By Mollie Fullerton
I came to the 2016 WMA Annual Meeting in Phoenix from Green River, Utah. Green River has no stoplights, about 950 residents, a giant watermelon float, and a twenty thousand square foot museum where I am the Education and Programs Manager.
The John Wesley Powell River History Museum was built over 25 years ago when the Green River city council, mayor, and other stakeholders decided the town needed a brand new tourist attraction for drivers on I-70 in the form of a museum. Without a collection, building, or museum experience, the city built a new building and hired professional exhibit designers who filled the large space with series of giant panels and an animatronic John Wesley Powell to make up for the lack of artifacts. The goal was to generate revenue for the town, but, as most museums, it didn’t. The museum lived on, basically unchanged, for over 20 years until the city hired the museum’s first full-time administrator who gave the museum a direction.
I’m the second Education and Programs Manager the museum has had. The first was here for a little less than a year and left some good work behind, but education and programming at the museum is basically a blank canvas. One of my overarching goals is to start catering to the Green River community that the museum ignored for all of those years while trying to earn money from tourists passing through.
To really create a more community-centered organization, we need to change. A lot. I’ve been making changes to the museum since I got here. Some are small like making slight adjustments to the comment card system. Others are larger like painting a grid on the outside of the building for a collaborative chalk mural or adding new programming for middle school and jr. high school aged kids But it’s a long and slow journey sprinkled with patches of resistance, successes, and failures. So with a theme of CHANGE, the 2016 WMA Annual Meeting was calling my name.
Without the Wanda Chin Scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to attend. This was my first time at WMA. I moved to Utah from Chicago last year and the annual meeting was a great opportunity for a newbie to the region like me. Over the course of an information-loaded few days, I became familiar with other museums in the region and got to learn about how they are trying to implement change. As an emerging museum professional living in a small, rural town, I don’t get many opportunities for networking, so WMA was a wonderful chance to meet other EMPs as well as more seasoned professionals. I am also glad I was able to visit some of Phoenix’s museums during the conference.
In addition to networking and experiencing Phoenix’s museums, I attended some really great sessions. One that stood out to was Transforming Community Through Culture: Creative Community Fellows. I liked that this session wasn’t explicitly about museums. Instead it featured multiple participants from the National Arts Strategies Creative Community Fellows Programs. Two speakers who I found particularly interesting because of their work with youth were Sarah Gonzales from Spoken Futures, Inc. in Tucson and Sarah Sullivan from Rising Youth Theater in Phoenix. Spoken Futures has three main programs: Tucson Youth Poetry Slam, Liberation Lyrics, and Poetry & Healing. The programs are largely led and organized by youth, including the all youth staff that work with the two co-directors (one of whom is Sarah Gonzales). Rising Youth Theater (RYT) creates original theater with youth around the Phoenix metro area. The youth participants work alongside professionals throughout all of the steps of the creation process. Originally, they started out performing on a stage inside, but as they thought about what they wanted to be, RYT evolved to bring theater outside into the community. They perform in public spaces like parks or on public transportation to make theater accessible to people who might not otherwise think about attending a show. I love that both of these programs are focused on innovation, collaboration, and youth empowerment. These are three things that I am trying to integrate into the youth programming at the JWP Museum and this session gave me an idea of what youth driven programming can look like and the effect it can have.
Attending the WMA annual conference with help from the Wanda Chin Scholarship has given me not only direction for change, but has provided me with the knowledge, tools, and connections to change the John Wesley Powell River History Museum for the better.
Mollie Fullerton is the Education and Programs Manager at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah. When she’s not working in her windowless office, Mollie is outside replenishing her Vitamin D while hiking, biking, and suspending herself from trees. Mollie holds a bachelor’s degree in History and German Studies from Macalester College and a master’s in Public History from Loyola University Chicago.