Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Ally & Amplify

Fall, rather than spring, is the time I think about new approaches, new projects and new learning.  I returned home from the AASLH Annual Conference a couple weeks ago with two thoughts on my mind:  how to be an ally and how to amplify more diverse perspectives in our work and in our field.   I know that most of my readers (according to Facebook) can be placed in the emerging professional category.  But this most is really for those of you who are not in that category:  you're in a senior position, or you're a consultant, or you teach, for instance.  (for you EMPs,  get this in front of those people in your work life).

The AASLH conference had lots of important components to me--it gave me a chance to see old friends, to catch up with one mentee, to learn from others, but importantly, to question our approach and our practice.  I'm on AASLH's Leadership and Nominating Committee and over the last year we've had lots of conversations about diversity and inclusiveness in our process and are reworking how we think about AASLH's leaders.  As a result of those conversations, AASLH Council Chair Julia Rose asked me to facilitate a conversation about diversity and AASLH.  The time and place made it into the onsite conference program but we were unexpectedly thrilled to have dozens of people show up to share their perspective on the topic (and even if the word diversity is what we should be talking about rather than a different term).  Participants observed that (I'm paraphrasing) "Diversity is reality. It exists and cannot be changed.  To be inclusive is the choice, the action we can take to value and accept diversity. We can consciously broaden the scope of who we include."

When I thought about that lively, passionate, conversation, I then had to think about what I, personally, can do.   Those actions can fall into two categories:  ally and amplify.  Here's some of what I'm thinking and doing.  


  • As an ally, I occupy a position of privilege on many levels in the museum field and in life.  I can listen and help make space for deep conversations and action,  whether it's about racism, pay equity, gender or a whole range of other issues affecting our field and our communities.
  • To that end, I'm very pleased to be joining Aleia Brown in facilitating a conversation at the upcoming New England Museum Association conference November 4-6 in Portland, Maine. We hope that #MuseumsrepondtoFerguson: Bringing Race Into the Foreground continues to open up conversations--and more importantly--action, about the ways in which museums can address issues of race, no matter where in the country they are located.
  • I'll also be continuing my own small mentor program as a way of creating connections and conversations.  Stay tuned for a full announcement in November.  For me, this project, now in its third year, has greatly broadened my own horizons and perspectives.
  • This year I've been in a couple situations, both professional and random on the street, where someone said something racist.  In one, I spoke up, in the other, I didn't.  I'll try and speak up every time. (Interestingly, it was the professional one where I spoke up)
  • In my role as an AASLH nominating committee member, I'll ally with others who care about a changing professional organization.
  • I'll broaden my information intake (suggestions welcomed!)


  • This blog and other social media give me great platforms, thanks to all of you readers.  I'll continue to share observations, questions and my own learning.  I welcome guest bloggers, so if you have an idea, please be in touch.
  • I'll also do my best to amplify and share the voices of  the growing range of thoughtful diverse museum bloggers raising important questions about our practice.
  • When asked to speak or serve on a panel, I'll try to ensure that a diverse range of voices are always included that it's not just, as has been referenced, "a sea of white women," or even more unrepresentative in our field, the line-up of white men.
  • I can encourage museum leaders at institutions where I work to listen to all sorts of voices--from differing communities and from the staff.  Every institution can design new ways to listen.
  • AASLH has shared a set of aspirations for its work and they include one on diversity and inclusion.  I'll be commenting and encourage you to do the same. 
  • When I work with students, I can make sure that they gain an understanding of key issues in the field and by amplifying diverse voices, create new allies and partnerships.

But why is this post for more senior professionals?  Because all of us need to do better.  We need to listen more and to demand more.  Our perspectives and knowledge are valued, but they are far from the only ones.  What will you do to ally and amplify?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thinking About Collaboration? Tips from You

At last week's AASLH conference, Lindsey Baker, Beth Maloney and I facilitated a session about the process of working towards long-term community engagement.  In our (possibly strained) metaphor, we called it, "Don't be a Runaway Bride,"  in the hopes of creating good conversations about the importance of long-term, sustained relationships in building community.

We began by asking participants to reflect on the communities they belonged to:  cat rescuers, gardeners, museum professionals, Latinos, activists, dog owners, sports fans, and even three Star Wars enthusiasts were all there.  But then we asked what community organizations their museums partnered with.  The answers, to a large degree, reflected the caution with which museums approach their communities:  libraries, universities, the chamber of commerce, schools.  Kind of boring, I thought, and to a large degree, reflecting current power structures in communities.

We then tasked them with conceptualizing collaborations between a specific type of museum, a community group who were not museum-goers, framed around a current topic of community interest (such as affordable housing, food security, or mass incarceration).   The small groups came up with projects all of which more interesting than anything that had been mentioned before.   I'll come back to those at a later date, but here are the pointers for community collaborations that emerged when the groups shared out those short brainstorming sessions:

  • find commonalities
  • people power
  • creative use of resources
  • follow your mission, but be flexible
  • be open to new groups
  • embrace the challenge:  don't run away!
  • bring in outside expertise (i.e. from the community)
  • be patient
  • let your community identify the issues

Lindsey, Beth and I were all struck by how many of you knew these and practiced them in other parts of your life, but how few museums actually put them to use.   Our final advice?  Get going!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What Can Museums Learn from Europe's Soccer Teams?

I say refugee, I say migrant, I say neighbor, I say friend, because everyone is deserving of dignity. Because moving for economic benefit is itself a matter of life and death. Because money is the universal language, and to be deprived of it is to be deprived of a voice while everyone else is shouting. Sometimes the gun aimed at your head is grinding poverty, or endless shabby struggle, or soul crushing tedium.
                                                                             Teju Cole in Migrants Welcome
Just about a year ago, at the Museums and Politics conference in Russia, I did a presentation called, "Do Museums Need Disaster Plans for People?"  In it, I talked about our responsibility to people in times of disasters both natural and man-made, disasters both immediate and long-term, and shared some amazing examples from museums around the world.

Over the last several weeks, as stories of migrants to Europe have been increasingly covered by the news, I've tried again to puzzle out what we might do.  I'm aware that the issue of migrants, however defined, is an issue everywhere in the world:  here in the United States, in Ukraine, where more than a million people have been displaced by the war in the east, and in so many other places.  Teju Cole, in his moving essay, reminded us of both our humanity and our history:
And more than “refugee” or “migrant,” I say “people,” and say it with compassion because everyone I love, and everyone they love has at some point said tearful goodbyes and moved from place to place to seek new opportunities, and almost all of them have by their movement improved those new places. ..Did all sixteen of your great great grandparents live, work, and die in the same town where you now live? If no, then you’re a child of migrants.
Museums can open their doors, they can provide free concerts, they can do all kinds of things to begin.  But more and more, I'm thinking about our role in the long-term--that in some ways our strengths--of being able to think about the long-term--can be a strength in working as a part of communities to find solutions to connect all of us more deeply.

But how will we do that?  Over the weekend I had saved the picture at the top of the post (from @JamesMelville on Twitter) because it interested me (for another take on soccer fans, see this long ago post from Donetsk about Shaktar's superfans).  This morning, I came across this article about how soccer fans--and now soccer clubs all over Europe--are taking a lead in both raising funds and making migrants welcome.  Here's a bit of what fans of the St. Pauli club, a working class club have been doing according to a spokesman in this New York Times article (be sure to read the full piece)
“We think we can provide more than just football,” PrĂ¼ss said. “Not just about 90 minutes. We have a responsibility for the people around the club.”  Few take that responsibility more seriously than St. Pauli’s fans. Since 2004, the Ultras St. Pauli group has been visiting refugee camps around Hamburg, bringing clothes, food and lawyers to help the migrants navigate Germany’s complex asylum applications.
[After a game] After the final whistle, players from both teams walked to the four sides of the stadium, with St. Pauli carrying a banner that said, “Welcome,” and the Dortmund players displaying another that said, “Refugees.”
I think there's a critical piece in the way that European soccer clubs understand issues of migration that we're missing in museums. A spokesman for the Roma club says,
“No European club is city — or country — specific,” he said. “Look, we have Mohamed Salah from Egypt, Dzeko from Bosnia” — a reference to striker Edin Dzeko — “Gervinho from Africa. A lot of players are directly related to where refugees are coming from or going to.”
That diversity of staff, if you want to think about professional soccer players as staff,  helps to make these issues a matter of importance.  When museum staff and leadership lack diverse voices, it's easy to characterize refugees as "the other" and not do anything despite our common humanity. When we diversify our staff, our audiences, our everything, we begin change.  By opening the door, we might get the same response that came from a Syrian St. Pauli fan, “We can help build a society here,” he said. “This is the only society that gave us a chance to be part of it.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Consider the Possibilities: Coming to Louisville?

As the summer draws to an end, it's a great time to consider the possibilities for the future (above, that's Rod Cofield, director of Historic London Town and Gardens doing some serious incubation work in the hammock suggested in a creativity workshop I did there this spring). I'll be joining a thousand or so of my history museum colleagues at this year's American Association for State and Local History conference in Louisville, KY on September 16-19.

Here's what I'll be doing:

Listening Session on Diversity, Friday, 4:15, Location TBA During my year on the Nominating and Leadership Committee at AASLH, we've had a number of thoughtful conversations about diversity, inclusion and equity.  I'll be joining AASLH Council chair Julia Rose to co-facilitate a conversation about the ways in which AASLH can broaden and deepen these conversations.  Last December, AASLH issued a statement as part of #museumsrespondtoFerguson which read, in part,
“As integral members of American society, history organizations have a responsibility to collect, interpret, and engage in our country’s history, including both the harmonious and the controversial histories.” 
But it is not enough to look outward—we must also look inward to our own practices—as an association and for the field.  In this open conversation, AASLH leadership wants to hear from you on key questions such as:
  • What do we mean when we say words such as diversity, inclusion, access and equality?
  • What kinds of policies or statements should AASLH have in place?
  • How can AASLH more directly encourage the history museum field’s own practice in diversifying our stories, our staff, and our approaches?
  • How can we build personal awareness of issues of social justice, privilege and inclusion and integrate that into our work?
  • How can we translate philosophical agreement into action?
Special thanks to Incluseum for several of these questions and for their thought-provoking approach to issues of inclusion.   This is a critical issue for our field and we look forward to hearing from all of you.  If you can't make the session please feel free to comment below or email me your thoughts.

Banishing Boredom:  Facilitating Meaningful Meetings and Workshops
Tamara Hammerlein, Jeannette Rooney and I all know that you've spent way more time than you'd like in boring meetings. You know, the ones where nothing happens except droning reports or where the whole conversation goes off track.  We think meetings can be--and should be--both fun and productive and we'll be sharing and modeling a cornucopia of tips to take to your next meeting.

Small Museum Lunch
Creativity has a natural home in small museums.  Over lunch with your colleagues, we'll talk about how to build a creative culture among staff, volunteers and community.   Bring your own memory of your first creative act and get a free creativity tattoo plus a chance to win your copy of Creativity in Museum Practice (can't attend the lunch?  You can still get a copy of the book from Left Coast Press in the exhibit hall).

Don't be a Runaway Bride:  The Possibility of Building a Long-Term Relationship with Your Community
Lindsey Baker, Beth Maloney and I get the dubious honor of one of the last session slots on Saturday. We'll be talking about how to enter into long-term relationships with your community, rather than creating those projects that are like a bad blind date.  We promise lots of meaty conversation--and if you're not going to be in Louisville, you can participate in AASLH's online conference and hear us in a webinar.

What else do I hope to do?  I've got a list of other sessions:  I want to think about creating a 21st century museum in the boyhood home of Woodrow Wilson, as re-thinking shrine-y historic sites is much on my mind;  I want to continue thinking how we interpret unfolding events and how to interpret religion at historic sites.   And of course, I'd like to meet you if you're there.  If you're curious about my work, thinking about a new project or initiative that I can help with, be in touch.

Don't forget, you can follow the conference at #AASLH2015 on Twitter--and find me directly on Twitter and Instagram as @lindabnorris.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

What Do These Five Places Have in Common?

This week,  16 graduate students clicked open their courses in the Museum Studies Program online at Johns Hopkins University and found that they'll be getting to know museums in these five places around the globe.  Those students, five museums and I are embarked on a course I'm teaching called International Experiments in Community Engagement.  In the course I hope we'll explore the how and why of community engagement but also gain deeper understandings about working collaboratively across cultures (and time zones!) in creative ways.  I hope to share our learning with you here during this semester.

I get asked often about international work and definitely my own international path is a bit unusual, but I've learned a few lessons in addition to becoming a skilled suitcase packer. The first one is about the importance of connecting.  It's definitely a bonus that colleagues anywhere can find me here, or on Twitter, or LinkedIn.  But those initial connections are only a start--it's the building of them that matters.  So, to begin my own reflection on this experiment, I thought I'd share how I came to meet the five great colleagues and their museums that are joining in.

Eugene Chervony, National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life, L'viv, Ukraine.  Regular readers of the blog have probably already met Eugene here and seen his museum, which I most recently visited this spring.  I meet Eugene in 2010 when he came to a two day workshop on visitor-friendly museums I did in his city; after the first day he admits thinking I was nuts, but he returned the next day, and we've been friends and colleagues ever since,  doing everything from cheese-maker visits in the Carpathians to speaking at AAM in Seattle.

Jane Severs, Colony of Avalon,  Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.  I met Jane when I somewhat randomly submitted a bid to the Association of Heritage Industries in Newfoundland and Labrador to do a series of workshops, mostly because I thought it would be great to get to know Newfoundland.  I got the bid, did the workshops, have presented at NCPH with Jane and most recently, had dinner with her just a few weeks ago.  Jane's a board member of the Colony, but also an interpretive planner and we always have much to talk about! We're even hatching a new project.

Lisa Gay Bostwick, Midt-Troms Museum, Norway.  Lisa found me.  She's an American working in far north (above the Arctic Circle) Norway and responded to a post seeking participants on Facebook. She's been a commenter and liker of FB posts so she and her museums' work was a bit familiar to me. It was exciting to have her volunteer!

Marco Columbier, Casa de la Literatura Peruana, Lima, Peru.  I wanted to have museums from everywhere, not just Europe,  but my own connections weren't strong in several parts of the world. My own Facebook feed showed that Fabiana Chiu-Rinaldi, a New York colleague and friend had just finished facilitating some of the presentations at the Peruvian parts of this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival.  She must have connections, I thought, and she did--introducing me via email to Marco and his museum.

Kenji Saitome, Suita City Museum, Japan.   Interestingly, the connection to Kenji came from two different directions.  I reached out to AAM for connections and Adam Johnson of their international programs reached out to ICOM-Japan for me, and at the same time, I asked Katrin Hieke of Germany, active in ICOM for suggestions and she also suggested Kenji.  (for those of you who believe social media produces only weak ties, Katrin and I first met when I responded to a tweet, which has resulted in many great conversations, in person and online!)

What are the take-aways from creating our far-flung experiment?  First, seek out opportunities.  I met Eugene because I applied for a Fulbright to come to Ukraine; I met Jane because I submitted a long-shot bid.  Second, maintain those connections.  It's really easy to say, oh, I don't have time to be on email or Facebook or whatever.  For me, I make that time.  I try to keep up on the news (both museum news and generally)  from Newfoundland and Ukraine (and lots of other places) and to connect directly on a semi-regular basis.  Next, be generous.  If someone asks for advice or a connection, I do my best to make that happen.  And I always appreciate the generosity of others (these five particularly!) Lastly, remember that connections are always a broadening circle.  (if in doubt, remember Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). That broadening circle now also includes those 16 students, who bring their own knowledge, communities and expertise to the experiment.  Special thanks also go to Phyllis Hecht and Sarah Chicone of JHU for their advice, help, and willingness to move this experiment forward as a course.  So we begin!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What did I Find at New Founde Lande?

I'd been meaning to write a post about my experience at the New Founde Lande pageant in Trinity, Newfoundland and had been pondering how to approach.  Rebecca Harz's recent post, Should Exhibits Tell Stories? made me think more deeply about questions that continue to interest her--and me--those questions about the intersection of museums, stories, and emotions.   Can we combine them?  Should we?  Does it hurt or help critical thinking?

So, on to the pageant.  For more than two decades, the Rising Tide Theater has produced this outdoor historical pageant in the gorgeous village of Trinity on the Bonavista Peninsula.  It tells the story from the earliest settlement to the first Newfoundland election in 1832.  We bought our tickets and perched on a slope on a beautiful sunny day, with perhaps one hundred other visitors--unsure about what, exactly, would happen.

What followed was a combination walking tour, theater experience and history lesson.  A small group of actors, in story and song, shared a chronological, and deeply personal look at Trinity's history--but we didn't learn that history in a school room or a theater, but outside, walking from place to place in the village.  We stood on the shoreline and learned about salting cod and women's work; we entered the church, still in use, to commemorate the loss of fishermen, we saw those same fishermen and their families denied credit by the fish merchants.  Some of the vignettes were moving, some were funny (and some just weren't funny to me, but perhaps to others).  You did pay better attention to the loose story; and the moving from place to place meant that you never got bored, knowing that something new was coming.  And it gave a chance to see the town in a different way; to people the town with these historical characters.  There's no question there were some deeply emotional moments, in both story and song, during the performance.  I'll long remember the performance's end, as the cast (and much of the audience) sang Ode to Newfoundland together.

But what about that history?  A few days after the performance, I had dinner with Newfoundland friends who thought they had probably seen the pageant five years ago and were curious if it had changed.  I shared what I remembered, and Bill said, "you know, you actually learned alot of Newfoundland history!"  Did I learn the intricacies and complications of history?  Probably not.  Did I come away with emotions and a feeling of narrative and actions?  Yes, definitely.  Did it make me a critical thinker?  I came ready to be a critical thinker, so it did spur me to learn more.  Did it spur others to be critical thinkers?  Hard to say, which is where I circle back to Rebecca's questions --  I think it's all about our goals for any particular historical project whether it be in a museum or along the shore in Newfoundland.  Our goal might be to create a strong emotional connection or it might be to develop critical thinkers.  I think there's room (as I suspect Rebecca does) for both in our work.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Building Community: Outport Style

I'm just wrapping up a week in Port Union, Newfoundland, beginning work on interpretive planning with them, and as always, each new client, each new place, each new set of experiences make me think about my own practice and how I can continue to shape and learn.

Port Union is known as the only union-built town in North America and was founded in 1916 by an inspirational (and somewhat controversial) leader, Sir William Coaker, as the headquarters of the Fishermen's Protective Union.  It looks different than any other Newfoundland outport, with its factory and row houses.  The Sir William Coaker Foundation, formed after the closure of the fish plant, has done amazing work in preserving buildings in the historic district,  restoring buildings to create both spaces for exhibits and interpretation and, at the same time, also addressing community needs such as affordable rental housing.  Much of Port Union's story is different than other Newfoundland outports: the Fishermen's Advocate newspaper published there, the workers' housing, Coaker's efforts to improve a whole variety of fishermen's way of making a living. The town has a unique opportunity to connect with the growing tourist audiences on the Bonavista Peninsula.

The interpretive challenges are many--but exciting.  Many Newfoundlanders have intense attachments to the places they were born. It was moving to walk the street with Harold (that's him at the head of the post, in front of the house where he was born) and Bill, as they remember the community it was; the lives of their families (below, Bill's grandfather, Fred Tulk, the captain) and the bustling community.  How do we make sure that their stories continue to live on in ways more than just a simple video or label text?  Canada has an extensive summer youth employment program that results in enthusiastic and friendly, but not well-trained, summer guides at many sites.  How can we develop ways for those stories and that knowledge be conveyed to young people so they can continue to share those stories and ideas forward?

And then there's the challenge of telling history that's still new.  In 1992,  the Canadian government announced a moratorium on cod fishing (still in place)  putting tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders out of work, taking away the kind of work that had sustained families and communities for centuries. At a community dinner, over great home-cooked food like moose meatballs and partridgeberry pie, I asked people about the moratorium.  Some thought that it was still too painful to talk about--and it was abundantly clear that everyone in the room had been affected by it. Others thought that most outsiders did not understand the moratorium at all. Perhaps within the context of the Fishermen's Union, 1992 was a part of the full story of fishermen's  lives and work that needed to be told.  How can we best do that?

We came home with our heads full of ideas, but this trip strongly reinforced that there's one skill every interpretive planner should have--that of active listening.  More and more I've come to think that my job isn't to come with the ideas of how you should do it, but to work in the way that evidently Michelangelo (without meaning that comparison directly) did--which is to find the meaning within a museum, a collection, a community, a place, and to work to pare away the extraneous, to reveal that meaning.

And, by the way, I am a huge Newfoundland booster.  It is a beautiful, varied, fascinating place with a still-distinct culture.  Plan a visit!  To whet your appetite, some photos from my travels below.