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.
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