, and I found myself pondering this issue at NEMA as well.  I also attended the seminar on “Opening Pathways to Empathetic Experiences” in museum settings, which included an engaging discussion of best empathy-inspiring practices.  The suggestions for these practices ranged from creating conversation spaces to replacing “Don’t Eat and Drink in the Gallery” signs with instructions to “Open your Mind” and “Assess your Assumptions.”  Perhaps the most resonant moment of the session for me, though, came from a comment made by Dr. Daniel Broyld from Central Connecticut State University’s Public History program.  Dr. Broyld observed that “empathy is static without action,” that simply inspiring compassion is not enough and museums should set loftier goals for themselves.  I agree with Professor Glassberg; it’s ambitious, but why not? —Katherine Fecteau, MA Candidate, UMass History

In “Speaking My Language: The Whys and Hows of Multilingual Museums,” we talked about how the language of museums can reflect the voices of diverse communities. The session focused on multilingualism in the context of inclusion, accessibility, and a visitor-centered museum experience. In small groups, we focused on specific aspects of implementing multilingualism in museum settings. Most importantly, we talked about how museums need to move past language itself—that just translating exhibit labels does not tell members of your community that you are trying to include them in your museum. Rather, in addition to translating content and hiring multilingual staff and leadership, museums should craft content that caters to the communities that they are trying to bring in to the museum. Conversations about the technical aspects of multilingual museums like how to find a translator, the physical placement of bilingual signage, and how to handle situations in which bilingual staff are asked to go outside of the scope of their job description to translate for a museum were also particularly intriguing. —Chelsea Miller and Julie Peterson

Prompt from session “Museums Respond to Ferguson: Bringing Race into the Foreground”

Prompt from session “Museums Respond to Ferguson: Bringing Race into the Foreground”

Aleia Brown, co-founder of #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson, co-facilitated a session called “Museums Respond to Ferguson: Bringing Race into the Foreground” with Linda Norris, of the Uncatalogued Museum in NY. The goal of the session was to help participants develop tools to address race in museum spaces in more productive ways, and to highlight racial inequities that exist in museums and their communities. Aleia encouraged us to think about how we communicate in uncomfortable situations with regards to race, and to pay attention to the language we use and the power dynamics at play in those situations. The facilitators handed out examples of museum settings in which racial tensions might arise, and we worked in small groups to come up with responses and solutions to the situations. Audience members raised questions interrogating “neutrality” and the role of an institution versus the role of an individual in confronting racism, and suggested methods for approaching potentially charged situations. —Chelsea Miller and Julie Peterson

Julie Peterson (@juliegpeterson) shares comments from participants at session

Julie Peterson (@juliegpeterson) shares comments from participants at session “Museums Respond to Ferguson”

While emotions ran high in the session, it was a necessary conversation about how to deal with situations in which racial tensions arise. I personally walked away from it inspired to do more—as a public historian, but also in day-to-day interactions—to address instances of racism and prejudice, and hope to see more conversations like this at conferences and in museums in the future. —Julie Peterson

I spent a lot of time at NEMA contemplating connections between those conversations and our work on the Humanities Action Lab initiative Global Dialogues on Incarceration. In sessions like “Gender and Sexuality at the Museum: Inclusive Practice for Visitors and Staff,” and “Museums Respond to Ferguson: Bringing Race Into the Foreground” I appreciated being able to engage in conversations about identity and inclusivity, while the presentation by Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors (“Do Museums Matter?: Key Findings from the Museums R+D Research Collaborative”) was really illuminating—and inspiring—about how the stories we craft, and the stories visitors to exhibitions both bring to, and craft from, their encounters, can expand empathy and create transformative experiences, provide new insight and catalyze action. —Marla Miller, Professor, UMass History

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