Building Capacity Across the State
–Eli McClain, Building Capacity Project Fellow
Over the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with over two-hundred museum professionals across New York State as the Building Capacity Project Fellow. Entering this role in the middle of the pandemic, I faced new learning opportunities every day and grew as an emerging museum professional with the support of my colleagues and our 96 museum participants. This week, the project comes to a close after more than 9,000 miles on the road, 555 1:1 meetings, 3,581 contact hours, and more than 90 workshops and training sessions.
MANY staff designed the Building Capacity, Creating Sustainability, Growing Accessibility as a rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The project’s goals were to help museums reach their audiences virtually by providing much-needed hardware and software, increase digital literacy and skills among museum professionals through training, offering personalized support, and peer to peer learning opportunities, and helping them to utilize the new technology and skills to develop and deliver virtual programming. In the changing pandemic environment, the project team strove to reflect, reassess, and pivot to best meet the needs of our partners.
Building Capacity sparked countless conversations amongst the the MANY staff and with the participants across the state about what it means to engage audiences digitally, how to balance in-person and digital projects with staff capacity, and the need for sustained incremental growth of technical skills for museum professionals.
As I look back and reflect, I want to share some of the lessons we’ve learned and share just a few innovative and impactful projects created by our partner museums from across the state.
Facilitating New Forms of Engagement
At the Percy Grainger House in White Plains, Museum Coordinator Ann Occone and Director of Bands at Brown University and International Percy Grainger Society Board Member Matthew McGarrell proposed a unique project to create new ways to access and interact with the museum’s collection. GLOSS, the Grainger Library of Sampled Sounds, invites users to interact with the museum’s collection through recordings of Grainger’s instruments and ambient sounds around the house. Built on Google Sites, GLOSS includes multimedia content to learn about Grainger and his “Free Music” philosophy and provides access to download sound recordings and create new compositions. In Spring 2022, the Percy Grainger House piloted after-school composition workshops at White Plains Middle School students to test GLOSS with target audiences and to receive feedback for continued project development. Looking ahead to this school year, Anne and Matt are hoping to build off their successes and work to deliver additional composition workshops for middle school students.
Percy Grainger Museum’s GLOSS website
Sharing New Research
The New York Transit Museum used new research to develop Communities Through Time: Placemaking and Displacement through the Lens of Public Transportation –a new virtual school program that explores the impact of the transportation system on three communities across the City. Education Manager Polly Desjarlais is hosting professional development workshops in partnership with the Center for Brooklyn History. These workshops will provide educators with tools to discuss with their students the role of transit in the city and the development of communities. The museum is also exploring opportunities to facilitate virtual public programs that share their research findings on various neighborhoods and strengthen relationships between the museum and its multiple audiences.
Highlighting Different Perspectives
Many of the stories we tell about the past come from the perspectives of adults. At the Seward House Museum in Auburn, Education Outreach Coordinator Kate Grindstaff worked to highlight a different perspective through an interactive website focused on the daughter of William Henry Seward. The Fanny Seward Story gives users the opportunity to learn about the youngest daughter of Senator William Henry Seward in the late 19th century. This interactive website explores Fanny's life as a young, privileged teen girl during the Civil War using digitized collection items including her diary. The website’s target audience is 4th and 5th graders who explore Fanny’s life, family, world and legacy, and includes activities for further exploration into Fanny’s story.
Building Off of Successful Models
In Year 1, Fort Ticonderoga created a companion program to their successful A Soldier’s Life virtual program. A Provincial Soldier’s Life, used the museum’s existing virtual program space andwas designed to teach students in grades 3 to 8 about the French and Indian War through the lives of American soldiers and their daily experiences. The program includes discussions about resources and trade networks using inquiry and object-based learning. In addition to developing this new program, Museum Education Coordinator Katie Long and School and Youth Programs Interpreter Corri Swart redesigned Fort Ticonderoga’s digital education resources and teacher packets using Adobe software to create a cohesive online presence.
School and Youth Programs Interpreter Corri Swart presents Fort Ticonderoga’s Year 1 project at a regional workshop
Connecting with Community
In Utica, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute (MWPAI) brought voices from the community together to respond to the museum’s summer exhibition on Norman Rockwell and encourage critical reflection on the artworks. Spearheaded by Musuem Educator for Docent and Tour Progams Amy Francisco and Digital Marketing Manager Kaytlynn Lynch, Communities in Conversation is three-part web series featuring brief interviews and prompts that explore community members’ perspectives on art. Visitors are invited to respond to these prompts at the museum, at the Utica Public Library, or online. The project builds on previous work at MWPAI to integrate community voices into the galleries, and experiments with different ways of looking at and responding to art. Amy and Kaytlynnbuilt and strengthened relationships with members of historically underrepresented residents in Utica.
Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute’s Communities in Conversation space
Working Across Departments
At Genesee Country Village & Museum (GCVM) in Mumford, Director of Education Jennifer Haines and Youth and Family Programs Manager Alyssa Lynch collaborated with colleagues across the organization to develop a three-part video series that highlighted one of the historic structures on their campus. Museum staff produced stories about the history of the Livingston-Backus House, the relationships between members of the Backus family, their disagreements on important social and political issues of their time, and the role of pamphlets and circulars in spreading these differing perspectives. This collaborative project allowed GCVM to leverage the strengths, interests, and skills of staff members to increase access to relevant stories from the past.
Partnering Far and Wide
Virtual programming provides greater flexibility when working with external partners and presenters and alleviates budget pressure from travel expenses. At the Slate Valley Museum in Granville, Executive Director Sarah Kijowski and Museum Associate Wendy Bordwell used the hardware and software provided by Building Capacity to deliver a variety of virtual and hybrid programs. During the past two years, the Slate Valley Museum staff gained confidence partnering and running programs with other museums from outside their region. In May 2022, they presented Exploring Slate Around the World that gave their audiences an inside look at Belizean Artist Jorge Castellanos’ slate carving workshop. This virtual program transcended national borders, highlighted culturally specific stories about slate, and opened the doors to future international partnership opportunities.
Reaching New Audiences
Curator of Education Brenna McCormick-Thompson, Museum Educator Maria Fischetti, and Assistant Director Gina Van Bell at The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor expanded the geographic reach for their activity-based Museum-To-You programs through synchronous and asynchronous virtual offerings. As the pandemic progressed, the museum saw continued interest in pre-recorded, kit-based programs that provided more flexible participation options for families. In the summer 2022, the museum virtually reached audiences from 67 different libraries across the tri-state area. This increase in reaching new audiences spurred new conversations about sustaining digital programs in the long term.
Curator of Education Brenna McCormick-Thompson leads a tour of The Whaling Museum
While virtual programming has increased accessibility, it also created new barriers for individuals without access to stable high-speed internet, devices to access digital programs, or the digital literacy to engage with program platforms. In North Tonawanda, Executive Director Ian Seppala and Outreach Coordinator Marissa Seib at the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum increased accessibility to their virtual programming by partnering with libraries across three local systems to host live, in-person viewing events. Carrousel Chats lectures include discussions on carrousel painting, restoration, maintenance, lost parks, and kiddielands from presenters across the country. These programs are recorded and uploaded to the museum’s YouTube channel to provide continued access to these valuable conversations. Moving forward, the museum is exploring sponsorship opportunities to continue to offer these programs free of charge to the public.
As the pandemic environment shifted, more museums began discussing hybrid programming; what it means to go hybrid, the benefits and drawbacks, and the technical logistics. The Rockwell Museum was among many museum partners that explored hybrid programming. In March 2022, Interpretation and Public Engagement Educator Kate Swanson and Events Coordinator Janelle Steiner partnered with staff at the Southeast Steuben County Library to deliver Buffalo Soldiers & the African American Experience in the Army with guest speaker Dr. Krewasky Salter. “This partnership paved the way for future hybrid programming,” commented Kate and Janelle in their final project report “Since March, we’ve hosted several hybrid programs of varying scales…Thanks to this partnership, we now have the experience to speak from an informed place about any possible requests for a hybrid program and have a better understanding of the staff and resources it takes to create a successful program for both audiences.”
It has been incredibly rewarding to witness and reflect on the growth across the Building Capacity cohort over the course of this project. I am proud of the work of all of our partners who have experimented with new stories, formats, models, and methods during uncertain times and have built new best practices through their work. As we look ahead, I believe in the strong foundations they’ve developed to support their next steps and look forward to seeing how they continue to build capacity, create sustainability, and grow accessibility.
To learn more about Building Capacity and the work of partners across the state, visit nysmuseums.org/BuildingCapacity