Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Mistakes Were Made

My time at AAM is brief this year, but I hope you'll consider checking out the two Saturday sessions I'm participating in, First up, I get to share my big mistake in Sean Kelly's deservedly famous session, Mistakes were Made session, along with Sean and George Neptune. There's a big, beautiful (more-or-less) trophy up for grabs for your best failure story. We've all got something to learn from our mistakes.

And then in the afternoon, Fabiana Chiu-Rinaldi. Dwan Reece and I will be sharing our career paths and how power, responsibility and community intersect in our work. We've had very different paths, and are looking forward to the chance to reflect with participants.

And of course, if you see me in hallway, bleary-eyed from hay fever and travel, absolutely say hello!


Monday, May 16, 2016

Should Museums Be More Like Constables?

I'm working on an exhibition for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Historical Society, in St. John's, NL.  I've been digging deep into their archives to learn more about the two hundred year history of the force, but a few weeks ago, I found some materials that I thought held some important lessons for museums.

I found a file containing a series of reports from 1948 from outport communities all over Newfoundland.  This was a critical time for what is now a province, because the vote about whether or not to become a part of Canada was drawing near.  It seems not far away, but as you'll see, it was still a time when those communities were often cut off by weather and bad roads.   These monthly reports were generally titled, "Economical and Social Life of the District,"  and were written by the local constable to be submitted to the chief constable in St. John's.

Here's a few excerpts:

In Corner Brook, in January, "the economical condition is quite good, and people in the main are employed gainfully and there is no report of able-bodied relief.  However, the herring fishery during the month is not nearly as good in previous years..."   and in February, the health of that community was "good during the month and there was no serious illness; there was however, a series of colds with no ill effects."

From Gander in February, "The Social aspect of the community remains more or less unchanged. However there has been some activity in connection with the various churches and the British Red Cross...the Gander Public Library is also filling an important position in the life of the community and is also increasing its services to the public..."

February was a quiet month in Ferryland, "There were no dances or parties of any kind held during the month" and the economy was bad, "Quite a number of men from Ferryland, Calvert and Cape Broyle are applying for relief."   In Trepassey, the weather was so bad that "the roof blew off Leonard Hachette's house and was beaten into matchwood."  As the bad weather continued there, "the men are complaining very much of having no food for their cattle.  There is no hay or oats anywhere in my territory as there is no boats running from here to town they cannot get food."

Spring finally comes that year, and the constable in Clark's Beach reports in April, "There have been no seals taken this month.  The people are all getting their fencing done for planting their vegetables...a card party and supper was held in the C.E. school at Salmon Cove and it was well-patronized by all."

Every month, the constables also took the political temperature of their towns around the issue of confederation or not, even though, said one,  "it's difficult to say."

What do I think museums can learn from these reports?

I can't tell you the number of times I've heard museum staff, board and volunteers say, "but no one comes, no one is interested."  That's because, I believe, you're not interested in them.  What would happen if you regularly spent time at a board or staff meeting talking about the social or economical conditions of your community?  Could you then learn about concerns--and equally importantly, learn about the parts of your community that you, as an organization don't connect with in any way?

I'm also struck by the empathy shown in these reports.  There's a real understanding of how and why relief is needed, of what benefits a community, and of the challenges and successes of community life.  That comes from attentiveness to the places we live--and all the people who live there too.  Our work can and should be a reciprocal process--that's how we can become essential parts of community life.

Top:  Constables and community member, RNCHS collection
Bottom:  Adults in kitchen, Pools Island, Bonavista Bay, Gustav Anderson Photo Collection, The Rooms.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Objects and All: The 21st Century Museum

“It’s an audio guide, sweetheart, not a remote.”

This week's guest post is by one of this year's mentees. Amanda Guzm├ín is completing her Ph.D in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She's been a graduate fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian.  She's studied and worked around the world, with a MA degree from the University of Leiden and fieldwork in places ranging from Massachusetts to Peru.  As you can tell from this piece, she and I have had wide-ranging conversations about the future of museums and of objects in museums.  Share your thoughts below in the comments! 
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole […]. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that exactly. You'd just be different, that's all. You'd have an overcoat on this time. Or that kid that was your partner in line last time had got scarlet fever and you'd have a new partner. Or you'd have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you'd heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you'd just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you'd be different in some way – I can't explain what I mean. And even if I could, I'm not sure I'd feel like it.
                                  -Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
When I first read this passage in high school, my native New Yorker sensibilities were struck by the detailed descriptions which nearly perfectly mapped onto my countless school trips throughout the dioramas environments of unmoving, staged human and animal bodies positioned in realistically textured and finely painted backdrops at the American Museum of Natural History. As I have lived away from New York City for nearly a decade to pursue undergraduate and graduate education, I must confess to sharing Holden’s fond observation of reconciling the consistency of certain museum spaces with one’s ever-shifting bodily orientations.

And yet, nostalgia aside, museums have done a fair degree of their own shifting in respects to visitor engagement and I have thinking a lot recently about the how museums have and will continue to define their roles in the 21st century. Particularly given my training as an anthropological archaeologist, I gravitate towards thinking about and with things.

Indeed, the historical trajectories of the discipline of anthropology and the emergence of museums are intertwined. Throughout the history of museum institutions in their various private and public forms (video), objects have stood as the focal point of the visitor experience, as the tangible source of engagement with the ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ diversity of the world.

Objects, I would argue, still matter. Objects preserve our genetic histories in response to environmental concerns ranging from wildlife conservation and climate change to drug development and national security. Objects represent uncomfortable histories of unequal, intercultural relationships of power whose legacies remain salient and open to debate today.

Museums’ handling of objects though increasingly extends beyond the interpretation and display of existing historical collections through exhibitions in institutional spaces.

Museums are not only available to be traversed online through street views of its galleries but the world’s history is being depicted through chronological, thematic intersections of digital nodes that index specific museum objects.

In the age of Google, objects in collections around the world are being compiled and arranged into thematic galleries. With a few drags and clicks, you can create your own galleries. How can we understand this type of online visual-oriented experience with objects? Does it privilege certain kinds of material collections over others? What does it mean to have the ability to construct your own galleries and to disseminate them among your social networks?

3-D computer modeling has allowed for online mediated experiences with the ability of not just reading about the cultural contexts of objects but also of defining your interaction (e.g. moving and editing the object with the flick of a cursor) in a manner not typically permitted in traditional museum spaces. What does the addition of this digital engagement add to and/or take away from an individual’s understanding of and practical experience with objects (in contrast to say, drawing or photography)? Beyond material composition, what is the difference between a 3-D model and a reconstruction? Moreover, 3-D technology introduces complex questions of authorship and ownership. Who has or should have the capacity to construct 3D prints of museum objects (and who decides this)? Should all objects, regardless of origin, be available to be subject to such treatment?

At this point, I have more questions and answers to the issue of what role do objects play in the 21st century museum and its growing employment of the digital. I do think however a crucial element of any answer is a continued call for a genuine consideration of the museum’s application to the interests and needs of its public(s) and larger events in the contemporary world.

So, contrary to Holden’s assertion, we as visitors change alongside museums. Time will tell what that change will look like.

Bradford Galt: “I'll be at the Cathcart galleries absorbing culture. I don't want to die ignorant.”
Policemen in galleries: “That is ‘aht.”
The Dark Corner (1946)

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)