EMP Spotlight: Makenzie Witter

We’re profiling interesting projects from in the museum field to show the amazing research coming from Emerging Museum Professionals.  Have an awesome museum project you want to share? Email julia@museumhack.com

My name is…Makenzie Witter I am the Museum Educator at the Glenn H. Curtiss
Museum in Hammondsport, NY. I graduated from Seton Hall University in May with my
Masters in Museum Professions, with a focused track in Museum Education.

Quick Overview of My Project and Research:

While I was in school, I decided to write my thesis on the benefits of museum educational programming for at-risk, rural youth. The main focus of the paper is how important it is that museums create programming that specifically targets rural adolescents. At-risk youth often deal with issues of academic failure, poverty, substance abuse, or feelings of isolation from their family and peers, and these issues can be heightened in rural areas where the geographic isolation can have them at a loss of where to turn for help and acceptance. This is due to the concept of the “goldfish bowl effect”,* which includes the feelings of being watched, observed, talked about, and/or judged. This lack of privacy can really effect how youth in these areas grow up, especially if they are at-risk or do not fit in the social norm of that town, whether that be because of sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, mental health issues, or for a number of other reasons. By developing educational programs where at-risk rural youths are exposed to museum collections and exhibitions, museums are able help expand the horizons of these youths and help them find a sense of belonging and identity. Due to the lack of diversity that is also seen in rural areas, these programs can also allow them to explore unfamiliar cultures, which increases their knowledge, tolerance, and empathy towards different cultural groups. I focused mostly on the incredible relationship between the Rockwell Museum and the High School LearningCenter, both located in Corning, NY, though I also did discuss successful programming from the Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, MO, and Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, AR.

What inspired this project?

I’ve always been interested in rural culture. I grew up in a very small town in rural Pennsylvania, so it’s something I’ve been surrounded by my whole life. I didn’t really become aware of it, though, until I moved away and realized just how different it is growing up in a rural area compared to larger areas. Rural areas often have that stereotypical small-town America image associated with them, but they can be very isolating and limiting, especially if you find yourself relating to things that are outside the social norm of that town. This is something that I really wanted to explore further with my thesis research, especially from the lens of a museum professional. Even now that my thesis is completed, I still find myself doing more and more research into the topic – there is so much information to explore!

What is the most surprising find?

From my research and discussions with people about the topic, the term “at-risk youth”
is almost always associated with adolescents from more urban areas. People both in
and out of the field, at least from my experience, don’t often think about rural at-risk
youth specifically. It seems like all at-risk youth are just put together in one group, but
urban and rural youths grow up in very different environments and have very different
life experiences, and I think that’s something that isn’t often thought about. Obviously both groups are equally as deserving of quality museum programming that targets their specific needs, but it seems like museums in larger areas are seen creating these
programs more often than museums in smaller areas. Small town museums could quite possibly be creating this programming, but it’s much more difficult to find academic research on those programs than in it on urban museum.

What’s your dream museum job?

I’m sort of already living my dream! I was lucky enough to become the educator at the
Glenn H. Curtiss Museum before I even received my diploma. Right now, I’m working
on completely recreating the education department, from the school programming to
adult tour groups to the education zone’s activities. As a recent graduate, it’s an
incredible experience to be in charge of every aspect of the museum’s educational
goals, and it’s something that I’m really grateful for. The director here, Benjamin
Johnson, is very supportive of all my programming aspirations, so I am really looking
forward to everything we’re going to achieve in the coming years.
What’s the best advice you ever received from a museum professional?
That it’s okay to fail! I know everyone’s heard that a million times, but I remember being
in my Museum Education 1 class with my professors, Claudia Ocello of Museum
Partners Consulting and Saralinda Lichtblau, the Assistant Director, Education at the
Hudson River Museum, telling us about some of their not-so- successful programming,
and that’s when it really stuck for me. Not everything is going to be a one-hundred
percent success, so don’t dwell on the failures. Learn from it, grow, and move on to the
next program.

What’s your earliest memory of being in a museum?

I remember taking a school field trip in first or second grade to the Rockwell Museum in
Corning, NY. We were learning something about the Hopi tribe, and I very vividly
remember seeing an image of their pueblos homes, and that really stuck with me. From
then on, I was hooked on learning about different cultures. I one-hundred percent credit
that field trip with setting me on my path towards becoming a museum educator.

*From the article “Rural Culture of a Diversity Issue” by Kay Slama. Published in the
January 2004 Minnesota Psychologist.

Interviews

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