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A Look at the 2017 Oregon Museums Association Annual Conference Through the Eyes of Two First Time Attendees

31 Oct 2017 9:55 AM | Oregon Museums Association (Administrator)

It was a privilege to attend the 2017 Oregon Museums Association Annual Conference in Astoria, Oregon on September 10 -12. As a new volunteer docent at the Monteith House in Albany, I had heard about the conference and was intrigued by its theme - “Dialogue.”  Determined to go and discover ideas that might empower and supplement my little bit of knowledge about working at a museum, I applied for and received a generous stipend from OMA as a first time attendee. The stipend was much appreciated and the conference was even more helpful and interesting than I had expected or hoped for.

I attended ready to soak up the historic ambiance of Astoria and be inspired and empowered by speakers and workshop leaders who had immersed themselves in their respective historical fields. I was not disappointed. Of course, a person intrigued with Northwest history can hardly be in a place with a more visible historical context than Astoria. Every time there was a break in programming there was close and easy access to points of interest rich in Pacific Coast history - the Lewis and Clark Historic site, the Astoria Column, the beautiful Flavel House, the Garden of Surging Waves and the nearby sidewalk timeline. A visit of just three days in Astoria equals at least four centuries of time travel and considerably more if your tour leader can share the area’s amazing geographic story.

The conference started with an excellent keynote address by Dr. Martin Storksdieck who is the director of the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University. His research and insights on how people learn and the various contexts of learning was very helpful as I consider how the program and exhibits at Monteith House can be in closer dialogue with the schools as they help their students explore Albany’s past, engage the present and prepare for the future. The Monteith House, like most museums, is a treasure trove of opportunity for both formal and informal learning and the more we understand how people learn and the ecosystems that contribute to learning the more Monteith House can increasingly move from being a warehouse of history to an experience that curates a deeper knowledge of how the past creates and enhances the present and affects the future.  

Dr. Storksdieck reminded us that an effective environment for learning is one that engages people in a dialogue that moves from communication to engagement and from concerns about authenticity to the experience of aurality. The Monteith House is full of artifacts that are indeed authentic Monteith family heirlooms, but our task as Monteith storytellers is to help people engage  this historical context and these artifacts in such a way that increases the understanding they have and the value they place on such history. To do this we must come to a better understanding of who the people are that are visiting our house museum, what their learning ecosystems are and how we might engage them in conversation that will create pathways to learning. Dr. Storksdieck’s insights inspired me to consider more deeply and define more clearly what the stated mission of the Monteith House is and how our program might engage in more creative and edifying dialogue with the organizations and individuals who pass through its beloved, aged walls.

The most challenging part of attending the conference was the task of selecting which workshops I would attend. Besides several enticing pre-conference activities which included a canoe trip along the banks of the Lewis and Clark River, a tour of Fort Clatsop, a workshop on exhibit makeovers and a visit to the Knappton Cover Heritage Center - a Quarantine Station in 1899 there were ten intriguing sessions to choose from with time to attend only five. The expanse and variety of learning opportunities was impressive and I found myself wishing the conference was a day longer so I could attend them all.

The first session I attended was led by Deb Vaughn, Education Coordinator for the Oregon Arts Commission and April Slabosheski, Manager of Museum and Holocaust Education at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.  It was entitled, “Building Community Dialogue Through Your Exhibit Objects”.  Participants were invited to stand at a large table and view a set of candlesticks that had been placed at one end of the table. Our leaders then used a series of reflective questions which facilitated a vibrant discussion on what we had observed, how we interpreted what we had observed and, more generally, how objects are endowed with meaning. The richness of the workshop was that it provided two levels of learning - how to lead a reflective discussion and the opportunity to explore how the presentation of objects affect meaning making.  I left the workshop knowing that I would look at Monteith House’s artifacts with new eyes and with a  new desire to carefully consider the way our presentation will affect what people discover and learn in the house.

Following an excellent lunch provided by OMA I attended a session entitled “Traveling An Exhibition”  led by art consultant James Nelson. I had attended this session because I was intrigued with the idea of putting together a collection of Monteith House artifacts and sharing them with the schools that do annual tours of the house.  My vision of a traveling exhibit was much more limited in scope than the model Mr. Nelson used to guide us through the necessary components for designing a successful traveling exhibit.  Using an impressive and stunning  exhibit of oil paintings created by artist Michael Gibbons called “Yaquina, An Artist’s Voice for a Sacred Landscape” we were guided through the essential steps to designing,  maintaining, promoting and  protecting a traveling exhibit.

Monday’s final session was led by Jennifer Burns, Heritage Project Manager with Business and Community Services Clackamas County. “For Profit Tactics in the Nonprofit World” provided a wealth of information for enhancing the financial sustainability of the Monteith House. Most helpful were her ideas for cultivating a new audience for our house museum and the importance of discerning and sharing a unique value proposition that clearly and creatively describes why the Monteith House is a valuable asset to the health and well being of our community.

After an evening spent getting acquainted with other conference attendees at a delightful reception sponsored by Oregon Heritage and a good night’s rest, Tuesday opened with an excellent session led by a panel of presenters from Portland Children’s Museum. This session, entitled “Designing Exhibits in Dialogue with Children” was most encouraging and helpful to  my own personal dreams for the Monteith House.  I would like to see our house become far more intriguing and accessible to children. We give many school tours  through out the year, but much of the history is shared through passive listening and in ways that are not necessarily as developmentally appropriate as they could be. Using three exhibits at the Portland Children’s Museum as models, the panel offered guidelines and methods for discovering what children would most like, want and need to do which would enable them to engage exhibits in creative, age appropriate and meaningful ways. All of this stimulated a wealth of ideas that will help the Monteith House become a place children are excited to visit.

My last session at the conference was “A Step by Step Guide to the Oregon Museums Grant” led by Kuri Gill, the Grants and Outreach Coordinator for Oregon Heritage.  The workshop was a perfect conclusion to this excellent conference as it gave a clear and detailed guide to effectively completing the Oregon Heritage Commission grant application. Ms. Gill shared the grant review process and offered helpful tips for being fully prepared to write a successful grant. Each session I attended stimulated a host of ideas for new projects, programs and exhibits that would enhance the Monteith House experience. This session provided hopeful possibilities for securing some of the funds that will help the Monteith House turn great ideas into dynamic new programs.

I am extremely grateful for having had the opportunity to attend the Annual Conference of the Oregon Museums Association this year.  I expect that the Monteith House will benefit greatly in the years ahead because of the insights and ideas shared so generously by all the presenters. I look forward to what next year will bring.

Patricia Evans

Monteith House Volunteer Docent and Board Member

Albany, Oregon

A beautiful day for a 260 mile drive across the mountains, through the valley and along the coastline. What a great way to spend three days, in sunny seaside Astoria, with co-workers and all in the name of work. As the museum manager of the Deschutes Historical Museum, in Bend, Oregon, I have been asking for ways that would help expand my museum operations knowledge. The Oregon Museum Conference became that opportunity.

As a first time attendee I had no idea what to expect. I was excited to find the programs offered were well done and from each I was able to take away something of value I could incorporate and apply to my work. However, the greatest benefit I received from the conference was through dialogues I had with other conference attendees. The sessions were valuable, however I found the conversations which came after were invaluable. Being able to sit and chat and exchange ideas with others, learning their tips and tricks, and sharing their wisdom was a session in itself and very rewarding.

Driving home the car was filled with an energy high generating ways to implement all we had learned over the past three days, the fun we had, and looking forward to a repeat next year. 

Vanessa Ivey

Museum Manager
Deschutes County Historical Society


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