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State museum conference represents return of visitor events to Statesboro
Hybrid event drew in-person and virtual participants
Georgia Southern Museum Director Brent Tharp, Ph.D., answers questions about the Museum on Main exhibit “Navigating South Georgia: Small Boats and Changing Cultures” April 26 while museum professionals from across Georgia visit the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau during the Georgia Association of Museums annual conference. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

Statesboro and Georgia Southern University hosted museum professionals from around the state when the Georgia Association of Museums held its annual conference here April 26-28.

With masks worn where practicable, the 2021 conference provided a return to in-person events for two of the host organizations, the Statesboro Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Georgia Southern Museum. The museum has not reopened its campus facility to the general public yet but does have a new Museum on Main exhibit up at the SCVB.

With the COVID-19 vaccination rollout continuing and restrictions eased, the Georgia Association of Museums, or GAM, was able to plan a “hybrid” conference. Almost 100 association members registered for it, but a few more than 40 individuals came to Statesboro in person while the rest were participating virtually by teleconferencing, said GAM President Matt Davis.

Davis, who in his everyday job is director of historic museums at Georgia College in Milledgeville, acknowledged that 2020 and the first months of 2021 were difficult for museums.

“As with everyone else, you know, the COVID-19 pandemic was a shock for our operations and our systems, but the theme of this conference is Coastal Crossroads, as in our field is at a crossroads but we are looking to rebuild stronger and better than we were previously,” Davis said.

So conference discussions focused on continuing to build museums’ digital and hybrid offerings, creating innovative and educational programming and finding “ways to improve … collections access to the whole public,” he said.

After an arrival reception at Eagle Creek Brewing Company the evening of April 25, two-and-a-half days of conference presentations and discussions began Monday morning, April 26. These were held on the Georgia Southern campus in the Russell Union, where rooms equipped for virtual classes were already available.

That evening, the Statesboro Convention & Visitors Bureau, Georgia Southern’s Center for Wildlife Education and the Georgia Southern Museum, in that order, hosted a “progressive dinner.”  In other words, visiting museum professionals were served a different course of their meal at each site.


Museum on Main

They got their first look at the work of the Georgia Southern Museum and students of the university’s Public History Program at the SCVB’s “Visit Statesboro” center on South Main Street. Museum on Main exhibits have been a regular attraction of the visitors’ center since soon after it opened in 2014. But while the center closed to walk-in visitors last year, the exhibit space was used as a staging area for online farmers’ market drive-thru deliveries.

So the new Museum on Main exhibit, “Navigating South Georgia: Small Boats and Changing Cultures,” is the first to be seen there since April 2020. The exhibit that closed at that time had already been up for a full year.

“After the exhibit that we closed in April of last year, we didn’t build a new one because that class, because of COVID, couldn’t get together to build it,” said Georgia Southern Museum Director Brent Tharp, Ph.D. “So we’re really thrilled that the students this year were able to get back in and design and fabricate the exhibit, and we’ve just had a lot of fun with this topic of traditional boats and Racer Evans.”

The exhibit showcases several small boats of types used historically by anglers on the Ogeechee River and its tributaries. Two were made by Racer Evans, 1889-1997, at his home and workshop in the Clito community of Bulloch County. The older of the two boats is made entirely of cypress wood and is on loan from Statesboro lawyer Jimmy Franklin, who had Evans make it for him in the 1960s, Tharp said.

Another cypress boat in the exhibit was made by Billy Bishop in the Twin City area of Emanuel County.

When the conference arrived, graduate students who designed and built the exhibit got a networking opportunity with potential employers.

This was not the first time the Georgia Southern Museum and Statesboro had hosted a GAM annual conference. But the previous time was in 2015 or 2016, and local organizers made their bid to host this one two years ago before the pandemic intervened, Tharp said. The conferences are traditionally held in January. This one was delayed so that it could be held partly in-person.


‘Back to tourism’

In fact, the GAM event was the first conference with an in-person aspect that the Statesboro Convention & Visitors Bureau had helped host in about 14 months, said SCVB Executive Director Becky Davis.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “It feels like we’re getting back to tourism.”

Later that evening, conference participants got a “preview” of still-new exhibits, largely unseen by the general public, at the main Georgia Southern Museum on Southern Drive. Renovation and installation work that lasted nearly two years was completed last summer, in the middle of the pandemic.

So the on-campus museum has hosted students in small groups but has yet to reopen to everyone.

“That’s coming very soon now,” Tharp said. “Certainly by our fall semester we’ll be rehiring our student staff and be back up and running.”


Wildlife ‘museum’

When the university bus carrying GAM conference participants stopped at the Center for Wildlife Education, also known as the Raptor Center, they were greeted by Lexie Tejera, a student employee, with a big Eurasian eagle-owl standing noisily on her gloved forearm.

Wildlife Center Executive Director Steve Hein soon arrived with the center’s most famous bald eagle. Curators and museum directors from across Georgia took selfies with Freedom, of course.

Asked if the Wildlife Center is a sort of museum, Hein said it is considered to be.

“To the degree that it’s all about education, it certainly is a museum, and informing people about history or the natural world around us, we’re a living museum indeed,” he said.

The next evening the group visited the GS Botanic Garden for dinner before concluding the conference with a business and awards luncheon and other meetings the following day.

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