Tuesday, September 2, 2014

My Bags are (almost) Packed

On September 6th, I head out for five weeks away from home, in all kinds of surprising locations, places where I expect to learn, to be challenged by new situations, to connect with old friends, to make new ones; and much, much more.  First I head to St. Petersburg and Yekaterinberg, Russia, where I'll be both presenting and doing social media for the event.  So be sure to check out the project blog, and follow me on Twitter (or the hashtag #museumspolitics) and Instagram to get the latest from conference sessions, behind the scenes tours of the Hermitage, the contemporary art exhibit Manifesta; and what I hope are conversations that really dig deep, allowing us to consider the conference theme, Museums and Politics, in the light of current events in the region. What are our responsibilities as cultural professionals and how can we, working together, take care of our cultural heritage and engage in important dialogue?

Then a few free days that, of course, include museum-going.  My friend Irina in Moscow tells me there are so many museums we can squeeze in.  Will I love the Moscow Bulgakov Museum as much as I love the Kyiv one? I've heard great things about programs and exhibits at the Tretyakov Gallery--that's on my list--and what about those new emerging museums like the Moscow Design Museum.   From Moscow, I'll head to Riga, Latvia, a European Capital of Culture this year with what look like some amazing museums. The newly opened KGB building and much more are on my list, along with a chance to appreciate one of the world's great concentrations of Art Nouveau architecture.

I wind up my visit to the region with several weeks in Ukraine. As Uncataloged readers know, this is a place very dear to me, with important friends and colleagues.  Together with several colleagues, I'll be presenting workshops on incorporating visitor voices into exhibit development so although I'll be based in Kyiv, we'll be doing lots of traveling around the country.  I'll also be learning about the Museum of Maidan project and as always, sharing perspectives on both professional and personal issues and shoehorning a couple additional presentations. The last year has been an extremely challenging one for Ukraine, to say the least, and my museum colleagues are juggling their work; their commitment to national change; and their concerns for family, friends and fellow museums.

Are you in any of these places?  As always, I'd love the chance to sit down over a cup of coffee and learn about your work.  Be in touch!

Monday, August 25, 2014

What Fundraising Letter Made Me Mad?

One of my all-time most-read posts is 2010's Are County Historical Societies Dinosaurs? in which I took on what I saw as the increasing irrelevance of many historical societies. I've learned that it's assigned in museum studies and public history courses and shows up in some unexpected places.  I always like to think that we're moving forward. But today, forwarded from a colleague, came a historical society's fundraising letter that reminded me how little has changed over the last four years. Here's the letter in its entirety with only the name changed: 
Dear Members and Friends: 
As you may know, building a healthy endowment is of critical importance for the long term health of any non-profit organization, including the ABC Historical Society. 
Once again we are asking your help in boosting our endowment fund.  In these times of shrinking financial support from other sectors we are counting on the generosity of our members and friends to take up the challenge and provide the ABC Historical Society with a solid foundation on which to build for the future.  Once again we have been issued a challenge grant in that all money raised by us will be matched one for one.  What that means is that every dollar donated will effectively be doubled! 
All money raised will be deposited into our endowment account at the local bank.  No donation is too small and of course, no donation can ever be too large!  Thank you for your support!
Honestly, this letter made me more annoyed, angry and discouraged than anything I've read in a long time.  Why?  There is not one, not a single one, mention of anything this organization does.  As far as the letter reads, the primary mission of the organization is building an endowment.   It's pretty easy to moan and groan about how small organizations can't get grants, that they do great, important work, but in fact, this is far from the only organization who can't even figure out for themselves why they matter much less make the case to their community.  

A long time ago I was in a workshop taught by management consultant Dorothy Chen-Courtin who made us ask "so what?" at least seven times to get to an meaningful mission statement.   Do you collect?  So what?  Do you preserve those collections?  So what?  Keep asking til you find real meaning and purpose.  I see small organizations everywhere doing great work, with few resources.  Those are places that deserve our support as a field and our individual contributions.  Lazy organizations--because that's what I'll call this one--seem hardly to deserve anything.  That's a sad fact, because our communities, large and small, rural and urban, deserve history organizations that can be so much more.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seeing IS Believing: What Prototyping Can Do

Are you thinking that the pace of change at your institution is glacial?  If you work at a historic house, are you crippled by the fact that your interpreters, volunteer or paid, seem to resist any change in how they share ideas and information with visitors?  Has somebody at your institution said, "Visitors will never do that!" whatever that is?    Have you been thinking and planning, but afraid to take the step of actually making change in your historic house?

I've written several times about my ongoing work with the Harriet Beecher Stowe House on re-interpretation.  We've talked with visitors, talked with ourselves, talked with a great group of scholars and community leaders, we explored surrendering the chronology and learned a great deal along the way. But still, our ideas remained untested. We've used a version of design thinking to help shape our work and we had prototyped internally, but it was time to take the plunge and actually test out our ideas, in the historic spaces, with real live visitors. Here's how it went.

We decided to rethink four spaces in the house.  Two spaces in particular were both exciting and scary--the front parlor and the kitchen.  In our conversations with visitors, they had told us they really wanted to be able to sit in the house.  So that's what we did in both those spaces.  Stowe House is lucky to have a collections manager, Beth Burgess, who cares deeply for the collection and cares deeply about engaging audiences.  She's been a valued part of the team since the word go, and her willingness to move and remove objects in the service of interpretation has been so valuable.  So the period kitchen table was replaced with a reproduction, covered in brown paper.  Several chairs in the front parlor and the center table were relocated and replaced with folding chairs with fabric covers and a simple table on which there were reproductions of news articles and anti-slavery materials.  Total cost of all this?  Zero dollars.  Our overall goal was to more closely align the historic house experience with the Stowe Center's mission which includes:  promotes vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspires commitment to social justice and positive change.  

The interpretive staff approached this with some pretty serious trepidation.  The education staff (big shout-outs to Shannon Burke and Brian Cofrancesco, my amazing partners in this entire process) and I decided that to start, one interpreter would lead the tour, except in the prototyping spaces, where I'd take the lead.  I'm very far from a Stowe expert, but I like a challenge, and I'm confident of my ability to encourage discussion.

What happened?  Over the next two days all of us were inspired and moved in so many unexpected ways.  It started with our very first group,  atypical for Stowe House, where most visitors, are like most historic house visitors, are white, female and over 65.  This group, just walk-in visitors, was a small group of African American and Latino local middle school students who give tours at a local cemetery as a summer job. When we got to the parlor, and sat down, I asked everyone to take a document to look at, and asked for a volunteer to read out loud.  One student read runaway slave ads and hesitated a bit, and then continued. Their adult group leader gently asked, "what were you thinking when you stopped reading?"  He looked up and said, "The ad said the slave was 5'11.  I'm 5'11.  It could have been me."   That stopped us in our tracks.  Just the act of reading out loud made something real and personal. We've found that reading aloud also worked for other types of visitors in different kinds of connecting ways--from parenthood to where you're from.
In the kitchen at the end of the tour, we'd designed the experience so that participants would have an informal chance to reflect on Stowe's commitment to social justice and connect it to the change they'd like to make in the world.  Sitting around a table covered in brown paper, encouraged to write and talk at the same time, meant that there was space for both.  Talkers talked, writers wrote, drawers drew,  thinkers thought and the table filled with thoughtful comments about the difference we can make in the world.

In just our brief experience, we discovered some really important things.

First, what we learned about the internal workings.  Although Shannon, Brian and I had these ideas in our heads, we really needed to show the interpretive staff the ideas in action.  And once we did, what had been some pretty substantial hesitation melted away.  Visitors loved the idea of participating in what seems like a behind-the-scenes process and that made interpreters feel comfortable with the experimentation.  The fear of change is powerful, and the simple prototyping was something that everyone could experiment with (it's an experiment!).  Seeing is believing.  And from our willingness to risk failure (that first tour easily could have gone not so well) and our willingness to learn from every visitor and every interpreter's experience, it's now become something that all of us are invested in. Wrote one staff member after giving her first prototype tour:
I was nervous at first, but as I talked, and as they participated I began to feel really excited and completely invigorated by what was happening.  My experience in giving the tour made me feel incredibly excited about what I was doing, and more importantly excited about giving a tour.   
We found a way to make everyone a part of the process.  The prototype tours always include an observer/notetaker and a simple form to collect information and observations from both staff and visitors about what works, what doesn't, and what we can continue to tweak.

And what did we learn about visitors?  They love experimentation.  They love dialog.  They love being fully in historic spaces. Stowe staff have been getting emails from visitors talking about their experiences (how often does that happen to you?)  Here's what one visitor wrote:
[The guide] advised us of some experimental procedures we would be involved in that were being tried out as part of the tour. The discussion group catalyzed by viewing media reproductions from the slave era was a terrific idea. After the normal hesitation to speak, our group was really starting to engage but had to break off in order to maintain schedule. My thought was, Is there some way to accommodate an extended discussion during or perhaps at the end of the tour? All in all a great experience.
And a big lesson?  Visitors are up for it all if it's framed and presented in ways that encourage--but not require--participation.  One of the documents we used in the front parlor were the words to the Abolitionist's Song, sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.  As we were wrapping up before my departure, we discussed the ongoing prototyping process, I said, "I bet you some group actually sings this in the tour"  Sure enough, Brian tells me that 3 or 4 groups have actually broken into song.    

We've got much more work to do, and many questions to answer and explore in the process of developing and refining the experience, but this speedy prototyping brought new energy and joy to our work.  Our cost?  Still pretty much zero dollars.

(and, in the shameless self-promotion category:  if you want to embark on rethinking your historic house interpretation, be in touch.  We can work together on a process that can create real change and meaning.)

Monday, August 4, 2014

"Their Lives are Full of Art" Visiting the Museum of Innocence

This past spring, Marieke van Damme and I separately had the chance to visit the Museum of Innocence, in Istanbul, winner of this year’s European Museum of the Year award. We had a great conversation about it, and she’s been good enough to share her thoughts here on this unusual museum experience, created by Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk. Marieke is is a museum professional based in Boston. Her recent project, Joyful Museums, explores museum workplace culture. She invites you to weigh in on what your workplace is like here. Results of the survey will be posted this fall.

I fell in love with Orhan Pamuk’s grand writing style when I picked up Snow at the Harvard Book Store in 2008, a couple of years after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  While planning for a trip to Turkey earlier this year [2014], I crammed as much Pamuk in as I could, simultaneously reading Istanbul: Memories and the City, The Museum of Innocence, and The Innocence of Objects, Pamuk’s catalog of the museum he created in Istanbul. The books did not disappoint--I had a feel for the city before I arrived and, once there, felt I knew its secrets just a little bit more than my traveling companions.

I had the pleasure of visiting Turkey with the University of Michigan’s Knight Wallace Fellowship, where my husband was a 2014 fellow. Together we visited politicians, toured the Bosphorous, bought an incredible number of scarves, and ate gorgeous lamb dishes with candied pumpkin desserts. While visiting the MoI was number one on my must-see sites, I unfortunately didn’t visit until my last full day in Turkey. After 16 days of non-stop activities in four areas of the country, I was exhausted and much preferred the idea of sitting by the Golden Horn drinking Turkish coffee. Luckily I had made an appointment to meet with Esra Aysun, the Director (who has since moved on)  that afternoon so off we went in search of the museum.

It isn’t terrible easy to find. The streets in the neighbourhood of Beyoğlu are steep, winding, and often without clear street signage. As you get closer, the municipal wayfinding and other curious tourists lead you to the site. Inside, we donned the audio tour and set to work listening to Pamuk describe the exhibition.

The book came first, but Pamuk dreamt up both the story and the physical museum simultaneously. In the novel, the main character collects personal objects reminding him of his life with his muse and creates a museum devoted to their experiences. In real life, Pamuk collected objects of old Istanbul, renovated a historic house, and installed three floors worth of curated cases filled with these objects. There’s a lot to take in physically and mentally.

I had very high expectations. I am a fan of Pamuk’s work, I began my museum career in collections so I value objects and their stories, and I’m fascinated by Turkish culture. Also, earlier in the trip I recommended the museum to two colleagues who came back utterly moved by the experience; one of them cried at the beauty of the displays. I thought: This is going to rock my world.

It didn’t. Here’s why.
  • The space is stunningly beautiful, a cabinet of curiosities for the modern era. But to me it felt too clean and too organized. It could have been a shop display instead of a museum exhibition.
  • I made the crucial mistake of reading the exhibition catalog before I visited the museum instead of afterwards. The audio tour repeats much of the same information in the book and I found myself frustratingly skipping ahead.
  • I was exhausted and there was no good place to sit. A bench looking out at the displays would have been very welcomed! Of course, looking at the small and elegant space, I couldn’t identify a great place to put one.
  • Even though I loved the book, I knew the story wasn’t real, and the objects didn’t have power over me. I loved looking at these relics of mid-century Istanbul, but I felt as if I were in a high-end antique shop instead of a museum.

One reason the Museum is so beautiful is because it is simple. It tells one story, not several, and not for varying audiences as most institutions must do. It speaks in one voice and gives only one message. Another reason the Museum succeeds is because it is not burdened by what other museums do. There were no school groups, no excessive signage/wayfinding, no labels, no gallery cards, no security guard watching you sternly. While this is refreshing and makes for an elegant presentation, the lack of regard for the visitor is clear. I visited the museum at the end of a long day of sightseeing ( i.e. scarf-buying) and I was exhausted. Yet there was only one place to sit and it was away from the exhibits. The restrooms were down a narrow set of stairs clearly not up to code. The audio tour, while useful in providing interpretation, was long and distracting. (Am I the only person who has trouble listening thoughtfully and looking intently at the same time? You wear the thing around your neck and it knocks the glass whenever you lean over to inspect a case. It’s a hassle!)

Esra, the Museum’s Director, told me they do consider themselves a museum and have such a designation from the Ministry of Culture. While she acknowledges they are more an art installation than a “museum,” they do collect and interpret objects and consider themselves as a city museum for the average Turkish person, representing the years 1950-1980. I would argue that because they interpret objects through a lens of fiction, the MoI is more art installation than museum. Also, museums, as defined in an American context, hold objects in the public trust, and the MoI was conceived, created, and financed by an individual, making it a fully private institution. Another issue to consider is sustainability; Esra admitted they don’t know how long the museum will stay open, but as long as people read the book, the museum will stay relevant.

The museum just opened in 2012. I find it to be a true millennial museum-- it was created from the imagination of one person, it speaks to the average citizen, and it is just a touch narcissistic.

What I love about Pamuk is his deep connection to the city. I’ve found that many of my favorite authors also use place meaningfully; I’m thinking particularly of John Irving and Salman Rushdie. Why couldn’t there be a museum of The Hotel New Hampshire? Or Zadie Smith’s and Helen Fielding’s London? How different is “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” theme park in Orlando, FL? (I saw the Harry Potter “exhibit” at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and I suspended all disbelief that those “artifacts” weren’t real.) There’s also now a Game of Thrones “Exhibition” traveling the world. The Museum of Innocence (the novel and museum) work because the power of place overpowers the need for a traditional museum experience. It’s also inspired university students in Istanbul to think more about how the city and objects intersect (check out An Innocent City:  Modest Musings on Everyday Istanbul).

Pamuk’s work inspired me, in part, because, as the Director Esra Aysun said,   “Museum visitors are not scared of the objects.” They become “part of the experience” because it is a museum for them. The objects are not intimidating, the whole experience is not intimidating. “People can take pride in their own lives, as characters. They can know that their lives are full of art.” What a simple, but beautiful, idea.

Postscript: Pamuk's ideas for museums are more fully articulated in his Modest Manifesto for Museums; well worth a read. His manifesto is strong in several areas, particularly in stressing the need to interpret history through stories, and to tell the stories of all people, not just the rich and powerful.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Update: Disaster Plans for People

I wanted to update my last post about disaster plans for people as I've had great emails, great comments here, and great conversation threads on both ICOM and AAM LinkedIn groups.  All you stimulated additional thinking and clarity on my part, helping to shape my upcoming presentation.  Here's a bit of how my thinking has evolved, thanks to you.

Definitions:  Crisis or disaster?  Most often it appears, we take disaster to mean a natural disaster and there were many responses related to that.  There are also, however, what Cathy Stanton thoughtfully called in her comment "slow emergencies (with a nod to James Kunstler's "long emergency"). Coincidentally, Gretchen Jennings wrote about museums' role in the United States' current national crisis of the influx of young, undocumented children crossing the border.  I now think crisis is a better term for my intentions.  Definitions #2:  People or our people?  Several commenters took my emphasis on people to mean disaster plans that include plans for how people should act during a crisis at a museum such as evacuation during a fire.  Lots of museums have that.  It appears that community is a clearer, broader term for my intended group.

Planning:  Lots of commenters mentioned traditional disaster plans but several of you mentioned that this kind of active community engagement should be embedded in a museum's DNA: in their mission, in their planning processes, in every aspect of our work. Several of you reminded us of the importance of networking with all other elements of our community in thinking about how we can be of help. Then it's easy to respond.  A plan might not be flexible enough, as disasters or crises are hard to predict, but, as Sally Yerkovich wrote in a Linkedin comment,
If a museum truly thinks about the needs of its community on an ongoing basis, a response might come naturally. For example, in NYC on 9/11 some museums like the Tenement Museum that remained opened welcomed people fleeing from lower Manhattan. In nearby Newark, the Historical Society opened its doors and provided coffee, a place to gather, watch TV and be with others. Both institutions saw themselves as part of the social fabric of their neighborhood and, thus, immediately considered the needs of their neighbors. Would a plan have helped here?
And interestingly, in one email, a colleague took some museums to task, "I was very annoyed at that response 'we have no time for that.' That museum deserves the same response from its community when the museum is in need. "  

Inspiring Examples:  Many of you shared great, inspiring examples from around the world, ranging from the simple act of offering space or a hot lunch to the much more complex.

Katie Boardman shared this from Tom Reitz in Waterloo, Ontario:
The Museum has been listed as a cooling centre in the past ... which means that if the temperature soars during the summer, and people in the community need a place to go that's cool because they don't have air conditioning, they can come to the museum during our regular business hours - the museum has air conditioning. This isn't built into our emergency plan - but now that I think about it, maybe it should.
An anonymous Vermonter wrote,
The museum's visitor center acted as a makeshift shelter for some residents who were stranded from their homes due to flooded roads. I was away the weekend that the flooding happened and could not return until three weeks later because of closed roads. When I did return, I could not believe the devastation in the community. The museum was fine but the people were not. The director had attended local community meetings with Red Cross and National Guard officials and the community had come together with the museum as the hub.
Lise Summers from Western Australia alerted me to the quite amazing Tsunami Debris History Project of the British Columbia Maritime Museum, aimed at linking personal belongings that have made their way across the Pacific with their owners--and I'll be tracking down similar efforts in Japan that she mentioned.  Bronwyn Grant from New Zealand shared the various ways in which Christchurch museums were working with their communities as they recover from earthquakes in 2010 and 2011: this ranges from getting art out into public places, serving as Civil Defence headquarters, and starting a Quake Story Museum.

And about those long emergencies, what are we doing?  These responses were fewer, although of course I've seen science museums addressing the issue of climate change.  How can we engage our communities in thinking about long term social change and justice?  What kinds of authority do we have and what kinds are we willing, as institutions, to surrender?  Keep your great comments and observations coming and thanks to all who've already contributed to the conversation.

Images:  Top:  motorcycle washed ashore in Canada from Tsunami Debris History Project; center: Vermont flooding.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Do Museums Need Disaster Plans for People?

Any museum worth its salt has a disaster plan somewhere (hopefully somewhere easy to find).  It probably has information about contacting emergency services;  what happens to objects in collections storage and the safe evacuation of staff and visitors.  But over the last year, I've been paying attention to a number of conversations, in person and in the online world, about the ways we, as museums, can be more responsive to community needs in times of disaster.

I watched my colleagues in Ukraine step up during the protests on Maidan and the country's ongoing changes;  Gretchen Jennings has focused on empathetic museums in her blog Museum CommonsElaine Gurian's writings continue to inspire; my colleague and friend Rainey Tisdale curated this year's Dear Boston exhibit on the anniversary of the bombing; and David Fleming's talk on the Social Justice Alliance of Museums at AAM provided new inspiration. All evidence of a more people-focused shift for museums. But much of it seems ad hoc.  Committed folks in museums react on the fly as disasters--political, social, natural, environmental--happen.

This September, at the Museums and Politics conference in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, Russia, I'll be presenting on this topic--the idea that a museum's disaster plans should include a focus on community, not just buildings and collections.  I proposed the session not because I'm an expert, but because it's an issue I'm interested in exploring, particularly from a wide range of global perspectives.   I'm looking to hear from you with your thoughts on any of the questions below.

  • What would a disaster plan that focused on the people in a community look like?
  • Can we plan for it?  What kinds of disasters do we need to think about?
  • What resources can we provide?  emotional?  physical?  technical?  (see the bike-powered charging station at the top of this post)
  • How do we balance human access and needs with responsibility to our collection?
  • What can we provide that no other type of organization can?
  • How can we begin conversations before a disaster about community needs?
  • And for how long does our disaster assistance last?
  • How does contemporary collecting fit into this process?
  • Should our assistance and commitment be limited to local disasters?  What about ones that happen in other places around the world?  What's our responsibility?
  • If we can be of service to our community during a disaster, how might that reshape our ongoing missions?
  • And of course, what examples can you share--from anywhere?


  • Ryan Nelsen (R) and Fields Harrington (2nd R, white shirt) ride a tandem bicycle to generate power as people wait for their cell phones to recharge on Avenue C in the East Village on November 1, 2012 in New York as the city recovers from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. This neighborhood is in the area of Manhattan without any electrical power. (STAN HONDA - AFP/Getty Images)
  • Child's artwork from a event at the National Art Museum of Ukraine.
  • Dear Boston exhibit image via Metro
  • Detail from Spray for Justice, on the first floor of the Museum of Liverpool, is a tribute and memorial to the people who lost their lives at Hillsborough at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest on 15 April 1989.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Observed: Creative Constraints

Over the past weekend, I saw a few great examples of how artists use creative constraints to inspired their work and wanted to share them in the hopes that they inspire you to think of constraints as inspirations, not barriers.

First up,  visiting artist Raúl the Third in the Polly Thayer Starr Artist Series at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  Raúl, a graphic novelist, was working in the Education Studio, where anyone, of any age, could drop in and draw or chat with him.  I was struck though, by his choice of medium. Three containers of Bic pens, pieces of paper.  That's it.  He explained that, as a kid growing up in Texas, these simple materials were all he had access to, and that he knows that for many kids, it's the still the same.   His works, including the forthcoming graphic novel Lowriders in Space, use the same. The constraint of those simple tools produces some amazing work.

Next, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston,  where I was entranced by Jim Hodges work, but particularly enjoyed the creative constraint of A Diary of Flowers—Above the Clouds--556 drawings of flowers on diner-type paper napkins.  Together they form a beautiful installation of individual constraints.

The Art Lab (I think that's the name but cannot find on their website) took another constraint as they encouraged visitors to make flowers related to Hodge's work You, which consists of a large number of plastic flowers creating a sort of curtain (that would be the non-art historian explanation).  In the Art Lab, you were encouraged to make two flowers in order to take one home.  In this case, the creative constraint, the number you could make AND take, also helped build a collective project and a community sense of participation.

And two creative constraints spotted on Monhegan Island, Maine.  On the Cathedral Trail, anyone walking can create fairy houses, but they must be created only with natural materials found at hand, not brought in, or plucked off a tree.  I last visited Monhegan more than 20 years ago and it was amazing to see the constraints still in play, despite not a single sign telling walkers about it.  The variety of these tiny spaces is beautiful and inspiring.

I found my final creative constraint walking back to town on Monhegan.  The island has long been inspiration to artists ranging Rockwell Kent to George Bellows to Jamie Wyeth and the landscape is still dotted with painters with brush and palette in hand.  The views of sea, sky and grey-shingled buildings are everywhere.  But one young enterprising artist, perhaps 9 or 10, had set up her work on a rock with the sign below.  Her constraint:  mermaids and fairies only for her small business!