Sunday, December 8, 2019

Museum Catch-Up #2: Rethinking in Amsterdam

I got to spend a very quick weekend in Amsterdam this fall, and saw two museums rethinking in big ways. The Amsterdam Museum's decision to remove the name "Golden Age" from its description of the Netherlands got lots of press around the world.  Thanks to my friend Annemarie de Wildt, a curator at the museum, I got to attend the opening of Dutch Masters Revisited, an installation within the permanent collection at Hermitage Amsterdam.   The permanent exhibit is a huge hall of group Dutch portraits--and the temporary installation is 17 portraits of prominent Dutch citizens posing as people of color who, based on historical research, are known to have lived in the 17th- and 18th-century Netherlands.   Curator Jörgen Tjon A Fong of Urban Myth brought a group of photographers and citizens together. There was a great deal to appreciate (warning:  many label images ahead!)

  • the museum explains what it's doing and why.
  • the contemporary portraits are really integrated into the gallery itself.  They're not off in another room or small scale.  They have the same grandeur and importance of the historical works

  • the museum connects past to present in numerous ways. Although I didn't necessarily love the hallway portraits of today's civic organizations, I did appreciate, that within the exhibit, you were encouraged to donate.

  • Labels had provocative titles, asked good questions, asked you to reflect, and provided some surprising info about Amsterdam--without being overlong or info-loaded.

At the opening reception, Margriet Schavemaker, artistic director of the museum, noted publicly that she had recently returned from ICOM in Kyoto, and reaffirmed that although the new museum definition was not approved, it would be the way the Amsterdam Museum is working and will continue to work (for more on that conversation, see this blog post).

Probably five or six years ago I had visited the Tropenmuseum and found it a bit sleepy--a sort of old-fashioned ethnographic museum.  But on this visit, I found it transformed--in approach, in look, in a serious rethinking of their work.  Such a pleasure!  Just a few examples grabbed in a quick visit are below.

Their permanent exhibition, Things that Matter, connected material from around the world with a wide range of contemporary issues--from migration to climate change to the use and misuse of traditional culture by others.  All the issues were framed as questions:

  • When do you feel at home?
  • When is culture yours?
  • What do you believe in?
  • What brings back happy memories?
  • Is the climate changing your culture?

It was fun to dip in and out, and the large scale video installations really worked in the big space.

I was particularly interested in the exhibit Afterlives of Slavery, described as "an exhibition with a discussion platform that places the stories of the enslaved and their descendants centre stage."  The exhibit looks at both the history of enslaved peoples, but also, how those histories continue to impact the Netherlands today (see ongoing examples of controversy around Zwarte Piet).   I liked the feel of the exhibit, as if it really was an ongoing discussion.

I did wonder though, about the emphasis on the history of enslaved peoples in the Caribbean, as related to the Dutch, and why nothing about the history of the Dutch and slavery in what is now New York State was mentioned.  I'd love to see those connections made.

In both these exhibits, I felt like there must have been many many meetings -- and some prototyping--of questions for visitors.  I loved that these were big questions, without single answers.  They were ones that would encourage conversation among visitors.

At both museums in Amsterdam, I felt a kind of courage paired with necessity:  a sense that it has taken museums far too long to address these issues, and the importance of making change.  Although every museum may not be able to afford beautiful portraits or large-screen videos--it's the thinking that matters here.  And that, of course, comes for free!

What else did I do in Amsterdam in a single weekend?  Why of course, ride a bright red bike with AnneMarie and explore the city!  What could be better than exploring a city with a city museum curator?

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Museum Visit Catch-Up #1: The Manga Museum

I've been on the road (or more accurately in airplanes) a huge amount this fall, and have visited a number of thought-provoking exhibits and museums.  I saw things I loved, things I definitely didn't love, and things that raised interesting questions for me.  So now, despite a two-month gap in blogging, I'm going to attempt to catch up with all of it over the next couple weeks.  First up, the Manga Museum in Kyoto, Japan.

After an intense few days at the ICOM meeting, Katrin Hieke and I took an extra couple days to explore Kyoto a bit more--and for some reason we decided that the Kyoto International Manga Museum would be first on our list--and we were so glad we did!

This is a museum where a mission perfectly meshes with an understanding of audience and with exhibition design and content.  For the uninitiated (like me), manga is Japanese comics and cartooning.

The permanent exhibit does a great job in posing--and then answering--all kinds of questions about manga:

It also included a fascinating section on who makes money in manga, something rarely seen when talking about creative work, but a part of all creative work.

The permanent exhibit also explored how a storyline is shaped--which reminded me to go back to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a great tool in helping us think about narrative in exhibitions.

In this permanent exhibit section, you were surrounded by manga books--so many of them, and it was delightful just to be able to take them down and read.  Everyone did!

There were different types of temporary exhibitions--including one focusing on a trailblazing woman manga artist.  Another temporary exhibit was sort of a playoff between different types of toys. You could make an appointment to consult with a manga artist about your own work, and even spend a bit of time on a computer (although tech was a very small part of this museum).

But what where mission, design and activities merged together was in the places all over the museum that were for reading.  Everyone felt welcome to pull out a book, sit down, lie down, sprawl out, and read.  There are lots of rules in Japanese society, here it felt like the only rules were to read, to be respectful of others reading, and to enjoy yourself.

There were a few key takeaways for me:
  • Understand that your museum attracts both newbies (that was me) and specialists (those who want a deep dive into manga).  Provide opportunities for both.
  • Design spaces so people understand what you can do in them.  
  • Great label-writing --clear, concise, fun--always matters.
  • Make room for passion.  You could see it in the work of the artists, but also in the intense focus of visitors.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

In the Room Where It (sorta) Happened: ICOM's Museum Definition

Last week, along with 4,000 or so other museum folks, I was in Kyoto, Japan for the triennial International Council of Museums conference.  Both before and after the conference, there has been a great deal of discussion--among museum colleagues and in the public sphere--about a proposed new definition of museums.  I tweeted --and retweeted others--pretty extensively during the loooong general assembly about the definition.  Now that I've been back a week and had some time to reflect, I wanted to share some thoughts about process and product.

What is ICOM anyway?
To begin, more than a few Americans wondered about why anyone would care about what ICOM did in the first place--and who were those people voting?  The US is fortunate to have a strong collection of professional organizations--AAM, AAMD, AASLH and state and regional associations.  But in many places in the world,  the ICOM national committee might be the sole functioning professional organization.  In the same way that many US museums look to AAM for standards and guidance, so do museums around the world look to ICOM.

There are 119 National Committees and 30 International Committees, along with 6 Regional Alliances and a number of affiliated organizations.  There is an Executive Committee and a Secretariat, which is based in Paris.  Voting is done, not by members, but by these committees, alliances, and affiliates.  National committees have the most votes, but, in American terms, it's like the Senate, not the House, with each country having the same number of votes.  As I was in Kyoto representing the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, an affiliate, I was able to cast two votes. 

If you're a working professional or a student--you can become an ICOM member (link for US membership)-and participate in any international committee.  It's a great way to connect with colleagues around the world and, as it happens, an ICOM membership gets you into almost any museum in the world for free.   So the "them" is in fact us, if you choose to participate. The conference itself is cheaper than many US conferences. From my perspective, even before I began working for the Coalition, I found it extremely valuable to learn from colleagues around the world--particularly as the US museum system is quite distinct from most other places.  ICOM plenary sessions took on important issues:  climate change and sustainability and decolonization.  It's important that these discussions take place with colleagues from around the world able to participate.  Dozens of international committee sessions also explored a wide range of issues.

The Definition
But now, to the proposed new definition and the debate around it. For a comprehensive look at coverage of the definition process, thanks to Anna Marras and Ana Carvalho for gathering all the press coverage and discussion into one place.  It keeps growing, so check it out!

During the week, a plenary session was held when those on the definition-writing committee (Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials Committee) spoke in favor of adopting the definition and space was also given to those who were opposed.  The new definition proposed was:
Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. 
Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.
And the current definition, adopted in 2007:
A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.
Full disclosure:  as a representative of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, an affiliated organization, I was prepared to vote for the definition.  I considered it too long and not straightforward enough, but I believe in the ideas it puts forward.  However, through a series of  maneuvers, not clear to most of us in the room, the vote on the definition was postponed, with 70% voting for postponement.

From my perspective, objections to the new definition vote fell into four categories:

1.  Process
Although this was described as the most open process ever at ICOM,  many national and international committees felt there was not adequate time to consult with members before the vote.  It's important to note, that as far as I know, voting delegates were not bound by the consultations with their members, if they happened.  ICOFOM, the international committee focused on museology, took initiative and held a series of roundtables about the museum definition.  The summaries are here, but notably, the roundtables were unevenly distributed around the globe (heavily weighted towards Europe) and the approaches were varied. 

I'm not sure what the process should be going forward, but I do know that if it is to be a global definition, then the conversation needs to be global.  The vast majority of those speaking in the General Assembly were white Europeans or Americans.  A more inclusive format needs to be developed and more voices in the conversation. 

2.  Aspiration or definition?  (plus wording)
Do we need a definition?  Is this too wordy?  Who even uses the word polyphonic?  Are museums really this?  Is this an aspiration rather than a definition?  Some were concerned that the word education was not included, for instance, although to me, it is embedded in the entire definition. I think a definition can be helpful, but I also think that all of you who are doing the work towards real change in our field will keep doing that work no matter what. A definition may or may not matter to you, as you work with communities.  But imagine that it might matter to those who are just starting this work, in places where the work of social change is not yet accepted as an effort of museums (that might be specific museums or it might be entire nations).

3.  Impact
There were concerns that the ICOM definition is embedded in law in some nations and that a changing definition (for instance, the removal of the word 'permanent') would have critical repercussions.  Moving forward, there needs to be clear and substantive analysis of this, and at the same time, ICOM should be prepared to provide advocacy tools and training for countries where this might be an issue.

4.  Fear
Although these objections were sometimes couched in the language of the items above, it seemed pretty clear that some of the objections came from those who were afraid of change, afraid of surrendering their institutional power, afraid that museums were becoming too ideological.  Of course, museums have always been ideological.  In Time magazine, Jette Sandahl, chair of the committee, commented, “We need to work with relevance into the context we live in, and this certainly makes that clearer. There is no apolitical space or point of view. Museums are always political.”   I remain hopeful that fear will not win the day.

Is the Controversy Bad for Museums?
I think the press coverage is great.  I don't think it makes us look silly or divided.  I think it makes us look like a field that is thinking deeply about the work we do.  It's hard work and I'm happy to see us doing it. I'm impatient with those who fear this could divide the field permanently.  In my work at Sites of Conscience, I see people coming together in reconciliation over far more difficult, life-changing issues than a museum definition.  Surely we can do the same.

What's Next?
I assume the ICOM leadership and staff have barely had a moment to take a breath since the end of the conference.  So we don't know what's next, but it's my hope that whatever next is truly a global conversation, and that the traditional European powers of ICOM step back and provide some additional space for other voices.  Together, we can move museums into the 21st century--and not a moment too soon.

Thanks LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski, creators of  #museumsarenotneutral for providing inspiration--and a T-shirt to wear the day of the definition vote (or non-vote).

Friday, August 23, 2019

Get About It!

Before I head off to two conferences in a row (look for me at AASLH in Philadelphia, or ICOM in Kyoto) I wanted to share the blog post I wrote as a reflection on my time as a social media journalist at AAM.  "Get about it."  was an admonition from AAM keynoter Mitch Landrieu about the work of reconciliation in this country, and it served as a title for that post.

But it's also the title of this post.  This summer I've had two different experiences framed around race, that I wanted to share.  I live in the western Catskills of New York State, in a large, sparsely populated county that is 95% white, with a per capita income of just over $26,000. (for comparison purposes, New York State is 69.7% white, with a per capita income of $35,752).  It's the kind of place that it's easy for people to make assumptions about.  I haven't necessarily expected to find deep, reflective experiences around race here.  All this is to say, it's a complicated place, like everywhere, and wherever you are, there's work to be done.  Today, I want to share some great work I found in my own region this summer.

In June, I participated in Radical Conjuring, a workshop at Bushel Collective, a new arts space in Delhi, NY.  Poets Sasha Banks and Adriana Greene  invited us "to reimagine the past and give language and shape to a post–white supremacist future" through a series of different activities and interventions.  We were a very small group, but Sasha led us through conversations that went deep for me, with strangers.  Sasha and Adriana shaped a place for those hard conversations. We tried black-out poetry, working with historical documents.  I ended up with 19th century Canadian legislation about Chinese immigration which led me to a poem about mothers, women and loss.  You can see the result at the top of the post.  We completed sentences known to us all with new and imagined endings.

We worked to fill in words, imagined new maps of the places we live, and wrote messages to the future.  At the end of the two days, we were all invited to go, by ourselves, in a room and reflect (and record if we wanted) our reflections on a series of questions.  Here's a few:

  • What do you hope is alive and well into the future?
  • Who do you hope your work has liberated in the future?
  • What do you think will have occurred in the present, to eradicate white supremacy in the future?
  • Is there a history you want to make sure survives into the future?
These workshop were hard work in the best kind of way.  It forced me to think deeply, to experiment with new ways of doing things, to listen with intent.  And to be honest, it was a bit of a surprise to find such a workshop here.

Erin Christine Walsh, Katya Collazo and Gary-Kayi Fletcher in Possessing Harriet at the 
Franklin Stage Company. Photo by Russ Rowland

Last month,  we went to see a performance of Possessing Harriet at Franklin Stage Company, in the village next door to mine.  The play was originally commissioned by the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse and was  written by Kyle Bass. It tells the story of Harriet Powell, a young, mixed-race, enslaved woman who escapes from a hotel in Syracuse, finding temporary safe harbor in the home of abolitionist Gerrit Smith in Peterboro, NY.  Powell spends the evening before she leaves for safety in Canada, with Smith's young cousin, Elizabeth Cady.  I found the play, done in front of a full house, pretty unflinching in depicting the instances of racism that even committed abolitionists did unthinkingly. Through the telling of Powell's and Thomas Leonard's, a free black man's, stories,  Cady (eventually Cady Stanton)--and by extension, all of us in the audience--reflect on our own lives, our beliefs, and our activism (or lack thereof).   

In this performance, several things stuck with me.  First, a big shout-out to Onondaga Historical Association for commissioning the piece.  Second, I wondered what had attracted the audience to this particular event, and what they made of it.  In my work at Sites of Conscience, we think and talk a great deal about change.  Did this move anyone to action?  Should a work of art be responsible for doing so?  And how could it be encouraged further?  And lastly, it was a reminder of the power of stories, based on real history, to cause us to reflect on the world we currently live in.

I also wanted to note that the Franklin Stage Company's performances are always free, with donations collected at the end of every performance.  They combine that community service with an equal commitment to the artists they work with.  Every performance is fully professional--with all of the performers and technical staff being members of Actors Equity and other unions. There's a lesson there for museums of all sizes and types as the field continues to grapple with equitable pay.

But most of all, these two events gave me hope and are a reminder that we can do the work of change wherever we are.  You can say your community is this, or isn't this, or people won't be interested, or whatever.  But this summer, Sasha, Adriana, and the cast and crew of Possessing Harriet, just got about it, as Mitch Landrieu said.  They respected communities enough to believe there would be interest, pushed tough issues and critical reflections forward, and I believe, made a small difference in the world.  For that, I am deeply grateful.

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!