Saturday, June 18, 2016

Who Inspires You? Or Your Visitors?

We often think--or hope--that people are inspired when they visit our museums or historic sites. "We have great stories,"  we say, and hope that our visitors can make their way through the thickets of details and biography.  Interestingly enough, I've been working on two projects recently where I've actually been asking visitors about inspiration.  And because it's Father's Day tomorrow, it seems a particularly apt time to report back from my conversations.  Above, my own dad as a kid.  In my own childhood, he was always the one behind the camera, so rarely spotted on film!

At the Old Manse, a historic house in Concord, MA and a part of The Trustees, we asked people, before they visited the house, who inspired them. (a big shout-out to JHU museum studies student Caren Ponty, who's been volunteering on this project with me). This was a way of thinking about how to connect personal stories to the broader story of the house.  It was a bit of surprise that family came out way ahead. Here's what some people said about parents and grandparents:
  • Folks and family—we respect ‘em---lots of influence
  • Mother:  always positive, never complaining.  Shining example, always walked, saw color, religion
  • My dad…despite dyslexia, taught himself to read, Ph.D in biochem,  told he would never work, did, and now 95
  • Friends and families with motivating passions.  Their interests become my interests.
  • My parents—role models, do a good job of Christian lifestyle
  • Grandpa—always wanted to learn and wanted us to learn
  • My mom, because she tried to make the world a better place—not many people let someone take things apart to see how they worked.
But a few other people (and one animal) also came in for some shout-outs:
  •  People who make and do social activism, who write and do
  • My dog—she’s always happy
  • Communities and churches that help the less fortunate
  • George Washington—smart, brave, changed the world
  • William Shakespeare—loved the literature, resonates after so many years.  Still relevant
  • Jane Austen—her ability to communicate understanding of human nature and Charles Dickens—for people and characters
  • Resilient people, so hope for humanity
Our challenge now is to think about how we build on these responses--how we understand that the stories of family and inspiration are not limited to Emerson, Hawthorne, or those who witnessed the beginning battle of the American Revolution from the Old Manse's windows.  It's about how we share the stories of oft unsung families, such as those of Phyllis, Cesar, and Cate, the enslaved people who also lived in the house and who of course, had their own unrecorded family stories. How do we connect the stories of this house with the family stories of newcomers to this country?  Can we develop a shared well of inspiration?

In Savannah, I've been working with the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace to consider the visitor experience there.  A large percentage of their visitors are Girl Scouts, and they come ready to be inspired by Daisy (as she was known), the founder of Girl Scouts.  We've been asking them to complete, on a "Dear Daisy..." postcard, the following: "We heard about how you made a difference by founding Girl Scouts.  Here's how I would like to make a difference."  And the responses are as varied as the girls themselves:
  • keep animals and humans healthy
  • make sure that I am kind
  • let girls do what boys do
  • help people accomplish their dreams
  • create self-flying cars with mini-fridges
  • become President
  • keep your legacy for as long as I can
These Girl Scouts get that deep connection with Daisy.  And someday I have no doubt that I'll be getting from place to place in that self-flying car with a mini-fridge! I want all our historic sites to inspire that same deep well of inspiration. Our visitors--and our communities--want us to connect with them.  They want to be inspired by place, by story, by connections to their lives.  They're not particularly inspired by old-fashioned furniture, by dates; by complicated genealogies or by what you or your guides are inspired by.  The challenge for each of us seems to be to work together to let go of what we think visitors "need to know" and to embrace personal meaning-making.

One quick note about the how and the way of these conversations.  They continue to be one of the most rewarding parts of my work.  Take a few minutes out of your day and ask visitors (or non-visitors) some questions.  But make those questions meaningful, not just informational.  I ask those informational questions too, but the great conversations come when thoughtful questions are asked. Make those evaluations fun--the Girl Scouts thought the Dear Daisy postcard was an activity, rather than a chore. Final vital piece of information: anyone will answer a survey in exchange for a box of Girl Scout cookies.

Monday, June 6, 2016

CrossLines Teaches a Generous Lesson

While in DC, like many other AAM participants, I got a chance to visit CrossLines, a two-day exhibition in the Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian, developed by the Asia Pacific American Center there. It was described as a Culture Lab on intersectionality (which doesn't quite have the lure of other Smithsonian attractions like rockets and ruby slippers.). Artists from around the country working in an immense variety of mediums and ways of getting us to ponder our connected--and disconnected-ness, gathered together for a two-day exhibition.

There was much, much to look at, think about and talk about... but two big museum-person lessons stood out for me, that can be useful to all organizations, large and small.

First, risk and experimentation. The Smithsonian is big, big! And somehow the folks at the Asia Pacific Center persuaded the powers-that-be to take a risk on a project that had a relatively quick turnaround, involved loads of collaborators, in an iconic building, and had challenging content. Amazing. So those of you who work in institutions where someone say that you're either too big or too small to experiment? Use this as a convincing argument. What will audiences think? I can hardly imagine a more general audience that folks on the Washington Mall on Memorial Day weekend. Audiences are always up for more than they we think they are.

Second, generosity. In museums, we expect that people have certain knowledge when they come in, or that it's important for them to get what we want to say. Many, if not most museums are still using a megaphone model for visitor engagement. We think it's generous to share our hard-won knowledge with visitors, It's really not. Reserving the privilege of knowledge and perspective to you, the museum, rather than the visitors is an act of hoarding, not generosity.

But the artists at CrossLines? Happily they were unsteeped in museum pedagogy. Everyone I spoke to or observed made amazing efforts to connect with visitors at the place where visitors were. Nobody appeared to judge about what visitors knew or didn't know--and I'm guessing there were some tough comments coming from some visitors. If you wanted to talk about process, they would talk about that. If you wanted to talk about identity, they would talk about that, if you wanted to talk about the communities they're from, or in my case, the process of developing the collaborative work--all those. In other words, those artists demonstrated that one effective way to share complex issues to to just connect...with whoever walks in the door. The result: all kinds of people who might never have visited a contemporary art show, or thought about intersectionality and privilege, or even talked to someone different than themselves, had a chance to do all that.

Thanks, CrossLines staff and artists for such an inspiring experience that I'll long remember. Did you visit? Please share your thoughts.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Mistakes Were Made

My time at AAM is brief this year, but I hope you'll consider checking out the two Saturday sessions I'm participating in, First up, I get to share my big mistake in Sean Kelly's deservedly famous session, Mistakes were Made session, along with Sean and George Neptune. There's a big, beautiful (more-or-less) trophy up for grabs for your best failure story. We've all got something to learn from our mistakes.

And then in the afternoon, Fabiana Chiu-Rinaldi. Dwan Reece and I will be sharing our career paths and how power, responsibility and community intersect in our work. We've had very different paths, and are looking forward to the chance to reflect with participants.

And of course, if you see me in hallway, bleary-eyed from hay fever and travel, absolutely say hello!


Monday, May 16, 2016

Should Museums Be More Like Constables?

I'm working on an exhibition for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Historical Society, in St. John's, NL.  I've been digging deep into their archives to learn more about the two hundred year history of the force, but a few weeks ago, I found some materials that I thought held some important lessons for museums.

I found a file containing a series of reports from 1948 from outport communities all over Newfoundland.  This was a critical time for what is now a province, because the vote about whether or not to become a part of Canada was drawing near.  It seems not far away, but as you'll see, it was still a time when those communities were often cut off by weather and bad roads.   These monthly reports were generally titled, "Economical and Social Life of the District,"  and were written by the local constable to be submitted to the chief constable in St. John's.

Here's a few excerpts:

In Corner Brook, in January, "the economical condition is quite good, and people in the main are employed gainfully and there is no report of able-bodied relief.  However, the herring fishery during the month is not nearly as good in previous years..."   and in February, the health of that community was "good during the month and there was no serious illness; there was however, a series of colds with no ill effects."

From Gander in February, "The Social aspect of the community remains more or less unchanged. However there has been some activity in connection with the various churches and the British Red Cross...the Gander Public Library is also filling an important position in the life of the community and is also increasing its services to the public..."

February was a quiet month in Ferryland, "There were no dances or parties of any kind held during the month" and the economy was bad, "Quite a number of men from Ferryland, Calvert and Cape Broyle are applying for relief."   In Trepassey, the weather was so bad that "the roof blew off Leonard Hachette's house and was beaten into matchwood."  As the bad weather continued there, "the men are complaining very much of having no food for their cattle.  There is no hay or oats anywhere in my territory as there is no boats running from here to town they cannot get food."

Spring finally comes that year, and the constable in Clark's Beach reports in April, "There have been no seals taken this month.  The people are all getting their fencing done for planting their vegetables...a card party and supper was held in the C.E. school at Salmon Cove and it was well-patronized by all."

Every month, the constables also took the political temperature of their towns around the issue of confederation or not, even though, said one,  "it's difficult to say."

What do I think museums can learn from these reports?

I can't tell you the number of times I've heard museum staff, board and volunteers say, "but no one comes, no one is interested."  That's because, I believe, you're not interested in them.  What would happen if you regularly spent time at a board or staff meeting talking about the social or economical conditions of your community?  Could you then learn about concerns--and equally importantly, learn about the parts of your community that you, as an organization don't connect with in any way?

I'm also struck by the empathy shown in these reports.  There's a real understanding of how and why relief is needed, of what benefits a community, and of the challenges and successes of community life.  That comes from attentiveness to the places we live--and all the people who live there too.  Our work can and should be a reciprocal process--that's how we can become essential parts of community life.

Top:  Constables and community member, RNCHS collection
Bottom:  Adults in kitchen, Pools Island, Bonavista Bay, Gustav Anderson Photo Collection, The Rooms.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Objects and All: The 21st Century Museum

“It’s an audio guide, sweetheart, not a remote.”

This week's guest post is by one of this year's mentees. Amanda Guzm├ín is completing her Ph.D in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She's been a graduate fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian.  She's studied and worked around the world, with a MA degree from the University of Leiden and fieldwork in places ranging from Massachusetts to Peru.  As you can tell from this piece, she and I have had wide-ranging conversations about the future of museums and of objects in museums.  Share your thoughts below in the comments! 
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole […]. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that exactly. You'd just be different, that's all. You'd have an overcoat on this time. Or that kid that was your partner in line last time had got scarlet fever and you'd have a new partner. Or you'd have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you'd heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you'd just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you'd be different in some way – I can't explain what I mean. And even if I could, I'm not sure I'd feel like it.
                                  -Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
When I first read this passage in high school, my native New Yorker sensibilities were struck by the detailed descriptions which nearly perfectly mapped onto my countless school trips throughout the dioramas environments of unmoving, staged human and animal bodies positioned in realistically textured and finely painted backdrops at the American Museum of Natural History. As I have lived away from New York City for nearly a decade to pursue undergraduate and graduate education, I must confess to sharing Holden’s fond observation of reconciling the consistency of certain museum spaces with one’s ever-shifting bodily orientations.

And yet, nostalgia aside, museums have done a fair degree of their own shifting in respects to visitor engagement and I have thinking a lot recently about the how museums have and will continue to define their roles in the 21st century. Particularly given my training as an anthropological archaeologist, I gravitate towards thinking about and with things.

Indeed, the historical trajectories of the discipline of anthropology and the emergence of museums are intertwined. Throughout the history of museum institutions in their various private and public forms (video), objects have stood as the focal point of the visitor experience, as the tangible source of engagement with the ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ diversity of the world.

Objects, I would argue, still matter. Objects preserve our genetic histories in response to environmental concerns ranging from wildlife conservation and climate change to drug development and national security. Objects represent uncomfortable histories of unequal, intercultural relationships of power whose legacies remain salient and open to debate today.

Museums’ handling of objects though increasingly extends beyond the interpretation and display of existing historical collections through exhibitions in institutional spaces.

Museums are not only available to be traversed online through street views of its galleries but the world’s history is being depicted through chronological, thematic intersections of digital nodes that index specific museum objects.

In the age of Google, objects in collections around the world are being compiled and arranged into thematic galleries. With a few drags and clicks, you can create your own galleries. How can we understand this type of online visual-oriented experience with objects? Does it privilege certain kinds of material collections over others? What does it mean to have the ability to construct your own galleries and to disseminate them among your social networks?

3-D computer modeling has allowed for online mediated experiences with the ability of not just reading about the cultural contexts of objects but also of defining your interaction (e.g. moving and editing the object with the flick of a cursor) in a manner not typically permitted in traditional museum spaces. What does the addition of this digital engagement add to and/or take away from an individual’s understanding of and practical experience with objects (in contrast to say, drawing or photography)? Beyond material composition, what is the difference between a 3-D model and a reconstruction? Moreover, 3-D technology introduces complex questions of authorship and ownership. Who has or should have the capacity to construct 3D prints of museum objects (and who decides this)? Should all objects, regardless of origin, be available to be subject to such treatment?

At this point, I have more questions and answers to the issue of what role do objects play in the 21st century museum and its growing employment of the digital. I do think however a crucial element of any answer is a continued call for a genuine consideration of the museum’s application to the interests and needs of its public(s) and larger events in the contemporary world.

So, contrary to Holden’s assertion, we as visitors change alongside museums. Time will tell what that change will look like.

Bradford Galt: “I'll be at the Cathcart galleries absorbing culture. I don't want to die ignorant.”
Policemen in galleries: “That is ‘aht.”
The Dark Corner (1946)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Team Detective: What's Your Team's Spirit?

I'm an avid mystery reader, which I always thought of as leisure, unconnected to work.  But I've been thinking that there is a connection.  Part of any consultant's job is to go into a place and size up the situation quickly.  I'm not looking for footprints or the dog that didn't bark in the night, but I am looking for how a team works together.  I want to find the spirit of an organization as it looks to change in some way.  The changes might be big or small, but my work is almost always with organizations where change is in the wind--and change never happens with one person, it always happens with a team.

There's a great deal of research about teams:  you need introverts and extroverts,  you need leaders, it should be non-hierarchal and on and on.  Every team is different but here's my outsider's view on what helps a team move towards change.


As a consultant, I don't believe that I come with the answers.  I come with questions and the idea that together, we will puzzle out answers.  One way that happens is through experimentation.  Above, Matt Montgomery, Chief Marketing Officer at the Trustees,  becomes a docent as he leads us through a prototype of an Aeolian harp activity at the Old Manse in Concord.  And below,  Girl Scouts tag what matters to them at Juliette Gordon Low's Birthplace (she's the founder of Girl Scouts) in Savannah.  Experimentation accomplishes several things.  It builds team confidence together (and good humor) and it jump-starts a learning process.

Cast a wide net in your experimental process.  The tags are an inspiration from your friendly Museum Anarchist, and I'm definitely stealing Jeanne Vergeront's idea of a designated reader to share with colleagues.

Visitor and Community Centered

The strongest teams understand that interpretive change is not about protecting your turf.  They understand that museums and historic sites exist for community benefit.  Strong teams have a desire to understand their visitors and their communities.  They have empathy for different perspectives and are interested in learning what visitors have to say.  Last week at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace we asked scouts what they wanted to see or do, before their experience began.  "Be inspired!"  said several.  What a tremendous challenge those girls have set for us.

Trust and Fear

Below, staff from the Trustees trust that Matt and his group will not lead them astray in a prototype experience, as they are asked to close their eyes and listen.  Trust isn't always this literal, but change is scary, no question and the more teams can build trust together, the better.  At a mid-point in the interpretive planning process at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, we began one meeting by talking about our fears for the project. There were many as the change is big. They ranged from lack of funding to timeline to what would current visitors thinking.  Talking about all those fears somehow made them better.  The team had enough trust in each other to share them, and sharing didn't make them go away, but I think it did make them feel less of a burden and we've continued to be attentive to them as interpretive planning moved forward. 

Everybody has a Voice and Everybody Listens

Last week, sitting in Lisa Junkin Lopez's sunlit office in Savannah, I worked with a team who, I think, felt all their voices mattered.  Ideas tumbled out, they built upon one another.  On my second day there, I was stopped in the hall by the head of maintenance, who had been off the day before. She'd read this blog and we had a great conversation about sounds, listening and meaning-making. Ideas come from everywhere, so it's important to create an environment where everyone feels that their contribution can build something stronger.  

This also means understanding differences of all types on a team, and listening to and respecting those differences.

But What About Dysfunctional Teams?

I'd love to say that every client is a dream team, but unfortunately not. Here's a couple things I've observed that will slow down your team's ability to cope with change.
  • Body language:  arms crossed, eye rolling, unwillingness to participate in small group activities.  We all should know better.
  • "We already do that, we've already done that, that will never work."  No need to say more.  That never moves anything forward.
  • Unclear decision-making process.  That's frustrating for everyone, and that's a place where a leader needs to lead.
  • Perfectionism.  It sounds trite, but perfect is the enemy of good.  We work in places with so many variables, including our many visitors.  We need to do our best, but honestly, we cannot perfect visitor experiences for every visitor because every visitor brings so much to the visit.
How's your team culture?  (and, in a brief commercial, if you want to talk interpretive change at your organization, be in touch!)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Listen Up! Part Two

I've been doing lots of listening lately. Dave Lewis' guest post last week had me thinking about the sound of museum missions, and this week's work with the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace reminded me of the power of voices in this case, Girl Scout visitors sharing their desire to be inspired (and bringing back my own memories as they sang "keep new friends....")

When I think and talk about community engagement, there are a few inspiring projects I share on a regular basis -- and as it happens, one of them is about sound as well. Kelly Armor of the Erie Art Museum just updated me on the museum's Old Songs, New Opportunities project. The goal of the project is to help refugee women gain employment in childcare and to help them preserve their traditional cultures. The museum, in partnership with other local organizations, deeply understands that everyone in a community is an asset and has something to contribute. In this case, by sharing their traditional songs and culture. It's a great, joyful, meaningful project that holds so many lessons for museums of all sorts about the ways we can build bridges together with the community. The project is currently embarked on a campaign to produce a CD about the songs. Learn more (and support it) here.

And as I watched the Old Songs, New Opportunities video, I found myself re-watching this piece by journalist Christopher Livesay, about the community of Riace in southern Italy. It's a tiny community that sees refugees and migrants as community assets, a way to help rebuild a rural community. The sounds here are many--those of many languages, those of new Italian speakers, and the sounds that make up any thriving rural community.

But it's not just about the sounds, it's about the listening. At one point, the mayor says, showing off a woman's needlework, "Everyone says migrants bring nothing but trouble, but look what beautiful things she brings." It's not easy of course: there's government support and not enough jobs, but there is a sense that this community is building a new future together, in the same way that the Old Songs project is as well.

The first step of that re-shifting of our museums' focus from what we have to give, to what we can make together, is becoming deep listeners and observers--and that always involves getting outside of your museum doors.

Image: Old Songs, New Opportunities graduates at the Erie Art Museum