top of page
  • Writer's pictureErin Salthouse

American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting: Sustaining Vibrant Museums Part 1

The emphasis for this theme was on strategizing funding for museums.


At the education and evaluation track panels I attended, the main topics and trends seemed to be: Inclusive/ representative of community hiring and community collaboration.


An Interactive Education Gallery: Challenges, Triumphs, and the Final Product

This session was at the Historic New Orleans Collection, a trio of archival library, museum, and publishing house.

It was led primarily by Jenny Schwartzberg, who took over a project manager role midway and was frustrated by miscommunication, sudden changes of plans and goals, and a main exhibit element being in unusable condition. The goals were for a totally interactive, Universal Designed accessible space with sensory and experiential learning opportunities and replica items. Many of the frustrations came from interdepartmental tensions and an unclear chain of command and the fact that this was the first ever attempt at such a project. However the end result was an enjoyable, welcoming space. There were scent bottles that connected to the New Orleans landscape, wall sized images, and (my favorite) a touchable deer hide, with informational text behind it.


Keynote Session

It was New Orleans, so there was a brass band!

This panel Keynote included: Carol Bebelle (Co-founder and executive director of Ashe Cultural Arts center), Mitch Landrieu (Mayor of New Orleans), and Rick Lowe (Community organizer of Project Row Houses).

The slides began with an acknowledgement of the history of New Orleans, and that the land was taken from the Chitimacha Native Americans who lived there.

The discussion focused on how New Orleans has been recovering from Hurricane Katrina and years of economic disparity. Each panelist talked briefly about their project. Both Carol and Rick described community rejuvenation projects which seemed to be going well. The Ashe Cultural Arts Center focuses on arts programming and opportunities for people of African American descent. And Project Row Houses seemed to be focused on economic opportunities within community building. Mitch discussed the removal of some confederate monuments in New Orleans, which received popular applause from the Museum professionals in the audience.

Some of my favorite quotes are:

"Museum visitors are stuck in the shows people of color make up 11% of museum visitors but 39% of the population"

-Laura Lott, President and CEO of AAM

"Our country is the way it is because it was designed that way... When you're talking about institutional racism... Its because of redlining... The people that write history have a special obligation to get it right & we have done a terrible job at that."

-Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans

"There needed to be a vision of what a community would look like if social justice were supreme... A community of not just 1st chances but with 2nd chances"

-Carol Bebelle, Ashe Cultural Arts Center

"What people don't know about the greenwood disaster is that the black people came back and rebuilt the neighborhood stronger... Made me wonder what Black Wallstreet would look like"

-Rick Lowe at about Project Row Houses

Overall it was an uplifting discussion, though it acknowledged the deep injustices and difficult struggle the city’s people and its cultural institutions continue to face.

Education Committee Lunch

I am so grateful I signed up for the EdComm lunch this year!

Things were off to a slow start from buffet style lunch, but the awards were for some really inspiring and fantastic programs. During the lunch, Ed Comm leaders listed out awards for noteable programs at museums across the nation. The focus was on museums doing collaborative work with communities and sharing authority. For example, the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens received the Innovation in Museums award for and Urban Farming School Program, which addressed food deserts and food insecurity while also teaching gardening skills. Another interesting highlight was the Shedd Aquarium, which received the “Excellence in Resources” award for its Sea Curious Kids Video Series. This program supported children as they learned about animals and then decided what topics to teach others about using video, including “What does animal poop look like?”

This was a great way to get a feel for the state of the field and to network with other passionate educators.

Contextual Inquiry Research with Diverse Audience: A Different Approach to Museum Evaluation

In my opinion, this was honestly one of the sessions that makes it worth the cost of going to AAM.

Moderator: Janice Majewski (Institute for Human Centered Design)

Panelists: Valerie Fletcher (Institute for Human Centered Design)

Ashley Grady (Smithsonian Access)

Beth Ziebarth (Smithsonian Access)

Beth Ziebarth started the panel with some points about Museum Evaluation:

Methods must be accessible for evaluators and visitors alike.

Who is in your institution?

During her discussion of creating and implementing accessible museum evaluations, she dientfied the following 6 Inclusion Challenges:

  • Identifying a disability

  • Sampling

  • Access for participants

  • Staff training

  • Statistical analysis

  • How the data is interpreted and used

Some solutions require a bit of context and thought.

One example was trying to respect and interview people who are culturally Deaf but don’t want to be associated with people with disabilities. So to capture both, phrase your question this way: “are you Deaf or do you have temporary or permanent hearing loss?”

Another example is the location where you are collecting data. If there are stairs at an inaccessible entrance or exit, collecting data here will exclude visitors with mobility restrictions.

Beth also reminded us that many disabilities are invisible, for example people with low vision. Beth emphasized the importance of training staff how to get responses from visitors who are non-verbal, who may be screen reader capable, and who may benefit from having paper to organize thoughts if they have an intellectual disability. Beth mentioned that in a statistical analysis, people with disabilities are often outliers, and not on the bell curve. She argues that the data is valuable, and should not be dismissed because of this.

“Most people with disabilities are not apparent. That’s a fact.”

Valerie Fletcher started with a ton of facts about diversity.

85% of people have low vision.

80% of disabilities are based in the brain.

Valerie also explained that most children who have disabilities when they are young abandon this identity in higher education but will “vote with their feet” if they cannot fully participate in museums.

Valerie brought up the National Black Disability Coalition. If you are not familiar with this group, take a second to check it out. Valerie then explained that the World Health Organization changed its definition of disability in 2001, so that mental and physical reasons for limitations are described neutrally and considered as equal.

Then she launched into describing contextual inquiry and the format of user experience. Although fairly demanding, she claimed, it is particularly valuable and worth doing. With this format, you can research “pretty much anything.” Valerie describes participants as user/experts: people with lived experience who have expertise. She argues this is a valuable insight others cannot imagine. The heart of this evaluation is to have user/experts do what anyone else would do in the space: go to the shop, toilets, etc. Every part matters. Data collection is a mix of subjective exchange and objective observation. The interview should end with a chance for the user/experts to ask questions. Valerie was emphatic about documenting these interviews, using ipads, photos, and recordings. She said the most difficult thing for data collectors was to resist falling into passive “dwell time”, and stay focused and hyper observant instead. This user/expert model indeed seems exhausting, but I really value the holistic nature of the methods.

Ashley Grady, from Access Smithsonian described some of her experience with Mornings at the Museum and her former career as a Special Education teacher. Ashley focused on neurodiverse evaluation and detailed some methods for success with autistic participants. For example, she sends questions in advance and modifies written materials. One challenge is the setting or environment. Ashley tries to get feedback in the environment (or gallery) which is being studied, but it is also important to be mindful of that environment. Some rooms have competing sensory triggers and can be overwhelming, so it is important to give participants the opportunity to take a break. Ashley stressed the need to take time to think about how best to ask questions of the user/expert. She gave an example of an evaluation she did with a group called “Cool Aspies” who all had different learning styles and different ways of communicating. Ashley provided longer response times (avoid answering questions for them), set a schedule, gave user/ experts opportunities to self-advocate, and she emphasized that “ you can never repeat information too much.”

One question Ashley explored with the Cool Aspies was: How intuitive something was. For example, navigating a digital experience or using a space if English is a second language.

Contextual Inquiry is 1:1, requires intensive time and energy. But Ashley argues it is important to think about what might be being missed from more convenient data collection methods.

Some guiding questions:

  • Who do you need to have involved?

  • What do you need to prepare for it?

  • Is information in only one format?

  • Consider: people for whom English is not their first language, the entrance, any stairs, who is not coming or not coming back. “People who come one time and don’t come back inevitably don’t blame you, they blame themselves.”

Another point Ashley made was that having more information on a museum website that markets accessibility, including access services, social narratives, etc, “shows we want you to come” and Ashley argues this is important because for many people with a disability, they didn’t feel invited before. Ashley gave the example of an autistic user/expert who, when asked why they had not been to the museum before, replied that they had not been explicitly invited.

This goes beyond website welcoming, though. Ashley explained that museums need to provide Deaf appropriate interpreters, written information, Closed Captioned and real time captioning, and assistive listening to ensure there is effective communication. As you prepare for an evaluation, she recommends, ask user/experts what supports they would benefit from.

Another factor to consider is environment and when it is best to interview in the gallery. Galleries can be distracting and noisy at times. Ashley warns not to skimp on documentation when working with user/experts with developmental disabilities and recommends 2 observers for one user/expert so that someone can be taking photographs and video. She frequently uses this method with prototypes, which so often just need tweaking. Initially, Ashley admits, it was difficult to get design firms on board, but says that after a few times they converted. Some parting advice she gives is not to delve into too many questions at once, like an interviewer on a talk show, and to be mindful to get feedback from everyone in a group, as some user/experts may have more outgoing personalities.

Overall I really enjoyed this session and I wish we had had more time to hear stories from each of the panelists and learn in more detail how to bring these evaluation methods to every institution.



Looking forward to Tuesday reflections? What about reviews of Museums in NoLA?

Stay Tuned, and please leave a comment.

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

5 Ways to Engage Non-Verbal Learners

This is not a comprehensive list, but a fun way to get started. As a museum educator, you may have non-verbal learners in your group with only a few minutes to get acquainted and pick up on strategies


bottom of page