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Facilitating Meaningful Conversations on Social Justice in a Virtual Space

As Covid-19 restrictions have eased it is clear that in-person events have been sorely missed. Yet audiences have clearly adapted since 2020 and have become accustomed to accessing arts, culture and the wider information world through digital platforms.

At the MuseumNext Digital Summit 2022, Deidre Cross and Leslie Walker from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and Joey Tackett from ForumOne explored where this greater digital acceptance and reliance on screens leaves arts and cultural organisations that are seeking to initiate meaningful conversations with their audiences through in-person events?

Pivoting from Table to Screen

In 2016, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C began conceptualising a programmatic series of in-person events called “A Seat at the Table”.  The series was designed to be a forum for people to explore issues around race and identity in a setting that encouraged panellists to discusses issues of contemporary significance and historic importance.

A Seat at the Table was to be held over a shared meal that encouraged interactions and conversations in an informal, comfortable setting. Just before the first in the series of events was due to take place in March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. In response, the programmes swiftly pivoted online using a Zoom format, with breakout rooms to mimic conversations that would have been held around a physical table.

From a learning perspective, there were some problematic aspects of virtual hosting in obtaining the right outcome for this kind of programme, namely Zoom itself.  A Seat At the Table was very much about critical dialogue amongst the panellists and initially the dynamic conversation felt somewhat flat – akin more to the business meetings Zoom was more typically used for.

Given the wider context of 2020 and the pressure cooker of intense emotions – particularly the Black Lives Matter protests – the programme had an important role as a space to cultivate opinions and discuss them safely and critically.  And so, Seat at The Table needed to change to make the online experience more fluid and reflect that value the museum placed on the outcomes.

Recreating an On-site Event Digitally

To make the technical aspects of digital events less cumbersome and more focused on encouraging meaningful conversation, the museum team worked with Forum One to establish new delivery platforms that would support a move away from Zoom. Using a tool called Social Hour, panellists were able to mimic the in-person experience using virtual tables that allowed panellists to enter the event and actually go to tables to interact with one another.

Creating a graphic but virtual representation of the in-person event proved extremely important in helping facilitate the important conversations on social justice that A Seat at The Table was designed to achieve.

Recreating a Successful Discussion Forum Event in an Online Format

Aside from considering the graphical presentation of a discussion forum when switching to an online format, the team at the Smithsonian also devised a number of other key recommendations for running virtual events:

  1. Consider your topics carefully, they must respond to current events.
  2. Assemble a diverse panel that represents academics and practitioners with real experiences but also activists who can set out how to influence policy change and implement positive output based on the conversations.
  3. Be realistic about the resources available as to get the most out of the opportunity there needs to be a focus on the planning as well as effective hosting and facilitating of discussions.
  4. Make your forum authentic to the values of your institution – maybe a formal dinner is not right but a cocktail hour or potluck style could make panellists more comfortable.
  5. Do you understand the hosting platform and its technical requirements? For A Seat at The Table the team were familiar with Social Hour and its technical capabilities and so were able to deploy discussion cues on screen, allow people to jump between tables and could brand the event appropriately for clear visual representation.
  6. What does the event mean? Are you seeking answers, opinions or real-world insight? An understanding of outcomes will help to refine the panel and format of the event to great effect

Deidre Cross, Leslie Walker and Joey Tackett spoke at the MuseumNext Digital Summit 2022. 


MuseumNext offer online learning for museum professionals striving for engaging, relevant and flexible professional growth content. Learn more about our virtual museum conferences here.

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