Museums curate community amidst COVID-19

UW Museology found innovative ways to connect graduate students with museums and their communities during the pandemic

The Highline Heritage Museum’s new building in Burien was open for just nine months when the COVID-19 pandemic closed its doors to the public.

Nancy Salguero McKay, the museum’s director, wanted to tell the story of the community’s experiences during this historic pandemic. But as the museum’s only full-time staff, she was already tasked with the work of virtually connecting the museum community amidst social distancing.

And as the pandemic started closing museums, museums also started cancelling their student internships. Dylan High, graduate advisor for the University of Washington Museology program, wanted to find a way to both support museums with the problems they were facing and give the Museology master’s students a way to access internships remotely.

“We want students to be prepared to take on these big problems and these things that museums are grappling with,” High said. “If they can find meaningful ways that they can demonstrate that skillset now, then they’re going to be in such a better position being able to do that and having the confidence that they can do that as they move into the workforce.”

To meet these needs, the Museology team created a problem-based summer internship program. Museology graduate students and alumni who had just graduated in 2020 worked in teams with six different museum organizations across Washington to provide students with paid experiences and community partners with extra help during a challenging moment. Most importantly, it allowed communities to virtually access their museums during a pandemic.

“In the end, it’s not for me, it’s not for the program, but it’s a service we’re providing to the community, so I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity,” Salguero said. “One thing I say frequently is that the museum is from the community to the community.”

People gather inside museum. Historical posters adorn wall.

Highline Heritage Museum in Burien, during its opening in 2019. (Photo courtesy Nancy Salguero McKay)

Salguero’s interns created the foundation for a 12-month series called “Social Justice in the Time of COVID-19.” Each month for the next year, the museum will focus on different themes like voter suppression, immigration, and homelessness in Native American communities.

Students researched and created a document about what each theme would focus on, designed related social media posts, and suggested community partners that the museum could connect with to share this work or serve as a guest speaker. While the internship is over, the project now serves as a tool for Salguero, who can use it to build these virtual exhibits, contact community partners, and solicit possible grant funding.

While multiple students did work for one museum, museum directors communicated with just one intern: the project manager, a recent alumnus of the Museology program. Knowing that museum directors were short-staffed and overworked during this time, the internship was designed this way to alleviate the communication and management burden while providing alumni with project management experience.

The social justice series created by Museology students for the Highline Heritage Museum. (Photo courtesy Nancy Salguero McKay)

Shiro Burnette, who graduated from the Museology program in 2020, served as the project manager for interns working with the Highline Heritage Museum. The experience, Burnette said, was reflective of his time in the Museology program, in that it provided him with a broad base of skills from helping museums with multiple challenges, to matching student interest and skills with museum needs, to communicating deliverables and expectations.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to help bridge that gap right after graduation, and continue working in the museum field, particularly given the current struggles with cultural industries right now,” Burnette said. “I think it is great that the program has weight in the community and has enough rapport and influence that we were seen as a viable source of aid at that time.”

While students brought skills and experiences to the museums, the museums provided opportunities for student growth.

Devonshire Lokke interned for the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. The museum wanted a toolkit to help start conversations about race and anti-racism with its board, staff, and eventually, community members. The importance of the work was intimidating to Lokke, who questioned whether she was the right person to do it. But through dialogue and collaboration with her teammates, Lokke realized that even though she didn’t consider herself an expert on the subject, that didn’t mean she couldn’t participate.

“You’re never going to grow professionally or personally if you look at a problem and say, ‘It’s too big for me,’ or ‘I’m not qualified to do this.’” Lokke said. “That concept of doing the best you can and bringing yourself up to a high bar and having an idea instead of doubting it and rolling with it and seeing what comes of it was a good lesson from this experience.”

  • Shiro Burnette

    Shiro Burnette

    “I thought it was a great opportunity to help bridge that gap right after graduation, and continue working in the museum field, particularly given the current struggles with cultural industries right now...I think it is great that the program has weight in the community and has enough rapport and influence that we were seen as a viable source of aid at that time.”

  • Devonshire Lokke

    Devonshire Lokke

    "You’re never going to grow professionally or personally if you look at a problem and say, ‘It’s too big for me,’ or ‘I’m not qualified to do this.' That concept of doing the best you can and bringing yourself up to a high bar and having an idea instead of doubting it and rolling with it and seeing what comes of it was a good lesson from this experience.”

  • Em Hall

    Em Hall

    “This type of partnership allows for students and organizations to make connections more efficiently, which is a big issue of equity, because the amount of time and energy students have to pursue things outside of their coursework is tied to other life factors. If I’m working or raising a child or on the bus for two hours a day, I might not have the same amount of time to devote to applying to internships as other students might.”

Lokke and her teammates created an anti-racist toolkit for the museum amidst the national dialogue around racial justice and Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. The toolkit includes a glossary of terms and discussion prompts for talking about racism and privilege. They also created cards with concrete actions the organization could take to make steps towards becoming anti-racist. The cards also included organizations that could provide further support or resources on these topics.

Students also took on projects museum staff hadn’t had time to dig into. The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum had just developed a new website, and graduate student Em Hall was tasked with beginning the work of increasing web accessibility for people who had vision-impairments, specifically, through the use of alt text.

WIth her computer monitor turned off, Hall used a screen reader to comb through the website so she could understand what the experience was like for people who couldn’t see. She researched best practices for how alt text should be written and she created resource documents for museum staff.

Museum leaders said these types of projects were especially helpful during this time.

“I only knew that there was something out there that we needed to do better, but I really had no expertise about the details of it. But (Em Hall) just dug in and figured that out.” said Merilee Mostov, the museum’s director of exhibits and engagement. “It’s just an example of how helpful a grad student in Museology can be, to provide new ideas, new strategies, new work habits and new best practices for us.”

The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum (Photo courtesy Merliee Mostov)

Mostov said museum directors and curators were strapped for time trying to move current exhibits online. Mostov’s new exhibit, Her Vote. Her Story., commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, was open for one week when the pandemic hit and the museum closed. So Mostov filmed the exhibit to allow the community a virtual experience, as well as started a video project called the Curious Curator, which shared different Bainbridge Island stories with the community.

This new method of finding internships helped bridge an equity challenge for students, some of whom faced additional stress and responsibility from the economic and social impact of the pandemic. Rather than applying to 10 internships, they could submit their applications and be matched with an internship. The students were paid through Museology’s paid internship program, a pilot that is now in its third year.

“This type of partnership allows for students and organizations to make connections more efficiently, which is a big issue of equity, because the amount of time and energy students have to pursue things outside of their coursework is tied to other life factors,” Hall said. “If I’m working or raising a child or on the bus for two hours a day, I might not have the same amount of time to devote to applying to internships as other students might.”

When High created the remote internship program, he wasn’t sure whether or not it would work as a remedy to in-person experiences. But because of its success, High said they’re planning a similar internship next year.

Of course, both interns and museum staff felt the loss of not physically working in their museum communities. But students also said the virtual internship sparked their interest in a community they hadn’t been to before, as well as a desire to visit when it’s safe to do so.

Museum directors hope the community feels the same way about museums: becoming curious enough by the virtual programming to make that in-person visit in the future.

 

By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School
Published Nov. 19, 2020

Lead Image: Compilation of posters for Highline Heritage Museum’s Social Justice in the Time of COVID-19 project