Thursday, July 17, 2014

Do Museums Need Disaster Plans for People?

Any museum worth its salt has a disaster plan somewhere (hopefully somewhere easy to find).  It probably has information about contacting emergency services;  what happens to objects in collections storage and the safe evacuation of staff and visitors.  But over the last year, I've been paying attention to a number of conversations, in person and in the online world, about the ways we, as museums, can be more responsive to community needs in times of disaster.

I watched my colleagues in Ukraine step up during the protests on Maidan and the country's ongoing changes;  Gretchen Jennings has focused on empathetic museums in her blog Museum CommonsElaine Gurian's writings continue to inspire; my colleague and friend Rainey Tisdale curated this year's Dear Boston exhibit on the anniversary of the bombing; and David Fleming's talk on the Social Justice Alliance of Museums at AAM provided new inspiration. All evidence of a more people-focused shift for museums. But much of it seems ad hoc.  Committed folks in museums react on the fly as disasters--political, social, natural, environmental--happen.

This September, at the Museums and Politics conference in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, Russia, I'll be presenting on this topic--the idea that a museum's disaster plans should include a focus on community, not just buildings and collections.  I proposed the session not because I'm an expert, but because it's an issue I'm interested in exploring, particularly from a wide range of global perspectives.   I'm looking to hear from you with your thoughts on any of the questions below.

  • What would a disaster plan that focused on the people in a community look like?
  • Can we plan for it?  What kinds of disasters do we need to think about?
  • What resources can we provide?  emotional?  physical?  technical?  (see the bike-powered charging station at the top of this post)
  • How do we balance human access and needs with responsibility to our collection?
  • What can we provide that no other type of organization can?
  • How can we begin conversations before a disaster about community needs?
  • And for how long does our disaster assistance last?
  • How does contemporary collecting fit into this process?
  • Should our assistance and commitment be limited to local disasters?  What about ones that happen in other places around the world?  What's our responsibility?
  • If we can be of service to our community during a disaster, how might that reshape our ongoing missions?
  • And of course, what examples can you share--from anywhere?


  • Ryan Nelsen (R) and Fields Harrington (2nd R, white shirt) ride a tandem bicycle to generate power as people wait for their cell phones to recharge on Avenue C in the East Village on November 1, 2012 in New York as the city recovers from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. This neighborhood is in the area of Manhattan without any electrical power. (STAN HONDA - AFP/Getty Images)
  • Child's artwork from a event at the National Art Museum of Ukraine.
  • Dear Boston exhibit image via Metro
  • Detail from Spray for Justice, on the first floor of the Museum of Liverpool, is a tribute and memorial to the people who lost their lives at Hillsborough at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest on 15 April 1989.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Observed: Creative Constraints

Over the past weekend, I saw a few great examples of how artists use creative constraints to inspired their work and wanted to share them in the hopes that they inspire you to think of constraints as inspirations, not barriers.

First up,  visiting artist Raúl the Third in the Polly Thayer Starr Artist Series at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  Raúl, a graphic novelist, was working in the Education Studio, where anyone, of any age, could drop in and draw or chat with him.  I was struck though, by his choice of medium. Three containers of Bic pens, pieces of paper.  That's it.  He explained that, as a kid growing up in Texas, these simple materials were all he had access to, and that he knows that for many kids, it's the still the same.   His works, including the forthcoming graphic novel Lowriders in Space, use the same. The constraint of those simple tools produces some amazing work.

Next, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston,  where I was entranced by Jim Hodges work, but particularly enjoyed the creative constraint of A Diary of Flowers—Above the Clouds--556 drawings of flowers on diner-type paper napkins.  Together they form a beautiful installation of individual constraints.

The Art Lab (I think that's the name but cannot find on their website) took another constraint as they encouraged visitors to make flowers related to Hodge's work You, which consists of a large number of plastic flowers creating a sort of curtain (that would be the non-art historian explanation).  In the Art Lab, you were encouraged to make two flowers in order to take one home.  In this case, the creative constraint, the number you could make AND take, also helped build a collective project and a community sense of participation.

And two creative constraints spotted on Monhegan Island, Maine.  On the Cathedral Trail, anyone walking can create fairy houses, but they must be created only with natural materials found at hand, not brought in, or plucked off a tree.  I last visited Monhegan more than 20 years ago and it was amazing to see the constraints still in play, despite not a single sign telling walkers about it.  The variety of these tiny spaces is beautiful and inspiring.

I found my final creative constraint walking back to town on Monhegan.  The island has long been inspiration to artists ranging Rockwell Kent to George Bellows to Jamie Wyeth and the landscape is still dotted with painters with brush and palette in hand.  The views of sea, sky and grey-shingled buildings are everywhere.  But one young enterprising artist, perhaps 9 or 10, had set up her work on a rock with the sign below.  Her constraint:  mermaids and fairies only for her small business!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why Can't Local History Be More Like Local Food?

I live in the northwest Catskills of New York State.  It's rural, really rural (see above). Like so many rural counties all over it has suffered a long economic decline and a steep decline in agriculture, once the mainstay of its economy (Delaware County's butter once won prizes at 19th century Worlds' Fairs). But recently, here, like so many places, there's a lot more going on in terms of our understanding of food and place. A few examples: a school friend of my daughter's, in her twenties, is creating a hard cider start-up;  local creameries, producing milk, butter, cheese and ice-cream band together for this upcoming week's Milky Way tour;  at local farmers' markets I see families who have lived on land here for generations selling products side by side with retirees taking up a farming career as a sort of hobby; and Brooklyn expats have headed here to open restaurants featuring local products.  A particularly exciting part to me is the decision many talented young people are making about staying in or coming to the area to try and make their way.

As I thought about it, I realized that local museums in rural communities have a great deal to learn from this local food movement (and from farmers in general, I'll say).  Here's a couple lessons I think we should be taking to heart:

  • Tradition and new ideas can co-exist.  Anyone who farms has to learn from those who farmed before them.  But at the same time, combining that traditional knowledge with new ideas can creatively combust into something new.  Local history museums are too tied to the idea that tradition--that whatever works--or doesn't work-- is the only approach.  Above, Shannon Mason and her mother Gail Danforth of  Danforth family farm come from a tradition that not only won their family an award at the Chicago World's Fair, but also now have adapted and also produce yogurt and kefir.
  • Young people have ideas and are willing to work hard to make them happen. This seems almost silly to state, but I can think of so many historical societies who are reluctant to engage with young people in substantive ways.  And, for those rural museums looking for staff, it's not about the money.  No one becomes a farmer for the money, they become farmers because they like the work and can make a difference.  If you're on a museum search committee, seek out those young people (with or without master's degrees) who have a passion--and make the commitment to let them work hard, make change and make a difference. 
  • Spread independent decision-making.  As far as I can tell, farmers make independent decisions all day long, every day.  Does every decision at your museum have to be made by committee? It's not only a time-suck but also an energy and enthusiasm sucker.  Museums need to rethink how we connect with--not just audiences--but how we begin to connect with those young people that are shaping our communities now and in the future,  Sharing decisions is a big part of that.
  • But network.  There's strength in numbers.  Whether it's farm tours or connecting with New York City chefs, farmers of all sizes and types know that connections and working together can only benefit them. Stop being territorial, museums!
  • Direct interaction matters.  Whether you're from a large dairy farm speaking to New York City school groups or a small purveyor of pickles chatting with me at farmers' market, you know that direct, enthusiastic interactions make a difference.  I've wondered why my local history museum isn't out every week at farmers market for instance, meeting and greeting.
  • Consider your organizational and personal values.  I've written about values before but continue to believe it's something that museums and historical organizations don't spend enough time on.  We talk one kind of values but sometimes practice another;  or we're reluctant to surface long-held values in the service of change and new ideas. There are values embedded in every strawberry, green bean or even burdock root I buy at a farmers' market--and often those values are stated clearly.  Can you think of a museum's whose values are stated up front?  (I suspect there are some, but none come immediately to mind).
  • And, duh, stories matter  I put this post up earlier today, after noodling on it for a day or so in my head, sent it out into the world, and this evening, Diana Limbach Lempel, a friend and colleague who thinks intensively about placemaking, reminded me in a tweet of something I should have of course, included.  She tweeted, "I'd say that buy local/local food often is doing local history's work to tell place-based stories meaningfully."  She's absolutely right.  Just take a look at some of my local farm stories at Catskill Family Creameries,  Spring Lake Farm and many others at Pure Catskills.   And then consider how boring another spinning demonstration is.
I don't mean to romanticize the new farmers in my county;  or to neglect those longer-standing family farms whose work continues to feed us all.  There will be failed farming experiments out of the ones I've mentioned, I have no doubt;  but those failures are all part of a creative learning process.  But I do want to encourage rural museums and historical societies to consider what they can learn from their local farmers to change the ways in which we work.

Top photo:  Treadwell, NY view;  Center:  Danforth family from Cowbella; Farmers' market haul, 2014; Bottom, Michelle Gagner's family on the farm, circa 1910, via Delaware County NY History and Genealogy.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

An Abundant Spirit: Ukrainian Views on AAM's Conference

Before the annual AAM conference, I wrote about the chances you'd have to hear from my Ukrainian colleagues, Ihor Poshyvailo, Eugene Chervony and Tania Kochubinska about their work--and current issues in Ukraine. We had an amazing time in Seattle and I thought Uncataloged readers might be interested in hear their perspectives on the conference and what it meant to each of them.

From Eugene:

The most inspiring thing about the conference was the sharing of different ideas and what museums are doing in own organizations. Understanding of this big museum family every part of whom are doing great things in different parts of the world. At the same time I am understanding how much people did not come who have to share with others. 

One surprising thing was the similarity of problems in Ukrainian and US museums. We have very different circumstances in museum field, but problems are common for both environments - human resources, capacity building, decreasing of exhibit costs. Based on it we are sharing ideas with each other to increase our perception of solutions for the problems. Communication and linkage between professionals are very important and it has been proven again. Another surprising thing is that our ideas from unknown country could be very successful in other countries who have very developed and stable museum environments.
The size of the conference and development of museum industry is very memorable and it is hard to imagine such things in my country. A lot of great museum professionals are coming to present to the annual meeting and it is really great to understand that around you people and authors of books, that are standing on your shelf!
From Tania:
If to think about the conference generally, first of all, it is about communication and ideas exchange. What is great about any conference, it is about meeting professionals of your field from different contexts. If to talk about Seattle, it was all extremely welcoming, and it was really stimulating to be a presenter (with a great thanks to Linda Norris), for the 1st time in my life, and to share experience, and being heard and discussed. What I was really surprised about was that at the AAM conference that (despite the keynote speakers that of course which gathered major audiences) all the sessions were attended equally. You could see the equal amount of people coming to quite different sessions, whether the speakers presented leading museums or were from museums of a local value. It seemed to me that people were more interested in what is unknown rather than known and familiar. The audience seemed not to have preconceived expectations.

But at the same time, strange feeling of dischronation has always accompanied me because of coming from a quite different context into a safe society with different problems and different social reality. Getting into a new context makes you always rethink your own values, and this time, particularly.
And from Ihor:
It was my first experience of participation in the AAM Annual Meeting and Museum Expo. I was deeply impressed by the concentration of creative thinking and challenging opportunities for the museum world at that Innovation Edge in Seattle. I have never felt such a positive energy lavishly generated by a museum family of over 5000 participants from 50 countries at almost two hundred sessions in the spacious and hi-tech Washington State Convention Center.

It was so exciting to listen and even to talk to iconic persons of American museum field. Great to hear keynote speech of David Fleming on museums and social justice, and his referring to Ukrainian museums which try to be socially inclusive and go beyond traditional thinking.

But no less exciting was participating in a series of presentations and discussions in a frame of the International Track sessions focused on global aspects and cultural perspectives. And such an honor for the Ukrainian museum delegation to share its challenges, approaches, hopes, lessons and preliminary results on the road to change. This happened due to our American colleagues namely Linda Norris and Tricia Edwards with whom we hold a fantastic discussion on how constraints make us more creative, getting so many inspiring ideas from the audience. It was also a fantastic pop-up session on challenges and threats for the museum sector in Ukraine, presentation of the Dynamic Museum project at the "Lessons from the International Community”, meeting with the American Committee of ICOM. It was so nice to see familiar and friendly faces of our American colleagues who have invested so many time and efforts in building bridges between our museum communities.

Intensive days of the innovative gathering in Seattle have overwhelmed me with new feelings, inspired with new ideas and empowered with new tools for making change back home. It was a good start for a smaller but no less important museum initiative – “Visitors Voices” project which will be bringing the best American practices in transforming museums into places where diverse viewpoints and independent perspectives can be freely shared.
All of us give great shout-outs and thank yous to Tricia Edwards, our co-presenter and co-organizer of the entire effort (and photographer of our post-session relaxing at the head of the post); Dean Phelus of AAM, who helped make so many things possible; the United States Embassy in Ukraine and the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation,  who provided financial support; and ICOM-US, who provided a platform for additional presentations. From my own perspective, I'll long remember the ICOM-US lunch, where Ihor, Tania and Eugene, stepped forward to talk movingly and spontaneously,  about the power of art, the meaning of museums, and the ways in which we all need to work together.  And of course, thanks to all of you who introduced yourselves, asked a question, had a drink with us, or in any and every way made our Ukrainian colleagues feel a welcomed part of the larger museum community.

I could see, around the web, from photos and comments, that Eugene's innovative leaves (below) created from constraints were memorable for many others at our session. They symbolize a kind of creativity and abundant spirit and generosity that I hope always to see in our work.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What's Your First Step in a New Job?

One of this year's mentees, Megan Wood,  writes about her path in a new organization.  We've already had some great conversations as she explores new ways of working in a new organization.  I look forward to following her path through this coming year.

In February I took on a new position with an organization that is the middle of growth and exciting change.  My new job is on the leadership team as the Associate Vice President for Education & Visitor Experience at the Historic Ford Estates, which includes the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House and the newly acquired Henry Ford Estate.  I am only the second person to have a job with “education” in its title at this institution, so there is a lot of opportunity to grow and expand current offerings.  I have also been fortunate to be able to hire new staff and build a team focused on daily and special learning experiences.
It is both exciting and intimidating to start off anew with a team.  Exciting because of the chance to go my own way and intimidating because there is only one chance to have a fresh start.  I want to create an environment where people feel comfortable experimenting and unafraid of failure.  I also want to create an environment of collegiality and teamwork.
I decided to take a few crucial steps:
  • Start off with a team meeting and look at personal preference styles. 
On the advice of my mentor, Linda, we used an online tool to examine our dispositions towards Gardner’s learning modalities.  We talked a little bit about what we look like as a team.  It was interesting to see how individual personal interests manifest in learning style, and to keep it in mind as we move forward in planning and development of programs and experiences.
  • Use an ideas board to document and share creativity.
One of the Try-It’s from the book, Creativity in Museum Practice talks about an idea board that anyone can post to and capture ideas, images, or text that reflects the creativity we want to capture in our own work.  Instead of creating a work Pinterest board, we decided that the physical reminder of our ideas in a shared workspace could help inspire and ignite us as we work together and individually.
  •  Lay out my evolving philosophy on teamwork and leadership.
As currently structured, everyone on the team will be a team member or a leader in turn, depending on the project.  As the boss, I decided to make it clear what my philosophy is, so I sent around a one-page document that includes values like listening, care and service, respectful discourse, simplicity and clarity, and joy and lifelong learning.  I want to make sure that whoever we work within the organization, that my group is respected for their ability to lead and to be lead.

So far I am happy with the work and ideas that have been coming from my new team and can see some areas where I can improve as a leader.  We continue to meet as a team every other week, and then I meet with each person individually on the off weeks.  I hope in a few months’ time I will feel we have success in cultivating a creative and open environment, and I hope to share what I’ve learned through this experience.  Stay tuned…

Friday, June 13, 2014

Scared of the F-Words?

Fear.  Failure.  They're scary words.  We hate to admit them,  we don't often want to own up to them, and they affect our work more than we like.   Over the last two weeks, I've been in two great conversations where we used them; owned them;  we embraced them; to move the process of change forward.

I've been working with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center on the re-interpretation of the Stowe House for a little over a year.  As you can imagine, that is many, many conversations among many, many people about how to create a historic house experience that really embodies the Stowe Center's social justice mission, in addition to caring for the house and collections.   This week, we brought a team of 20 (yes 20!) together to do some serious thinking as we're now at the decision-making stage.  Designer, evaluator, development people, architect, curator, director, educator, front-end staff, community members, scholars, playwright.  We were all around the table.
In planning the day, Shannon Burke, Director of Education and Visitor Services and I realized that everyone (including us) had fears about the project.  We decided to surface them first thing.  Using just a flip chart, I wrote down the fears that the group shared.  None of them would really surprise anyone who's been through a big project:  not enough money;  losing the audience we have; not gaining new audiences;  not doing enough training;  not having the new experience be "magical;"   not getting everyone on board; have the experience be not diverse enough;  too much technology;  not enough technology;  can we find a clear theme and make it real?   

It was a pretty big list.  But I flipped over the page and we didn't talk any more about them until the very end of the day. After a great, inspiring day, full of new ideas, connections, and more, we flipped the page back and went through the fears.  Some fears had gone away--but there were definitely still some fears left.  The good news though, is that I think most people in the room felt the fears were now manageable.  We'd made progress on the day, but knew that there was much work to do.  By surfacing and sharing fears, we turned them from the big monster under the bed to something we can work on together.

But what about failure?  Many of the Stowe Center team's fears were about failure.  At the New England Museum Association's Young and Emerging Professionals meet-up last week, Rainey Tisdale and I shared some creativity information (Rainey's awesome speed networking creativity dance-off will have to wait for another post).  I took on running the Failure Olympics.   Divided into Failure Nations, each group had to create a Failure flag (my favorites:  the crumpled paper and the lonely stick with no flag);  share their own stories of fails and lessons learned; and then nominate someone to compete in the Failure Olympics by sharing their stories in front of the whole group.  The winner:  a complex tale of ants, ant farms, exhibit openings and a shy young professional who learned that asking for help is better than having a pile of dead ants.  

What do both these conversations have in common?  Exactly that.  They were conversations.  In each setting, we tried to create an atmosphere of trust--and fun--so that fears and failures were easily shared, rather than hidden under our desk.   It takes zero dollars to do this--it just takes a willingness to listen and to talk.

Dear readers,  what's your best/worst failure story?

Top:  the Failure Olympics, center:  Stowe House meeting,  bottom:  failure flag creation.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

#getoutofizo Why Should You Care?

I first visited Izolyatsia, the innovative cultural center in Donetsk on a cold, rainy November day in 2011.  A few of us dashed through the raindrops and found ourselves in a huge warehouse, where equally huge portraits of salt and coal miners marched up hills of coal and salt.  The huge installation, by Cai Guo-Qiang has continued to stay with me (you can read my earlier post on it here).  I continued to keep an eye on the center's activities and last May had the opportunity to tour the site, learn about its work with artists and with the community, and get to know their energetic, passionate staff as we met with high school students to think about industrial history here.  When I think of Donetsk, this is one of the places I think about--a place that shows the ways in which art can engage communities and could help transform Donetsk's industrial landscape to a place of beauty and creativity.

This week, the news came out that Izolyatsia had been directly targeted by the separatists now active in Donetsk, taken over at gunpoint and the staff evacuated to Kyiv.  They issued a statement on their website that included the following to the "Prime Minister" of the Donetsk People's Republic about the takeover:
However, on the following day, June 10th, the employees from the former Izolyatsia factory still present on the territory noticed that the DPR militia under the influence of alcohol had looted the rented offices of the foundation, vandalising private property, and removing equipment, tools, the contents of the foundation’s safety vault, including the private property of its employees. Meanwhile, the foundation’s representatives were prohibited from recovering artworks, documents and personal belongings.

There are also permanent installations on the Izolyatsia territory, some of which cannot be dismantled or removed. Unless the territory is immediately vacated by your subordinates, we insist on receiving reimbursement of the costs associated with these site-specific works.

Meanwhile, it is essential that the foundation representatives gain access to artworks that may be removed from the territory, and which include such items as paintings, sculptures and various artefacts made by contemporary Ukrainian and foreign artists.

Within the last four years numerous artists, curators and art managers have been working together to create, install and maintain these works. It is these unique works which have given Izolyatsia its identity in Ukraine and internationally. This initiative has transformed the territory of the former factory into a popular social venue for local residents and tourists.
It's abundantly clear that Izolyatsia was specifically targeted--and that should concern every one of us in the arts.  The rationale that the space was needed for warehouses is absolutely false, and a chilling echo of the old Soviet practice of turning churches into warehouses.   Art exhibitions, a maker lab (one of the first museums I saw a 3D printer available for use), performances, lectures, films, programs for families--all of these opened up a wider world for the community that the separatists would now close down.

Why should it matter to you?  It should matter to all of us every time a creative organization is targeted by those who would silence it.  What can you do from your desk?  It's hard to know what to do, but I suspect one of the most important things we can do is pay attention.  Like Izolyatsia on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and keep up to date on what's happening.   I look forward to the time when I can return to Ukraine, to Donetsk, to see what exciting new thing Izolyatsia is planning.