This guest post is by Becky Gaugler, an independent Museum Educator in Pittsburgh. In her previous position, Becky managed programs for school and adult groups at Carnegie Museum of Art as an Assistant Curator of Education. A native Pittsburgher, Becky returned to her hometown after coordinating school programs at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, and completing the Brooklyn Museum’s intensive Intern Educators gallery teaching program. Becky is a co-founder of PittMER, a local networking group.
I was lucky to begin my museum education career with access to NYCMER, the New York City Museum Educator Roundtable. As an entry-level museum educator, this group helped me to meet colleagues, find mentors, and learn from the museum education community. But New York City is an anomaly with so many museums located in close proximity. How can smaller cities or regions with fewer museums, with greater geographic distance, create similar opportunities for networking, commiserating, and collaborating?
There is a national Museum Educators Roundtable, which, as Elliot Kai Kee notes in a 2012 article, was founded in 1969 “to discuss mutual concerns” and “to pursue their own professional development.” NYCMER was founded ten years later; this “mini-MER” “[provides] a forum for museum education professionals to address issues of museum and educational interest, exchange and disseminate relevant information, and to explore and implement cooperative programming opportunities through roundtable discussions, workshops, and an annual conference.”
Nearly 40 years after the founding of NYCMER, I was surprised to find that there are not consistently local “mini-MERs” around the country. PhillyMER, founded in 2011, was one of the few I found.
I moved from New York City to Pittsburgh in late 2009. A few years later I met Sara Lasser Yau, also a museum educator from New York City. We missed the networking opportunities of NYCMER and decided to start something to connect us specifically to other museum educators in the city.
Pittsburgh has several other networking groups like Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s PEAL (Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders), Drinking about Museums Meet Ups, and the Remake Learning Network. But there are a number of reasons to support the benefits of having a group that specifically meets around topics relevant to museum educators:
- Networking. The chance to meet colleagues from other museums. To know who to call when you’re asked to do a new project at your museum or when you’re a freelancer looking for gigs. To help connect lone educators from smaller institutions who may be the entire education department.
- Sharing best practices. Networking offers benefits to both individual educators and their museums, since participants have the opportunity to share insights, best practices and strategies, and to build on what you’re already doing at your own museum(s).
- Learning what’s going on in your area. Professional museum education networking groups are helpful when it comes to knowing what’s going on around town. This can prevent educators from planning similar (and potentially competing) programs.
- Collaborating. In many cases, networking can lead to collaborations among museums. For example, PhillyMER had great success planning an event that brought together approximately fifteen institutions and hundreds of area teachers to learn about local museum school programs. Collaboration, not competition, made the best use of everyone’s resources.
Of course, there are challenges as well as benefits. Here are two:
- Diversity of disciplines. PittMER members come from a range of disciplines: art, science, history, and children’s museums. We’ve found it is difficult to have enough members to create smaller discipline-specific break out groups. What are other ways to make sure we’re appealing to and addressing the needs of museum educators across disciplines? We are still working on answering this.
- Negotiating local and virtual networking. Online opportunities for professional development and networking have changed the calculus for local professional groups. Beth Maloney, a Museum Education consultant based in Baltimore, notes that both are valuable: different professional circles benefit you in different ways, depending on where you are. This makes local MERs easier to structure, in that they do not need to be all things to all members.
Suggestions to starting your own mini-MER
My former PittMER co-chair, Felice Cleveland, recently began a job as the Education and Public Programs Director at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. She is talking to colleagues in Houston about starting a local mini-MER. Together, we put together this list of suggestions for museum educators interested in creating mini-MERs in their own communities:
- You will need one or two dedicated museum educators to take the lead. One point person will need to manage and delegate jobs. And founders must be willing to run things for a few years before gradually handing off management responsibilities.
- Create a steering committee of four or five educators. Committee members can help share ideas, host events, and divide up the work. Committee responsibilities don’t need to be overly taxing, and meetings can be scheduled on a relatively infrequent basis depending on how much programming you are planning.
- Design an online presence. Start small and tap the resources that your colleagues have to offer. PittMER started with a listserv and Facebook. Recently we added a website, as well as a Google form for collecting information on members.
- Experiment! What works best for day of the week, time of day, time of year? What topics or formats are most successful? Try new things–we’ve found that tours with follow-up roundtables and happy-hour chats have been just as successful as more formal, presentation-style programming. Philadelphia has had success with “Caffeinated Conversations,” in which someone with experience hangs out in a coffee shop for a set time period, and PhillyMER members can just show up and chat. Be sure to create surveys so that members can share feedback and give you new ideas, or volunteer to host events.
Does your city or region have a MER? What are the benefits? What programs are most successful? What are your challenges? If there isn’t a MER in your area, are you considering starting one? What do you think you might need to be successful? How can the online world support the local, in-person world?