Tuesday, November 17, 2015

We are the Change: Mentorship Round 4

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
                                                                                           Barack Obama
The winds of change are blowing through museums this year, heading us down uncertain paths, both exhilarating and sometimes scary. For once, it's not the financial shivery wind of a recession, but a deeper gust, about our place and our responsibilities in society. One of the ways to face that change head on, in our field and in our careers, is to work together. We need to reach out collectively to explore not just how to build a career, but how to make museums more vital, more meaningful, more important places to more people. And so, as our field sails on uncertain seas, buffeted by winds of change, it's time once again for my own small mentorship program. 

I started this three years ago because I was impatient with our professional organizations. I wanted to make more of a contribution to the field but on my own terms (those of you who know me will easily recognize that quality of mine). Selfishly, I wanted to ensure I continued on my own path of lifelong learning and generously, I wanted to see how my own knowledge and experiences might be useful in other paths.  I've had an unusual career, from small museum director to running a museum service organization to teaching, to freelance work that now takes me to more places around the world than I ever imagined. Over the last three years, the chance to develop new relationships with amazing colleagues has kept me on that lifelong learning path, expanded my own web of connections, and brought new surprises into my work.  And that's why there's a Round 4.

Do you need a mentor?  This is open to anyone, at any stage of their career, anywhere in the world. Sadly my language skills mean you must be an English speaker. I'm looking for passionate, curious people--because I'm also learning during the year. Your curiosity and passion make great conversations happen for both of us. You might want to explore how your interests and museum work intersect, to learn to work more collaboratively with colleagues, to push interpretive ideas or to consider how to change the field. What do I bring to mentoring?  I'm a great questioner, wanting you to go deeper in your thinking. I love connecting ideas and people. I'm honest with my feedback. And I care passionately about the museum field and the communities we live and work in. 

But it's not my solely my perspective that matters in this process. Here's what previous mentees shared with me. They are each very different people, thinking about different ideas and at different places in their career, so a year's conversations were equally varied.

Susan Fohr of the Ontario Textile Museum, a 2015 mentee, wrote:

I've really appreciated having a colleague to whom I could talk on a regular basis about the big ideas and issues facing our profession, in particular interpretation and community engagement. Your willingness to share your professional experiences while encouraging me to share my own perspectives has given me greater confidence to make my voice heard. One of the things that has resonated with me the most from our conversations is something you mentioned during our very first meeting: write! 
Writing does not come easily to me, but some of the work of which I am most proud are things that I have written. Whether it was writing my responses for my mentee application or writing blog posts, I had the opportunity to craft lines of thinking that have never been as fully formed or articulated as I would have liked. There will be a lot to unpack in the new year, and I hope I can continue to develop the ideas we explored together in another forum that involves both conversation and writing!
And Megan Wood, of the Ohio Historical Society shared a longer lookback from her 2014 mentorship:
During my mentorship with Linda, I was at a couple of pivotal points in my career and was making choices that impacted my work and my personal life. Having a sounding board who was totally outside of my sphere, that had no stake in the decisions I made, was really helpful. Even after the mentorship was over and I needed some important career advice, Linda was more than happy to talk with me. On a micro-level, it was also refreshing to talk about ideas and examples for programs and projects I was working on. I find professional conferences refreshing because of the infusion of outside insight and having the monthly call with Linda was like a mini-conference.
The Shape of the Mentorship

We'll schedule hour-long Skype or Google Hangout conversations at mutually convenient times once a month. In addition to the monthly conversations, I'll happily provide feedback, introductions as I can, and loads and loads of opinions.  If I can, I'd love to meet you in person if we can intersect. From you, I'll expect two or three blog posts on deadlines we mutually set and of course, active participation and questioning along the way.  It's your mentorship and it's up to you to take responsibility in shaping it.

How to Apply

If you're interested, by December 18, send me an email that includes your resume plus your responses to the following questions. No word count specified. Say what you have to say, short or long.
  • Describe an object in a museum that elicited an emotional response from you.
  • What key questions would you like to discuss with me during the year?
  • Tell me about a creative hero of yours.
  • What change would you like to see in the museum field?  
  • What non-work related book are you reading?

How Do I Decide?

This is far from a scientific process (the advantage of running my own small project).  I'm interested in mentees that stimulate my own thinking and in working with those who I believe will make a contribution to the field.  If your application is primarily about finding a job, I'll be unlikely to select you.  Previous mentees have been both emerging and mid-career professionals. I've seriously considered applications from career transitioners, recent graduates and more, from anywhere in the world. Be interesting not dull; have a sense of humor, and demonstrate an interest for the field rather than just in your own career.  This year, I'd love to see applications from people who are making their way into the museum field along non-traditional routes.  I'll make a decision no later than January 7, 2016.

Questions, ask away!

Monday, November 16, 2015

How's Your Audience Feeling? Here's One Answer

This past week, I was in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, beginning a new project for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.  They've opened a new headquarters with dedicated space in the lobby area for a history exhibition. The RNC is the oldest police force in North America, with a proud history.  They've put together a volunteer committee of retirees and working policemen and raised funds to do the exhibit, highlighting a fascinating collection of objects and images. It wasn't surprising to me when I asked who the exhibit was for, getting responses like: constables, school groups, maybe tourists who wander over from The Rooms, the provincial museum next door.  Just what I expected.

But then I got a response I've never heard any museum person give anywhere.  Our audience, said one committee member,  "is people under stress.  We see good people here on their worst days."  At most museums, I think, we see people on their good days, not on the day their car was stolen, for instance.  What a challenge for designer Melanie Lethbridge and me.  We have to tell a complicated story--one of labor strikes, of sectarian violence, of devastating fires and more--in ways that connect both with those who have a deep pride in this particular history--and at the same time--reach out to those people who are perhaps bored, mad or more, waiting in a police lobby.   It's a different experience than a memorial museum and it's one I think we'll puzzle at for a while, to find a successful approach.

My other surprise?  I floated the idea of some sort of talkback board, envisioning that police would not be about letting people write whatever they want.  Again, surprise!  "We're big on social media" they said--"If we let people comment on our Facebook page or tweet to us, of course they could do it here."  How many times have you been in a room where someone said, "Oh no,  we could never let people just write what they want!"  whether it be online or in an exhibition.  Not these folks.

Big on social media?  25,000 Twitter followers--that's almost 5% of the population of the province. So big on social media that they were just featured on a Social Spotlight website analyzing social media campaigns.  My favorite element of their ongoing work?  They're funny:  they sent out an all points bulletin for summer last July when it was cold all month;  they checked out a Delorean for speeding on Back to the Future Day.

My Newfoundland lessons from last week?  Understand your visitors emotional selves, be open, and have fun.  Thanks RNC.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Considering Rewind at the Baltimore Museum of Art: Emotion and Learning

Shakia Gullette, Curator of Exhibitions at the Banneker-Douglass Museum,  is one of my 2015 mentees. We've had wide-ranging conversations, from career plans to meaningful exhibits to issues of inclusion within the museum field itself.  In this guest post she expands some of our conversations to share her reflections and analysis of Paul Rucker's exhibition, Rewind, at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Please be aware that there are challenging and disturbing images included in this post.

 “Baltimore is America amplified—the good and the bad. It’s where the North meets the South, and has so much historical information. I couldn’t think of a better place to do this project”
Paul Rucker

In September, Linda shared her experience at the New Founde Lande pageant and she briefly mentioned Rebecca Herz’s blog post titled, Should Exhibits Tell Stories? Herz addresses three issues/advantages that may arise during storytelling, which include storytelling as kitsch, stories evoking emotion, and the anti-storytelling moment. Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Paul Rucker’s highly anticipated exhibition Rewindat the Baltimore Museum of Art and immediately, I thought about Herz’s post. I knew this exhibit was designed to stir emotions and I wanted to truly examine how being led by emotions affected my experience.

As I was entering the exhibit, I wondered, how emotional is too emotional when you are already invested in the subject matter? How can you get past what you already think you know to learn something new? Rewind allowed me to explore both questions while confronting challenges we face each day as Americans.  

As I approached the entry of the Rewind exhibition, I was greeted by two people who appeared to be quite rattled. I asked them what they thought of the exhibit, the gentleman responded, “I didn’t like it and you should turn back around.” Initially, his response puzzled me, but then I knew this exhibition would challenge me to think differently. Yet, I wondered how this couple felt. Had their brief encounter with this exhibition scarred them? Where they so shocked by the content that they hadn’t learned anything? Even after I ran through these questions in my mind, I continued to pursue the exhibit.

Rewind focuses on race in America and how history repeats itself in different ways. Rucker uses a transmedia narrative, which created an immersive experience for the exhibition guest. He explains in his meticulously researched exhibition guide that his life’s work is meant to shock the attendee into thinking. Rucker began researching his exhibit content in 1992 after the LA Riots which were incited by police violence. He followed many of the outcomes and began to draw parallels with lynching. In the section titled Stories from the Trees we were able to see images from lynching’s magnified from their original postcard format and transferred onto throw blankets.  To honor the legacy of the story behind each slain individual, Rucker carefully placed the remaining throw blankets atop a safe which housed the artist’s Glock 22 semi-automatic gun which he used in another section of the exhibition. Stories from the Trees left me thinking about Baltimore native Billy Holiday’s song Strange Fruit and how 76 years after the songs release, the lyrics are still relevant. 

At this point in my visit it became apparent to me; there can be a balance of emotional investment and learning in exhibition storytelling. Sometimes, museum professionals take for granted the power we harness when we are able to bring a different layer to a past event in our history. Rucker was able to remove the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) from the confines of a text book and bring them to life with a very modern twist. Initially, the sight of 21 life sized mannequins dressed in KKK robes made my heart race. Rucker refers to this section as Birth of the Nation. Here, the artists recalls his experience as an onlooker at a Klan rally but through his creative lens, recast the KKK robes using camouflage, satin, and Kente.  After exploring each garment, I felt less threatened. I confronted my own definition of fear and white supremacy, and thought about how seeing these images in books as a child affected me. I then witnessed a father explaining to his three daughters that the KKK are “very bad people” and they are like terrorists. After overhearing his explanation, I tuned in as I had great expectation for the rest of their conversation. As the father began walking his girls through the exhibit, the mother came rushing in and demanded the children be taken out of the exhibit. Although the lesson had been cut short, I applauded the father for initiating the conversation and potentially changing the way the next generation will approach race relations.

The initial shock of the exhibition forced me outside of my own thoughts. In my mind, I thought I had a good handle on my knowledge base but I found myself deeply engaged in the exhibition guide—much like the artist intended. As I was engaged in the exhibition, I felt my perspective being challenged. I was no longer led by emotion because the artist armed me with a great deal of facts about lynching, unnecessary violence statistics, and how the number of prisons has increased since the 1940s.  I looked around to see if others were having the same revelation that I was experiencing. Sadly, I witnessed numerous people walk past the exhibition as if the art were non-existent. I considered that the content may have been too heavy and then it hit me. Rucker’s point was proven—we do not directly address the issues that plague the United States and this intentional silence means we constantly make the same mistakes again and again—hints the title Rewind.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

Observe One Thing Everyday

Last week I spent a day at the Old Manse, in Concord, MA.  It was a gorgeous fall day and our goal for the day was to consider interpretive planning in the context of this site, home to Hawthorne and Emerson, and a place of great conversation.   I had designed one observational time into the day, but we found ourselves with room for two, and both reminded me that all of us, individually and collectively, need to make time for observation in our daily work.

Everyone took a brief version of a multiple intelligences quiz and then were assigned, solo, to go out into the landscape and create an experience that facilitating learning for an intelligence different than themselves.  Above, that's Danielle Steinmann, interpersonal learner and director of visitor interpretation for Trustees (formerly known as the Trustees of the Reservations, the organization that manages the Old Manse and 105 other properties), contemplating an activity for intrapersonal learners.  Individually, the experiences proposed ranged from a complex and fascinating activity using music, math and the weight and length of the stone wall as a performance to providing visitors with stakes with the word "golden,"  much beloved by Hawthorne, so they could place them around the landscape.  I hadn't necessarily thought about this as an observation assignment, but all the participants took time to look deeply at the landscape around them in creating their ideas.

But then, on the spur of the moment, we found ourselves coming up with another idea.  A school group made it complicated to work in the historic spaces of the house.  But we could see all sorts of people outside:  dog walkers, a mom with kids in Halloween costumes taking pictures, and more.  We wondered about them. Why do they come?  What are their interests?  We quickly brainstormed three questions and the team spread out across the property to chat with visitors for just thirty minutes. These kinds of conversations are a different kind of observation than looking at the landscape, but perhaps even more valuable.   The team met members, met someone who considered Thoreau a hero and met still others who were just looking for a nice day out.  Below, Christie Jackson, Senior Curator, talks with visitors. And the best part?  When we gathered back together to share our observations, the team was so excited!  The observation and connection with visitors was rejuvenating--a reminder of why we do the work we do.

Don't say you don't have enough time.  It only takes a few minutes. Take some time every day to observe--not just in your museum but in the world around you.  And my own top discoveries for improving my own observation skills?  A Fitbit that gets me away from the computer and the chance to share my looking on Instagram.  So step away from your desk, grab a colleague, and head out there.

I'll leave the last word on observation to a regular visitor to the Old Manse:
We must look a long time before we can see.
  — Henry David Thoreau, "Natural History of Massachusetts"

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Leading Creativity from Everywhere: The 30 Day Challenge

 At the AASLH meeting a month ago, I spoke at the Small Museum luncheon and at the end, asked participants to write a message to themselves, on a postcard, about what they wanted to be reminded of in the next thirty days.  One of the questions that Rainey and I often hear is "How can I be a creative leader from my position in the middle?"   These notes to your future self are great evidence of how we all, no matter where we are in the organizational chart, or how large or small our museum is, that we all can begin creative work.  Here's some of what might be happening around the country!

And my personal favorite,

Just in case you think future resolutions can't take root, here's a sketch by Lauren Silberman of Historic Londontown Museum and Gardens that she did in a workshop last March:

And here's the photo she posted this summer.  That's the museum's director, Rod Cofield, taking a bit of time to incubate.

What's your 30 day creative practice resolution?  Stymied?  Consider purchasing your very own copy of Creativity in Museum Practice.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Ally & Amplify

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

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

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


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


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

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

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thinking About Collaboration? Tips from You

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

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

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

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

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