Planning Successful Virtual Interpretive Workshops and Visioning Sessions

By Scott Vierick, Historian

Gathering stakeholder feedback is a valuable part of any interpretive planning project. Here, an HAI historian leads a stakeholder workshop in 2019. Today, this conversation would happen over Zoom. Source: HAI Photo

While the COVID-19 pandemic has sent shockwaves through the museum world, it has also offered an opportunity for sites to reevaluate programming, exhibits, and major interpretive themes. With many sites closed or operating at reduced capacity, leaders have time to connect with staff and stakeholders and plan for the future. Modern technology can help facilitate these interactions and ensure the safety of all participants. Since most interactions will most likely stay online for at least the first few months of 2021, this blog offers some tips for effective virtual visioning sessions.

Conducting a virtual visioning or interpretive planning workshop begins with determining what topics to cover. Workshops can include anything from a comprehensive review of all programming offered at a site to a targeted assessment of specific exhibit components. The scope will vary depending on the institution, and the interests, expertise, and concerns of those involved. In general, however, HAI recommends a targeted approach that can help focus discussions and address specific areas for improvement.

Some potential questions to guide workshop discussions include:

  • Do our current exhibits reflect our institution’s mission and goals? Where can we improve?
  • What stories are we not telling that are relevant to our mission?
  • Moving forward, how do we want to update our exhibits? What content and technology will these exhibits include?
  • What experiences can we offer to connect visitors with our themes?
  • What are our interpretive themes? What themes should we update/change/remove/add?
  • How can we expand our audience profile?

The next step is to determine the attendees. Visioning sessions should include a mixture of staff and major stakeholders, such as volunteers, organizational partners, relevant public officials, local tribes, and descendent communities. The benefit of a virtual session is that people can attend from literally anywhere with phone or internet service. Recently, HAI staff in Virginia led a visioning session for the Frisco Heritage Museum in Texas, along with Northern Light Productions, a media production firm based in Boston—no airplane tickets, rental cars, or hotel stays required.

HAI historians along with Northern Light Productions lead a virtual visioning workshop with the Frisco Heritage Museum in Frisco, Texas. Source: HAI Photo

The drawback to the video platform is that it is much harder to facilitate a larger group discussion. Many readers have no doubt attended virtual meetings that involved too many participants constantly talking over each other. Hosting a successful vision session with many attendees is possible if the team designates a facilitator who is skilled at properly responding to questions and leading a structured dialogue (and using the “mute” button when necessary). However, for facilitators running their first visioning session, it is probably best to keep the number of participants small. Other stakeholders can be reached using online surveys, email correspondence, distribution of materials, and one-on-one virtual conversations.

During the meeting, the facilitator needs to keep all parties engaged and involved in discussions, while also ensuring that everyone stays on topic. A virtual meeting offers more distractions than an in-person meeting, particularly if an attendee is connecting from home. In addition, eye fatigue from looking at a screen can cause attendees to become tired or uncomfortable. While interpretive workshops typically last at least a full day, a virtual session should be kept at 4 hours, with multiple breaks to allow attendees to stretch, stand up, grab a snack, or decompress. If need be, workshops can be held over several days to ensure that all relevant points are covered. The facilitator should distribute an agenda before the meeting that lays out topics of discussion and the break schedule.

Even in the best circumstances, technological difficulties can create delays and hamper discussion. Regardless of the video platform, the facilitator should appoint a backup to lead the workshop if they experience internet connection interruptions. There should also be a dedicated note-taker who can circulate their notes after the meeting for anyone who loses their connection.

Every historic site, cultural institution, or museum is different, and every interpretive visioning session will be unique. Given this year’s difficulties and challenges, some sites are in a prime position to have these conversations. For others, that time will come later. Whether these conversations happen in the near or distant future, in-person or online, they must happen to ensure cultural institutions to stay relevant, innovative, and connected to their staff and communities.

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