Sunday, July 28, 2019

Make Welcome: Lessons from an Island

I spent a week in July on Vinalhaven (population 1,165), an island in Maine.  It was at the same time that Vice-President Pence and other Republicans visited the "detention centers" on the US/Mexico border.  The juxtaposition of those two things really made me think about the idea of welcoming. 

Vinalhaven is a small island, reachable only by an hour and 15 minute ferry ride.  So imagine the ferry ride a bit like entering a museum:  where do you go, how do you get in, what does it cost, how do I get in line?  The ferry has all that, but there is also a Facebook group called Ferry Favors.  That's where you post things like: Can anyone pick up my computer in town?  Can you give up your position in line for someone who needs it?  There's a sense of the ferry crossing as a collective enterprise that belongs to everyone (and yes, people do complain about the ferry too!).  On the day we came back to the mainland, the first two ferries of the day did not run because they had had to make an emergency medical run the night before.  Milling around the ferry, I heard very little complaining because there seemed to be a sense that the human need took precedence.

Different parts of the island demonstrate that collective sense of community.  At the library, where there is good wifi a sign asks you not to sit on the steps.  But the same sign suggests that you go around back, where there are benches.  And yes, one morning I sat there doing a call, with a view of the ocean on beautifully painted bench.  There's a Vinalhaven Land Trust who cares for walkable trails all over the island.  There seemed to be a sense here that those in charge, whether at the library or the land trust, generally trusted us to do the right thing.  Think about the museums you've visited where they trusted you.  Not so many.  Our house had a copy of the Town of Vinalhaven's annual report.  For a town of this size, there is an astounding number of committees and the work of so many, mostly volunteers.  Are there lessons we can learn about recruiting volunteers?

As a visitor, you have responsibilities too.  It's custom to wave, at least lifting one hand off the wheel, when you pass another car on the road.  It has the funny effect of making you feel a part of the community.  When I went for coffee one morning, I learned all about the house we were staying in:  someone's uncle had been the plumber;  someone remembered the older women who ran it as a boarding house.  A shopkeeper talked to me about climate change and its effect on the still-thriving lobstering industry here. It's always our job to learn about a place and the people.  How can museums show that same interest in visitors?  And even more importantly, how can we take action on issues like climate change that affect places we love?

These two, right across from each other!)

I am sure that year-round island residents are sometimes happy to see the summer end, to see the island return to its quieter self.  I know we came with the privilege of race and of class. Despite that, every single person we met that week treated us as people--they were welcoming.  That's a lesson for any museum.  But it's not just a museum lesson. Let's go back to that image on the border and the total lack of compassion or understanding demonstrated by those politicians, standing there in their khakis and blazers, staring at people behind a fence.

It's a long way from an island in Maine to the US/Mexico border.  I keep returning to a poem by Warshan Shire that I wish everyone could read and embrace.  Here's an excerpt (and here's the full poem):
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
Museums do have a role to play here, and a huge cheer of appreciation for the Association of Children's Museums' powerful statement on the treatment of migrant children. We all must do more.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

How Do You Make a Site of Conscience?

A week or so ago, the memory site, 23.5 of the Hrant Dink Foundation opened to the public in Istanbul, Turkey. I've had the opportunity to visit this site twice, once a year ago, and once in late March of this year, and I wanted to share the site and their development process in the hopes it might be useful to anyone thinking about opening any kind of historic site--not just a site of conscience.

To begin--who was Hrant Dink?  He was a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist, persecuted several times for his beliefs, and assassinated in 2007 on the steps of the office of the newspaper he edited, Agos.  It is these offices that are now 23.5,  the site of memory.  Why 23.5?  April 23rd is Children's Day in Turkey and many places around the world.  April 24 is the day in 1915 when the Turkish government began rounding up and disappeared--the start of the Armenian genocide.  So this public site straddles both the joy of children and the pain of genocide--with the hope of reconciliation.

A year ago when I visited the site, it still felt like an office.  Big notebooks of the ongoing assassination case files lined one wall, and Dink's office itself looked as he left it.  Nayat Karaköse and the team from the Hrant Dink Foundation sat and talked with us about the plans for the site.  There was a big story to tell, in a relatively small space.  How would it work?

First, there were a series of community consultations, asking the questions. In the memory site, what do you want to see? what do you want to discover? what issues are to be emphasized? what are the deficiencies that you expect to be corrected? what kind of educational and visitor programs do you wish to see? what are the themes and approaches you would never want to see?  Participating in these were artists, sociologists, communication specialists, curators, Agos newspaper employees, members of the Dink family, representatives of various civil society organizations, academics and students.

Nayat had visited dozens of Sites of Conscience around the world.  It might not be possible for you to visit all these places, but the Foundation's report is exceptionally useful (and free to download!).  These visits helped solidify what this memory site would be, in part by identifying some key characteristics of meaningful sites. The most compelling sites:
  • "have guides who take part in linking truths to present realities with a dynamic narrative, providing commentary and hold a dialogue with the visitor; 
  • have objects exposed that embody the past, rendering it visible, so that small stories on which big narratives cast a shadow can come to the fore; 
  • promote hope and incorporate messages that encourage visitors to contribute to a better future; incorporate visitors into the memorialisation process, providing a space for their experiences, ideas, feelings and suggestions; and
  • are dynamic, constantly being updated, opening the way to new exhibits and thus able to present different experiences to visitors at different times."
When I came back this spring, as the team worked madly to get the space partly ready to share with those of us who were there for the conference Memory Sites, Memory Paths: Towards Another Future which brought together experts from memory sites and academia to share their work.  On that visit, I could see the ideas come to life--and to see how, as it often is, developing strong interpretation is often a process of pruning away ideas, until the strong branches of the concept come into view.  Now, a visitor is encouraged to reflect;  they meet Hrant Dink as not just a heroic figure, but as a human, struggling with ideas and the world. Visitors see the impact his work and life had--and ponder how they can have an impact as well.

Any historic site must wrestle with many of these same questions and ideas.  The answers you find will be different--but the asking of questions, rather than a certainty, must be an integral part of the process. 

When we visited this year, it was just days before this year's election for the mayor of Istanbul mayor.  Giant election posters from the ruling party could be seen everywhere.  The results of that election--the victory of reformer Ekrem İmamoğlu were overturned and a second election was just held in June. The result: an even bigger victory margin for İmamoğlu and a hopeful sense of possibility away from a government that has imprisoned thousands for their beliefs.  Human rights are still endangered in Turkey, as they are in many places around the world, but the opening of this site, like so many other Sites of Conscience, is cause for optimism.  As Hrant Dink wrote,
"Perceptions on both sides can only change in an environment of contact and dialogue. Therefore, ‘solving history’ is not actually a real concept, or a problem. There is nothing to be solved about history anyway… There is only a part of it that has to be understood. And understanding necessitates a process of learning, enlightenment and comprehension, spread out over time."
My best wishes and great admiration to the entire team of this project!

Monday, May 27, 2019

"One single person, one single life, one single fate"

What does it mean when we talk about memorialization?  I'm just back from AAM in New Orleans (more to come on that) and my hotel room overlooked Lee Circle, where a huge plinth is now crowned by nothing, after the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in 2017.  So memorialization has been on my mind. But a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Stepan Cernousek of Sites of Conscience member who was joined by Russian journalist Sergey Parkhomenko, founder of the Last Address Project that brought home the power of memorialization work. (Thanks to Hunter College for co-sponsoring the presentation with Sites of Conscience).

Stepan's project is documenting the vast number of gulag camps in the former Soviet Union and creating 3-D models and virtual reality experiences.  He shared for the first time, a great film documenting one of his field expeditions:  part adventure story, part disaster tale, but most importantly, a deeply human story of loss when he and his team finally reach a camp. They find remnants of letters and other evidence of prisoners.  They're obviously touched and a torn letter is carefully reassembled.  All of a sudden that person who wrote the letter, still unknown, becomes real to us from across miles and decades.

Sergey Parkhomenko's project is modeled on artist Gunter Demnig's project Stolpersteine, installing brass "stumbling blocks" in front of the last homes of choice of those killed by the Nazis.  I've come across these brass blocks in Rome, in Amsterdam, in Berlin, in Paris:  all together Demnig has installed more than 70,000 stones all over Europe.  Parkhomenko decided the same thing should be done for victims of repressions in the Soviet Union and now is working to install steel plaques on buildings in Russia and other former Soviet states.  

One thing I find striking is these projects rely on the consent of current homeowners for their installation--and their success.  Stalin's legacy is a complicated thing in Russia, and when asked about whether it was difficult to get permission, Parkhomenko said that when the conversation was centered on the personal, on what happened to a single person who lived at this house, people always said yes.

"Normally we discuss history as something statistical or static, as something geopolitical, as huge numbers, or in terms of Super-Powers who fight each other, in terms of industrialization, in terms of the Second World War, in terms of competition and different political systems. Our idea of all these [memorialization] projects is to see history attentively through one single person, one single life, one single fate, one set of eyes. It changes everything. It changes the whole discussion - if you start to discuss not in terms of big history, or big fighting, or big power, but in terms of one singular human life, one life."

I'm in awe of these men--and so many other men and women around the world who are doing the difficult, emotional work of ensuring that all of us can see the past attentively and change the ways in which we use history to remember. How can you do this work in your own community, wherever you are?

Last Address Project "Here lived Yeraterina Mikhailovna Zhelvatykh, typist, born in 1905, arrested 11/01/1938, executed 04/05/1938, rehabilitated in 1957"
Letter addressed to a prisoner, author unknown,
Former Lee Monument, New Orleans

Saturday, April 27, 2019

#AAMSMJ 2019-- See You in New Orleans!

I'm so pleased to be joining an incredible cohort of colleagues as Social Media Journalists for the American Alliance of Museums upcoming annual meeting in New Orleans, May 17-23.   We'll be blanketing the conference from start to finish, dawn to dusk, sharing out impressions, connections, ideas and more.  In particular, I'll be covering the Getty International Fellows and trying to take a look at global perspectives. Of course, checking out sessions from members of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

Here are just a few of the other sessions I'm particularly looking forward to:

  • Decolonizing Development, on the ways to rethink both inclusive staff environments and donor outreach.
  • Mistakes were Made--don't miss your chance to hear--and share--big career mistakes--and have a great time along the way.
  • Connecting the Dots:  A Game Show for Museum Professionals, with Kathy McLean as game show host!
  • Kimberly Drew's Keynote.  If you don't follow @museummammy you should.  It will be great to hear from her in person.
  • Labs, Salons and Experiments for Creative Museum Change
  • Partnering with the Community to Create Collaborative Socially Engaged Exhibitions, where both staff and community members from the Newcomb Art Museum share their learnings from a collaborative project.
  • Is that Hung White?  Getting Real about Diversity in Exhibitions--a great group of colleagues dive into something rarely explored.
  • Is Rapid Response Collecting a Trend or the New Sustainable Standard for Collections? hearing from staff at the Brooklyn Children's Museum

I'll also be doing a stint as a volunteer in the Museums and Race Lounge on Wednesday morning, from 8;30-10:30 AM.

Here are my fellow SMJs--you can follow all of us using the hashtags #AAMSMJ and #AAM2019
  • Janeen Bryant, Empathetic Museum
  • Hannah Hethmon, H. Hethmon Consulting
  • Matthew Ramirez, Minneapolis Institute of Art
  • Angela Gala, MuseAlley
  • Amanda Figueroa, National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Carla Galfano, American University Museum
  • Linda Norris, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
  • Saleem Penny, Chicago Children's Museum
  • Ravon Ruffin, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Mark Schlemmer, New-York Historical Society|
  • Lanae Spruce, National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Helen Yuen, American Visionary Art Museum
Read more about them here.

Plus, I've never been to New Orleans, so there's sure to be some food and architecture in the mix. You can follow me on Instagram and Twitter as @lindabnorris; and if you see me at the conference, be sure to say hi.

See you in New Orleans!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Thanks J. William! My Fulbright Experience Ten Years On

The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.
                                                                                     Senator J. William Fulbright

This week in New York City, I had a chance to catch up with Ihor Poshyvailo, now director of the Maidan Museum in Kyiv--the museum that will both memorialize the 2014 Revolution and serve as a platform for dialogue.  But equally important to me, he's the first museum professional I met when I arrived as a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine ten years ago. We've figured out how to get together almost once a year--once at AAM in Seattle, during his own stint as a Fulbright Scholar in Washington, DC, and often in Ukraine, including a series of workshops on Visitor Voices in Museums in cities all over Ukraine, along with our friend Eugene Chervony. (Road trips in Ukraine are their own unique experience).

Those ten years have been full of changes for both of us:  new jobs, new travel--and plenty of deeply concerning changes in both our countries as well. But also I think this connection--and the many, many more I still have with Ukraine--are evidence of exactly what Senator Fulbright imagined when introduced legislation for this program in 1945, just after the end of World War II.  

My international experience was really limited when I applied to be a Fulbright Scholar.  I had done an AAM/ICOM exchange in Hungary and had traveled in Europe with my husband and daughter.  But I had never lived anywhere else full-time.  I wanted to challenge myself, so applied, and thankfully, the Ukraine Fulbright Program had (and continues to have) a significant commitment to cultural practitioners coming to and from Ukraine in the program.  

It's hard to put into words what I learned from my Fulbright experience.  But here are a couple paths I've been down as a result:
  • Watched with pride and appreciation as Ukraine's museums changed over the decade:  new leadership, new ideas, new exhibits and programs that challenge a single hegemonic narrative.  
  • I've evaluated the state of Ukraine's national outdoor museum, judged a pottery competition, studied Ukraine's cultural heritage policy, and taught a course at Kyiv-Mohyla University (a big shout-out to my understanding students the first year).  
  • I first met Rainey Tisdale, my amazing co-author of Creativity in Museum Practice because she was doing a Fulbright at the same time in Finland.  We found each other's blogs and found much in common--and eventually a book!  And in 2017,  that book was also published in Ukrainian.
  • Fellow Ukraine Fulbrighter Sarah Crow and I discovered a shared love of Ukrainians' approach to food and founded the Pickle Project, leading to, among other things, a summer of train-riding and eating all over Ukraine as we learned that civic engagement and food go hand-in-hand.
  • I came to love--and understand a bit--about all of Ukraine.  I studied industrial history in Donbass; visited Crimea and learned about Crimean Tatars thanks to Peace Corps volunteer Barb Wieser; drank mid-day shots in the Carpathians with cheesemakers; and celebrated April Fools Day in Odessa.  
  • Shared ideas at American House in Kyiv on creativity, dialogue and more, thanks to Christi-Anne Hofland
  • Worked on exhibits about those who still work at Chernobyl, human trafficking, and a connected story of quilts, Mennonite, Ukraine and the Netherlands (shout-outs to Michael Forster Rothbart and Olga Dotter).
  • I watched online with awe as my museum colleagues--along with so many Ukrainians- stood in protest on Maidan to usher in the 2014 revolution and now, five years on, see so many of them still working to build the nation they imagine and deserve.
And out from Ukraine came so many other experiences:  museum-going adventures in Prague, Moscow, and the Netherlands with Irina Leonenko (actually maybe the first person I met in Ukraine).  Teaching in Latvia and Lithuania; workshops in Romania and Albania; and now my job at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.  I travel now to all kinds of places (last week, Istanbul!) and I always bring what I learned from my Fulbright experience:  to connect with people, to really listen, to bring a sense of appreciation to every culture and every place, to be my authentic self.

After proposing significant cuts in the program the last two years, thankfully the current administration has proposed level funding for 2020. I encourage all of you to consider applying for a Fulbright.  Here's information on the Fulbright Scholar Program and here's information on the Fulbright US Student Program.  If you're reading this from outside the US,  just Google Fulbright and your country and it will probably bring you to your own country program.

At some point during lunch on Thursday, Ihor and I looked at each other and said, "transformative."  That's what it was for both of us.  It can be the same for you.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Looking at Visitors Looking (and Learning)

I continue in my fervent belief that anyone and everyone who works in a museum should at least spend some time out on the floor observing what visitors do--what they look at, what they say, what they don't look at.   A few weeks ago I spent time observing a prototype exhibit at Maison des Esclaves (the House of Slaves) where the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is working with the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Government of Senegal, to revitalize the site and its interpretation.  Gorée Island, where Maison des Esclaves is located, is Africa's first World Heritage Site, a place of great importance and meaning.

We produced the prototype exhibit (designed by Studio Tectonic here in the US and produced by Mandarine in Dakar) to learn more about how different audiences made use of different kinds of information and perspectives.  The story of Maison des Esclaves is a complicated one, and one of our goals is to make that complicated story,  based on new information and research, accessible for visitors. We also are connecting the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to contemporary issues of slavery, hoping to inspire action on those issues.  This prototype is a capsule version of the full new interpretation.

Here's just a few photos to show what we learned:

People like maps!  In this case, at least two maps allowed visitors to their own place in the larger world:  a very simple map of the transAtlantic slave trade and a map showing the rates of contemporary slavery around the world both got lots of attention.

Exhibit text in two languages has extra value for all kinds of people. One girl, a native French speaker, was very carefully sounding out the English-language text for her father.

People make unexpected meanings.  Evidently, the school opened by LeBron James has a central staircase that greatly resembles Maison des Esclaves.  Did he intend it? Who knows.  But we did hear that discussion.

Visitors love sharing their own perspectives--and they are usually great at connecting past to present. There was also lots of pointing and sharing, as people looked at the exhibit together.

We need to spend additional efforts planning time and space for people to reflect on both the historical and contemporary issues.  These are hard stories.

To our greatest surprise--people of all ages, from all over the world, were reading, intently reading, our exhibition text--even taking photos of the text. The eagerness to know more about this history was really inspiring to us.

We also had a chance to chat with girls from Mariamma Bâ School on the island. They had visited the exhibition the week before and they had so many great ideas, observations and concerns.  So much so that as we were leaving, three girls hustled down the path to share more ideas with us. When I think about our primary audience for the exhibit--it's those girls, those girls who can shape Senegal and the world.

What did you learn in your exhibits today?  No excuses, get out there!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Meet the 2019 Mentees

Every year it's a difficult choice to select mentees for the year.  All of you who applied had great things to say, moving stories to relate and tough but fascinating questions to discuss.  It takes me a long time and usually another pair of eyes to help me puzzle through.  Thank you all who applied!

It gives me great pleasure to announce this year's two mentees:  Tadia Lynch of New York City and Jeanne Rank of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Tadia completed an exhibition -specialized, MBA in Arts and Cultural Management and since then has worked with both private and non-profit arts organizations with a focus on program development, audience engagement, and arts access.  She is now Department Coordinator for International Programs at the Fashion Institute of Technology, helping to support her greater goal of advancing the Caribbean Arts Community through web-based platforms.

I ask different questions every year, but always love asking about a childhood creative act.  Tadia's was "a story pop up book that I illustrated and narrated the fictional story of a flying fish."  This year I also asked about a memorable museum experience of the past year.  Tadia's was the Charles White Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. She wrote, "The works were moving and illustrative of a dynamic experience as a POC. However, it was particularly memorable to me because of the interactions between visitors and the works."

What big questions will we be talking about this year?  Here's what Tadia's interested in:

  • How to grow an audience that is emotionally and mentally invested in a museum’s mission?
  • How to serve and create a dialogue with a broader audience?
  • How to ethically present polarizing topics in a non-biased way?
  • How to not be passive, but to stimulate a greater conversation?

Jeanne Rank has spent more than 15 years working in museums curating exhibitions, learning activities, and new strategies and is now working as a senior curator at the Danish Architecture Center in Copenhagen.

Her creative activity intrigued me:
As a child, I loved all kinds of aesthetic expressions and sciences, however my most creative experience is possibly the day I realized that I could design my own life. I used to live in a quite dysfunctional family and as a child I didn't understand much but was shy and insecure, and often bullied. When I was 11, we moved to another part of the country, and I realized that this was my chance to define myself in a completely new way. So, I did: I decided that I was an outgoing, strong person, and that changed life and led me to where I am now: as the first in my family I have earned a university degree and built an exciting career, I created my own beliefs about parenthood and have a wonderful family, and overall, created a life where I keep learning and also give back by mentoring others. Of course, life is not always easy, but I always have my core belief that we can design our life and future.
Jeanne's best museum experience of last year: The exhibition 'The Future Starts Here' at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. "
I loved this show as it was designed to help people to actively reflect over their own part in designing the future today. Not only it was the theme of the exhibition, but I really liked how the curators/museum succeeded in engaging people’s minds and this way transform an exhibition into learning and action. I think that the ideal for museums and exhibitions of the future must be creating transformational experiences that engage people in reflecting over their own personal role and this way connect to every day and the future. What I also loved was the interdisciplinarity of the objects - hereby embracing the complexity of the world, the connection to the self and the world. 
Jeanne posed one big question about her own museum that will lead to many others.
How can I help the organization Danish Architecture Center (DAC) I work for develop into the international museum-center they would like to become? Museums have a special ability to embrace and unite all people and connect the past with our future in the presence. This leads us hopefully to discuss how we can help present museums to design not only their own future, but also to take part in designing the future for all of us.
Tadia and Jeanne will each be writing a blog post this year, so you'll be hearing more directly from them.  And again, many, many thanks to all of you who shared the mentorship post, and even more to those who took the time to apply.  You all inspire me!