The Power of Collaboration

June 2016

by DeeGee Lester

Director of Education, The Parthenon

Junior Docents at Robert Churchwell Museum Magnet Elementary interpreting the “Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation” exhibit. The exhibit is sponsored by Humanities Tennessee and organized by the Tennessee State Museum; Photograph by Becky Verner

Fifteen years ago, in anticipation of the 2001 opening of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, two museum education directors—Cheekwood’s Mary Grissim and the Parthenon’s DeeGee Lester—met with Linda Anderson, the Frist liaison to Metro Nashville Public Schools, to form The Museum Advocates in order to build upon unique institutional strengths to better serve the educational needs of the students and teachers. As other organizations joined, the Advocates expanded beyond museums to include historic homes, cultural institutions, nature centers, theatre groups, the library, and educational organizations. Today, 37 groups and ten individuals comprise the membership. Since its inception this collaborative organization dispensed with membership dues or officers, giving all membership institutions equal influence.

Meeting agendas may focus discussion on shared issues such as improved summer camps or increasing home school participation in programming. Other times, expert guest speakers may address general institutional topics such as improved programming and accessibility for disabilities, or increased understanding and dialogue in serving a diverse community (such as attending an “Islam 101” class at the Nashville Islamic Center before the opening of the Frist Center’s 2015 exhibit Ink, Silk and Gold: Islamic Art from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Group meetings end with round-table discussions of members’ current exhibits or events (an opportunity for future collaborations) and tours of the host institution.

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Over the fifteen years, the Advocates have provided professional development workshops for teachers, presented at curriculum fairs, hosted hands-on activities at community events (such as Tennessee Craft), collaborated for family days and specialized workshops, created curriculum guides for schools, and supported the efforts of Nashville’s two museum magnet schools—Robert Churchwell Elementary and John Early Middle.

“For me, the Museum Advocates is a group that fosters collaboration and sharing of information between educators at the city’s cultural organizations, which in turn can benefit the area’s educators and students,” says Anne Henderson, Director of Education at the Frist. “It supports a sense of camaraderie and relationship-building that contributes to the general good will and willingness of cultural organizations to partner. That is not true in all cities.”

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