Museology Master of Arts Program

November 20, 2018

Welcoming new faculty: Meena Selvakumar

In addition to welcoming a new cohort at the beginning of the 2018-2019 academic year, we were thrilled to welcome the newest addition to the program’s core faculty – Meena Selvakumar!

Meena SelvakumarMeena comes to Museology by way of the Pacific Science Center, where she spent four years as Acting Vice President for Strategic Programs. In this role, Meena brought science to life with her work on the Portal to the Public (PoP) program, which brings together science and technology experts and museum practitioners to engage the Seattle community in current scientific research and innovation. PoP is so successful that currently over 50 museums, science centers, zoo and aquaria have joined the PoP Network and adopted this model for community engagement in their own institutions.

Meena is no stranger to Museology. Last year, she guest lectured a course on grant writing. Her familiarity with Museology and her background in the STEM field and community engagement make her a true asset to the Museology team.

I was able to ask her about her experience and new position as core faculty in Museology.

Meena, while you have worked extensively in museums, your academic background is actually in Biology. What brought you to museum work and how do you see your STEM background contributing to the field?

I’m looking at you, Carl Sagan. This incredible scientist and science communicator was the reason I got into biology. But while I was getting my PhD in the field, I realized that although I love the scientific process and the understanding of the natural world, I wanted to do what Carl Sagan did: to be a science communicator. I joined the Museum of Science, Boston in 2001 when they had initiated an exciting experiment to have a dynamic, rapid turnover delivery system of current science news and issues. I was hired because of my familiarity with both the health science field and my comfort with interacting with researchers and bringing their voice into the museum.

Through the next 15 years, current science communication became my niche in the field. I was fortunate to be a part of several nationwide initiatives and to work with networks of museums. At Pacific Science Center, my team helped scientists with science communication skills and to directly interface with visitors within the museum. We then applied what we learned to train other museums to work with scientists in their own communities.  I think efforts like this break down artificial barriers between experts and visitors.

By the way, ten years ago the Museum of Flight had one of Carl Sagan’s turtleneck sweaters on display, complete with a little moth hole.

What attracted you to the Museology program? What, if anything, is special about it in your opinion?

I’ve had a chance to work with the program since 2009 when Museology students worked with my team at Pacific Science Center on several projects or as a site for their thesis work. My experience has always been very positive. And of course, I know the faculty through my work or by their reputation. While this familiarity with the people helped, I was attracted to the Museology program primarily because of its strong forward-looking, student-centered vision, which is grounded in ties to the local community. I’m very excited by the new strategic plan and believe that it prepares students for work in the field. I also saw first-hand the impact the program has on the community through the range of partnerships. I think these practical experiences are invaluable for students and help to situate what we learn in class with real-world applications.

What do you think that your skills and passions bring to the Museology program? What about to the students you work with, instruct, and mentor?

As you can tell public engagement with science has been a great interest for me. I’m interested in the broader context of community engagement and have been getting really immersed in some of the interesting community work coming out of museums. I think these areas of specialization fill out our Museology program and complement the strengths of our core and affiliated faculty.

Because I’ve been a practitioner for more than 15 years and worked in multiple museums and with dozens of museum partners and in roles ranging from managerial to senior administration, I have a strong understanding of the internal functioning (and dysfunction-ing) of museums. I love my one-on-one time with my students and wish I could hear more about their motivations and interests. I think that makes my mentoring style to be more on the personal level. This being my first year as a full-time faculty member, I am doing some learning myself and I’ve appreciated the support, kindness, and patience of staff, faculty, and students as I’ve asked questions (multiple times) and figured my way around.

What is your personal philosophy regarding issues of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access within museums? How do these translate to your work and your teaching?

I think inclusiveness probably captures it best. Often diversity ends up just being a measure of demographics and not of actual change or engagement. To me, being an inclusive museum means that you are finding ways to minimize barriers to entry to your space, ways to increase comfort levels in the space, to feel represented in the space, and to have a voice in the space.

The first grant I wrote was for a project intended to bring underrepresented voices into the museum by reaching out into the community. Looking back, there were some successes and failures but we just didn’t know how to go about it and didn’t give ourselves enough time to try over again. In my courses, I look for examples, partners, panelists, and readings that mirror what we want to see in our field.

This quarter, you are teaching Grant Writing again for Museology students. How would you describe the benefit of learning this skill for emerging museum professionals? How does your course prepare students to apply these skills in their future careers?

Meena teaches grant writingAs I tell students in my Grant Writing class, I wouldn’t be a museum professional without grants. My first museum position was entirely funded by a federal grant, as was the second. And then through a series of grants awards I was able to fund and sustain an entire department dedicated to creating current science exhibits, programs, training for scientists, and training for museum professionals. No operational support. Heady days!

Lesson 1: Grant writing is teamwork. What I learned from the process was that grant writing is not just for the people in Development and that you have to be a partner with the fundraisers in Development and with all the people involved in getting the proposal out the door.

Lesson 2: Grant writing is a craft, but you can learn it. I’ve found that many museums have interesting ideas for projects but do not take sufficient time to find funding sources and give up on them. Or they find the source but do not create a compelling, coherent, and persuasive case to present to the source for funding. I know that all of you will have very interesting projects you want to explore in your future and my hope is that you understand how to write a proposal that aligns with both the mission of your organization and the priorities of the funder and which has clear outcomes for the target audience.  

Lesson 3: You can apply a logic model to any project. I love logic models and they can be applied to pretty much any situation. Start with the change you want to see and work backwards. Have you seen Angie Ong’s beautiful logic models?

Lesson 4: Grant writing is messy, but what isn’t. In the Grant Writing course, my students work in teams to craft a proposal for a local museum. This type of authentic, high-stakes experience is invaluable for many reasons including the practice of taking what you learn in class and applying it in a real situation. Importantly, the students also experience the messiness of working outside class and learning how to get comfortable(ish) with lack of control and tight turnaround times. Your partners can be very responsive or not; give you lots of information in one go or you might find that you have to cajole it out. Learning to be nimble is a part of it.

Lesson 5: Be courteous, assume positive intent, and forgive small slights. This is a small field and you will cross paths with many people. You never know who will call you and offer you an interesting opportunity because they remembered a good experience with you.

Finally, and just for fun, what is your favorite museum?

This is a tough one and it depends on my frame of mind and the company I’m with. I love art museums, especially Baltimore’s Visionary Art Museum. I fall for good storytelling every time, whether it is in an exhibit, a performance in the museum, or through a tour, and so for that I think history museums have an edge. Then there’s the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia which has neither but I am completely fascinated with. Locally, I think our Zoo and Aquarium are top notch. The Wing, certainly. And I’m a fan of the World War I and II galleries at Museum of Flight.


Be sure to stop Meena and say hi if you see her around campus!

Dorothy Svgdik, Museology Communications Assistant, Class of 2019