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Exploring What We Know—and Don’t Know—at the Visitor Studies Association Conference

The Visitor Studies Association, a professional organization dedicated to understanding and enhancing learning experiences in informal settings through research, evaluation, and dialogue, recently convened in Detroit for its annual conference.

The meeting drew attendees from large and small organizations across the United States, as well as over one dozen international attendees. Many professional researchers and evaluators consider the VSA conference their “home base.” In addition, educators, exhibit developers, library professionals, students, federal funders, and museum leaders all derive value from attending the conference.

The theme of the 2019 conference was “Ways of Knowing.” Keynote speakers as well as session leaders presented many important questions and perspectives to challenge attendees—and the informal learning field as a whole. 

Pictured above: A group tour of “And Still We Rise,” during an evening event at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Photo by Amanda Krantz of RK&A.

The keynote speakers

Keynote speaker Dr. Katrina Bledsoe challenged attendees to interrogate informal education work and reconsider how we study its efficacy. Her message and questions resonated with many attendees who shared their own takeaways on Twitter (#visitorstudies2019):

  • Who is this for?
  • Whose perspective was validated?
  • Is it working for the visitor or intended audience?

Closing speaker Dr. Porchia Moore also encouraged attendees to value and validate ways of knowing that include intuition, emotion, faith, memory, and sense perception, in addition to traditionally valued language and reason. Drawing on the tenets of Critical Race Theory, she provided the following tips for continuing the museum field’s journey to inclusivity:

  1. Reframe the goal from “designing for” to “strengthening relationships with” visitors
  2. De-center knowledge
  3. Value the lived experience of visitors
  4. Be vulnerable

Jennifer Borland, an evaluator at Rockman et al, took sketchnotes throughout the conference, capturing both keynotes and a couple of sessions. This one captures Dr. Moore’s remarks.

Conference discussions

Panel and paper presentations and roundtable discussions also presented new ideas, information, and questions to inspire attendees. You can review the topics covered and resources shared in the 50+ sessions in the 2019 session abstracts. Here are some highlights to give you a sense of the breadth and depth of discussions and presentations:

Stay connected to VSA

If these discussions are of interest to you, plan to attend next year’s VSA conference in person in Omaha, Nebraska, or virtually, July 15-18, 2020. Next year’s theme, “Navigating the Politics of Visitor Studies,” is sure to spark as many thoughtful, interesting, and challenging conversations as this year’s did.

VSA also hosts monthly webchats and online book club discussions, which are free to members and available for a small fee to non-members. Upcoming topics include the impact of science museum visits on emerging adults, mentorship for emerging professionals, and reboots of popular conference sessions. Join in and share what you know!

Claire Thoma Emmons is the Research & Evaluation Associate at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and served as the Chair of VSA’s Conference Planning Committee for the 2018 and 2019 conferences.

Posted by Claire Thoma Emmons