Melanie’s background was not initially in museum work, but actually in psychology and medieval history. She received her undergrad from the University of Carolina Chapel Hill and her Masters in Education and Instructional Technology from the University of Virginia. She explains how when she received her undergraduate she didn’t necessarily have a plan of what she wanted to do with her degree. For us aspiring graduate students, hearing that you don’t necessarily need a plan to be successful is almost reassuring.
Before the position of Manager of Digital Media and Strategy was created, Melanie was the Manager of Digital Learning. Melanie also pioneered the digital field trip and virtual tour programs that have now received over 20,000 participants since it was formed in 2017 and are some of the most popular virtual programs currently at Monticello. Her main job responsibilities before transferring over into the Digital Media and Strategy position included overseeing the digital field trips and virtual tours I mentioned above. When it came to discussing the costs and expenses of digital learning, Melanie agreed that programs for teachers and students should be free. Thankfully, Monticello secured funding so that the virtual programs could be free for those who needed it most. With how much work had gone into creating the programs, they were ready to launch the first day that the world shut down because of COVID. Reflecting back on it, Melanie was proud at how quickly they were able to implement this; it was quicker than most institutions, but she still applauds all museums who were able to survive this pandemic. One thing her team struggled with was not having that in-person engagement, which was a learning curve for all of them, but they were able to make it work.
While these virtual programs gained immense popularity during the first few months of quarantine, they are now dying off, and Melanie and her team at Monticello are working towards bringing back most, if not all, their in-person programs. However, for school groups and educators, these virtual tours are still growing in popularity. What I found interesting were the ones who were most interested in the virtual tours weren’t even from Virginia; the two most popular states were Texas and California. I asked if they had any programs specifically aimed towards younger kids, as that is the age group my project is for, and she said they created two very personalized programs for two school districts in Virginia. These programs were originally in person, but due to circumstances, they had to transfer them to virtual, and did a phenomenal job doing so.
Towards the end of the interview, I asked some more general questions about digital learning and engagement that has risen since the start of the pandemic. Personally, she thinks live tours have been really helpful in bringing the museum experience to the (virtual) visitor. Melanie does say that it’s hard to make it feel like a real museum visit virtually, and there’s almost no way to replicate the feeling of walking through Thomas Jefferson’s home, but it comes pretty close. Another idea that she likes is alternate reality and how that could be implied in museums. However, Monticello is not exactly a “fun” museum as they discuss very heavy topics such as slavery. Melanie understands that these ideas like AR may not be possible for them, but would like to see how it could evolve into something they can use. She thinks Zoom lectures are overdone and boring, and would like to see more interactive Zoom sessions. We both agreed that museums should be expanding their programs to be not something directly related to the content they offer; for example, Monticello offers wreath making classes, and while there’s no direct relation of wreaths to Thomas Jefferson, it’s something that is quite popular. Museums, as Melanie said, are a place for those to come together and have fun, and whether that’s touring the museum or taking a wreath-making class, museums’ purposes should be focused on what their community wants.
One topic that stood out to me that I want to end on: “Digitalization is not the end; it is a means to an end. A tool rather than the end result.” I think we can learn a lot from this quote, and from everything Melanie talked about in her interview. I had a great time talking to her and would love to interview her again in the future.