Submitted by Nathalie Sanchez, Education Specialist.

On June 6th, I attended my first Museum Educators of Southern California (MESC) event, which happened to be the end-of-the-year convening of museum educators from across southern California. This year’s event was titled “Annual Institute: Responding to Change.” These “changes”  including the introduction of MESC’s revised mission, values and vision statements, transition of MESC Board Members, and two presentations on engagement strategies when addressing difficult conversations with visitors during these turbulent times.

Led by the outgoing MESC Board for over a 2 year period, the new mission, vision and values were presented to and celebrated by the members of MESC. The mission reads: “We are an inclusive alliance of critically aware museum educators who cultivate and build strategic relationships rooted in sharing resources and encouraging experimentation that empowers the field.” This mission reads like a declaration, that shares a not-so-distant cry between the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and a reminder of the significant leadership role of the museum educator, today. Additionally, the new MESC Values empower and elevate the museum education field through 1. transparency, 2. community, 3. inclusivity and 4. solidarity. These four pillars emphasize the museum educator as a compassionate and transparent leader, a critically-aware and creative community member, and an empowered social justice and arts advocate.

During our current polarizing political climate, racially divisive rhetoric and policies enacted, and an overall American and global cultural shift fearful of uncertainty or the next presidential tweet, I believe that individuals have become motivated to take action and make a change, personally, politically and professionally. Therefore, this year’s Annual Institute is timely, relevant, and incredibly important for all educators, alike. After last year’s presidential election, I, too, felt directly impacted and recognized that youth felt similarly. As an ESMoA Education Specialist, I experienced challenging moments with some visitors and school group tours with Experience 25: Brain, a solo show, by Artist Peter Badge, of nearly 400 black and white photo-portraits of living Nobel Prize Recipients, including 2008 Nobel Peace Prize Awardee President Barack Obama. I recall leading a school tour of Brain the day after the presidential inauguration and witnessing the physical excitement as well as emotional withdraws from the site of a portrait of President Obama, as one of the images highlighted on the guided tour. “Did Trump get a Nobel Peace Prize?” a student asks with both curiosity and concern in his voice. “No, he has not received a Nobel Prize.” I answer. “Oh, good. Uh! I don’t like him.” Admittingly, I did not feel prepared for this response and other visitor comments in the days that followed. How do critically aware museum educators facilitate challenging questions or difficult conversations with a guided group tour or visitors?

“Annual Institute: Responding to Change” offered insights, resources, strategies and small group dialogue for museum educators in order to promote inclusion and diversity among visitors in our current times. Presenters Mary Hendra from Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) and Mark Katrikh from the Museum of Tolerance (MOT) shared readings, lead self-reflective exercises, and distributed a teaching module as part of their organization and museum’s educator and docent trainings. Mary and Mark offered their expertise in the areas of civic discourse and facilitating difficult guided group conversations and reminded us, as museum educators, of our vital role to address misinformation, bias or outlandish visitor comments. Mary reminded us all that “it is possible to be non-political and necessary to be non-partisan.”  Mark shared MOT’s Facilitating Difficult Conversations: 5 Steps to Success, which include: 1. Affirm the questioner (i.e. Thank you for your courage in asking that question), 2. Follow up with a question (i.e. What do you see/think that makes you say that?, What are your sources?), 3. Reframe the question or comment (i.e. How might someone feel when hearing this?), 4. Elevate the discussion (i.e. If we imagine a world where…), and 5. Transition the conversation (Let’s look at the next exhibit on…) and encourage visitors to continue the conversation beyond the tour. Moreover, museum educators or docents should be mindful of “blind spots” or shortcomings and “hot buttons” or trigger words when it comes to possible assumptions, practicing non-judgemental language and, if needed, apologizing for any mistakes said. Given slight modifications, depending on the type of art museum, institutional/educational goals, and/or issues raised, museum educators are encouraged to utilize any, all or altogether outsource teaching strategies (guides, resources, etc.) for their teaching practice. As educators in our changing times, it is bestowed upon us the vital role and responsibility to teach, to lead, to listen and to learn, so let us continue to challenge ourselves, facilitate challenging conversations with others, and, if anything less, encourage the continuation of such conversations.

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Photo Credits: Nicole Martinez