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Reflections on the SE Future of Education Road Trip with SEMC Executive Director Susan Perry…

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Greetings! Sage here from CFM to explore our Future of Education Road Trip once again, this time in the context of the entire Southeast region with the Southeastern Museums Conference director Susan Perry, who was a great resource to us in the planning of our Road Trip and along the way. Susan was available via text through snow, rain and traffic as we made our way through the region and helped Nicole and me understand firsthand the importance of the complicated constellation of state, regional and topical museum associations that complement and collaborate with the work of AAM. We each have specific and necessary missions to better serve our museum communities– from the hyper-local to the national landscape– in concrete and complementary ways and we work the best in close partnership.

Sage Morgan-Hubbard (SMH): Thank you Susan for all of your help on our Road Trip and for agreeing to conduct this interview. As you know, our Road Trip was focused on the “Future of Education.” What do you see as trends in education and museums, especially in the Southeast?

Susan Perry (SP): First of all I want to thank you for your road trip. I think it is proactive—that you care to come out and dispel the stereotypes of the Southeast and meet with museums face to face. That personal interaction is important, especially in the South. I come from a museum education background. I love that educators usually have local networks to collaborate with each other, such as in Georgia, they have a regular meetings of educators and share ideas. In terms of trends in education in museums, I tend to agree with Elizabeth Merritt’s forecast that education is moving towards relevancy with the real world. I have a liberal arts degree and I believe in them, but we see a trend in students wanting degrees that are not just broad knowledge based, but have relevancy in securing a real world job and employment. I see young people selecting more marketable majors in college in order for them to get a job. Museums are relating to their communities more directly. Museums are becoming community catalysts, a gathering place of community and viewed as community centers. The trend that I am seeing is museums marketing themselves as a vital places to have difficult discussions and be relevant to their communities. Museum education departments have been doing this work for a while, but it is just getting stronger. Education departments, such as at the Atlanta History Center where I have an office, have sustained relationships with schools that are beyond field trips. They conduct repeated visits from certain schools, and at the Atlanta History Center, the homeschool programs are hugely popular. For many different school-aged populations, the museum is an alternative classroom. Each community has a unique expression of this trend. The exhibit “Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta” at the Atlanta History Center curated by Dr. Calinda Lee that you saw when you visited, incorporated many diverse stories and interactions that students love. They even worked with StoryCorps to add stories and we see the visitor populations growing and changing because of programs like these.

(Image captions: Dr. Calinda Lee, curator of “Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta”, interactive touch screen to experience stories, an interactive video of oral histories of LGBTQ families in Atlanta, and a StoryCorps booth located inside of the exhibit for visitors to tell stories and add them to the exhibit.)

Museums in the South are looking broader, beyond the collection and exhibits, and ask themselves, “How can I meet the needs of my community as a museum?” Another good example of this is the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte. Earlier this fall when there were riots in uptown Charlotte, many businesses were evacuated, but Levine decided to stay open and be a radical place for community members to process and talk. I see this as a necessary and important trend that extends far beyond education into all aspects of our museums.


(Image captions: Kamille Bostick, VP of Education and Programs at the Levine Museum of the New South, instrumental in the Nuevolution exhibition, and Three Kings Day program pictured next to her. Below is an example of the many interactive talk-back boards through the museum)

SMH: Thank you. I am also curious about the relationship between museum work and labor that you see in the Southeast region. During our road trip, my colleague, Dr. Nicole Ivy, was able ask questions about the Future of Labor and we saw many points of intersection between education and labor in the Southeast.

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SP: Yes, I see these as important issues and connected. Similar to the trend for relevancy, the entire museum community is looking to become more diverse and inclusive in staff, programs, and exhibits, both nationally and at the community level.  Museums, especially in the Southeast need to reflect their own communities in hiring practices and staff. It is a challenge to know how to go about making these changes when there is often not a lot of turnover with staff, however it is encouraging to see more emerging museum professionals coming directly out of college and graduate school applying for museum jobs. This newer generation of museum professionals seem to be more diverse, not only racially, but also in their fields of study. Many of these students are coming from majors that are outside of museum studies, art history and history majors. Museums are slowly looking outside of traditional tracks for employees that have specific skill sets more than specific majors and this is increasing the diversity of the field. I am excited about Nicole Ivy’s new position as the director of Inclusion at AAM and I think this can help us as a field. I have concerns for the next generation of museum leadership, particularly for some of the smaller museums. Many of our museum professionals are getting older and don’t have plans in place for the next generation of museum leadership. This is why SEMC is developing a new program similar to, the Jekyll Island Management Institute (or JIMI) for mid-career (2-3 years in their career) professions to provide them with a broad overview on museum leadership. JIMI has been a great first step for us, but our next step is to develop more diverse leadership and to be more inclusive. We have made a lot of progress already and there is room to grow. We would love to include more specific professional development to provide assistance with the skill training that a director would need. SEMC as an organization wants to focus on our  impact –what is our impact and our relevance? We see the intersections of inclusion and financial stability as part of our future impact.

SMH: Do you see the shifting demographics in the Southeast and new technology impacting these changes in hiring and education?

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