Friday, April 18, 2014

Break the Rules: Hands-On Tours that Really Do

In our book, Creativity in Museum Practice, Rainey and I highlight an AAM session from several years ago that asked participants to make a list of all the museum rules and then to think about how they could creatively be broken.   What's the biggest museum rule?  The one we tell school children and probably every adult would mention if asked?  Don't touch.

Last week at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, I got a chance to break that big rule, not just with grudging permission, but with enthusiastic encouragement from staff.  The Rosenbach is best known for its incredible manuscript and rare book collection--everything from the manuscript of Joyce's Ulysses to a list of enslaved people written by Thomas Jefferson;  to the entire collection of Maurice Sendak's work to poet Marianne Moore's living room. So you imagine a hushed, white-glove kind of place, where archivists and curators jealously guard access to their precious materials.  Wrong!
The Rosenbach's hands-on tours are not tours with reproductions.  They are small group (less than five people) hands-on tours of the real thing--and the real thing is everything from some of the earliest printings of Shakespeare to Marianne Moore's letters.   The cost is $5 in addition to museum admission and you can sign up in advance or join the tour on the spur of the moment if there's room.
Last Friday, along with other tour participants, I carefully washed my hands, and then Farrar Fitzgerald, The Sunstein Family Assistant Director of Education, led us upstairs, into the Rosenbach brothers' library on the top floor.  It felt secret in a way, and as Farrar unlocked a library cabinet to take out a box, it felt even more special.   Our tour was about the sea, and so we embarked on a journey, both practical and metaphorical.
Over the course of the next hour, we looked--and yes, touched!--a handwritten manuscript by Joseph Conrad, a first edition of Moby Dick;  a fine art edition of Joyce's Ulysses with illustrations by Matisse;  and a lovingly hand-printed edition of the Wreck of the Hesperus.   We held the books and manuscripts in our hands, feeling the weight of the paper, the press of the hand-set type, even smelling that old-book smell.  We each read a bit aloud,  and I remember closing my eyes and listening to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, imagining the scene.  Farrar introduced each item, linking it to the sea, and drawing our attention to details.  She carefully handled each object, but didn't hesitate to say, "go ahead, you can pick it up!"

Upon reflection, I was struck not only by the power of objects and the power of words,  but the power of the experience itself, of bonding with a small group of strangers as we embarked upon our own voyage of discovery. 

The best thing for you, museum readers?  It's that every single history museum or historical society, no matter what your size, could do exactly this same program on the same budget--pretty much zero dollars.  I've used literally hundreds of history archives, large and small, well organized and not, and although Joseph Conrad's manuscripts don't exist in every one,  incredible stories do.  So, next Monday morning, go first thing to your archives and consider what stories you can tell, what voyages you can take your community on. 




Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Why Even Ask the Question if You're Not Listening?


On crime shows like Law and Order, it’s accepted wisdom that a prosecuting attorney should never ask a question of a witness that she or he doesn’t already know the answer to.  But in planning, it’s exactly the opposite.  A few weeks ago, I was asked to participate in a planning focus group, as somewhat of an outside stakeholder,  for a largish organization.  We received materials in advance including a set of four goals.  “Hmm, I thought, I guess they’re farther along in the process than I thought.  They  already have goals in place.”  I go to the meeting, sit in a room with a group of immensely talented people from various arts and humanities disciplines.  We’re introduced to the process by the organization’s outside facilitator who says, in passing, that the organization hasn’t had a strategic plan in almost ten years; but they’re required to by a source of funding support, so now they’re doing it.   I thought, “Hmmm, a bit of a red flag. As a grant reviewer, a statement like this always caused me to look hard at an application.”  The facilitator and the director talk about these focus groups, about an upcoming survey, about delivering a draft, and so on.
The conversation begins, with a note-taker taking notes projected on the screen.  As we near the end of the meeting, we’re asked to react to the four goals.  There’s a silence, and finally I say (they asked for my opinion, right?) that I thought the four goals were old-fashioned, that they sounded like they could have been written ten years ago.   There’s another silence, when I wonder whether I should have spoken up, but then all of sudden the conversation blooms, with questions and lively talk from everyone around the table:   why are goals are already in place at the start of the process?   Do these goals reflect current realities and thinking?  How can the process should be a more open one? 
Great, right?  We were asked for our opinions and perspectives and we delivered them.  I left the meeting thinking that those opinions and perspectives had been recorded, noted (I could seen them projected on the screen)  and perhaps even appreciated.  After all, it was a great, thoughtful group of people in the room.
But, a week or so later, the notes of the meeting were distributed. I’m astonished to see that the entire discussion about the goals has been deleted.  Because we were critical and questioning about the process, it feels like it was taken as a direct challenge to the organization.  Rather than think about the questions we raised, it was easier to just erase them and pretend they didn’t exist.
Every museum evaluator I’ve ever worked with has always reminded me at the beginning of the process of the essential need to embrace the data, to be ready to really listen and be prepared to make change.  That doesn’t mean making every change a focus group suggests;  but to be serious about the process and the learning that occurs.  This organization demonstrated, from start to finish in this part of the process, that these focus groups were just a dog and pony show;  that decisions had already been made.  
Think about your own work.  Are you prepared to listen to the answers, or, like those Law and Order folks, only asking the questions you know the answers to? We’re not district attorneys,  we are, at our best, explorers of arts, of life, of new ideas.  So be prepared to listen.  Otherwise, why even bother to ask the question?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Take a Friday Listen!





Tune in to The Museum Life online tomorrow, Friday, April 4 at 10 AM EST  join host Carol Bossert and me as we talk about building creative cultures in museums.  Museums do creative work, but is creativity relegated to the exhibit designer and art curator? Can the registrar and operations manager be creative in their work? We know what a creative culture looks like at Google and Apple, Inc., but what would a creative culture look like in a museum? How will we know it when we see it?   And how can we build one, from wherever we work in a museum.

Can't make the live show?  It, and other shows with other amazing guests, are always available streaming online.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

11 Questions to a Museum Blogger on the Day After


Jamie Glavic, one of the co-organizers of Museum Blogs Day yesterday tagged me with 11 Questions for a Museum Blogger (you can see her responses here on her blog Museum Minute) that originally came from Blogstockchen).  I didn't quite make my answers in time for the day, but here they are.  I loved learning about blogs to keep an eye on, and thanks to Jamie and Jenni Fuchs at Museums140 for a great day.

1.  Who are you and what do you like about blogging?

I’m Linda Norris, and despite a pretty considerable amount of time in the field, still think of myself as an emerging museum professional.  I live in a tiny village in upstate New York and have done everything in museums, from working at a children's museum, giving tours at a wine museum, running a small historical society, developing exhibits and interpretation, heading up a museum service agency, and now working independently. I blog as a way of keeping conversations going.  Sometimes those conversations are just with myself, sometimes with museums I’ve visited, with ideas, and most of all, with you, my colleagues.  It’s been incredible when those conversations (like with Jasper Visser last month) have turned into in-person ones.  I love it when blog readers come up at conferences and introduce themselves to talk. In our book, Rainey Tisdale and I talk about creative people being open, generous and connected--the blog lets me be all that.  I also like that I can do it in my pajamas.



2.  What is the most popular post on your blog?

The most popular posts often seem to be those where I’m just an observant museum visitor, reporting on what I see and learn from big places. Recently a post about the Rijksmuseum’s great labels and handouts got great traffic, as have posts on the Minnesota Historical Society’s inventive labels and a wonderful docent at the Getty Museum.

3. And which post on your blog is your personal favorite?
I’ve been blogging a long time (since 2007) so picking one favorite is hard as so much of my blogging is so tied up with my own memories and experiences.  But as I look back, my favorite ones are from my first months in Ukraine as a Fulbright Scholar, where now, I can really see myself trying to puzzle my way through an entirely different culture and way of thinking about museums.  You can find those in January-May, 2009 if you’re interested.
  
4.  If you had a whole week just to blog: which subject would you like to thoroughly research and write about?
I am just a ditherer, with so many things I’d like to spend more time on. Currently these questions on my short list:

  • Are museum studies programs producing the next generation of great, creative museum professionals?  And if not, why not?
  • How can service organizations inspire their member museums in addition to serving as a place for information and resources?
  • And the really big one—how can museums be more meaningful in their communities, particularly in communities undergoing rapid change or disruption?



5. If you could ask anyone at all to write a guest post for your blog (you can be as utopian as you like), who would you chose and what would you ask them to write about?
Hmmm…I think I’d ask some great storytellers to write about narrative.  I’d love Hilary Mantel or Adam Johnson, both of whose books enthralled me;  or alternatively, Wes Anderson, about how he creates entire visual worlds in his films and how that might relate to what we do.

6. What has been your most memorable museum experience? 


Definitely impossible to choose. 

7. What was the last museum you visited and how was it?
Fascinating, unexpected, slightly impenetrable—my last museum visit was to the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.  I’m still pondering on how to write a blog post about it.

8. Share your favorite photo with us that you took at a museum.
A couple different ones (do you get the sense I have a hard time making choices?)  At the top of the post, boys on a school trip at the Louvre filling out worksheets on nudes;  and center, someone role-playing at the DDR Museum in Berlin.  I still remember Katrin whispering to me upon seeing him, "Look, he makes himself physically like a bureaucrat on the phone!"  Totally immersed, solitary, in the moment.  

9.  If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?
I’ve been really lucky that my work life over the last couple years has led me to so many amazing places around the world—but the museum I would most like to visit is one that surprises me—so I won’t know until I stumble across it.


10. There are many big and famous museums, but which is your personal favourite ‘hidden gem’?
At the moment, Museum of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles and Teyler's Museum, in Haarlem, the Netherlands.

11. Do you have any insider tips on any of the museums you have visited or blogged about?
Here’s a tip I learned from my colleagues at Context Travel who provide in-depth walks of many of the world’s great museums.  Go the opposite direction from everyone else.  Sounds silly, but it’s amazing how often you can find galleries with a bit of space for solitary reflection when you reverse against the crowd.  And the second:  if you travel at all, an ICOM membership is a fabulous thing—admits you free almost everywhere. (and it’s also great to be a part of that world-wide community).

And passing it forward, I'm tagging three more bloggers I admire:  Gretchen Jennings, Anne Ackerson and Nicole Deufel in the hopes they'll respond as well.  Here's your task: 
  • Answer the eleven questions – you can adapt them a little to fit your blog, if you like.
  • Include the BEST BLOG image in your post, and link back to the person who nominated you (that would be me, by the way, or more specifically, this blog post).
  • Devise eleven new questions – or feel free to keep any of these ones here if you like them – and pass them on to how ever many bloggers you would like to.

Here's my questions for you. 
  1. Who are you and what do you like about blogging?
  2. What search terms lead people to your blog?
  3. Which post on your blog is your personal favorite?
  4. If you had a whole week just to blog: which subject would you like to thoroughly research and write about?
  5. If you could ask anyone at all to write a guest post for your blog (you can be as utopian as you like), who would you chose and what would you ask them to write about?
  6. What was your first museum job?
  7. What was the last museum you visited and how was it?
  8. Share your favorite photo with us that you took at a museum or historic site.
  9. If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?
  10. What's the biggest lesson you learned from a failure?
  11. If you could work anywhere, what museum would you like to work in?
     

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Surrender the Chronology!


“Surrender the Chronology!”  doesn’t quite have the same stirring nature as other well-known battle cries beloved by military historians,  but in the re-interpretation of historic houses, it might be even more important.  I’ve been thinking about it ever since a meeting at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center a couple weeks ago, as we continue our work in rethinking the interpretation of Stowe’s house.   This meeting brought together historians, staff, and me.  And a very distinguished group of historians they were, with two Pulitzer-prize winners among them.  

As we thought about Stowe’s story, about the mix of her own personal story and that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, her story that helped change our view of the world we found ourselves struggling with so many ideas about how to tell those connected stories, in a house where she lived at the end of her life, not when she was writing the book.  So there’s no shrine of room with pens and paper (I well remember the room in the Berkshires where Melville penned much of Moby Dick), there’s no great battlefield outside the door; and in fact, there’s a next-door-neighbor with a grand house and a pretty big story of his own (Hi Mark Twain!)
At one point in the process, historian  Lois Brown said, “Surrender the chronology!  What would happen if every room were not a planned sequence, but each room was its own tempest in a teapot?”   We started thinking. 
  • What if we surrender the chronology of Stowe’s life, but what if we also surrendered the chronology (perhaps the tyranny) of a sequenced tour? 
  • Could you start a tour anywhere? 
  • End anywhere?   
  • Could we create small tempests in each room? 
  • What’s the balance between comfort and disruption on a tour?
  • What would our visitors think?
  • What will make people return?  The chance of a new disruption?How could we best create these situations?  Are the skills needed for guides not those of historians, but those of actors, facilitators, disruptors?
  • Do we need not a single best answer, but a whole palette of choices and how can we build that into the re-interpreted experience both physically and conceptually?

In this and following conversations, we talked about drawing our inspiration from other models—not just historic houses.  Movies and novels both have flashbacks.  What if the house were a series of short stories, rather than a single narrative? Is it like a version of a Choose Your Own Adventure game?  What role can imagination—our own and our visitors—play in the experience? 
We've identified our key idea (thanks to earlier visitor conversations)--it's the idea of courage, about how Stowe found the courage within herself to write this book--and how all of us might find the courage to seek change and social justice as well.  We'll continue to talk to visitors and non-visitors about exciting ways to present this idea--but it's very clear that we've now been challenged by historians and by audiences to think deeper about how we present ideas to visitors.  We want to have the courage to shape a historic house experience unlike any other, helping to meet these important parts of the  Stowe Center's mission, "promote vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspire commitment to social justice and positive change."  We expect that we'll experiment, we'll fail, and we'll keep trying, failing, and experimenting, learning along the way.   In our professional lives, we hope that we inspire other historic houses to take risks as well.  Surrender the chronology!
 
Center Image: 
Participants included Joan Hedrick, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Harriet Beecher Stowe; Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Henry Ward Beecher; Susan Campbell, author of the forthcoming biography of Isabella Beecher Hooker; Lois Brown, Wesleyan professor of African American Studies and English along with museum consultant Linda Norris and Stowe staff. Courtesy of Stowe Center.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Creatively Speaking: Out and About in April

It's hard to think about April, when winter still seems in full force outside my window.  But Uncataloged readers and creative museum folks will have a few opportunities in April, to sit down for a cup of coffee with me and creative colleagues, in real or virtual spaces.

Leading into the month, on April 1 the Take 5 gang will be exhibitors at the annual Museum Association of New York conference in Albany.  I'll have books for sale (at a special discount) and of course, stop by for your free creativity tattoo.

On Friday, April 4, 10 AM,  I'll be discussing Creativity in Museum Practice on Carol Bossert's online radio show, The Museum Life streamed live.  I hope you'll tune in (or listen afterwards).  If you've got a particular issue you'd like to explore, just share in the comments below.

And then, on Wednesday, April 30,  from noon-1:00 PM, Rainey Tisdale and I will be presenting a Lunch with NEMA webinar.  We'll explore how you can enhance your own creative practice,  how you can make your organization more creative (no matter where you are on the organizational chart), and share some ideas about how the museum field as a whole can be more creative--and what that might mean for our communities and ourselves.   This is a great, free opportunity to connect with us and your colleagues from your desk, over your sandwich and tea.  You can register here.

Rainey and I have been hearing from some of our colleagues about how they're using Creativity in Museum Practice.  One colleague is taking time at lunch each day to read a bit of this and Anne Ackerson and Joan Baldwin's book,  Leadership Matters.  Another has set aside some staff meeting time to talk about some of the ideas; and yet a consulting colleague gifted it to a client.  Have you begin reading and sharing?  Do tell us about it!





Friday, March 7, 2014

Thinking about Historic Site Interpretation? The Onion Did


I spent several great days this week at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center thinking about re-interpretation and we found this video along the way. Absolutely worth a watch as a small reminder to not take ourselves too seriously.  Happy Friday!