Monday, April 6, 2015

Building Social Capital One Cup at a Time

I’ve been thinking about social capital a great deal lately.  Students in my online Museums and Community Engagement course for Johns Hopkins have been reading and puzzling about how museums, institutions, can build social capital and at the same time, I’m midway through a month in L’viv, Ukraine as a Fulbright Specialist, working with the museum studies program at L'viv Polytechnical University.

It’s funny, the word networking has sort of slightly sleazy air, like you’re always on the make for the next connection and are about acquiring connections for the sake of connections.  But social capital recognizes that those networks, and a culture of reciprocity from those networks has distinct value.  My time here in L’viv is definitely proving that.  L’viv is in western Ukraine, and was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at one point, so a strong coffee and cake culture persists.  And that’s how my social capital is built here, over coffee, over cake,  over a beer, over dinner.   Ukraine is a country that doesn’t have much capital at the moment, but I’m finding social capital in abundance.
In addition to my time at L’viv Polytechnic thinking about the museum studies program and getting to know my colleagues there, I have:
  • Attended an informational meeting about a new proposed Museum of Terror; and from that made connections with the cultural department at City Hall; the Center for Urban History; those working on the museum itself, and an oral history organization; all followed up with separate conversations, with of course, coffee or tea.
  • Caught up with a young Crimean Tatar friend, moved here to finish dental school after the occupation of Crimea by Russia; brainstormed an exhibit idea together, connected him with a museum colleague; and begun to move the idea forward with more meetings.
  • Spoken at another university and relied upon that new connection to help me find a translator for some of my lectures and also began to think about finding arts management experts in the US who might be interested in working with them as a Fulbright Specialist.
What are the takeaways here?  For me it is that you always need to be open to that next new connection. You need to find the time to continue building that social capital.  And you need to think about new connections in non-hierarchal ways.  As Rainey and I wrote about in Creativity in Museum Practice, looking widely is one tool in building more creative museums.  And although many L’viv museums have a long way to go in building social capital with their audiences, I can see that the events of the past year in Ukraine have demonstrated for many, the necessity of social capital in building civic society. 

And a special shout-out in this post to two colleagues here:   to my longtime friend and colleague Eugene Chervony:  museum thinker, translator of complicated meetings for me, beer drinking partner, and social capital builder;  and Polina Verbytska, head of the museum studies department at L’viv Polytechnic, whose vision and enthusiasm for her program brought me here to think about how to train a future generation of Ukrainian museum professionals.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Label? What?

I'm in L'viv, Ukraine, for a month, so many posts to come from here (and if you want to see what this beautiful city looks like, you can follow me on Instagram). but first I'm trying to catch up on some other interesting things I've seen this year.  This post goes way back to January, to visits to the Dennis Severs House and to the Museum of London's Sherlock Holmes exhibit.   Both, in their ways, are works of the imagination--creative museums at work in ways that stimulate and challenge visitors.

If you haven't been to the Dennis Sever's House, it's not like any other historic house. You have to make a reservation, for the evening.  I walked down a cobbled street, knocked on the door, and a museum staffer steps outside with his Ipad in hand, welcomes me, and sends me into the house, asking for quiet.  No guided tour, no labels.  You are free to wander in silence, with just a few other visitors, through the rooms of this 18th century house, set up as if lived in by a family of silk weavers; lit by candles, surrounded by the debris and decay of everyday life.  But it's totally made up.  Dennis Sever was an artist. His goal, says the website,  "what you his art."  No photos, not surprisingly, so the below is from their website.  But a picture really doesn't convey the sounds, the smell, the entire experience.  It really encouraged slowing down, taking your time, wondering.

But there are labels.  And that's part of what made it really interesting to me as a museum person. Here's just a few of them I scribbled down.
"Every object in this house should be seen as part of an arrangement.  Each array tells a story..." 
"What?  You're still looking at "things" instead of what things are doing?" 
"Make no the house it is not what you see, but what you have only just missed, and are being asked to imagine."
What would happen if we wrote labels like that?  That we trusted our visitors to go for it, in terms of what they're thinking and feeling?  If we allowed their own imaginations rather than filling their heads with facts?  There's no touching in the house (and funny it seems like people don't try to) but it is a full immersion experience.  Severs has given visitors a great gift--his imagination stimulates ours. If you're in London, go!

On that same trip, I visited the Sherlock Holmes exhibit at the Museum of London.  Holmes, of course, is a great imaginative creation, who lives on in books, movies, and television (and yes, they did have Benedict Cumberbatch's coat on exhibit).   This wasn't the work of a single imagination, but rather I suspect a clear team effort--and one where a team somehow felt spurred on by each other.  I imagine a meeting where someone says, "Let's start the exhibit with a bookcase,"  and then someone else says, "Yes, and it can be a secret bookcase,"  and someone else says, "Yes, and visitors have to enter secretly," and some exhibit designer says, "sure!"

I loved the interplay of historical fact--the London of Conan Doyle's day, that he surrounded Holmes with, and the written words from the mysteries.  I loved that certain abstractions and talents of Holmes--observation and deduction, for instance, were explored through very clear installations of objects, some of them very everyday (shoes and eyeglasses, for instance).

And of course, although I didn't take one, I loved the nod to contemporary life at the final stop (and the Sherlock-shaped shortbread in the cafe)

My takeaways?  To remember that great, creative ideas sometimes come from individuals and sometimes from collective work; and to make space for both those in exhibit development; to always remember that many exhibits need a sense of humor; to understand the power of emotions; and to keep looking out for those inspiring exhibits.  What have you seen lately that inspired you?  What has brought you out of the abyss of boring exhibits?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Why Aren't You a Mentor? Yes, You!

Over the past couple weeks I've had in-person, on the phone, and email conversations with mentees from all three years of my own little mentor program.  I've rejoiced in one new job; heard stories of grandparents who marched across that bridge in Selma fifty years ago; talked about why it all matters, the work we do;  puzzled over objects and emotions; and got my thoughts around some ideas about object interpretation for a call later this week.

I started my mentor program because I thought perhaps I had something to pass forward. I'd had many people in my own professional life who had mentored me along the way and whose lessons I still remember.  But I'm finding out that I'm getting back far more than I'm putting in.  My own network expands with each of our deepening conversations and my chance to learn about other people's lives, histories, and ambitions only broadens my own world view.

So here's the question.  Why aren't more of you mentors?  I hear some pretty regular complaints from experienced colleagues about young professionals not understanding, or not wanting to work hard like we did, or ....  .  I like to suggest that more of us need to step up as mentors--and that you don't have to have been in the field forever to be one.  This morning, I read this about how scarcity thinking holds nonprofits back.   I think we've got far too much scarcity thinking in how we approach our colleagues as well.  Our field needs to be abundant and generous, welcoming all kinds of people, with all kinds of training, all kinds of viewpoints, and all kinds of experiences.  Yes, you can find the time.

A challenge to our service organizations:  AAM, AASLH and NCPH.  How about establishing working, nurturing mentor programs?  What are you waiting for when there's a clear need?

Special thanks for this post's to Alicia Akins, Megan Wood, Catherine Charlebois, Shakia Gullette and Susan Fohr, my mentees, past and present, for inspiring a blue sky future.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Are You the Fifth?

Are you interested in professional feedback and collegial exchange of ideas?

My tremendous Take 5 colleagues Anne Ackerson, Marianne Bez, Gwen Spicer, and I are seeking a creative, independent cultural professional with broad experience and interests, who is looking to collaborate in rewarding and productive ways to join our informal group. We enjoy sharing experiences that help us gain new insights about our work and our careers. Together we produce the monthly newsletter Take 5. We meet in upstate New York three or four times a year and support each other through regular phone and email contact.  You can see more about our process here.

To apply, please answer the following questions, and include a resume and any other relevant materials you'd like us to see (websites, blogs, etc.) to by April 1, 2015.
  • What are your career aspirations?
  • How do you see this group bringing renewed focus to your career?
  • What skills or attributes would you bring to our group?
  • If you could create a meal for us, what and where it would it be? Why?
 We look forward to hearing from you!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

How to Fix that "General Backlog" ?

This week I spent a bit of time in the collections storage of a local museum.  It doesn't matter which one, because I know I can find the same issues expressed in this discouraging sign almost anywhere; and particularly in local history museums here in the United States.  But then I realized how little was known about these collections, about how many items have wiggled their way into history collections because they are "old,"  or "maybe old" or "someone here might have used it" or just because, one day, someone left it at the front desk.

The whole experience was a great reminder that we all should be paying attention to and participating in the Active Collections project, an important effort from my smart and passionate colleagues Rainey Tisdale and Trevor Jones.

Here's an extensive excerpt from the project's manifesto:
Millions of artifacts in museum collections across the country are not actively supporting the institutions that steward them. Museums of all types are experiencing this problem, but it is particularly entrenched in history museums. Most history museums possess thousands of poorly maintained, inadequately cataloged, and underutilized artifacts. Instead of being active assets, these lazy artifacts drain vital resources. Multiple studies have assessed the problem of collections preservation, and each has proposed providing museums more money to process and preserve artifacts. But there’s little point in preserving collections if they don’t actively support the mission. We believe collections must either advance the mission or they must go.

Collections are expensive. The time and money required to catalog and store objects ties up valuable resources that could be used elsewhere. Fortunately, museum professionals are recognizing that significant portions of their collections aren’t pulling their weight, and attitudes are changing. But in the absence of a coherent philosophy or way forward, changing opinions have not yet led to changes in practice. Therefore the problem continues to get worse with each passing year. In addition, professional standards, funding models, and museum training programs still primarily support the idea that all collections are equally important, and that owning collections is as important as effectively using them. We believe a new model for thinking about collections is needed. 
Collections are important to history museums. Artifacts are a deeply powerful way to connect with what it means to be human and to understand the past, present and future. In his compelling book A History of the World in 100 Objects Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, argues that “telling history through things is what museums are for.” Museums are uniquely positioned to use things to tell meaningful stories—but to do so they need to collect the right artifacts and make good use of them. We believe that artifacts can be powerful tools—touchstones filled with meaning and connection—but only when used effectively. 
If museums existed simply to preserve things, the best way to save them would be to put the entire collection in an enormous freezer and never take anything out. But museums don’t just preserve things; they also use them to inspire, enlighten, and connect. Every day museums balance the twin needs of preservation and access. Every time a piece is used by a researcher or is exhibited, the decision has been made to shorten its lifespan. We weigh these decisions against the rarity of the piece, its condition, and how important it is to the institution. How is it that we distinguish degrees of significance when we deal with individual objects and yet we are paralyzed into inaction when we look at an entire collection? Major conservation surveys and statewide risk assessments assume that all collections are equally valuable and are worthy of the same standard of care. We believe some objects support the mission better than others—not based on monetary value or rarity, but based on the stories they tell and the ideas they illuminate. The ones that provide the most public value should get the largest share of our time and resources.
They have a wish list and are asking for your crazy ideas.  Check out the site, share it with your colleagues and your board of directors; start a conversation on Facebook; and consider that, if we could begin to think of our collections in this way, that sign above, which only makes our hearts and minds feel like the below, could go away--and we could make our museums passionate, meaningful places at the center of our communities.   Many thanks to Rainey and Trevor for bringing this forward--and now, all of you, let's get this conversation really started!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

What does Democracy look like at a Historic Site?

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit three different democratic institutions, two with long histories and one newcomer:  the House of Commons in London, the European Parliament in Brussels, and the Bundestag in Berlin.  When I went with college students studying the European Union, I didn't exactly think of them as historic sites, but of course they are.  The visits made me reflect on how many embedded messages I saw at each; how different they are from one another; and how powerful such spaces can be.  At all the sites, the one common take-away was a sense of process, not of butter churning or weaving, but of the complicated, often messy, but vital work of democracy.

Photographs weren't allowed in the visitors gallery United Kingdom's House of Commons, at Westminster, but it's a familiar sight (above)  from both the news and various films and television series.  It's unexpectedly tiny though--you feel as it you're on top on the members of Parliament--and it's absolutely clear that this is a place where tradition is venerated.  You're welcomed into the visitors' gallery by someone in formal dress; the mace is always in place when the house is in session; and speakers deliver their remarks face to face, never crossing that red line (that tradition holds is a sword's distance away). Although the chamber was partially destroyed during World War II; it still is all about tradition.  It's clear that the United Kingdom is a place where tradition matters, where even if voices are raised in debate; that a sort of gentility from an earlier century seems to prevail.  Our visit to the chamber came at the end of a great walk on the Monarchy and Parliament with Context Travel, so we came well-equipped to understand both the traditions and the centuries-old delicate balance between the two; something made real in this space.

The European Parliament in Brussels couldn't be more different.  The Parliamentarium (above) an interactive museum devoted to the work of the European Union is high tech and modern, providing multiple ways to explore the work of this young institution.  To me the central feature of the main meeting space was the emphasis on multiple languages, as the room is ringed by translators making every meeting available in every national language of member states.  It's not tradition that's venerated here, but rather it's the effort to make the experience both distinctive by language and distinctly unified by working together.  I wondered what will this site be in a hundred years--how will it be perceived?

And finally, the most moving of the spaces to me--the Reichstag in Berlin, now housing the German Bundestag (Parliament)  The building is not much more than a hundred years old, but has seen destruction by fire in 1933, virtual abandonment during the Cold War years, and now, since German reunification, a restoration that revealed to me a great deal about the ways in which Germany attempts to understand its own 20th century history.  A huge glass dome now tops the building, providing light and transparency (and amazing views over the city), serving, perhaps, as an antidote to so many dark days of the 20th century.

Inside,  you can still see graffiti from the Soviet soldiers who liberated Berlin at the end of World War II (although Wikipedia tells me that racist and sexist writings were removed upon agreement with Russian diplomats).   The building houses a number of striking contemporary artworks, all of which reflect upon the country's past.  Artists from each of the Allied countries of World War II, the victors over Germany, were commissioned to create works.   I tried to imagine a situation in which the United States would invite victors over us to create works of art in Washington, DC, and I couldn't.   It's a testimony to the power of art--and the power of individual stories found in the graffiti--that these are what I will remember for a long time.

The take-aways for me as a museum person?
  • First, visit a place you wouldn't ordinarily go to.  If you go to art museums when you're in a city, visit a historic site; or vice-versa.
  • Second, consider those implicit messages about big ideas--like power and democracy--that are embedded in all sorts of places
  • And thirdly, trust in the power of art and of individual stories.
Below, a shout-out, with the flags of the European Union,  to my funny, thoughtful, usually hungry, but often surprising and thought-provoking travel companions on these visits.  Their perspectives helped me see things in new ways.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Meet the Mentees

It's hard to believe that it's taken me until mid-February to post about the two new colleagues selected for the 2015 mentor program--but nine cities in nine different countries have held me up (much more later on museums visited along the way).  Again this year, I had an incredible pool of candidates, from several different countries, at many different stages of their career.  Some were graduates of museum studies programs; others had entered the field in different ways.  All of you who applied raised great questions and prompted me to think about new ideas and approaches.  Many thanks to all of you who applied, but I'm pleased to introduce Shakia Gullette and Susan Fohr.

Shakia is Curator of Exhibitions at the Banneker-Douglas Museum in Baltimore, MD.  She's working on her MA in African-American Studies and has worked for a variety of museums in the Baltimore area.  She's curious about:
At the present moment I am most interested in the treatment of the African Diaspora in other countries. It’s one thing to read about it, but to see it in person when you are travelling abroad is a totally different experience. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, a group of friends and I travelled to Amsterdam for the second time and we had the pleasure of participating in the Black Heritage Amsterdam walking tour. It was absolutely amazing!!! I discovered in greater detail the Dutch involvement in slavery and the role Amsterdam played in the Dutch slave trade.
One change she'd passionately like to see in the museum field is:
Right now for me, I would like to see more African Americans in the field. Within the last 20 years, there has been a great emergence of African American in the field but public history is still a field that many African Americans know little about. I stumbled into this profession, and I was actually encouraged to go the traditional route as opposed to entering the field. I would like to help young African Americans realize that public history unlocks a world of creativity that no other profession can do. If I can help to introduce this profession others that would make me feel like I have a greater purpose on this earth.
Shakia has loads of questions, both about her career path, about the field, about exhibit development, but she promises me,
My mind is always moving, and I always have questions, what I can promise you from me as a mentee if chosen, is that I will always have questions for you. Talking through my thoughts is something that I have done since I was a child, and through that process comes a million and one questions that sometimes go unanswered.

Susan is Education Programs Coordinator at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto as well as a active volunteer in a number of areas, including as (what a great title!) Supreme Gleaner, leading fruit picks in urban backyard.  She's an avid maker of all things textile.

She's curious about:
I have become fascinated by learning how the objects I use in my everyday life are created. To this end I try to engage in the processes of making things myself, and, as much as possible, make things from first principles. I love to knit, but I have also learned how to process a raw fleece, dye that fleece with plants I’ve foraged, and spin the fibre into yarn. I love to cook and make preserves, but I have also grown my own vegetables from seed. I have had to be realistic about how far I take this making – the allotment garden plot I had in the north end of the city became a lot harder to get to once I found myself with a full-time job downtown, and it’s hard to find space in a small one bedroom apartment to store a 7 pound fleece... 
I want others to be curious to learn about the origins of the things that they are using on an everyday basis, and I think there is no better way to nurture these conversations than to involve people in making things themselves. I don’t expect someone I’ve taught to knit embrace it as obsessively as I have, but I do hope that by trying the technique themselves, it will allow them to think more critically about what is involved in making their clothes. As one member of the contemporary craft community has noted, “the creation of things by hans leads to a better understanding of democracy, because it reminds us we have power.”
One change she would like to see in the field is:
The experiences described above highlight one change I would like to see in the museum field – greater creativity in the ways that museum exhibitions and programs engage all the senses. I have seen wonderful examples of this way of thinking at my own museum – for example, the playing of a jazz composition in situ with a West African batik cloth to show the similarities in rhythm between the pattern on the cloth and the music -- but I know we can do more of this. The Textile Museum of Canada has an incredibly rich collection of ethnographic textiles from all over the world, but these objects did not originate in the isolation in which they now find themselves at the museum. Many of them were used in the context of celebration and ritual; how can we incorporate the food and dance and music and song of the object’s origins within the context of the museum experience?
And not surprisingly, one of her key questions for the year is how to encourage museums to more creatively "present culture as a living and evolving practice, and encourage visitors to engage more fully in their culture, whatever that might be."

I'm looking forward to some great conversations in the coming year and you'll be hearing from both Shakia and Susan in guest blog posts here.