Coming Together in a Virtual World
Beginning a service year in September 2020, in the height of a COVID-19 uncertain world, was a challenge. Having served a year as an AmeriCorps previously, part of my service that I loved was getting immersed in a community and connecting with folks on a face level. Serving with the West Virginia Association of Museums (WVAM), I was excited to get to know museum and art professionals from around the state and explore sites that were beyond my Mountaineer Country-centric world. The big yearly gathering for WVAM is the annual conference, which is held in a different West Virginia town each year. This conference is a time for museum workers around the state to network, grow professionally, and also to relax and get to know their colleagues at other sites. By the time I started my service, the 2020 conference had been cancelled and 2021 was up in the air.
It was eventually decided that the safest course of action would be to host our annual conference virtually, much like a lot of other events around the country. This was unchartered territory for all of us at WVAM. We had to figure out the technical aspects, while also crafting a virtual experience that would still be worthwhile and engaging for our members and other professionals. We had to cancel some fun aspects of previous conferences - like the annual banquet and raffle dinner, and the pre-conference excursions to local museums and cultural sites.
Altogether, we were able to craft educational and social sessions throughout the week of March 22nd-26th, ranging in topics including grant writing, public arts, paper conservation, black COVID-19’s impact on museums in West Virginia, and more. One of my favorite sessions of the week was the session hosted by Black in Appalachia. I’ve admired their organization and the important work they do, and it was a great opportunity to work with them and bring them to a virtual audience in West Virginia that is equally excited about the work they’re doing.
I also really enjoyed one of the social sessions I led, the “Artifact Show & Tell.” We wanted to replace some of the networking and socializing opportunities that are normally present at a conference with light-hearted evening social sessions. While it was a bit awkward at first to adjust to a virtual format, the show and tell session ended up being a fun way for art and history nerds to show off items in their personal collection or at work that they find fascinating, weird, or just plain interesting.
After the conference was over, we sent out a survey and collected feedback to see how the conference was received by the attendees. From the responses we got, most folks were very pleased with the conference, which was a huge relief. Here’s some comments that we received:
“I appreciated the great variety of sessions and that they were strung out over a week, which made it easier to work into my busy schedule. I also liked the social activities--it is what I miss most about conferences.”
“It was much easier for me to access because it was virtual. I would not have been able to attend an in-person conference. It tends to be too far from the Eastern Panhandle.”
“I attended multiple sessions for the West Virginia Association of Museums Virtual Conference and enjoyed them all, but 'Black Narratives, Exhibition, and Engagement' stood out in particular. The erasure of Black histories in Appalachia makes researching, understanding, and interpreting sites associated with Black communities difficult. The resident-driven work that Black in Appalachia does is remarkable”
“This year's WVAM conference was a great mix of practically and theoretically based sessions that helped to round out my current studies at WVU and my continuing field work outside of the classroom.”
Planning and organizing this conference was a lot, but it was a relief to see the feedback and know that folks enjoyed and benefited from it. Personally, it was a great learning experience for me to see what goes on behind the scenes at a large event like this - marketing, session planning, schedule coordinating, and registration - it can be a lot. Add on top of that technical issues, and things can get a little hectic. Although COVID-19 forced our hand into hosting a virtual event, I think there are a lot of benefits to virtual gatherings that we discovered. It can be easier and more accessible for folks to attend due to costs and the time commitment, and we were able to invite speakers from outside of the state that maybe wouldn’t have been able to attend an in-person one. Although my service year is ending with WVAM, I am looking forward to following how the 2022 conference (which might be in-person!) develops and hopefully will be able to attend myself.
Lauren served as a Preserve WV AmeriCorps member for the West Virginia Association of Museums during the 2020-2021 service year.
During the past year, I made several trips to Ronceverte to help organize the city museum at its new location on the second floor of the Clifford Recreation and Community Center, following the sudden passing of Doug Hinton, the long-time curator of the museum. My primary objective was to inspect more than 50 boxes of artifacts and documents and prepare a computerized catalogue of the contents, which I completed.
In a random box, I discovered an incredible, priceless piece of West Virginia history: a 1796 land deed from the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia to Alexander Robison of Greenbrier County! It was folded firmly and stored in an envelope for many years, and I refused to harm a 200+ year old document by attempting to unfold it. Instead, I found a donor and researched a firm that could safely unfold, flatten, and frame the deed. I found a professional artifact restoration firm in Ohio, Old World Restorations in Cincinnati. They did an amazing job of safely unfolding the deed document, flattening it, and framing it in archival glass. I was proud to hand-deliver the framed deed to Mayor Smith in Ronceverte in April 2021.
I discovered many other gems in the Ronceverte Museum’s collection. Highlights from the 50+ boxes include the following:
1. 3 body tags with wire attached with notes from coroner; two have no date, but one is marked 'found May 23, 1963.'
2. 1880 Two small original photographs of West Virginia native Pearl S. Buck's parents Reverend Absalom Sydenstricker and Mrs. Caroline Stulting Sydenstricker in 1880.
3. "Good for 5 cent" tokens, five total. Rare. Often called trade coins, they were especially used after the Civil War as a substitute medium of exchange instead of nickels; they had limited use and were often issued by a private company, group, association or individual.
4. 1890s-1902, Set of funeral home or cemetery plot records in delicate, damaged condition. Interesting look into what people died of in Ronceverte in the late 19th and early 20th century. One page has a record of a black man who was killed, but he was not given the dignity of his name, age, date of death and location like the white West Virginians on the other pages..
5. 1881-1889, book of State of West Virginia court judgements. If you take the time to read the handwriting, it has an interesting look into what was brought to court in late 19th century West Virginia.
6. 1885-1887, three autograph books; two of Nellie Longfellow, one of Laura Forgelson. Very cute entries from school friends and family members.
7. Some kind of Ronceverte athletic uniform from the 1950s-1970s of a top and shorts, jockstrap included!
8. White folder with material relating to petitioning Colonel Clifford of Ronceverte for the Medal of Honor. He served with distinction in World War II and the community center housing the Ronceverte museum is named after him. It is worth noting because not many people know about what goes into the process of petitioning for a Medal of Honor.
9. Register of Hotel Dickson, Ronceverte 1888, including a signature of President Glover Cleveland with a cute notation “and Mrs. C” from October 11th, 1888!
During my final visit to Ronceverte at the end of my AmeriCorps term, I cleaned all the exhibit cabinets, window wells, and floor. I compiled all my work and ideas for the future of the museum into a Final Report, which I presented to Ronceverte City Administrator Pam Mentz. The report includes suggestions on how the city can engage the local schools and further preserve their collection. The Ronceverte Museum has great potential, and the Final Report for the next AmeriCorps member assigned to Ronceverte will help them build off of my service.
It was my sincere pleasure to work with the city of Ronceverte and discover the jewels contained in its museum.
Megan Ksenia bradner
Megan Ksenia Bradner served as a Preserve WV AmeriCorps member with the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021.
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