Friday, November 16, 2012

Shelburne Museum Does NEMA

Recently Burlington hosted the 94th annual New England Museum Association (NEMA) conference. Staff from Shelburne Museum participated in several sessions on a wide range of topics from new building construction to LED lighting.

Paige and I co-chaired a panel discussion called, "Open Doors, Open Minds: Serving Special Audiences on a Budget," in which we spoke about Art at Hand, our tours for visitors who are blind or visually impaired, and Mornings at the Museum for people with Alzheimer's. We also worked with Paula Rais, Director of Community Engagement at the Children's Museum of New Hampshire. She runs Exploring Our Way, an acclaimed program for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Paige and I are both "Emerging Museum Professionals" or EMPs; we haven't been in the field very long, and neither of us had been to a professional conference before. Chairing a session was a true honor, and we had been preparing for it for almost nine months!

It began back in February with a call for proposals. This year's conference theme was "Pushing the Envelope: Innovation and the Future of Museums." We knew the special audiences we serve are quite unique; many institutions are just beginning to explore their potential. We also recognized that some of the museums well known for their array of accessible programming, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, have a designated "access coordinator" and corporate sponsors who facilitate and fund their tours. We wanted to show smaller institutions with more limited resources that they can offer meaningful programming to audiences with special needs.

Mornings at the Museum

Art at Hand
Throughout the spring and summer we coordinated with Paula, outlining our session and elucidating some general principles we've all learned. They included:
  • Assembling a team of advisors who are experts in the audience you are engaging
  • Soliciting feedback at every point in the process
  • Seeing special tours and programs as stepping stones to individual museum visits; anticipating and encouraging participants to return on their own.
When the day of our presentation finally came, we were thrilled to share our experiences with forty fellow museum professionals looking to start their own access programs. We fielded questions on everything from wheelchair guidelines to staff training. I found it empowering to share both the highlights and the challenges of these programs, and came out with new energy and excitement about our special tours--which was well worth the time spent. Thank you, NEMA 2012!

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