Sunday, March 17, 2019

Looking at Visitors Looking (and Learning)

I continue in my fervent belief that anyone and everyone who works in a museum should at least spend some time out on the floor observing what visitors do--what they look at, what they say, what they don't look at.   A few weeks ago I spent time observing a prototype exhibit at Maison des Esclaves (the House of Slaves) where the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is working with the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Government of Senegal, to revitalize the site and its interpretation.  Gorée Island, where Maison des Esclaves is located, is Africa's first World Heritage Site, a place of great importance and meaning.

We produced the prototype exhibit (designed by Studio Tectonic here in the US and produced by Mandarine in Dakar) to learn more about how different audiences made use of different kinds of information and perspectives.  The story of Maison des Esclaves is a complicated one, and one of our goals is to make that complicated story,  based on new information and research, accessible for visitors. We also are connecting the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to contemporary issues of slavery, hoping to inspire action on those issues.  This prototype is a capsule version of the full new interpretation.

Here's just a few photos to show what we learned:

People like maps!  In this case, at least two maps allowed visitors to their own place in the larger world:  a very simple map of the transAtlantic slave trade and a map showing the rates of contemporary slavery around the world both got lots of attention.

Exhibit text in two languages has extra value for all kinds of people. One girl, a native French speaker, was very carefully sounding out the English-language text for her father.

People make unexpected meanings.  Evidently, the school opened by LeBron James has a central staircase that greatly resembles Maison des Esclaves.  Did he intend it? Who knows.  But we did hear that discussion.

Visitors love sharing their own perspectives--and they are usually great at connecting past to present. There was also lots of pointing and sharing, as people looked at the exhibit together.

We need to spend additional efforts planning time and space for people to reflect on both the historical and contemporary issues.  These are hard stories.

To our greatest surprise--people of all ages, from all over the world, were reading, intently reading, our exhibition text--even taking photos of the text. The eagerness to know more about this history was really inspiring to us.

We also had a chance to chat with girls from Mariamma Bâ School on the island. They had visited the exhibition the week before and they had so many great ideas, observations and concerns.  So much so that as we were leaving, three girls hustled down the path to share more ideas with us. When I think about our primary audience for the exhibit--it's those girls, those girls who can shape Senegal and the world.

What did you learn in your exhibits today?  No excuses, get out there!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Meet the 2019 Mentees

Every year it's a difficult choice to select mentees for the year.  All of you who applied had great things to say, moving stories to relate and tough but fascinating questions to discuss.  It takes me a long time and usually another pair of eyes to help me puzzle through.  Thank you all who applied!

It gives me great pleasure to announce this year's two mentees:  Tadia Lynch of New York City and Jeanne Rank of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Tadia completed an exhibition -specialized, MBA in Arts and Cultural Management and since then has worked with both private and non-profit arts organizations with a focus on program development, audience engagement, and arts access.  She is now Department Coordinator for International Programs at the Fashion Institute of Technology, helping to support her greater goal of advancing the Caribbean Arts Community through web-based platforms.

I ask different questions every year, but always love asking about a childhood creative act.  Tadia's was "a story pop up book that I illustrated and narrated the fictional story of a flying fish."  This year I also asked about a memorable museum experience of the past year.  Tadia's was the Charles White Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. She wrote, "The works were moving and illustrative of a dynamic experience as a POC. However, it was particularly memorable to me because of the interactions between visitors and the works."

What big questions will we be talking about this year?  Here's what Tadia's interested in:

  • How to grow an audience that is emotionally and mentally invested in a museum’s mission?
  • How to serve and create a dialogue with a broader audience?
  • How to ethically present polarizing topics in a non-biased way?
  • How to not be passive, but to stimulate a greater conversation?

Jeanne Rank has spent more than 15 years working in museums curating exhibitions, learning activities, and new strategies and is now working as a senior curator at the Danish Architecture Center in Copenhagen.

Her creative activity intrigued me:
As a child, I loved all kinds of aesthetic expressions and sciences, however my most creative experience is possibly the day I realized that I could design my own life. I used to live in a quite dysfunctional family and as a child I didn't understand much but was shy and insecure, and often bullied. When I was 11, we moved to another part of the country, and I realized that this was my chance to define myself in a completely new way. So, I did: I decided that I was an outgoing, strong person, and that changed life and led me to where I am now: as the first in my family I have earned a university degree and built an exciting career, I created my own beliefs about parenthood and have a wonderful family, and overall, created a life where I keep learning and also give back by mentoring others. Of course, life is not always easy, but I always have my core belief that we can design our life and future.
Jeanne's best museum experience of last year: The exhibition 'The Future Starts Here' at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. "
I loved this show as it was designed to help people to actively reflect over their own part in designing the future today. Not only it was the theme of the exhibition, but I really liked how the curators/museum succeeded in engaging people’s minds and this way transform an exhibition into learning and action. I think that the ideal for museums and exhibitions of the future must be creating transformational experiences that engage people in reflecting over their own personal role and this way connect to every day and the future. What I also loved was the interdisciplinarity of the objects - hereby embracing the complexity of the world, the connection to the self and the world. 
Jeanne posed one big question about her own museum that will lead to many others.
How can I help the organization Danish Architecture Center (DAC) I work for develop into the international museum-center they would like to become? Museums have a special ability to embrace and unite all people and connect the past with our future in the presence. This leads us hopefully to discuss how we can help present museums to design not only their own future, but also to take part in designing the future for all of us.
Tadia and Jeanne will each be writing a blog post this year, so you'll be hearing more directly from them.  And again, many, many thanks to all of you who shared the mentorship post, and even more to those who took the time to apply.  You all inspire me!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Session Title: Could Be Better

A few weeks ago, I spent a very long day in a Philadelphia hotel room with several dozen colleagues, from around the country, reviewing more than 160 proposals for the upcoming American Association for State and Local History conference, co-sponsored by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.   It was my first time ever on a national program committee although I've been a successful session proposer and sometimes, an unsuccessful session proposer.  Here are my (I take full responsibility for these as my opinions only) suggestions on writing better session proposals that will cause at least a couple program committee members to sit up and take notice.

Have a good session title. Be understandable, perhaps funny and brief.  Don't play too much inside baseball, thinking that everyone will understand.  Beware of what comes after the colon, and don't just use a keyword from the conference description to attempt to make your session relevant.

If you're considering having all of your presenters from a single institution, presenting as a case study, re-consider.  These often sound a bit too celebratory or just seem like a "here's how we did this" and the funder is making us talk about it.  If your project is really great and you really think everyone on staff can contribute a needed perspective, consider adding an outside moderator or commentator to ask tough questions that really encourage reflection.

Is the panel the best way to do this?  As museum people, we know people learn in all kinds of different ways.  Increasingly, conference organizers are encouraging new ways to presenting--embrace the challenge!

Who's telling whose story?  If you're talking about the interpretation of enslaved people,  your project--and your presentation--should have representatives from African American communities, or African American scholars or curators, on your panel.  Same for women, for indigenous people, for different religious groups or whoever it is you're talking about.  (this is a very brief comment on an issue that deserves considerably greater depth given its critical importance if we want to change our field towards equity.)

Who's the best person on your staff to present this topic?  Is it the director?  the curator?  or ...  Think, don't assume, and directors, use this opportunity to lift up and encourage your staff--that kind of professional support will only build your own reputation in the field.

Tell a compelling story  Make the reviewers fascinated by what you're doing.  Our small group of reviewers fell in love with one facilities-related proposal, despite the fact that most of us actually knew nothing about the topic.  Write well, pose interesting questions, have someone from outside the field read before submitting. 

As in exhibit label writing--avoid the passive voice and consider your audience--both on the review panel and at the conference.

Don't think you're such a big deal that you don't have to include your or your speakers' relevant bio information.   The program committee came from all over the United States, from institutions big and small from local history museums to culturally-specific museums, to big state institutions.   Be aware of course, that we can Google you too.

Be aware of the field.  If you're presenting on something that you did at your museum that seems like the greatest thing since sliced bread, be sure that it's different or a creative take on other similar work.

Saving a few minutes for questions is not interactivity.  Real interactive sessions are great, amazing places to do deep learning around all sorts of topics.   One of my favorite sessions as a presenter is when two colleagues and I challenged our participants to design historic house experiences around big cultural issues--but our historic house was the Simpsons.  If you're saying it will be interactive, really be interactive and tell the committee how.

Why does it matter?  If you can't articulate why your session matters, then it won't matter to your audience.  I think people come to conferences not just to learn facts, but to learn ideas and concepts, to be encouraged to think differently, to gain new perspectives.  You can't do any of that unless you can tell me why your session matters and to whom.

Many thanks to all those on the program committee who were patient with my many opinions and who shared theirs--and to all of you who take the time and energy to propose sessions.  We considered them all deeply and seriously. I learned a lot!  Hope to see many of you in Philadelphia at AASLH--so many amazing sessions coming.

Below:  the view from the guard tower at Eastern State Penitentiary at night.  Just one more reason to come to AASLH.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018's Baker's Dozen of Great Museum Experiences

It's time for this year's baker's dozen of museum experiences that have surprised me, moved me, or intrigued me throughout the year.  Sometimes I get a chance to blog about them during the year, sometimes I don't, but all of these stick with me. If you've met me in person this year, you've probably heard me talk about one or more of these--so here they are, in no particular order for you, dear readers!

A special shout-out to colleagues at all these places--and all the other places I visited this year-- who have created bits of magic and deep meaning from the raw materials of buildings, objects, and most importantly, human stories.

House of Leaves, Tirana, Albania
In my work these days,  I visit many museums and memorial sites that tell the story of repressive regimes--but this place really surprised me.  It told the story of only one part of Albania's past, sharing the details of the surveillance of virtually every part of Albanian society.  It raised questions about victims and perpetrators. about pride in work even when it's repressive, about the ways in which societies come to terms (or not) with the past.  All of these complicated questions revealed in imaginative exhibition design that used objects combined with numbers and graphs (doesn't sound exciting, does it?  but it was).  My post on the House of Leaves and two other Albanian sites is here.

Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT*
I began working with the Stowe Center in 2013 on the re-interpretation of Stowe's home to more effectively engage visitors with all parts of their mission: We preserve and interpret Stowe’s Hartford home and the center’s historic collections, promote vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspire commitment to social justice and positive change.  But my new responsibilities at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience meant that I hadn't had time to see the new interpretation fully installed over the last year.  But this fall, I did, and a walk-through with Shannon Burke, their director of education and my dear partner throughout the process was an interesting retrospective.  We saw some of our good ideas fully installed and also remembered some bad ideas that, thankfully, never came to fruition.  It was still moving to me, even though I knew all the backstory.  But more importantly, this is the place that I use as an example when I talk about the power of prototyping.  We experimented and tried again, and again, and again, learning all the way.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia*
I did get a chance to write about this experience and consider to think about how we can show care to our visitors.  Full post here.

Maison des Esclaves conversations with students,  Gorée Island, Senegal*
Since I began at the Coalition almost two years ago, I have been working with Senegalese and American colleagues on the revitalization of Maison des Esclaves, Africa's first World Heritage Site and a Coalition founding member. Every bit of it is a complicated, fascinating experience to be unveiled later this year. But this spring, I got to spend a few hours with the young women students at Lycee Mariama Bâ on Gorée to understand more about their interests and knowledge regarding the site.  These smart, lively young women had so many questions and observations for us.  One key finding was about the importance of evidence.  They wanted to know how we know what we know about the site.  But they were also incredibly thoughtful about the legacy of slavery in Senegal and of the critical place Maison des Esclaves can play in discussing today's human rights issues.  In a word, #girlsrule.

Memorial Museums, Vilnius, Lithuania
I came to Lithuania to co-teach at the Baltic Museology School but my colleague Vaiva Lankeliene was good enough to spend a beautiful June day with me in Vilnius.  It was a nice of contrasts:  the weather was perfect and Vilnius is lovely.  But Vaiva knew of my museum interests, so she put together a day where we visited museums and sites of atrocities related to both the Soviet and Nazi regimes. We had worked in Ukraine together on a report on Ukraine's cultural heritage, so we had some shared experiences to draw on--but Lithuanian history was new to me.  We visited the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, the Memorial Complex of the Tuskulenai Peace Park, and the Memorial at Panerai and all along the way, talked about history and meaning, and who gets to tell history and who is left out and more and more.

Theater of the Senses, MK Čiurlionis National Museum of Art, Kaunas, Lithuania
As a part of Baltic Museology School, I had one of the most surprising experiences ever.  The Theater of the Senses introduces you to the works of MK Čiurlionis without using your sense of sight. The goal was not to have you touch the paintings, but to rather, somehow, feel the painting through your other senses.  You were blindfolded, with a guide the whole time, as you are led through the gallery.  I was hugged by mountains, smelled the forest, heard funereal music and more.  It required a huge level of trust and ability to let go, which proved not easy for me, but a lesson on so many levels.  I was unfamiliar with the artist's work, so when I went back through the gallery, trying to match his works with my experience absolutely deepened my understanding of the works.

La demanda inasumible. Imaginación social y autogestión gráfica en México, 1968-2018 Amparo Museum, Puebla, Mexico 
This fall, I had a few extra days to explore Puebla, Mexico after a conference, and,found myself at Museum Amparo.  This exhibit, The Unassumable Demand looks at posters and other graphic arts from the 1968 student movements in Mexico until today, emphasizing the collective, often anonymous nature of the work. In writing about the exhibition, the curators state,
The student movement of 1968 in Mexico is not part of the past, not only due to the commemorations and revisions that have taken place over the last 50 years or to the tributes to the victims of those traumatic events. During all this time, invoking the 68 meant to denounce that the problems to which the movement had responded were still valid –injustice, repression, impunity–and, at the same time, to claim that the forms of social organization and imagination experienced back then continued to be reinvented. The movement of 1968 not only raised a series of political demands that were never fully met, but made it through direct modes of action that were equally unacceptable to the regime. Until today.
Why did I like this exhibit so much?  First, the works were tremendous and compelling.  Second, the installation design felt temporary in just the right way. Third, I learned some history, and lastly, I left with a sense of urgency about change.

National Museum of Beirut, Lebanon
To be honest, my expectations of the National Museum in Beirut were a bit low.  I find national museums sometimes outdated and not very interesting. But Nathalie Bucher made sure I understood the meaning of the place in the country's recent past.  The museum was on the front line during the Civil War and still bears some bullet pockmarks on its front columns.  An introductory film that Nathalie made sure I watched told the story of how curators and the director did their best to protect this cultural heritage from destruction.  They encased the largest sculptures in cement coffins, hoping they would survive the decades-long war.  Many of them did, and they are now beautifully installed in the carefully restored building that both honors the history and for me, at least, gives hope for a future for Lebanon where so many different cultures have crossed and combined for centuries.

Boxer at Rest, Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy
I had time for a quick stopover in Rome and went back to Palazzo Massimo for a quick visit.  It's a lovely museum overall, right near the train station and well worth your time (also, key for Rome sometimes, never crowded).  But this Greek statue of a boxer at rest, from thousands of years ago, and excavated in Rome in 1885, thrilled me again.  It's both the statue itself, immensely human, but also the photo alongside,  showing the statue when found. An archaeologist on site that day wrote, "I have never felt such an extraordinary impression as the one created by the sight of this magnificent specimen of a semi-barbaric athlete, coming slowly out of the ground, as if awakening from a long repose after his gallant fights."

Kanal Museum, Brussels, Belgium
A place I hadn't heard of until I had a rainy day to kill in Brussels.  An extension of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, it's in the former Citroen factory, a huge space to explore.  I caught it right in the middle of its experimental phase:
From 5 May 2018 until 10 June 2019, following a radically experimental approach, the former Citroën garage will turn into a platform open to a reflection on the stakes of the museum of the future. Curated by Bernard Blistène, the director of the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, a multidisciplinary programme will seek to fill the spaces that were recently emptied of their functions and left in their current state. Many of the proposals seek to echo the identity of the site, but also its human and social history, tangible across the different workshops and offices and in the different fittings of this vast complex.
What did that mean?  Some of the installations I saw reflected on the building itself--installations about workers in workers' locker rooms.  Others were inspired by the space.  Others, by materials--an exhibition of artwork made from steel, as the factory once used. And in still other spaces,  I wasn't sure how the artworks connected, but it didn't matter.  The space felt informal--and fun to explore.  Lots of families were there--and how often would you feel welcomed to bring a toddler on their scooter. I hope the museum doesn't give up its experimental nature and continues to be a place where ideas are both welcomed and constructed.

War Childhood Museum, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina*
I visited this museum in the spring and then in June, also had a chance to speak on a panel at the Hrant Dink Foundation in Istanbul with Amina Krvavac, the director.  The museum sprang from an online request from founder Jasminko Halilovic for those who experienced the siege of Sarajevo (the longest siege in modern history) to share their experiences.  First a book, now a museum, it's the simplest, yet incredibly compelling of experiences.  One object, one story; another object, another story.  From these objects and stories, from things as simple as mended pants and canned goods, a visitor gains a fuller view of the war.  But more importantly, the museum has now expanded and works with children affected by the war in a number of places, develops educational materials related to those experiences, and provides us all with the space to rethink the idea of children in war--they are not merely victims, but distinct individuals whose creativity and courage can inspire all of us.

Casa Vicens, Barcelona, Spain 
It's the building.  While in Barcelona I visited several Gaudi buildings--and rediscovered that every tourist in Barcelona wants to see those same buildings.  But Casa Vicens,  outside of the center and newly opened in 2017,   It's Gaudi's first first house, and it was the kind of place, in both its exuberance and its concern for family life, that made you want to move in.  I loved exploring up and down, inside and out.

Shared Reconciliation Program, Kigali Genocide Museum, Kigali, Rwanda*
I did find time to write a blog post about this--one of the most compelling experiences I've ever had and a reminder that reconciliation is possible.

The experiences marked with an asterisk are members of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.  I urge you to check out our work and to consider how your museum, memorial, or memory initiative can be involved.  Have questions--comment or email me!

If you're interested in knowing ALL the museums I visit, please check out my Google map.  As I finished this post and went searching for pictures, I thought about so many other museum experiences this year:  in Saint-Louis, Senegal; in Romania, in Newfoundland, and so many more--far too many to mention, but all of them in my memory.

If you want to share your own great museum experience of 2018, please comment below or elsewhere on social media (on Twitter or Instagram, tag @lindabnorris).   May 2019 bring even more compelling experiences, no matter where you are. 

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Looking for a Mentor? Now's Your Chance!

Hard to believe, but this is the 7th call for my annual mentorship program.  Should you be interested?  It's often hard to know where a career in the museum field might lead you--and how to navigate the world of co-workers, organizational structure, and larger issues in the field as a whole.  If you think that might be helpful--maybe this is for you.

All kinds of colleagues have been mentees over these seven years:  educators, curators, archivists, directors, people in the United States, people working globally, students in Ph.D programs or just finishing a museum studies program, mid-career folks, people looking for a career shift or looking to make the most of where they are.  All kinds of people.

This week, I reached out to previous mentees to find out how they viewed the experience after a bit of distance.  Here's what some of them said:
"I think for me the biggest takeaway from our conversations was the encouragement to write, and this summer I had a narrative essay published in FWD: Museums, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Museum Studies and Exhibitions program at the University of Illinois at Chicago."
"It taught me how to approach mentoring others... I’ve gotten involved with the mentoring program that EdCom is doing. I’ve had a couple of mentees in that program as I “pay it forward.” "
"For me, as a new museum professional at a small museum that, in some ways, was isolated from mainstream museum practice, it was helpful to have someone removed from the situation to discuss challenges with. It was also great to have someone knowledgeable about the museum literature to discuss issues with - I knew I was getting advice that was grounded in best practice, as well as solid ideas on where to look for further resources. The fact that the meetings were regular and were things I didn't have to initiate meant that I was forced to find time in my schedule for reading and reflection - things that should be an integral part of the work of anyone new to cultural heritage work, but a part of the work that's hard to find time for in an entry-level job."
What do I gain from it?  Even though I now have "network" in my official job title, it's always been a key part of the way I approach my work.  I love new ideas and new perspectives--these monthly conversations provide that for me as well as for mentees.  Approaching work in a spirit of generosity repays itself in so many ways and helps expand a community of museum colleagues.

What's the Mentorship Look Like?

We'll schedule monthly Skype conversations at times convenient for us both, and you can apply no matter where you live or work or what stage of your career you're in. I'll expect you to be both a good listener and a good questioner--and be willing to look at your self deeply.

From you, I'll expect one or two blog posts over the year on deadlines we mutually set and of course, active participation and questioning when we talk. In addition to the monthly conversations, I'll also provide feedback, introductions as I can, and loads and loads of opinions!

If you want to know more about my work and my approach to the field. please read blog posts, check out my LinkedIn profile, follow me on Twitter or Instagram, and of course, check out Creativity in Museum Practice, co-written with Rainey Tisdale.  You might also want to check out the work of the organization I work for, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

What Makes a Good Mentee?

I'm particularly interested in people who have entered the field from different directions and who bring different perspectives to the work. At the moment as well, I'd love to hear from activists who see museum and archive work as a way to build a more just society. Unfortunately, you must be an English speaker, but you can be from anywhere in the world because we can always work out the time zones! I find that the quality of curiosity is a great bonus.

Okay, I'm In! How do I Apply?

If you're interested, by January 7, 2019, send me an email with the subject line "mentorship: [lastname]" that includes two attachments: your resume and answers to the following questions:
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What questions would you like to discuss with me during the year?
  • What was an early creative act? (I mean, not in work, but early, as in childhood)
  • What's the most interesting museum experience you had in the last year and why?
  • What's one thing wrong with museums?

How Do I Decide?

Because this is my own individual project, I get to make my own decisions, sometimes with the counsel of a few trusted colleagues. I'm probably not very interested in you if your key questions are about becoming a consultant. Non-US colleagues, people of color, and those entering the field from unconventional ways, you're particularly encouraged to apply.

I want to be challenged and intrigued, I don't care about your Meyers-Briggs type or your grades in graduate school. I appreciate people who don't take themselves too seriously. I want to get off that Skype call every month ready to think more about your work and my work and the ways we can make change. Museums have a larger role to play in this complex world--but only if we dig in and get at it.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Food not Fear

I'm lucky enough to visit lots of places in the world. This year alone, Senegal, Rwanda, Cambodia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Lebanon, Lithuania, Turkey, and Mexico have all been stamped in my passport.  I've discovered that there may be two fundamental approaches to exploring the world.

When I tell people where I'm going, one kind of person says, "Isn't that dangerous?"  And that danger might mean everything from sectarian violence to food poisoning.

But there's another kind of person--and fundamentally, I'm the second.  This is the person who asks me, when I say I'm going to one of these places, "I bet the food is great!  Tell me what it's like!"  That's the way I hope all of us would approach the world--with an openness to difference, to traditions, and to what represents comfort and hope to all kinds of people.

What have I learned from food?

Migration and Meals
I've had the chance to see long trails of migration and changing borders.  I learned about the work of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul over meals with colleagues from the Hrant Dink Foundation.  In Lebanon, I ate wonderful Armenian food with two Germans now living there, and learnt about how many Armenians made Lebanon their home after the Armenian genocide of 1915.  But in Puebla Mexico,  on a food walk with Eat Mexico, I learned about Tacos arabes, a speciality of the city, created by Lebanese immigrants.  Those trails of food connect us.

In Saint-Louis, Senegal, I watched bakers creating fresh baguettes, a legacy of French colonialization. In Sarajevo, my hotel served me special Bosnian coffee, which owed much to Turkish coffee. Dinner in a Romanian cafe had echoes of the Austria-Hungarian empire in its food, and at the same time, mama liga (usually called banosh in Ukrainian) reminded me how much interchange happened in this part of the world.  No matter where you are, the newest residents bring their own food traditions, which are mixed, adapted and embraced by others and old traditions hang on.

Local still Matters
Despite the fact that there sometimes seem to be a Starbucks or KFC on every corner, everywhere, local still matters.  Whenever I can, I seek out local markets, the best place to see that local still matters.  Along the road in Senegal you can see mango season ending and melon beginning.  In Mexico, mamey sapote had just arrived at the market when I was there.  In Cambodia, there's a riot of fresh fruits and vegetables in the crowded market--diving into the crowds is a feast for all the senses. 

When I persuaded a friend to pull over for a village market in Romania, it was hard to resist the large handmade copper still for sale.  I love when any waiter is happy to explain a meal--at one restaurant in Puebla, a waiter didn't feel his English was up to the task, so he went and pulled the owner into the conversation.  In Newfoundland, Canada, a new movement towards local food means not just partridgeberry jam but also house-made charcuterie including moose sausage.  Local food still mattering is just another way of saying local stories--everyone's stories--still matter.

Fried dough matters everywhere
Goes without saying--try it when you see it!

Meals are about talking, not just eating
Whether it's talking with African colleagues over a meal in Kigali, or eating seafood with a museum colleague in Antwerp, or laughing as we attempt to buy fruit from a street vendor in Phnom Penh with Sites of Conscience members from all over Asia, or drinking beer on the steps of the art museum in Lithuania (as above) meals have brought me together with so many amazing people around the world.   

This week, of course, like most Americans, I got to celebrate Thanksgiving with my own extended family (large and growing).  As we head into the holiday season, do remember how many people don't get the opportunity to gather around the table with family and friends.  Remember them. 

We're too big a family group to fit into a single photo, so I'll end with one from this summer--my Italian friend Martina, from Rome,  and her family visited Drew and me at the very beginning of their cross-country adventure.  We talked, we laughed, we ate--the best!

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Are We There Yet? Creating Deep Learning Experiences

Aerial view of Auckland Museum, with Auckland City Centre in the distance
Each year, I ask each mentee who's spending some time with me to write a blog post.  Here, Claire Lanyon of the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand shares her team's learning as they create Discovery Kits for in-school use.  Stay tuned in early December for the call for the 2019 Mentorship.
The Learning Team

As Learning Manager at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum, I am responsible for the team who design, develop and deliver learning experiences onsite, offsite and online.  I am part of the Learning and Engagement Team, which consists of two teams, the Learning Team and the Public Programmes Team.  The Learning and Engagement Team were restructured in October 2017, I was appointed in November 2017 in an interim role which became permanent in March 2018. 
Our Challenge
Approximately 10% of Auckland’s formal learners visit for a ‘learning experience outside of the classroom’ (approx 45,000 students per year).  Our target by 2022 is to increase formal learner visitation to 100,000 on-site visits per year, representing approximately 25% of K-12 students in the city. 
We are transforming our offer, there are so many aspects of this journey that I could share.  However, I have decided to focus on one of the projects that has been pivotal in re-engaging with the sector - a key priority for the first phase of transformation:  Discovery Kits.
This isn’t a new idea (as a potential funder pointed out, after speaking to a friend who used to deliver dioramas to schools from Auckland Museum somewhere during the 1930’s - 1950’s!).  However, we were keen to retain the essence, whilst innovating, and I was particularly keen to ensure that we were creating a scalable and sustainable model.  During discussions with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage during a previous role that I held at the Museum, a serendipitous sponsorship opportunity was already in discussion and this opportunity formed the first ‘low-risk’ testing phase for the development of a series of Discovery Kits utilizing Auckland Museum’s collections for authentic learning in classrooms throughout New Zealand.
The First Discovery Kit - Walking with an Anzac
Working with an organization called School Kit, who develop innovative teaching ideas that are robustly integrated with opportunities for authentic use of online sources for learning, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage had committed to producing Walking with an Anzac Discovery Kits that would be delivered at no charge to 1,000 classrooms, reaching 32,000 students.  In order to receive a kit, teachers committed to utilizing the resources within the same school term as delivery.  Auckland Museum was invited as a sponsor as, integral to the work that the students would be undertaking, was one of our online products - Online Cenotaph.
Within the Walking with an Anzac Discovery Kit, were thirty-two objects that related to a story of a specific service person.  As part of the sponsorship opportunity, it was determined that seven of the objects would be reproduced from Auckland Museum’s collection.
A snapshot of some of the objects within the Walking with an Anzac Discovery Kit
The reproduction of the objects was of an extremely high quality, the accompanying resources were pedagogically sound and the feedback from teachers and students was very positive.  We were able to leverage this positive experience and demonstrate to our Executive Team and key stakeholders that this was a model that could form part of our strategy to re-engage with the sector and develop learning opportunities and provide pre and post-visit resources that supports inquiry learning.
The Second Discovery Kit - Are We There Yet?
With this learning experience as a foundation, we were confident that this was an approach that we would like to replicate to support our learning offer for future exhibitions.  2018 is the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.  To commemorate this milestone, the Exhibition Team have developed a thought-provoking exhibition called Are we there yet? Women and Equality in Aotearoa.  The exhibition tells untold stories and features New Zealand women from all walks of life who have contributed to advancing equality for women.  It reflects on the tradition of Western Museum object collecting, showing whose voices are preserved in Museum collections and whose aren’t - aiming to unpack this and highlight these gaps and unheard voices.
With this in mind, colleagues from the Exhibition and Learning Teams met with School Kit to devise a plan for the Are we there yet? Discovery Kit.  Our aim was to develop a kit that would:
      Be suitable for use in year 7 to 12 classrooms, including all boys schools and schools with a religious character
      Elicit discussion and debate in a safe environment
      Be centered around the school community
      Showcase the exhibition and demonstrate that Auckland Museum is a place for authentic and meaningful learning experiences
During the development phase, we identified an opportunity to highlight and share the amazing work of an Auckland based company called Figure.NZ.  Figure.NZ:
exists to enable everyone to make sense of data and see Aotearoa clearly. Our dream is that when every New Zealander wants to use data, can get their hands on it, and knows how to use it effectively, the nation will be able to shift away from a culture of binary debate and arguments over what the situations are.”
We had a hunch that providing contemporary statistical data, that highlights gender inequality in an accessible format, would provide the students with a strong foundation to support them in making up their own minds about whether ‘we are there yet’ with regards to gender equality in Aotearoa (it was a bonus that Figure.NZ was founded by an awesome woman and potential role-model, Lillian Grace).
Figure.NZ’s business cards were the inspiration for the eight data cards that were inside the Are we the yet? Discovery Kit.  These data cards were designed to support the class teacher to elicit contemporary discussion and inspire the students to want to learn more - the topic was firmly rooted in what was happening in their own communities, right now.  Additionally, 32 blank ‘Draw a Scientist’ cards were provided to uncover the unconscious gender bias that may be hidden within their own classroom walls.
One of the ‘data sentence’ cards, provided within the discovery kit
Supported by comprehensive online resources, the Are we there yet? Discovery kit contains eight objects that can be seen within the exhibition and empowers students to interrogate contemporary data, examine historical objects and develop research and communication skills to unlock known and unknown stories of women from 125 years ago through to today.  Delivered to teachers, who register for the kit, the kits are free of charge and remain with the teacher indefinitely (ensuring a valuable resource for years to come). Utilising vinyl decals included within the kit, the students are empowered to create their own exhibition that highlights the stories of eight women within their communities.  The outcome will be that 16,000 students from 500 classrooms throughout New Zealand will have engaged with and interviewed women from their own communities in order to develop their exhibition.
A snapshot of some of the objects within the Are we there yet? Discovery Kit
The boxes were delivered to teachers during the first week of term 3, feedback so far has been extremely positive with one teacher saying:
“Of all of the kits I have had the privilege to use, this is the one that is making the most impact on my class.  This would be something that I will not rush through and will do each year”
It is early in the term so we have not yet seen the students work.  However, we are already very proud of the results and the feedback that is trickling in from teachers across the country.  We learned a number of things that we will take forward for the next kit:
      The decision to create this came very late in the exhibition design process, whilst this assisted us to make some quick content-based decisions, the timeframe for creating the discovery kit was tight.
      Partially due to the tight timeframes, the website was not ready until the kits were delivered in the first week of term.  Next time, we would ensure that the website is ready before the school holidays to empower teachers confidence in making their own connections for their own classrooms.
      The discovery kits are developed by School Kit who have a number of other kits, commissioned by other companies.  The Are we there yet? Discovery Kit web pages are beautiful but the Auckland Museum branding could be more prominent.  Some teachers visiting the exhibition have not made the connection that the Are we there yet? Discovery Kit was co-developed by Auckland Museum and School Kit.
      We would like to consider how we better help teachers and students have direct dialogue with Auckland Museum, as well as other schools utilizing the kits.
Finally, whilst this is a relatively cost-effective way to ‘engage every school child’ (one of our Auckland Museum’s goals in our current five-year strategic plan), it is an investment (both people and financial) that cannot be reproduced for every exhibition that we have.  Therefore, we are exploring additional business models that also enable revenue generation.  This business model is firmly a ‘loss-leader’ that boldly demonstrates our new learning team vision:
“To empower all learners to understand and contribute to a changing world”