Reflecting on NEMA 2015: The Language of Museums

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IMG_8418From Left to Right: Jennifer Emmerson in period dress, Kate Herron Gendreau, and Camille Myers Breeze present at the 2015 New England Museum Association Conference.

 

After a long-awaited mini-break, I’m back in action and enjoyed having some time to digest the happenings of the 2015 New England Museum Association Conference that took place earlier this month in Portland, Maine.

It was my first time presenting at the conference, so the three fast-paced days kept me on my toes. It was such a pleasure to finally share Andover Figures with our museum colleagues and present a session alongside my partner Camille Myers Breeze titled, “Articulating Bodies: Developing and Disseminating New Tools for Historic Costume Display in Small Museums.” We were delighted to be presenting to a standing-room-only crowd and to lead the great discussion that followed. As much as we have wanted to provide a solution for costume mounting in small museums, we have also wanted to get the word out about the challenges that lead us here and the concepts that have been helpful in the development of the Andover Figures system. If you are looking for any of the handouts from our presentation, you can find them all right here in the Resources section of my website.

NEMAbooth2015Camille and Kate celebrate with a toast during the exhibit hall reception Wednesday evening.

 

A special thank you goes out to Jennifer Emmerson of the Denison Homestead in Mystic, Connecticut, who was an enthusiastic collaborator in helping us to illustrate the concept and importance of understanding historical silhouette in the interpretation of historic garments. Thanks also go out to John Dunphy, Vice President of University Products, who so graciously provided exhibit space for our product samples. Andover Figures will be available for order via University Products nationwide.

While I didn’t get to attend as many sessions as usual, it was good to connect with colleagues new and old while participating in conversations that I am going to strive to act and think upon in my own practice. There were so many topics to absorb, so I’ll stick to highlighting some content I found especially meaningful and plan to revisit many of these topics individually going forward as I dig deeper:

Session: Emotional Objects
Presenters: Rainey Tisdale and Linda Norris
It was great to see this session back on the schedule this year as I’d missed it in 2014 and was really looking forward to it. It was packed with some great exercises that compelled us to consider how we might construct object-based emotional experiences within the museum space as well as how integral emotion is to committing experiences to memory. I’ve often thought about how an object might be used to provoke an individual emotion, but this session prompted me to consider how we might use object-inspired emotions to communicate between disparate groups in order to form a bridge between them. I also loved the concept of doing a collection inventory to identify which emotions objects elicit and which objects may be underperforming in this area.

Session: How to Have a Difficult Conversation at Work
Presenters: Marieke Van Damme and Sarah Franke
We’ve all had them and I’m always trying to figure out how I can navigate difficult conversations in a way that better facilitates healthy outcomes. So often, we don’t talk about this kind of stuff and tuck away our “authentic selves” while at work. I love that this kind of session acknowledges this as something that can be improved upon because it really can affect organizational performance and outcomes, even if not everyone wants to admit it. It was great to see that people of all experience levels filled the room as we worked our way through different scenarios, considering how relying on facts, mindfulness, humanity, and being genuine can shape a conversation.

Session: Museums Respond to Ferguson: Bringing Race Into the Foreground
Presenters: Aleia Brown and Linda Norris
The room for this session was charged with some of the most raw and impactful dialogue I have witnessed at a professional conference. As difficult as it was at times to navigate, that’s what also made it the most useful and thought-provoking. It’s very hard to boil this down to a bullet point and, really, the point of the talk was that this is a difficult conversation that is incredibly worthy of NOT being boiled down. It is incredibly worthy of more purposeful and considered attention on our part as museum professionals in order to build a framework for productive visitor engagement around the prominent discussion of race in America. To my knowledge, we as NEMA attendees have not gathered to focus on this subject so directly before, so it felt like there were a lot of emotions and thoughts to unpack alongside the intended content. Of course, it was important to acknowledge that the room itself was representative of the majority white/female make-up of museum workers in New England and that if we as a field are to put history to use in shaping a national dialogue on race and inequality, then we must first confront racism and inequality in our own internal practices. I’ve long thought of the museum as that safe “third-space,” the living room of the community so-to-speak. This session challenged the idea that a safe space is not always a productive space for learning and that, if the country is to move forward, we must find better ways to talk about difficult things. Museums have the opportunity to be an agent of great change and we can start by talking to each other about this more and educating ourselves.

There were several other sessions I’ve been hearing great things about on gender, multiculturalism, and language, but was unable to attend in-person. I’d love to hear more from other attendees about what content you are most excited about or challenged by. What are you taking home from NEMA 2015 that you are still digesting, hoping to learn more about, or trying to incorporate into your practice? To follow more reflections and content, you can also check out the hashtag #NEMA2015.

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