Thursday, May 14, 2015

Any Questions? at the Oakland Museum

Last week, I visited the Oakland Museum, whose work I've heard about since I was a graduate student.  So much to think about, but one particularly take-away for me was the number and variety of visitor feedback stations.  Questions, questions, and more questions, and almost everyone had loads of Post-it feedback and almost none had that sort of dopey, teen-ager kind of feedback that often surfaces.  Feedback stations were scattered across all three parts of the museum--art, natural history, and history and care was given to the visual presentation of each one.

What's in common with these stations? 

One, the visitor--that's you-- is always at the center of the invitation. "Share your story,"  "How is the drought affecting you?" "Tell us your thoughts." "We want to hear from you."

Two,  the questions are interesting--and sometimes surprising.  "What does the California's border evoke for you?" is a far more interesting question to ponder than "what do you think of immigration?"

Three, there's space in the exhibitions for changing questions:  "How is the drought affecting you?"

But equally importantly, throughout the entire museum, a visitor can see that they are important, that these voices matter.  Just a few quick examples.  First, this panel from Tell Me Where the Mirrors Go, a project of Maria Mortati and the Guzman-Mondragon family, first-time visitors to the museum, who, over the course of several visitors, explored the museum and shared their impressions.  It's not just temporary notes, it's a concrete sense of visitor voices in the art gallery.

And again, a sense that visitor voices really matter in this audio installation and this label for a poster from the 1960s.

And finally, as you enter, the biggest place to share your voice--a giant blackboard at the museum entrance.  When we arrived, this staff member was just posting a question for Free Fridays, but when we left, it was filled with responses.

I'll definitely be thinking about these (and the many others I photographed here) the next time I work on feedback stations.  Thanks Oakland Museum!

Monday, May 4, 2015

We Are Not Separate from Politics: AAM and Beyond

Attending AAM is always a whirl of competing priorities.  Which session do I go to?  Do I skip a session in favor of catching up with a colleague?  Where do I find the best fried chicken (in the case of Atlanta)  What museum do I want to make sure I see?  and most importantly, how do I make sense of it all?  What's rising to the top for me?

As I returned home and had a chance to reflect, the issue that rose to the top for me was the sense that museums are deeply involved in politics, whether we want to be or not.  I'm wondering whether this is a true change, or just the issue of the moment.  Here's just a few ways in which I saw individuals and groups, inside and outside of museums, pressuring for social change, for museums to be a stronger, more equitable part of our communities.

One of my very first stops in Atlanta was the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.  It's a place that uses museum techniques--but, except for the display of Martin Luther King documents on the ground floor, does not use objects, making extensive use of still images, audio and video.  Without a doubt, one single interaction will stay with me (and so many colleagues I spoke with) for a long time. At a reproduction lunch counter, you sat down, put on headphones, placed your hands on the handprints on the counter, closed your eyes, and were transported through an audio installation, to sitting at that lunch counter during the sit-ins.  Very simple, but with the effect of making the point that each of us have responsibility--and need the courage--to participate in social change.  

Programming and events of the week however, reminded all of us that the United States still has much work to do in terms of human rights.  I attended a session by Melanie Adams of the Missouri Historical Museum and the take-away there was the idea that being of service in your community (as the historical society has been since the events in Ferguson) wasn't something that happens overnight; but in this case, the result of more than a decade of concentrated partnership building.

#MuseumsrespondtoFerguson came up repeatedly at AAM and many thanks to my colleagues and fellow bloggers and tweeters who are keeping the conversation going.  This particular conversation got additional heft when an article on appeared, featuring this passionate quote from Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture:
Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, North Charleston, and now Baltimore have been seared into our consciousness. Yet this violence, this loss of innocence and life is not just an issue in urban African American communities—it casts shadows on Native and Latino life; it has sparked a national conversation and a movement that challenges America to confront issues of race and fairness that have haunted this country from its inception. . . .I also know that there have been key movements in our past when events, when tragedies, when injustice has galvanized the nation and the pain has led to profound change. This may be such a momen of possibility; a moment of change. [above image is a sign acquired by the museum]
But here's a question.  Where is the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in this conversation?  These are American issues, not just African American issues.   For more of what Baltimore museums and cultural organizations are doing in response to protests, check out this blog post from Informed Humane and for what any history organization can be doing, check out this Facebook post from the tiny Laurel Historical Society, looking back at its own history.  Honestly, when a tiny historical society is doing more meaningful, more important work than our national history museum, it's time to wonder why.

While AASLH posted a statement earlier encouraging our history museums to engage and the National Council on Public History posted a blog entry,
"The NCPH meets in Baltimore next year. We shouldn’t ignore what’s happened there this week", AAM continues a studied silence.  We should ask for more from our professional association.  In that vein, I was immensely impressed by the presentation by Sharon Heal and others from the UK Museums Association on their campaign, Museums Change Lives, with the social commitment of the project and the rigorous approach to its implementation.
We are not separate from politics.

Speaking of  changing lives, an informal group called Museum Workers Speak convened a rogue session at AAM to discuss improving working conditions & other internal practices in museums & cultural institutions.  Not surprisingly, the session drew a large and passionate audience, both in person and through social media.  Here's just a sampling:
I'm here because I'm tired of my institution not valuing their staff as the resources they are.

The more contact museum workers have with the public, the less they're paid, and vice versa. 
I am sick of working for places that have more value for their cultural resources than human resources

Let's change the idea that "organizing" is a "bad word" in museums. That may be what we need. 
I'm really impressed that the this activism is coming from, in many cases, the newest generation of museum workers.  I think those of us in different places in the field need to listen; I think graduate programs need to listen; and I think particularly, directors and boards of directors need to listen. (check out the Storify for a fuller account).  As Porchia Moore tweeted, "BRING this info BACK to YOUR MUSEUM Don't ask where to begin. Partner and collaborate. GO!!"

We are not separate from politics.

(as an offsite parallel, the Guggenheim Museum was closed down on May Day by protests against the work conditions of those working on its new site in Abu Dhabi.)

We are not separate from politics.

Also at AAM,  I had a chance to chat with folks from The Natural History Museum project in the Exhibit Hall, addressing a different kind of political issue.   An artist/environmental activist project, it aims to "cultivate a mode of inquiry that challenges museum anthropologists to engage natural history with an interest in what is left out because that is also part of our relation to nature...Natural history museums often come under pressure to betray this future, to sell it off to the highest bidder.  The Natural History Museum occupies the split in the institution, taking the side of a collective future."  (from the Natural History Museum brochure).  They've taken aim at fossil fuel industry and those who represent it, and sit on natural history museum boards.  For a fuller take on their work, read their guest post at the Center for the Future of Museums' blog.

We are not separate from politics.

There were too many other vital conversations in sessions and among colleagues to capture them all, but I want to end with a talk that happened, not at AAM, but in New York, just after I returned.  As Michelle Obama opened the new Whitney Museum, she reminded us--and the watching general public--about our responsibilities:
"There are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers, and they think to themselves, 'Well, that's not a place for me, for someone who looks like me.' " 
"I guarantee you right now there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. I know the feeling of not belonging in a place like this. And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people....

So what I want to ask those out there watching -- absolutely -- (applause) -- if you run a theater or a concert hall, make sure you’re setting aside some free tickets for our young people. If you run a museum, make sure that you’re reaching out to kids in struggling communities. Invite them in to see those exhibits. Can you use technology to bring those exhibits to kids in remote areas who would never, ever be exposed to art otherwise?...One visit, one performance, one touch, and who knows how you could spark a child’s imagination. "
But here's the question.  Are all these events a sea change, or just a temporary wave?  I hope that collectively they represent a change in our profession, a change in the approach to the work we do, and a sense that we no longer are just temples, but active players in the sometimes messy, always compelling life of a nation and the world.

We are not separate from politics.  We are not separate from the world.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Who's Your Hero? Where's the Power?

This past week, in Kyiv, Ukraine, I had the opportunity to walk through two quite incredible exhibits at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, with deputy director Yuliya Vaganova.  I'll combine the two into this one post but both deserve deep attention on their own.

Heroes:  An Inventory is a project that began several years ago, supported by the Goethe Institute of Germany, with the curatorial staff at the museum working with German curator Michael Fehr.  The project began in the simplest of ways:  the staff took an inventory, in every department, of every piece of art that was classified as "hero."  More than 650 works had some identification as “hero”, “saint”, “martyr”, or “heroic deeds."  180 of those works were selected for the exhibition.   Although this project was begun before the Maidan protests began; the revolution, annexation of Crimea and the war in the East, have made heroes a topic of significant conversation again.  The exhibition's thoughtful text labels (hooray, in English as well!) encourage that conversation.  In part, the introductory label says,
For us, therefore, this exhibition is much more than a self-reflection; it is an experiment which results will have a significant impact on the reorganization of the permanent collection and also might push the community to reflection.

The exhibit begins with a gigantic, non-removable marble statue of Lenin, hidden behind a wall for the decades since independence.  Organized in a number of different categories, from heroes of labor to a room full of Stalin and Lenin (displayed as in a storehouse, in the top picture); to heroes of war; traditional Ukrainian heroes like Cossack Mamai; cultural heroes (the smallest group represented in the collection, Yuliya told me);  religious heroes or saints; of course, poet and writing Taras Shevchenko.   Each gallery included an interpretive text panel as well as an enlarged quote on the topic. The exhibition ends in a three-part way.  The first is the most recent portrait of a hero in the collection:  a Chernobyl liquidator.  Then, a room that's used for programs and conversations--diving deeper into both scholarly and emotional aspects of heroism, and finally, a small wall featuring individual stories of personal heroes (and not surprisingly, moms and dads are important.)

Yuliya shared several important points about the exhibition development process that I think hold lessons for us all.  First, that this was really a collaborative process, working across all the disciplines and collections of the museum, from ancient art to today.  Second, that the collaboration with Michael Fehr was, as she said, the first international project that was not a colonial one, but really a partnership.    Third, in comparison to the way most people visit museums in Ukraine, these were galleries of conversation.  Everyone was talking to their family or friends as they went through the exhibit.   And lastly, that the director of museum education said that it was the first exhibition that the museum had done that really didn't need an excursion with an expert to understand.  That visitors, all visitor, could make their own meaning from the creative, thoughtful text, object selection and installation.

The second exhibition, Spetsfond, curated by Yuliya Lytvynets is a fascinating look at our own profession, within the context of the Soviet Union.  To quote the museum,
In the National Art Museum of Ukraine (then the State Ukrainian Museum) Special secret storage was formed in 1937-1939. It contained works from Kharkiv, Odesa, Kyiv, Poltava and from special storages of Ukrainian art exhibition created by so called enemies of the people. They were formalists, nationalists, those who, according to party ideologists, "distorted reality" and threatened the existence of the "new society". Most of the names and artworks were forgotten for a long time in the history of Ukrainian art. Thus, the works of Oleksandra Ekster, Oleksandr Bohomazov, Davyd Burliuk, Viktor Palmov, Oleksa Hryshchenko, Onufrii Biziukov, Neonila Hrytsenko, Semen Yoffe, and lots of others were transferred to the Special storage of the NAMU.

This special storage was open only to the director and the KGB.  The works were removed from their frames and rolled away.  The exhibition includes not only the works (some of which are head-shakingly normal) but also the records.  Because after all, we are recordkeepers.   A collections book noted the works that were to be stored away; it sometimes noted the fate of their creators ("artist arrested").  Also in the exhibit are some of the paperwork about the "trials" of the artists and the "reasons" for the works censorship.   Interestingly, at one point, a passionate and courageous staff hit upon a solution of classifying the works with a prefix of 0, denoting that the works had no significant artistic merit--which then meant that nobody bothered to look at them to decide if they should be destroyed.  And so they survived.

During my time in Ukraine these last weeks, I had many conversations with my colleagues about the new de-communisation laws passed by the Parliament. The laws are so vague as to be unclear about the impact on museums but they do ban Nazi and Communist symbols and, as I understand, define new heroes for Ukraine's history. As I walked through both exhibits I was incredibly moved and heartened by a museum who, though literally on the frontline of the Revolution last year, continues to build new ways of thinking about the past. History museums could--and should--take a lesson from this art museum's work.

Fundamentally, I realized that these exhibits are both about power.  On the one hand, they both share the horrible power seized and exercised by the Soviet state; a legacy that continues to shape this entire region.  But on the other hand, I see other, more hopeful uses of power here as well:
  • the power of collaboration
  • the power of storytelling
  • the power of visitors, making their own choices and having their own conversations
  • the power of documentation
  • the power of objects
  • the power of museum staff
  • and most importantly,  the power of museums to be centers of civic engagement.  
We only need to decide to take the power in our own hands.

Monday, April 20, 2015

More of the Same? Different? Deeper? What Should a Museum Do?

On Easter Sunday, I visited the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life in L'viv.  It's in a city park, just a short tram ride from the center.  And once there, I found an audience that any of your museums would love to have.  Who did I see?

  • Young teenagers on their own
  • Older teenagers, hanging out and playing the guitar
  • Families
  • Older couples
  • Hipsters

Many of these people, as you can see from the photographs, were wearing some version of traditional Ukrainian dress, as is customary on holidays here (and to me, on some increase since the Revolution of 2014).

And what were all these people doing?  That's the interesting part.  Very few of them were doing what we think museum visitors "should" be doing--that is to say, looking at objects and learning about the past.  They were listening to music, making music, dancing, strolling around (it's a beautiful area), playing games, picnicking, talking, enjoying.   If I were categorizing them in terms of Falk and Dierking's visitor identities I would say I saw all of these:

  • Explorers
  • Facilitators
  • Experience Seekers
  • Professionals/Hobbyists 
  • Rechargers 
  • Cultural Affinity
I think the largest categories were facilitators (parents and grandparents), rechargers and cultural affinity.   The museum is a huge success by attendance measures:  over the three day Easter weekend, more than 25,000 people visited, a large percentage of their 125,000 annual visitation.  I loved watching the people, but I found myself on this visit frustrated (probably the only one) by wanting to know more and not getting it.  My good friend and colleague Eugene Chervony, deputy director of the museum,  and I talked about the challenge of balancing the kind of social visitor wants and needs that we can see, with the opportunity to dive a bit deeper into a more complex understanding of western Ukrainian traditional culture.  The conversation sent me back to Nina Simon's posts on the event-driven museum--her museum's process of becoming a place where people come because something is happening.  Are successful events self-fulfilling beasts, always consuming--and providing--more?  How can we deepen experiences at this kind of event, or encourage visitors to return another time for a different kind of experience?

The Museum of Folk Architecture and Life has incredible collections, and they will soon begin digitizing them and putting them on the web.  That's one way for someone like me to dive deeper. But the experience of walking into historic spaces and having conversations with interpreters is something that rarely happens here (except for this great breadmaker, below).   Eugene is beginning the process of visitor surveys to learn more to inform this process, and we both suspect that the answer is not necessarily technologically driven, but rather ways for visitors to access information through human resources (although technological solutions are surely possible).

So I hope the next time I visit (or the time after that) that I still see all of the same enjoyment that was so evident on Easter but also that learners like me and this curious girl below, who very carefully was checking out a list of objects and matching them with the object itself, can go a bit deeper.

More of the Same?  Different?  Deeper?  Perhaps all of the above.

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?