The Art Museum of West Virginia University Educational Programs Manager Heather Harris was one of 26 museum professionals selected to attend a transatlantic seminar organized by Fulbright Germany and the Leibniz Association, in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The seminar, “Museums as Spaces for Social Discourse and Learning,” focused on museums as unique sites of public discourse and spaces for dialogue, inquiry and engagement. The seminar aimed to deepen international understanding, while simultaneously supporting hands-on professional development, exchange of best practices, and lasting professional connections between curators, educators, and other museum professionals.
The four-day seminar, held Nov. 4-7, focused on strategizing exhibitions and public programing and embracing diversity and collaborations across disciplines to better allow museums to be considered spaces for dialogue, inquiry and engagement.
“It was a tremendous opportunity to think about big, important issues in Museum practice,” Harris said. “We visited museums around Washington, D.C., and were granted an amazing level of access.
“For example, one of the Curators of History at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture gave us a private before-hours tour of the historical exhibitions in that Museum. Likewise, the exhibition designers for the National Museum of Natural History’s newly re-opened ‘Deep Time’ exhibition gave us a tour of the space, emphasizing how they addressed the topic of global warming within the gallery.”
In addition to special museum visits, seminar attendees heard from esteemed museum professionals, as well as their fellow participants on their areas of expertise. Harris presented to the group on museums collaborating with universities.
Seminar attendees spent up to 13 hours a day learning about how to better use museums to as platforms for contemporary issues and discovery.
“I really appreciated the thoughtfulness that all participants brought to the issues we discussed,” Harris said. “One particularly meaningful conversation to me was how to invite participation from the museum’s community so that they feel welcome in the museum space.
“I hope that not only the University community, but the broader population of West Virginia will see the Art Museum as a place that belongs to them. I was inspired by ideas such as co-curating portions of exhibits with members of the community; using technology such as apps and audio guides to make the works of art relevant; and diversifying program offerings based on community needs.”
While many of the other seminar participants came from larger museums with more resources, Harris learned how she can scale those ideas for the Art Museum of WVU.
“At times I wondered how museum practices from large institutions, like the Smithsonian, could be applicable in our space, as it is hard to think about the relevance to our institution with a staff of seven,” Harris said. “Ultimately, though, we discovered that despite size of institution and differences across cultures, there are many fundamental values that we are all striving to uphold. Everyone there was deeply committed to the idea of making museums more accessible to all.”