Recently, I virtually presented at the Association of African American Museums conference (AAAM). I admit I was a bit hesitant; this was my first virtual conference and I was unsure what to expect. Nevertheless, my experience at AAAM demonstrated the possibilities and slight limitations of presenting and attending a completely digital conference. The AAAM staff built the conference site from the ground up via the platform PheedLoop. This recreated the conference experience to the best of its abilities, with the user able to message and video chat with anyone in the virtual “lobby” room and access all recorded sessions after the fact. In this sense, the digital format was very helpful and made me feel connected to other participants.
As a presenter, overall, I found that the various digital platforms helped me successfully prepare for my roundtable discussion. My co-panelists and I rehearsed beforehand via Zoom, shared notes via Google Docs, and communicated with our panel moderator during the presentation via the chat feature in Zoom. The roundtable was conducted as a Zoom webinar, where I was a panelist and could only see the tiles of my fellow panelists. Though strange and somewhat alienating to not see the faces of the audience members during the presentation, in a way the digital format actually helped me focus more easily on the conversation.
Alongside members of the John Mitchell Jr. Program for History, Justice, and Race from the School of Conflict, Analysis, and Resolution at George Mason, our session discussed the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) as a site of healing, pilgrimage, and controversies in the context of COVID-19 and the current racial reckoning in the U.S. today. As a scholar of race, gender, and public memory in the U.S., I pointed out the institutional legacies NMAAHC contends with as the first museum to exclusively center African, African American, and Black voices in the U.S. yet still be a part of the Smithsonian, an institution created in the mid-nineteenth century. In the current state of racial reckoning throughout the country, I also spoke of the importance for white people to visit museums like NMAAHC that center lives and stories different from theirs. Through exhibits and programming, Black-centered museums such as the NMAAHC encourage visitors to confront the history of oppression and racism in the U.S. while also serving as potential spaces to promote healing and reconciliation.
Although AAAM was not a typical conference by past in-person standards, its success serves as a model for how virtual conferences can be typical in the world of COVID-19 and remote work. More importantly, AAAM showed how digital tools can facilitate important conversations between people in different parts of the world that would otherwise not be possible.s
See this same blog post originally published by the RRCHNM website.