Saturday, September 8, 2018

I'm on History Hit!

It was a great pleasure to talk about our work and the work of our members at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience for Dan Snow's podcast, History Hit.  I hope you'll take a listen.
Plus, I'm now working my way through some of Dan's other episodes:  from the history of spying to Brexit to making comedy from history, there's so much to listen to.  Enjoy!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Walk the Talk: The Fearless Other Women in St. John's

We're on vacation in Newfoundland, Canada this week and as always, it's been a bit of a busman's holiday with a couple museum visits. My time here also included a great walking tour: The Other Women's Walk, created by Ruth Lawrence and presented/acted by Bridget Wareham, Wendi Smallwood, and Monica Walsh.

I was curious about what this tour would be like after reading about it in a local paper--so I walked down a few blocks from where we're staying and assembled with a group of about twenty.  Over the course of about an hour, we walked in and around Bannerman Park, learning the stories of women from the 1920s--and particularly, learning the stories of women for whom suffrage potentially meant little as they were working so hard to make a living, living on the margins. We met a sex worker, a cook, a factory worker and union activist, an Irish immigrant who found solace in another immigrant--a Chinese laundry worker, a teacher and our guide for the hour, a worker behind a bar.

As someone who thinks a great deal about historic site interpretation, and has been in many conversations about what you can say and what you can't say to visitors, I was struck by the power and frankness of the stories shared.  It was a fearless kind of feminism that I wish I saw more often in museums and historic sites.  I won't recap the whole tour, but here are just a few of the notes I jotted down:
  • "I'm in a war every day fighting to stay alive."  A sex worker discussing the governor general's wife's war efforts during World War I as contrasted with her own life.
  • In front of the historic Confederation building, the former seat of government "Here is where the laws are made to control us--laws made by men."  The bar worker after sharing a story of her own rape.  As we walked away from the building, she asked us to turn around. "That's stunning, isn't it?  That's [also] repression."
  • "They think nothing of one who holds the needle."  Labor organizer, who also reminded us that we can choose where to spend our money.
  • At a stop in front of a small monument to Shawnawdithit, the last living member of the Beokuk nation, we were asked to bow our heads in a moment of silence in her honor and "We'd do well to remember that we are guests on native soil."

Each stop was clearly based on research and directly related to a place (and their research is all credited on the project website).   It was a great reminder of how much history is there to be found and that all of our interpretation can go beyond the standard, great white man (and his supportive wife) still too often found in historic houses or the kind of walking tour focused on architecture (as we heard at the start, gently but firmly--if you're interested in those curved windows or the staircase, this is not the tour for you!).

I found it interesting that this was a performance--I'm used to projects like these that really encourage dialogue--and this didn't explicitly do so. Although in eavesdropping on my fellow participants, I found them relating the issues discussed to their own lives.  It didn't really give us a chance to talk to strangers, but I'm guessing many people continued those discussions in different ways after the walk.

The other aspect to the performance, as opposed to a more standard walking tour, is that every single piece of information wasn't included.  The creator, Ruth Lawrence, made sure all the information worked and moved a story forward.  And then three compelling actresses delivered--not just facts, but a sense of real women and real stories.

Kudos to all involved--I'll be thinking about this experience for a long time.

And a small shout-out to where I read about the tour:  The Overcast, Newfoundland's alternative newspaper, picked up at the Rocket Bakery, my absolute favorite place for coffee in St. John's.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Are You Ready to Learn? How Can We Help?

We in the museum field always talk about lifelong learners, but I'm increasingly interested in the ways that we, as museum professionals, can cement our own lifelong learning status.  My participation as a lecturer at the Baltic Museology School this month provided me with some lessons about my own learning styles (and limitations) and about constructing a space for all kinds of learners.

The Baltic Museology School is 15 years old this year with "the aim to develop and strengthen museological thought in the Baltic States, by linking theory and practice, in order for Baltic museums to become more professional, contemporary and accessible to society."  It brings together 30 participants from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia for a week of learning, conversation and yes, a bit of beer-drinking in Kaunas, Lithuania. My co-instructor, Jari Harju of the Helsinki City Museum and I took on the topic of opening up museums to new voices.

Participants' Learning
Jari and I, who had never met each other in person before, were both happy to discover that we shared a certain flexibility in how we approached the week.  I'm a huge believer in the concept of plussing, or "Yes, and,"  the process of building upon each other's ideas.  We adapted and shared ideas all along the way. That flexibility, I think, helped the participants' learning--they could see that we don't have all the answers, but we work towards them.

Our goals seemed almost contradictory:  we wanted participants to feel comfortable learning and we wanted to push them outside of that comfort zone.  We began with childhood stories of museum visits (good and bad, with family and with school, adventuresome and boring) as a way of shifting our perspective from museum worker to audience--and to learn a bit more about each other.  The week was jammed full (with a day of ICOM discussion on Wednesday and a broader conference on Friday) along with museum visits and yes, homework.

Anyone who has presented at workshops before has seen at least one person, sitting in the back, with their arms crossed, reluctant to participate.  One of the great joys of this week was that that person never appeared.  The participants, all working in English, dove in enthusiastically to whatever task we set them to.  Sharing your passion with a perfect stranger you've just met?  Sure! Small group work writing a label to bring out an emotion in objects, including mushrooms?  Sure!  Considering community participation in an exhibition on urban gardening and doing actual exhibit design?  Sure!  Making an audio stop to engender emotion?  Sure!  Designing an Arc of Dialogue around the issue of out-migration in the region?  Sure again!  Each day, it felt like they gained confidence in us as presenters, but more importantly, in their own perspectives, skills, and knowledge.  Another great joy?  So much laughter along the way.

On Thursday, we set them to the biggest challenge of the week:  leaving our supportive, protective museum envelope and going out to interview people on the street about museums.  I believe no one had ever done it, but both Jari and I believe that if you want to learn what people want from museums, you have to talk to them--and not in the museum.  Off they went, in tri-national teams to learn from Kaunas' residents.  They learned a lot--that museums are bullshit, said one interviewee;  that you would only go with family;  that museums are perceived to be only places of information; that museums should be open different hours.  Jari made a great point--that talking to visitors shouldn't be left to interns or front-of-house staff--that anyone involved in the museum should spend some time doing this.

Our favorite report from the on-the-street surveys came from the all-Lithuanian group.  Because there was no language barrier, Jari set them a bigger challenge:  to interview young workers.  The street in front of our hotel was fully under construction, so there were plenty of workers to be found.  But would they talk?  To our participants' surprise--they would!  (see above).

At the end of the week, we asked participants to map their journey, using their own hands as the template. Just a few of the responses are below. To see that journey from confusion, up and down through the week, to new-found confidence, was a wonderful thing.  That confidence-building came in some part from Jari and me, but it also came importantly it came from the School's organizers, and to the sense that building capacity in a region is a long-term responsibility that many people share.  The organizers from the three Ministries of Culture gave us as instructors both freedom and structure, using, I'm sure, all the lessons they have learned over 15 years. I'll use the knowledge I gained to continue to reflect on how that capacity-building and life-long learning can work in many different situations.

But my own learning--what about that?  I'll save it for another post.  In the meantime, my thanks and appreciation to everyone at the Baltic Museology School this year!  (plus, Lithuania is beautiful and fascinating.  Go visit).

Thanks to Julija Tolvaišytė‎, Kristine Milere and Monika Oželytė-Žąsytienė‎ for some of the photographs above.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

What's Better? Surprise or Interpretation?

Last week, two colleagues and I had quite the unexpected experience at--not a museum, but certainly a historic site--that gave us lots of conversation about interpretation, expectations, surprise, and how you feel when you're confused at a site.

Where was I?  I was in Istanbul to do a presentation at the quite amazing Hrant Dink Foundation with Amina  Krvavac of the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Katia Chornik of Cantos Cautivos (by the way, check out all their inspiring, important work).

We had some free time before our presentation, so we decided to visit a hammam--a traditional Turkish bath--something that none of us had ever done.  Our gracious host Nayat Karakose from Hrant Dink sent us here:  Galatasaray Hamam.  We enter, ponder the different fees (ever do that upon entering a museum--I bet you did!).  Finally we decide on a set of services, and just out of curiosity, ask when it opened. "1481" the guy at the front desk tells us. We remove our shoes and discover that no one really speaks much English, but we'll just figure it out, we think.  First, a change of shoes into those disposable slippers.

Upstairs we head, ushered by one of the women workers, into individual small rooms with a Turkish towel on a small bed.  We figure out we're supposed to change into the towels, and undress and do so, emerging, giggling, for inspection by the woman worker.  Evidently not all of our towels are on perfectly, so quick rearranging by her, at which point, mostly naked, we think, "okay, now what?  

From there, into a huge domed room to lay down on a large, heated, marble sort-of podium until we are really, really hot...and then are ushered into the massage room for soapy massage, cold water splash and more.  More general confusion and laughter all the way around (probably us and the workers both) until we emerged, thoroughly buffed and massaged, swaddled in towels, fully relaxed, to have our glasses of tea by the fountain.

But what did I think about this terms of interpretation and museums?  In a way, it was great to be surprised as we went along and that was made so much better by being with friends so we could look at each other with puzzled looks and laugh.  It would have been very strange as a solo experience. But equally, a bit of explanation have been useful (interestingly, I found an explanation of the experience on their website just as I was writing this.) 

But...and it's the caveat that museums and historic sites should be pondering.  Despite the barriers of language, the people working there were very kind.  And, to be clear, we came with the privilege of being tourists in a city that sees not as many tourists these days.  

Is your museum kind to everyone? Do you know that your museum treats everyone who comes in the door with the same sense of welcome?  I once watched the front desk manager (!) at a museum make a young couple spit their gum into a Kleenex she thrust forward as she lectured them about no gum in a museum.  I bet those visitors were really reluctant to return, as they were treated as misbehaving schoolkids.  You want to treat all your visitors with the same sense of hospitality--not just the ones with whatever privilege you value (explicitly or implicitly). Don't tell me that you know how people are treated at your museum unless you are regularly spending time at the front desk and in the galleries.

My personal takeaways:  

  • ending up with adventurous, funny, compassionate co-panelists is the best
  • it's a good thing to go outside your own comfort zone and be surprised
  • kindness always matters
If you've had an experience not in a museum that made you think about the value of interpretation--please share away!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Caring for Visitors

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  It's a former high school that was used as a security prison (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime during its murderous rule from 1975-79.  Not surprisingly, it's a tough place to visit:  rooms where torture happened, the photographs of victims (and torturers who often then became victims themselves), and the reminder that only 7 people of the roughly 17,000 imprisoned there survived.

It's an incredibly important story and as with all Sites of Conscience, one all of us need to listen to.  However, I was particularly struck by the gentle care that the museum took to provide space, both mentally and physically, to allow visitors to process these events, which feel like a kind of horrible madness.  The excellent audio tour includes both narrative and historical testimony, including from the trial of the prison chief Duch (who, lest you think this is the distant past, was only convicted in 2010 by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and sentenced to life imprisonment).

Until just a few years ago, the center courtyard was just a paved space.  But now it's green and lovely. Each time you leave a building you have a chance to take a deep breath, sit and reflect.  The tour gives you a heads-up before you come to stops that may be really difficult to hear.  The effective narrative reminds you that it is always humans--committing the genocide, resisting the genocide, and providing the testimony.   Every day there is a dialogue forum with a survivor of the Pol Pot regime and the White Lotus Room provides visitors a chance to meditate in a cool, quiet room and listen to Khmer traditional music.  The audio tour also provides traditional music that you can dip into and out of.

Upcoming on May 20 is the annual Remembrance Day, in memory of the spirits of the victims and when, according to the museum website, "Food and other offerings are made to the monks and as charitable acts to the poor."

The message of the site itself is the most important--as Tuol Sleng's director, Chhay Visoth notes:
My goal is for visitors to understand what happened here so that it never happens again—innocent people, including children, being imprisoned, tortured and killed. I want them to learn about the cruelty of this regime and remember the victims who died here, who were forced to make confessions for things they didn’t do and then put to death without mercy.

But it's constructive for other museum workers to note that the same compassion for victims extends, in a very different way, to a kind of compassion for visitors--and that this compassion is done with such simple tools:  green spaces, cool rooms to rest, music--that have such power, power that helps ensure that visitors will always remember the experience and some of the faces and stories of the victims. It's worth noting that this care, this compassion for visitors comes from victims, as virtually every Cambodian of a certain age was affected, one way or another by the Khmer Rouge's actions. With that remembrance and that care, we can, as we daily remind ourselves at the Coalition of Sites of Conscience, "turn memory into action."

Monday, April 2, 2018

The "Repression Machine:" Telling Albania's Story

In March, I spent a week in Tirana, Albania, at the invitation of the United States Embassy in Tirana, facilitating conversations and workshops about possibilities for a rejuvenated National History Museum.  More on that experience later, but first to discuss a bit about Albania's history and the stories that museums and archives are sharing with visitors and my learning at two historic sites and one archive.

If you're like me, you don't know much about Albania's complex and fascinating history, but the part this post focuses on is the Enver Hoxha communist regime, established after the defeat of the Nazis in 1945.  This regime was initially allied with the Soviet Union, but broke away and became unaligned, and isolated from almost everywhere. The only way I can describe it is as a paranoid state that distrusted everyone, but most of all its own citizens.  In the years since the early 1990s, Albania, like many other states, has been coming to terms with its Communist legacy.  It's not an easy task, particularly as this did not involve an invader or outside oppressor, say as in the Czech Republic, but an entirely home-grown system of repression.

I learned about this history by visiting three places doing exceptional work:  the House of Leaves, Spaç Prison, and the State Security Archives.  Each one provided food for thought for anyone thinking about ways to interpret difficult issues, in this case, the "machine of repression," as Genta Sula, head of the archives, described it.

The House of Leaves is right in the center of Tirana and only opened as a museum less than a year ago. But the House itself has been long-known to Albanians.  It's the former headquarters of the state surveillance service, sequestered behind a high wall covered with leaves.  It's now a museum devoted to helping visitors understand surveillance: who did, how they did it, why they did it, and more.  From the House of Leaves I remember how much the graphic black and white design served the story.  There were loads and loads of charts--ordinarily something I might not be attracted to--but room-sized, they actually drew you in.  The mechanics of the surveillance were fascinating--and also unsettling.  You could see how some people just saw the surveillance as a technical problem to be solved, not a human rights question. And then that began to raise some unsettling questions about the state of surveillance today in the larger world.

But most importantly for me, was the sense that, throughout the entire museum, that the exhibits were based on real, individual stories.  This was brought home to me as I entered one room that listed all the people imprisoned or killed by the regime.  An Albanian colleague with me went quiet, looked up, and said, "here's my grandfather."  Those stories, one by one, are a large part of what gave the museum its exceptional power to me. The other power came from what was unsaid:  that we think about this state-sponsored surveillance, but about how we're just starting to think about the kind of corporate surveillance that we willingly surrender to.

Some of the raw material for the content of this exhibit comes from the state security archives, newly opened after more than twenty-five years.  You can come to the archives and see your own file--some of them thousands and thousands of pages.  The total archives is more than 22 million pages.  You begin to understand the web of connections:  the government spied on you, and then convince you to spy on others--and so much information was fundamentally useless--but still used to intimidate and imprison others.  Genta Sula, the director of the Authority for the Information on Former Communist Police Secret Files (that's the archives official name) views the archives also as an activist tool.  The archives are working with artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa, who is producing "Even the Walls have Ears,"  testimonies from the archives to be projected on public buildings this spring.  If there's one thing I've learned in my year at Sites of Conscience,  it's that archives can be really powerful.  These archives are a great example of both documentation and activism.

The last site of note was not quite a museum yet--and it took me far out of Tirana.  Three staff members of Cultural Heritage without Borders, a Sites of Conscience member, took me out to visit Spaç Prison. Far up in the mountains, the prison and labor camp was established by the regime and housed a number of Albanian intellectuals and opponents of the Hoxha regime.  It's been designated as a heritage site, but sadly neglected and Cultural Heritage without Borders has taken on the effort to turn it into a site of memory and a museum.  For me, several important elements stood out here:  first, the power of place.  Although most of the way to the prison is now a paved road, it used to be a very long drive to get to this remote place.  And once here, you understand that the regime's goal of isolating you and attempting to control every aspect of your life.  "Inspirational" quotes from Hoxha are still on the walls juxtaposed with one prisoner's list of movie stars on a cell wall.

But this site also reveals the challenge of dealing with the past.  The site is owned by the government and the mine itself has been leased to a Turkish company, who is rapidly changing everything around the "red line" of the historic site, as you can see in the above photo.  The buildings at the top of the photo are all new. This region, like all of Albania, is interested in economic development--hence the mine lease.  Which will win out?  Cultural  Heritage without Borders has developed a thoughtful plan for the ongoing development of the site as a site of memory--and a place where young people can not only learn about the past and but also shape a more just future.

I found one commonality in all these experiences: virtually everyone I met, of course, had their own story of these times and their family or personal experiences.  It's the integration of these personal voices that provides the strength of these places and the involvement of those affected by the regime is critical.  Everyone noted that Albanian society has a long way to go in the complex process of reconciliation, but each of these experiences showed the power that museums, historic sites, and archives can have in moving towards that reconciliation if they are unafraid.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The 2018 Mentees (finally!)

It's been a busy year already, with hardly time to blog, much less announce this year's mentees.  Many, many thanks to all of you who took the time to apply and share your passions, your childhood creative efforts, and the changes you want to make in the field.  You inspire me every year--and the choice is always very difficult.  This year, I'm happy to announce that Claire Lanyon and Doreen Pastor will each be joining me for a year's worth of monthly coffee and conversation.  We'll be time zone challenging, and intriguing that each are migrants to their current country.

Claire is Interim Learning Manager at the Auckland War Memorial Museum in Auckland, New Zealand. She came to this position with experience in the world of educational technology, including 6 years at Apple as an Account Executive focusing on education sales.  Among the questions we'll be exploring this year are:
  • What can we do to increase the relevance of Museums in the lives of young people?
  • What programmes or exhibitions are you seeing that meaningfully increase participation?
  • What steps can we take to increase the development of empathy?

Claire's childhood acts took her from shy child to the Majorette World Championships, as performing in various guises helped her find her voice and her passions include education (teaching and learning), empathy and food.  Her two best museums experiences of the last year were ones I wish I'd seen:  the Empathy Museum and ‘We’re here because we are here’ a public art piece commemorating the Battle of the Somme.

Doreen is currently working on her Ph.D. and part-time Community, Learning and Volunteer Coordinator at St George's in Bristol, England.  At the University of Bristol, her research is focusing on tourism and cultural memory at “difficult” heritage sites in Germany. She is passionate about "historical research and communicating this research to a public audience, particularly addressing challenging historical themes."  Over the year, we'll be talking about the work of memorial sites globally and as well, ways to build out individual skills and capacity.

Doreen's remembered creative act was also an act of resistance:
I have always been a little bit of a rebel, which, bearing in mind that I was born in the GDR,was problematic. From day one, I did not enjoy going to school and one day during a mathlesson, I stood up and informed the teacher that I would leave the lesson as I was bored. Such an act in the GDR school system was very brave and had some consequences for me, however, it did not deter me from always speaking my mind.
Braver museums--moving away from the cautious--is the change Doreen would like to see, and at memorial sites, she would like to see sites "consider the impact of the exhibitions on the visitors from the outset rather than as an after-thought."

As I said above, this process is always a difficult one--and one of my favorite parts is reading about those first creative acts.  Here's just a few:

  • Writing adventure stories featuring Pokemon characters
  • When I was 7 a friend and I put posters up around our village advertising a drama class that we were holding in the playground (no-one turned up…)
  • My 3rd-grade teacher Ms. Brown noticed one of my notebooks and convinced me to submit a poem about the Time Square ball drop to our township’s local newspaper, and it was published, which was about the biggest event of my childhood.
  • a very (very!) complex board game for Whose Line is It Anyway?
  • When I was maybe 11 or 12 I started making drawings that illustrated popular song titles. For example, for Journey’s “Open Arms” I drew, you guessed it, a torso with extended arms. For Yes’ “Owner of a lonely heart”, I drew a typical heart with a collar and chained leash, and little a hand firmly holding the other end of the leash.

You are all amazing!  Keep up the creative work to keep changing the museum field.