By Mark Isaksen
Senior Program Officer, IMLS
One of the most exciting and meaningful things that I do as a program officer is meeting with grantees and learning about the amazing work they are doing at their museums. While working on the Museum Grants for African American History and Culture (AAHC) program, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with grantees at IMLS convenings. This is a requirement of several IMLS grant programs, and the AAHC program has convened grantees six times since the launch of the program in 2006.
This year we convened 54 participants from 23 institutions for a two-day gathering on June 5-6 in Washington, D.C., at the historic Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives. Convening grantees is about developing a community of practice, i.e., getting people together who share a common passion, interest, or experience in a particular area of expertise. And this convening was no exception!
In advance of the convening, we invited grantees to write blog posts on the AAHC Forum, which gave everyone a chance to tell stories about their project activities and to provide an update on the successes and challenges they face in implementing their projects. One of the ways we learn about the challenges in the field is by hearing firsthand from those who are doing the work.
The additional benefit of blogging is that we can reach a broad audience and encourage potential applicants by giving examples of projects. The blogs offer grantees an opportunity to discuss how you move a project forward once funding is approved. I also think it helps to not only hear about your peers doing excellent work but also how they deal with challenges, hiccups, and surprises that all grantees face when they move from planning to implementation.
I worked with a team at IMLS to create a convening experience that would respond to evaluation feedback from past convenings. We developed a series of three breakout sessions on the first day, allowing participants to get to know one another better. The first breakout sessions helped to connect the individuals with the projects and blogs that they had read about in the months leading up to the convening. The second breakout session presented the Logic Model Worksheet. In small group discussions, participants were challenged to complete the Logic Model Worksheet about their current project, and to develop a 30-second flash presentation pitch explaining what they do, who they do it for, and for what purpose. Although sometimes challenging, condensing your thoughts into a summary statement using the logic model helps you articulate the core nature of a project to stakeholders.
The third breakout session featured the Project Ideas Toolkit. We invited participants to again work in small groups of museum staff from wide array of institutions (not just the colleagues from their own institutions) and think about the kinds of creative ideas and projects that might address the needs of their target audience and engage stakeholders and partners.
At the end of the day we ventured out for a site visit, to the see the Changing America exhibit and also the construction site for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). (You can check out the live view of the site on the construction camera.) We concluded our day at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial.
On the second day, we focused on providing the grantees with information about maximizing the potential of their grants and their institutions. Two presentations by IMLS staff members explained the intricacies of our reporting requirements and the potential uses of a variety of social media tools. We also heard from representatives from NMAAHC, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Alliance of Museums, and the Association of African American Museums, who each shared other ways for African American museums to collaborate and find funding. Grantees came away with useful tools for forging the next steps and next projects.
For many of us who care about African American history and its important place in our national historical narrative, convening together as a community of practice nourishes our minds and our hearts. We look forward to hearing more about new projects born out of the lively discussion we had that first week in June!