Museum Engagement Through Inside Eyes: A conversation with Nina Pelaez about her work past and present in Museum Engagement

Museum Engagement is the idea that a museum should not just be a place for people to visit but that museums should be a place of community. While engagement is still a relatively new field in museums it is gaining momentum. Engagement ideology states that museums need to create strong connections with the community in order to become cultural touchstones where people feel they belong and that the museum is important part of their lives. Nina Pelaez has been working in Museum Engagement for most of her career.

Nina Pelaez is the Interim Associate Director for Academic and Public Engagement at the Williams College Museum of Art, called WCMA for short. Before working at WCMA, Pelaez was a graduate student at Williams College and graduated in 2014 with her Masters of Arts in Art History, Criticism and Conservation. Pelaez has also worked at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta Georgia as the Kress Mueseum Interpretation Fellow where she researched and produced interpretive materials for exhibitions and permanent collections with the focus on social practice, activism, community, and engagement. When Pelaez was a child growing up in a working class family in Brooklynn New York, her first associations with museums was through the museum education department of the Brooklynn Museum. The education department of the Brooklynn Museum was truly her doorway into the greater art world by giving Pelaez her first paid job. In addition, when her family could longer afford studio art lessons Pelaez was given the opportunity to help teach studio class in exchange for taking classes herself. Armed with this experience Pelaez developed her ideas on how museum need to be places where people can come and be a part of something. A “place where people can share ideas” and “we educated each other”.

One of the programs that Pelaez is currently working on at WCMA that she is proud of is the Reading Room: People’s Library. The concept behind the project is to answer the question, What book is helping you understand the world right now? By asking the community to write book plates for the book that is currently helping them understand the world. The books are then purchased and placed in the reading room with the signed book plate so that others can learn from it. You can use this link for more information about the People Library. The project started in 2017 and since then Pelaez has received many letters about how the experience of participating has effected visitors.

“There is someone who asked to see the whole list of books that was submitted because she wanted, she is home schooling her daughters and wanted this to inflect the work, they were going to try and read the all of the books.”

She pointed to this example as one of her favorite moments about working with community engagement. The mother was making a connection to WCMA and to those who left a book plate behind. Pelaez referred to “hearing from people, talking to people, encountering people and seeing that the work I am doing has an impact on them that is the most rewarding thing I have experienced in my work so far.”

However, not everything is perfect in the museum engagement and education spheres. During the conversation Pelaez brought up some of the challenges of that the education and engagement fields face. One of the largest problems is the siloing of different departments. Pelaez spoke about how the fractioning of departments especially curatorial and education departments hurts the visitor and the museum. Often the curatorial department makes a wonderful exhibition that they are proud of then give it to the education and engagement department to create connections between it and the visitor. She believes that if the two work together earlier in the process there will be a greater focus on the visitor and be able to create better connects. One reason that there is this isolation between the departments comes from the lack of importance many museums put on education and engagement, they are often figuratively or literally, in the basement. This tends to limit the department because of a lack of resources. Though Pelaez was quick to reassure that she say this as a strength as well. Having more limited resources has caused education and engagement departments to be more creative and think outside the box. Pelaez did point to one reason she believed for the disparity, the gender bias. In most museums the education and engagement departments are overwhelmingly female and there is a predisposition in our society to demean jobs that are stereotypical feminine. This leads to education being “taken less seriously and seen as less rigorous” as opposed to other museum based jobs. The solution Pelaez proposed was to make sure people of all genders and backgrounds are in all positions.

About the Author

Lara Maria Dudley is a student at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Massachusetts. She is a storyteller and educator who works to crafted narratives that are accessible, educational, and create connections. During the summer of 2018, Lara worked as a Gallery Interrupter for The Clark Art Institute where she constructed and executed flexible daily talks for the permanent collections and the temporary exhibitions. Prior to this, from 2015 to 2018 leading visitors through the Ralph Waldo Emerson House, engaging the visitors with the history of the home and the family that lived there. Lara has also taught internationally, in the summers of 2013 and 2014 she taught English in São Paulo, Brazil at a low income childcare and a youth shelter for teenagers. In addition in 2014 she was a site leader who coordinated a group of five volunteers focusing on safety within the neighborhood and continuity of lesson plans in order to reach an end goal. Previously, in 2012 during the 100th anniversary of Girl Scouts Lara and her troop organized a historical fashion show to teach the younger scout about their history in a manner that was fun and educational.

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