Michelle Harrell, Director of Education, North Carolina Museum of Art

Michelle Harrell has an extensive background in utilizing digital solutions for arts education and brings her experience to her home state of North Carolina. Michelle co-created the Flipped Museum model for learning as a way to improve the educational value of a visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art. This learning model was intended to provide students with learning materials before visiting the museum in order to enhance engagement for students, derive greater meaning from exhibits, and foster interpersonal interactions with other students and the museum’s offerings through digital means.

Given her innovation in growing the relationship between digital tools, museums, and arts education, I wanted to investigate how her journey into arts education became what it is today. Michelle’s family has been in North Carolina for over 10 generations, which had a strong influence on her motivation to improve educational opportunities locally. In addition to expanding on her roots, Michelle wrote that “[Her] passion to increase access to learning through art and art museums is my driving force – technology is a fabulous tool when used effectively to make experiences available to more children.”

Michelle’s work at the NCMA included incorporating omni-directional cameras and virtual reality (VR) tools into the Ansel Adams exhibition and Georgia O’Keeffe’ exhibition. Both of these projects immersed visitors in the locations and work of the artist. Omni-directional cameras were also used to create a 360-degree interactive of the NCMA Conservation Lab, providing an exclusive behind-the-scenes look into art conservation methods at the museum. I wanted to delve further into the successes, failures of these projects and how they will be used to inform future exhibitions.

Michelle emphasized a few key points to focus on when exploring new educational methods to deploy at the museum. First is to have a clear goal that the project is intended to accomplish. Michelle also wrote that “We have prioritized Social Emotional Learning as a framework for all education programs and have targeted self and social awareness…”

Secondly, when designing an educational solution, Michelle expressed the importance of designing from the margins. She referenced this method as a way to ensure inclusion for all visitors. For instance, when trying to bring VR to rural students, many people did not have access to the headsets necessary to engage in this kind of learning method. As museum staff, it is essential to be humble and be able to let go of an idea if it’s not fulfilling the audience’s needs or reaching them as the project intended. She also mentioned that “Our education team is small and mighty but it’s easy to get excited about new technological possibilities (bells and whistles) and not have the resources to support it.”

Third, Michelle addressed my questions regarding how she determines which strategies are effective (and not) for educators and students, and what successes she’s had along the way. In addition to her previous comments on incorporating the user into testing, she wrote that “The biggest success was using the design process as a human-centered approach for innovative work. Incorporating the audience into the design process was key to determining which strategies worked and didn’t work- they simply told us. Funding, internal buy-in, and conflicting institutional priorities were some of our greatest challenges..”

My time with Michelle was highly informative and I enjoyed discovering how her real-world experiences applied to our learning objectives in digital engagement projects for museums.


  1. Sarah Freda says:

    Great interview, Kristina! It’s so interesting listening to this after Melanie Bowyer’s, the Manager of Digital Media and Strategy at Monticello. Bowyer doesn’t have the resources to invest in VR and AR while Harrell does. Despite the appeal of these devices, both emphasize that technology is just a tool. As Harrell points out, “adults, funders, and the leaders of the museum…get caught up in the bells and whistles.” But how do their users feel? Harrell gives a great example of the virtual field trip that involves 3D-printing an artifact for students to interact with. Despite the attractive technology, it’s their least-popular program. Meanwhile, a virtual tour at Monticello with simply an iPad and a harness still remains popular. This just goes to show how important the message is in developing programs.

    I also have a question about COVID: did the NC Museum of Art continue their virtual programs during the pandemic? If so, did they see a rise in popularity and what was the user response?

  2. Deena Deutsch says:

    Great Interview, Kristina~

    I loved her comment about “falling in love with teaching!” I suspect she is a fantastic educator~

    Her insights about ‘bells and whistles’ overtaking content were spot on, and I appreciated her discussion around ‘strategizing’ arts education pedagogy in ways that can be evaluated through spontaneous response. And while her discusssion about the need to ‘let go of ideas that are not as well received by learners is valuable – I wonder if she considered context as a factor in her dicussion about using 3D printers to recreate Egyptian amulets? Its no wonder, considering the stressors of the past horrific year, that topics centering upon emotional support and empathy gained greater acceptance. I do hope she gives this another go in future before abandoning the idea. Perhaps when things eventually return to a greater sense of ‘normalcy’ –it will regain the “wow” factor she is looking for.

  3. Stephanie Ho says:

    Hi Kristina,

    I love Michelle Harrell’s emphasis on how it’s important for her to make a contribution in the local community where she grew up — 13 generations — that is indeed impressive. I also very much appreciated her comments about technology — she acknowledged that technology is a good tool, in that it helps expand access, but she also pointed out that technology is “just a tool.” She noted that sometimes, people get caught up in the bells and whistles, but that the bigger priority is that museums really need to define their goals.

    I appreciated her emphasis on designing exhibits with equity and accessibility higher on the list of concerns than it used to be. I appreciated her comments about how it is important to work with a community to design a project that works for them — which may not necessarily be the same as the one that was written about in the grant proposal. I also appreciate her comments about the importance of letting go of projects that didn’t turn out to be as successful as you may have imagined them to be. In journalism/writing, we kind of go through a similar process with editors — I think Stephen King quoted William Faulkner as saying: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” This refers exactly to the point that you have to be able to let go of things that don’t work.

    Re: prototyping, she also seemed to quote some of the things we have been reading, especially when she said “fail fast, fail forward.” I really loved her comment that if you’re not messing up, you’re not taking enough risks — amen!!

  4. Mary Trosin says:

    The point I am getting over and over from these interviews is that it does not need to be the most up to date fancy technology, it just needs to work to best help the audience connect with the content of the museum. It seems more often than not simplicity is key too. This goes along with the idea we covered early on that museums should not be using digital for the sake of having technology which I am finding I agree with more and more as the semester progresses. I really appreciate her concern with having technology that is accessible and usable by everyone. Because things in tech are developing so quickly it often feels like people are getting left behind as soon as they are able to catch up and it’s not like tech is super affordable and accessible for all. I’m sure this year especially as everything seemed to switch over to digital a lot of people were unable to access that and had a difficult time. It’s something I think needs focus as this area of the GLAM field only continues to develop further.

  5. Kristina,

    This interview was so fascinating in part because Harrell co-created the Flipped Museum Model for Learning. I do not think I had ever heard of this model, but I liked it because it allows students to be exposed to the material before visiting. I also really enjoyed learning about her experience with virtual reality in museums. In my opinion, when people talk about digital engagement in museums, VR does not immediately come to mind. It is incredible that Harrell was able to create a completely immersive experience for her exhibitions using VR. I appreciated that when talking about these projects, you discussed the failures as well as the success.
    Often, people do not want to focus on the failures they encounter along the way, and by doing that, they don’t share the lessons they learn from them. I think this was a great interview, and I am so glad that Harrell could share her experience in creating these digital projects.

  6. Kenny Clink says:

    Hi Kristina,

    I like her ideas about “addressing education from the margins” because not everyone has access to state-of-the-art equipment or even equipment from the 21st century in some cases. Building, first, around the communities that have the least and going up from there has to be extremely difficult but rewarding in the end.

    I have to admit that I tend to get tied up in the newest and shiniest gadget when it comes to my personal hobbies and the like and this sometimes carries over professionally when the newest and shiniest isn’t always practical or even realistic.

    I really liked the “behind the scenes” conservation lab idea and that was something my previous museum was also contemplating (historic objects as opposed to art) but it never panned out because of a lack of proper resources and the senior staff thought that every object needs to be significant and not run-of-the-mill 18th century objects. I am happy to see that a similar idea worked for another museum.

  7. Carissa Johnson says:

    Impact. Activity. Success. I like that simple way to explain how to plan for the success of a project or exhibit. Define the impact you want to make, plan an activity to achieve that impact, and define what a successful exhibit will look like.

    It was very humble for her to admit they hadn’t considered inclusion or accessibility in some exhibits. I think many museums are still not to the point where its always on the front burner, but they are working toward that and that’s whats important. Furthermore, the failure of what was thought to be the “sexiest” exhibits, and what they learned from their failures. “If you are not failing, you are not taking enough risks.”

  8. Jennifer Kimberlin says:

    I liked hearing the progression of accessibility awareness in Michelle’s exhibits, and how it wasn’t a consideration at all in the earlier Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe exhibits but now is something they make sure to accommodate in current and future projects. She admits that they have to catch themselves and monitor their inherent bias during the development process to keep accessibility in mind and not an afterthought. its refreshing to hear someone speak with that humility.
    She also reinforces how important it is to listen to the user which we learned through our testing exercises. Love to hear it in action.

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