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Professional development sparks creative ideas for Exhibits Manager

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By CHRISTOPHER KATELLA 

CHAPEL HILL, NC (Feb. 26, 2024) – A unique opportunity for museum professionals is providing Morehead Planetarium and Science Center Exhibits Manager Kelly Marks with fresh insights into creating future exhibits anticipating visitors’ changing interests and needs. 

Marks was among 12 selected in July 2023 for the MuseumLab for Museum Professionals learning program, created as a partnership between the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Comprising of children’s and science museum exhibits and programming staff members from U.S. and international participants, the 8-month-long program is developing mid-to-late career professionals to take well-informed risks to create high-quality exhibits and programs at their home institutions. 

“When I heard I’d been selected for MuseumLab, I was incredibly excited,” said Marks. “Connecting with such creative and caring individuals, all enthusiastic about working in children’s and informal ed spaces, has been such a gift.” 

Marks has been a member of ACM for more than six years due to her work on the “Play to Learn” project for early learners during her previous role at the Museum of Life and Science. She learned about the new MuseumLab program through the association’s official channels. “(The Association of Children’s Museums and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh) decided that there was a need for people to have experience in leadership skills, but also just what does it take to create an exhibit from start to finish,” said Marks. Thinking it was an intriguing opportunity, she discussed the program with Morehead’s Director of Innovation and Design, Michele Kloda, who encouraged her to apply. 

Once selected for the program, Marks attended onboarding sessions at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh campus last September. Led by experts from different backgrounds, participants were encouraged to connect and become comfortable with risk-taking when developing their initiatives. After returning to their home institutions for hybrid learning to build out their initial ideas, the group returned to Pittsburgh in November for further workshopping. 

Since November, Marks has been receiving mentorship from Joe Hastings, co-executive director of Explora Science Center & Children’s Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as she builds her idea for a project. “We’re developing our (projects), including our whole elevator pitch, the budget needed, and some prototyping,” said Marks. 

A group of people pose for a photo outside of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.
Morehead Exhibits Manager Kelly Marks (second from right, crouched) with members of the MuseumLab for Museum professionals program outside the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy: Kelly Marks)

Whether it be Hastings or the museum staff in Pittsburgh, Marks has appreciated the support received throughout the program. “You have a mentor who can check in on you, or you can run ideas by, but even (the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh) has made their staff available for us to talk to,” said Marks. “I recently talked with their exhibits department about ‘how would I do this?’ They, and their senior exhibit director, have been really supportive.” 

The MuseumLab program will culminate later this spring when participants present their action plans at this year’s Association of Children’s Museum’s conference in Madison, Wisconsin. Although Marks’ project may not be exhibited in Morehead, the skills she’s developed through the program will prove useful in the future. 

“I’m pushing out of my comfort area as an exhibit lead where I’ve always been on the design side- graphic design, research side- so thinking more about the implementation angle has been helpful,” said Marks. “We don’t always get the time to step aside in our career and think about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ we do what we do, which makes me excited about how I can transfer these new skills and ideas to Morehead.”