Thursday, April 28, 2016

Team Detective: What's Your Team's Spirit?

I'm an avid mystery reader, which I always thought of as leisure, unconnected to work.  But I've been thinking that there is a connection.  Part of any consultant's job is to go into a place and size up the situation quickly.  I'm not looking for footprints or the dog that didn't bark in the night, but I am looking for how a team works together.  I want to find the spirit of an organization as it looks to change in some way.  The changes might be big or small, but my work is almost always with organizations where change is in the wind--and change never happens with one person, it always happens with a team.

There's a great deal of research about teams:  you need introverts and extroverts,  you need leaders, it should be non-hierarchal and on and on.  Every team is different but here's my outsider's view on what helps a team move towards change.


As a consultant, I don't believe that I come with the answers.  I come with questions and the idea that together, we will puzzle out answers.  One way that happens is through experimentation.  Above, Matt Montgomery, Chief Marketing Officer at the Trustees,  becomes a docent as he leads us through a prototype of an Aeolian harp activity at the Old Manse in Concord.  And below,  Girl Scouts tag what matters to them at Juliette Gordon Low's Birthplace (she's the founder of Girl Scouts) in Savannah.  Experimentation accomplishes several things.  It builds team confidence together (and good humor) and it jump-starts a learning process.

Cast a wide net in your experimental process.  The tags are an inspiration from your friendly Museum Anarchist, and I'm definitely stealing Jeanne Vergeront's idea of a designated reader to share with colleagues.

Visitor and Community Centered

The strongest teams understand that interpretive change is not about protecting your turf.  They understand that museums and historic sites exist for community benefit.  Strong teams have a desire to understand their visitors and their communities.  They have empathy for different perspectives and are interested in learning what visitors have to say.  Last week at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace we asked scouts what they wanted to see or do, before their experience began.  "Be inspired!"  said several.  What a tremendous challenge those girls have set for us.

Trust and Fear

Below, staff from the Trustees trust that Matt and his group will not lead them astray in a prototype experience, as they are asked to close their eyes and listen.  Trust isn't always this literal, but change is scary, no question and the more teams can build trust together, the better.  At a mid-point in the interpretive planning process at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, we began one meeting by talking about our fears for the project. There were many as the change is big. They ranged from lack of funding to timeline to what would current visitors thinking.  Talking about all those fears somehow made them better.  The team had enough trust in each other to share them, and sharing didn't make them go away, but I think it did make them feel less of a burden and we've continued to be attentive to them as interpretive planning moved forward. 

Everybody has a Voice and Everybody Listens

Last week, sitting in Lisa Junkin Lopez's sunlit office in Savannah, I worked with a team who, I think, felt all their voices mattered.  Ideas tumbled out, they built upon one another.  On my second day there, I was stopped in the hall by the head of maintenance, who had been off the day before. She'd read this blog and we had a great conversation about sounds, listening and meaning-making. Ideas come from everywhere, so it's important to create an environment where everyone feels that their contribution can build something stronger.  

This also means understanding differences of all types on a team, and listening to and respecting those differences.

But What About Dysfunctional Teams?

I'd love to say that every client is a dream team, but unfortunately not. Here's a couple things I've observed that will slow down your team's ability to cope with change.
  • Body language:  arms crossed, eye rolling, unwillingness to participate in small group activities.  We all should know better.
  • "We already do that, we've already done that, that will never work."  No need to say more.  That never moves anything forward.
  • Unclear decision-making process.  That's frustrating for everyone, and that's a place where a leader needs to lead.
  • Perfectionism.  It sounds trite, but perfect is the enemy of good.  We work in places with so many variables, including our many visitors.  We need to do our best, but honestly, we cannot perfect visitor experiences for every visitor because every visitor brings so much to the visit.
How's your team culture?  (and, in a brief commercial, if you want to talk interpretive change at your organization, be in touch!)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Listen Up! Part Two

I've been doing lots of listening lately. Dave Lewis' guest post last week had me thinking about the sound of museum missions, and this week's work with the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace reminded me of the power of voices in this case, Girl Scout visitors sharing their desire to be inspired (and bringing back my own memories as they sang "keep new friends....")

When I think and talk about community engagement, there are a few inspiring projects I share on a regular basis -- and as it happens, one of them is about sound as well. Kelly Armor of the Erie Art Museum just updated me on the museum's Old Songs, New Opportunities project. The goal of the project is to help refugee women gain employment in childcare and to help them preserve their traditional cultures. The museum, in partnership with other local organizations, deeply understands that everyone in a community is an asset and has something to contribute. In this case, by sharing their traditional songs and culture. It's a great, joyful, meaningful project that holds so many lessons for museums of all sorts about the ways we can build bridges together with the community. The project is currently embarked on a campaign to produce a CD about the songs. Learn more (and support it) here.

And as I watched the Old Songs, New Opportunities video, I found myself re-watching this piece by journalist Christopher Livesay, about the community of Riace in southern Italy. It's a tiny community that sees refugees and migrants as community assets, a way to help rebuild a rural community. The sounds here are many--those of many languages, those of new Italian speakers, and the sounds that make up any thriving rural community.

But it's not just about the sounds, it's about the listening. At one point, the mayor says, showing off a woman's needlework, "Everyone says migrants bring nothing but trouble, but look what beautiful things she brings." It's not easy of course: there's government support and not enough jobs, but there is a sense that this community is building a new future together, in the same way that the Old Songs project is as well.

The first step of that re-shifting of our museums' focus from what we have to give, to what we can make together, is becoming deep listeners and observers--and that always involves getting outside of your museum doors.

Image: Old Songs, New Opportunities graduates at the Erie Art Museum

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Listen Up! What's the Sound of Your Museum? Your Mission?

This week's guest post is by Dave Lewis, one of my 2016 mentees.  This post came about through one of our monthly conversations and also reminded me of a conversation I had while traveling this winter in Italy.  The sound of Italy to me:  the noise of multiple coffee saucers make on a counter, followed by the clink of the spoons that always follows.  What's the sound of places you love?

What is the sound of your museum? Your mission statement? Your community? How is the auditory represented in your collections and your exhibits?

As someone who works in a very sound-focused museum, I’m admittedly a bit biased on these questions. I have the privilege of working at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum  a museum that takes sound seriously. We are built around a 1927 recording session that happened in the town of Bristol, VA/TN (we straddle the state line) that helped introduce figures like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to the listening public and set the stage for what would later be the country music industry. We have audio experiences throughout the museum - in films, in ambient audio to accompany our exhibits, in a sing-along booth, in our in-house radio station WBCM RadioBristol, and in more solitary, headphone-based audio experiences. We also have a good deal of legacy audio and quite a few vintage playback machines in our collections.

So, I’m a bit biased. I love audio: I love preserving it and finding interesting ways to use it in our exhibits.

Sound can be evocative, though I think most of us know this, intuitively. I’m sure you have a song that reminds you of a first love (that’s the Indigo Girls 1,200 Curfews live album for me), or some other significant event in your life. And we are, at some level, wired to have these kinds of responses to sound. Sound helped humans track prey, run from predators, and locate each other through years of evolutionary change - hearing was of vital importance. We still process many of our aural stimuli pre-cognitively, that is, without any conscious thought. This kind of pre-attentive processing is what we experience when we bite into a delicious dessert, for example, or see a particularly arresting painting for the first time. Sound can easily do things photographs, descriptive panels, and informational text can’t always do: it can make us, if only for a moment, give in to experience, feeling, and emotion rather than reason and logic.

So, how can we begin to document and collect sound - as well as use it - in ways that are in keeping with our varied missions (as well as our varied budgets, staffing sizes, etc.)? I offer a few suggestions here, but I (and Linda!) would like to hear yours, too.

First, consider how any sound you collect or use - just like any other kinds of objects you collect - does work for your museum’s core mission. For some museums that connection might be tenuous - perhaps audio that inspired or reflects the artistic style of a certain time or place. But for others, particularly local history museums, I think there is a more pressing need for strategic collecting.

What does your main street sound like now? What did it sound like ten years ago? What about an afternoon at a favorite local hangout? Or an afternoon at Kmart in 1988? Even if you can access something (like the lovely Kmart recordings) on the Internet now, particularly sites like YouTube, that content is fleeting. If an organization goes under or a video is pulled, it’s gone - poof! - often with no warning. This is work we can’t rely on others to do for us, though working with other community organizations like libraries, universities, folklife organizations, and music clubs, could make this work more possible.

What kinds of sounds does your community make that speak to its fabric and that aren’t being systematically captured and stored? Is someone attentively archiving recordings of your community band, community choir, or resident chamber ensemble? For that matter, are you, as an institution, recording events that you produce? If not, and if you aren’t sure how to start, take a look at this guide put out by the Vermont Folklife Center. It can help get you and your organization started on purchasing a user-friendly, budget-friendly audio recording setup. Certainly, though, most of us don’t have time to walk around town with an audio recorder. But we can arrange a crowd sourcing event like a History Harvest or oral history sessions to capture some of that audio.

Second, what audio do you already have, and what kind of shape is it in? Only the largest, most robust museums need even a part-time A/V archivist, but there are sensible steps any collection manager can take to prolong the life of most any audio format, and to make a passable digital copy. Much of the tape- and disc-based audio that we have is undergoing pretty catastrophic degradation due to internal chemical instability and isn’t easily reversible. There are solutions for almost all price points, but some of them may involve a triage-type approach, digitizing the most useful first, and doing the rest as you’re able. The Association for Recorded Sound Collections has published a [guide to audio preservation designed especially for folks with little to no audio experience. And there are grants, like this one from CLIR to support digitization projects.

There are a myriad of issues that your organization needs to think about, of course - budget, staff time, and your ability to reasonably preserve all of your objects (especially digital ones!). But collecting, preserving, and using audio can make visiting our museums — and using our collections — a more engaging, accessible, and multi-sensory experience.

Images courtesy of the Birthplace of Country Music, David J, and Daniele Napolitano.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

What's the Opposite of Fear?

For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about fear lately.  It's definitely in the news, of course.  I've been in the Brussels subway and on the streets of Paris;  I've been saddened by the ways in which our current politicians seem to play on this country's deepest fears.  People ask me fairly often if I'm afraid to travel to European countries, or to a place where a war is happening, like Ukraine.

But I also feel and hear fear in my work.  I hear from colleagues who are afraid that others in their organizations will not embrace change;  from people who fear change; from those who are afraid of failure in attempting to be more inclusive; or those who are just afraid of being inclusive. Fear of surrounding authority still resounds loudly for many.  Some parts of one generation of colleagues fears technology or irrelevance; another generation fears that first generation will never retire; and yet another fears finding meaningful work.  And of course, there are loads of things I'm afraid of too.

It's really easy to think that the opposite of fear is courage.  That's a big thing, and many of us, like the Cowardly Lion, think it's too big to tackle.  But I think the opposite of fear might be curiosity or empathy or some combination thereof.  There's no question that curiosity is a driver in my work and travel.  I'm curious about new places, about people different than me, about new food, about the way museums work in different settings.  But that curiosity isn't quite enough.

Empathy is a word that seems overused these days, but I still think it might be the right way to push that fear away.  A couple weeks ago, I was in my favorite bakery in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada and this poster was up.  I didn't take a great photo, but in case you can't read it, it says,
They are coming to meet you.  Find out about their past struggles as new Canadians, and their future endeavors...
Think about the fear that these families have had, to come from their homes far away, to Canada. Think about the fear you would feel in the same situation.  Empathy, that sense of understanding another--for people different than us, whether it be our colleagues, our community members, or people we will never meet, is what can make the fear melt away and lead us to action.  Any museum (and there are a growing number of models to draw from) can learn those stories, provide support, and build bridges.  It doesn't matter what your focus or your location is.

I'd been thinking about fear, trying to puzzle out what I was really trying to understand when this came across my Facebook feed yesterday.  It's the video from Robert F. Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King was shot and killed.

Watch it.  Think about the fear that night that so many people had, Kennedy included.  Think about the way he expresses empathy and makes a choice to share his own pain and sorrow as a way of connecting; think about how deeply human a speech it is.  (to say nothing of the fact that I can't imagine any politician today being able to quote Aeschylus and then to say,
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
We talk about the need for museums to be relevant, but several times this winter, I had the chance to be in places with Sarah Pharoan, of the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience, who spoke movingly about the need for museums move beyond relevance to become essential. That's something that will only happen if each one of us steps past our fears and puts our curiosity and our empathy to work.

(and, by the way,  I'll still be traveling and hope you will too)

Friday, March 25, 2016

How Do You Commemorate?

Almost every history and community museum I know does some sort of commemorative exhibit. We commemorate our town's founding, a big deal in our place (Shakespeare for instance, or Lincoln), wars, battles, landmark court decisions, and the like. In the United States, a large number of historical societies had their impetus in the 1976 Bicentennial, with the idea that a suitable commemoration was the founding of a place where we could, in an ongoing way, recognize the events of our past.

It's really tough to make these kinds of exhibits exciting. Rarely is there new knowledge to be shared, even more rarely new artifacts, and too often they are a sort of timeline or greatest hits. But early this month, I got to see an exhibition that made me think about commemoration in a new way. It was at one of my new favorite museums, the Little Museum in Dublin. This year is the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish patriots rose up against British Rule. There's lots going on in Dublin and around the country this year, including a new comprehensive exhibit at the GPO, the center of the fighting, and a series of events this weekend, Easter weekend.

But the Little Museum choose a path that fits exactly with its slightly irreverent personality. The main exhibit in their first floor galleries is Fergal McCarthy's cartoon history of the 1916 uprising. In 60 giant black and white pieces of paper--cartoons--he makes the history come alive, despite--or perhaps because of--the lowest tech methods possible. Cartoons--for kids only you might think. When we were there, a senior citizen group was also visiting, and they were actively engaged in looking, talking, pondering, laughing (yes, even laughing) at the panels. McCarthy succinctly provides a lesson for all of us who develop exhibits, saying on the museum's website, "By streamlining the narrative and adding visual humour, I have attempted to demystify the Rising by relieving it of some of the excess baggage it has naturally acquired over the past century."

That humor also extends to the gallery guides. Who wouldn't want to pick up a simple activity guide labeled "Easey-Peasy.". Not for you? More complicated ones available including "Totally impossible."

Today's lesson? A sense of humor is a wonderful thing, and all too often absent from what we do. Thanks Fergal McCarthy for the lesson. Lesson #2. Think outside your frame and be not afraid of doing something new.Thanks, Little Museum for that one.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Writers at Home

While I was in Latvia I got a chance to some homes of writers and artists.  I remain struck by the reverence and affection that these houses seem to occupy in the post-Soviet world--different than in the United States in some ways. I'm always trying to puzzle out why and what lessons it might provide as many historic houses are rethinking their focus and approach.

One difference, of course, is that post-Soviet countries don't have all those houses of capitalist industrialists or political figures.  There's the Tzar of course, and some big palaces, but small towns and cities don't have those historic houses of Mr. So-and-So, who founded the So-and-So Widget Company.  Those houses are tough places to find compelling stories.  But artists and writers houses have stories already, both dramatic and homely; inward and outward looking.

So there are fewer homes, but more of these memorial museums, as they are called. I wonder whether literature is valued somewhat differently in places other than the United States Does that make it possible for people to make more direct connections with writers' homes? Does that mean that our educational system is sadly missing the chance to create new generations who care about literature and historic houses?

I'm also always puzzling about the role of creativity and narrative in such places.  As it happens, some of these places I visit, like in Latvia, are the homes of people unknown to me.  But why do I still feel connected to them?  In Jurmala, I visited the newly restored home of Aspazija, a noted Latvian poet and writer.  The best of these writers' houses have a welcoming sense to them somehow, a sense that we are not paying guests, nor tourists, nor supplicants, but rather friends coming to visit (and below, I did get to visit with friends and colleagues!)

At Aspazija's house, as in other writers' houses, attention is given to the feel of the house, but also to words as in this small exhibition of her work where books are displayed and text banners appear on the ceiling.

I also appreciate houses where you too are encouraged to embrace and build your own creative spirit. These places, around the world, go beyond the idea of "memorial museum," to the idea of a memorial being a living place. At her house, there's a library/community gathering space, used on a regular basis--and as well, currently a small exhibit where young people's drawings are exhibited.

Readers, tell me about your favorite writer's house?  Is it different than other historic houses?  Why? And what can other historic houses do to enhance that spirit of creativity and a sense of welcome?

Thursday, March 10, 2016


One key element of creative practice is expanding and diversifying your information input.  This might mean reading different magazines (like the one in the doctor's office you'd never pick up), expanding your online reading beyond the usual websites or blogs, going somewhere new for coffee, meeting new people--basically just expanding your world in every way you can.  If you do that, there's a strong chance that cross-pollination will generate new and enhanced ideas.

I got to live that very example last week.  Rainey Tisdale and I were invited to present at the Longwood Gardens' Graduate Symposium on Daring Dialogue.  For those of you who haven't been, Longwood is a premier public garden, outside Wilmington, Delaware (but in Pennsylvania) and every year, the small cohort of graduate students take on the planning of a symposium (and do a fabulous job on every detail!)

I don't know much about public gardens, and even less about horticulture.  I've visited them (most recently to see the Frida Kahlo show at the New York Botanical Garden) but I certainly wasn't aware of the issues that concern their field and how it might intersect with museum work.

But over the course of great meals, conversation and presentations, with colleagues and students from the United States, Canada and the UK,  I got the chance to learn about their work and ways in which we face similar issues and yet others that are very different.  I learned about the dearth of young horticulturalists (and the fascinating work being done by YoungHort in the UK);  I heard Nayra Pacheco's story of visiting a public garden with her father and then concrete strategies for engaging communities from her perspective as a community activist, important strategies valuable to both museums and gardens.  Guina Hammond shared the way West Philadelphia's Mantua Peace Garden is a place of civic engagement, a place where the issues of poor health and access to resources begin to be addressed.

In small groups, we talked about the issues of raising tough issues when you're not yet walking the walk.  What happens, for instance, when you talk pesticides, but still use them; or when you discuss climate change but your large, expensive to heat conservatory is still a key feature?  How can we become places for thoughtful dialogue around these issues? (and no surprise, Sarah Pharoan of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience made an eloquent and passionate argument that included yes, we can and the how of doing so). Can we make the case for just beauty as a reason for our existence? As Paul Redman, Executive Director of Longwood said, must public gardens do more. Our conversations continued and flowed, even talking about what gardening-related movies worth seeing and books worth reading, causing all of us at our dinner table to haul out our smartphones to look up movie titles and make notes of books.

Two cross-pollination take-aways for me.

One, beautiful spaces matter.  It was quite amazing to be able to walk into the conservatory at breaks. To look, to smell, to appreciate beauty.  Imagine what all our conferences would be like if we could do more of this.

Two, how could history museums think more like seed-sharing programs?  Over dinner, Mark Stewart of the Toronto Botanical Garden and I got talking about seed libraries and seed sharing programs that send seeds out with community volunteers, in the hopes that participants will plant seeds, grow something, and return seeds to be grown the next year by new people.  But what if people don't return the seeds, I wondered.  "It doesn't matter,"  he said.  At least one person always does, and those seeds are enough to start all next year.  It's a kind of generosity of spirit that I think we can use more of.  I'm not quite sure how and what I might dream up for a history museum to do this way, but I'll definitely be spending a bit of incubation time, as my own, oft-neglected flowers come up this spring.

Okay, one more.  Any event that puts people in conversation together is a wonderful thing.