Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Celebrate Small Success but Aim Big


I had asked one of my 2014 mentees, Megan Wood, Edsel and Eleanor Ford House (above) Associate Vice President of Education & Visitor Experience, to do a wrap-up about success, failure and learning in a new job--as that was the focus of many of our year-long conversations. Here's her thoughts.


2014 was a really big year for me.

We bought a house, we sold a house.
We moved to a new state.
My husband and I left our jobs and took on new jobs.
Every one of our siblings either moved and/or had children in some combination.

In my new job, I decided to tackle a few big projects while hiring new staff, learning my responsibilities, and continuing to staff and program the site. The first project was comprehensive visitor studies that would provide us with data about our visitors’ pre-conceptions, understanding and takeaways. The second was a brand new interpretive plan to serve as a decision making tool for all programming and on site interpretation.

Being new and taking on big projects has its real benefits and drawbacks.

Benefits:
  • Coming in with a fresh set of eyes and not being afraid of the outcome.
  • As the “new person” your ideas can sometimes seem fresher, even if someone else has already being trying to accomplish the same task.
  • There can potentially be more support of the project because there is an expectation that new people will do new things.
Drawbacks:
  • Going down a path that has already been trudged and staff are weary.
  • Accidentally stepping on toes or feelings.
  • It can be hard to navigate project management while also learning the culture of a different institution.
  • Trying to advocate for a project while still building trust can take a lot of time.
  • Learning a new job is hard enough sometimes!
How’d I do?
  • I would say I had 75% success on one project and about 20% success on the other.
  • We’re about to get reporting on a visitor studies project. It is not the full scope of the original project, but rightly so, my boss wanted to see results before agreeing to commit more resources.
  • We are still in the middle of interpretive planning. It has been an evolving process and that has both grown and shrunk over time. Do I wish I was further along? Yes. Do I think it’s actually possible to have this project almost done sitting here almost a year later? No.
What did I learn?
  • I think it is ok to dream big with projects, but I think I can be more realistic in my dreaming in 2015 now that more experienced in managing projects at my new workplace.
  • I will celebrate small success more and not beat myself up for what didn’t get done. Chances are, we’re still doing a lot of good.
  • Continue to be ambitious and excited about the good work I want to do and bring my colleagues along with that enthusiasm. Roadblocks are not the end of the world, just the end of one path. Maybe there’s a better path to follow.
In closing, I want to thank Linda for her year of mentorship. Big years are good years to have an outside, somewhat disinterested, party to listen and give advice. It was a great help and kept things in perspective.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Dancing into the New Year: Inspirations


To start 2015 in a culture of appreciation, I want to share two recent New York City museum experiences that reinforced for me the importance of joy and creativity in our work.

First up, the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Much has been written about all the technology in play at the museum--but that's only part of the reason to go.  Not surprisingly for a museum of design, design for humans is at the center of the entire experience. What do I mean?



The technology is easy to access.   The very large touch tables in several locations draw you in; and they're easy to use--you never feel like a failure when something happens you don't expect, you feel like an explorer.  In the immersive wallpaper room, a couple turned to me and said, "how do you do this?"  I admitted I didn't know either, and then watched them easily create their own wallpaper designs that then filled the room.  The museum encourages creators--I would have assumed that more people were interested in seeing historic wallpaper on the walls of the space, but in fact, more people seemed to be interested in creating their own.


But the technology is not the reason but the tool. (If you want to know more about the technology, check out Seb Chan's post about what he's been doing when he hasn't been blogging over the past year.)  To me, the central part of all the exhibitions was an exploration of ways in which design is at the center of so much human activity.   Well-written clear labels encourage you to really consider design,  and in the Process Lab, plain old hands-on tools are combined with touch tables in interesting ways.   I watched a woman in her 20s spending a long time designing a shade for a lamp, encouraged by these simple prompts.


Museums are often sooooo serious.  This museum has a sense of humor.  I liked the categories for rating ideas on this touch table:


And I liked that the sense of humor encouraged others to approach work in the spirit of playfulness. Maira Kalman's exhibit exemplified a sense of humor--and of wonder-- that is throughout the whole museum.  Here's one of her labels:


And here's one visitor's idea for a combination object solving a problem:


Because it's in a historic mansion, the scale also seems very human.  The installations, often very beautiful, encouraged deep, sustained looking from all kinds of people.


But perhaps my favorite view was an unexpected reminder of the importance of design in our everyday lives.  As I came downstairs from the exhibit on tools, I heard a familiar noise in the stairway--the brisk whisking all of us know.  I looked down, and there was a member of the staff, sweeping away, with a straw broom, a tool that has existed, in virtually similar form, for thousands of years.


The second exhibit that inspired me?  Henry Matisse:  The Cutouts at the Museum of Modern Art.  The installation was great, giving you places both to look close-up at the work (and learning that he actually used pins because he was always changing them) and spaces to step back and get a big view (of, for instance, the work at the top of this post).  I appreciated that the curatorial voice was focused on the creation of the work--and in some places, by its preservation.  


Matisse's determination, experimentation and joy resounded in every room.  We've got a print of one of the cutouts in our bedroom and I'll never look at it quite the same way again.  The exhibit took something familiar and made it entirely new to me.  And, for those who think that looking at images online will discourage visitation (and there are still some who think that); seeing these works in person was so much more, so different, so much more moving, that looking at my screen.

I haven't made a list of resolutions for the new year, but this post coincides with two activities I've come across that I'm going to try and make a part of my process.  First, keeping a surprise journal  and second, thanks to my colleague and friend Anne Ackerson, keeping an accomplishments jar.  Matisse's surprise journal would have been full every day, I feel; and colleagues at the Cooper Hewitt must have their accomplishments jar overflowing as the new year starts.  May your and my new year be the same.



Matisse images from the very thoughtful and beautiful website for the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"New forms work, winds of change"


In a post just after I finished a series of workshops in Ukraine this fall, I wrote about what the four of us had learned as presenters, and promised a follow-up post on what our enthusiastic participants from dozens of museums had learned. The workshops focused in incorporating visitor voices into all aspects of museum work, with a particular emphasis on visitor voices as a way of developing and enhancing civil society. Many thanks to Eugene Chervony for his translation of survey responses.

In a pre-workshop survey, we asked people to describe personally, what they thouight “visitor voices in exhibitions” meant. Answers included:
  • Visitor’s voices is important quality index of museum activity
  • Active participants of different event, who are not standing outside, but engaged to conversation.
  • This is evaluation of museum staff activity
  • I have not enough information about this theme.
Almost all the answers were brief, with only a broad sense of what it might mean. But when we asked after the workshop, here's some of the responses we received:
  • Visitor voices is stable form of feedback between museum and its visitor for better understanding of work perspectives and for analysus of what has been done. This is changing from organization of didactical education to dialog place, where you can share your thoughts and wishes
  • Visitor voices are unique, because every audience is unique. There is no recipe for success for museum. WE need to hear visitor. For me visitor voice on exhibits - it is a new vision and understanding of people with different character, sex or age. New ideas for museum development. Visitors are important, we have hear them.
  • VV – it’s collaboration between visitor and museum, visitor and its exhibition. This collaboration has a various forms: feedbacks, reaction, gifts, personal story.
  • Taking to the consider visitor’s voices in development of exhibition and excursion planning is one of important museum tasks, for it makes museum more open and are in demand.
  • As to me, without VV it is not possible to become successful museum for we are working for public, thought social environment corrects visitors’ expectation of museum service.
  • For me it got the possibility more clearly understand the visitors’ thoughts, for our visitor our consumer in one way or another. In other words, people like candy much more then vegetable salad thought it’s more healthy, so they need to be fed both – sweet and healthy – in turns
Theory is great, but what specific tools did they learn?
  • I found out simple and available methods of visitor surveys and its necessity.
  • I understood that every museum should to find own way to rapport with visitor. 
  • There are many various ways and techniques for VV collecting, but may I realize them without money… 
  • For me the analysis of visitors’ profile was a valuable. I realized my mistakes)))
  • New forms work, wind of change.
I find in developing training--no matter where it is--that simple, low-cost methods always need to be a part of the equation.  That's particularly true in Ukraine these days.  It was exciting to see these more complex views on the topic—but as always, the proof is in the pudding. Would our museum colleagues return to their museums and do anything different? Could those winds of change really happen?  Here’s some of their plans:
  • Children and adults involvement in teamwork. Conducting evenings of memory or honor to particular theme. During these events visitors express their thoughts, excitement, joy. With these evenings you can hear the voices of visitors, the museum changed for the better.
  • Using an individual approach to visitors, by introducing the questionnaire, questionnaire creation in social networks to study the thoughts of the audience.
  • I plan to open one of the rooms in a creative workshop. So in any day any person could come, sit and work. As Christmas is soon, start with Christmas gifts
  • Step small but efficient and does not entail financial costs: board with stickers, which contained, thoughts and wishes.
  • Since our museum expositions do not have any labels, I will actively encourage visitors to ask provocative questions. 
  • Learn the experience of other museums, and from that to choose what suits us.
For me, one of the most important take-aways is the sense that visitors' voices went from an abstraction, to a more personal, deeply felt idea; a sense of empathy with and for museum visitors--and the larger community.  Equally important was the sense of creative confidence I see in the responses and the understanding that one size doesn't fit all. We provided not a single solution, but a toolkit for change.

Did anything really happen?  That's always the question--and last week I got a lovely answer via Ihor Poshyvailo, one of my co-presenters, who sent along an image from the Repin Museum, whose staff attended our workshop in Kharkiv.  They invited 6th grade visitors to write their wishes for the future on a New Year's tree made of hands, now at the museum.  My best wishes to all of you for a 2015 filled with creativity!


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

#MuseumsrespondtoFerguson Update


I just wanted to update readers on the many thoughtful responses on the issue of whether museums have a choice and a responsibility to take action on social justice issues, most particularly those of race, occasioned by the recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and sadly, other locations throughout the United States.  If you haven't yet, be sure to read the joint statement from museum bloggers.

As a follow-up, The Incluseum has a non-exhaustive list of thoughtful questions we need to ask ourselves, including, "What 'right now' actions can museums take to show solidarity?" and "Are museums focused on “community” to justify the acquisition of cultural objects or are museums truly invested in their community members?"  They also offer a similarly non-exhaustive list of next steps your museum might take.

The list of resources for teaching and talking about Ferguson and related events continues to grow at Art Museum Teaching.  Check it out and add new resources as you find them.

On December 17, Adrienne Russell and Aleia Brown facilitated a Twitter chat about the subject. You can find the full conversation storified.  Most astonishing to me were the comments from several participants working at museums whose leadership had forbidden engaging with visitors on the topic. Given the response and the importance of the issue, they'll be hosting a regular monthly Twitter chat, every third Wednesday, 2:00-3:00 PM EST.  Be sure to check it out.

Jeanne Vergeront, in Museum Notes, calls for all of us, as organizations, to move from nice to necessary, something that won't be done without substantial pushing from within and outside museums.  She writes of the idea of a museum in service to its community:  
Regardless of its size and prestige, a museum exists to serve its audience and community. It must maintain a perpetual, alert, and respectful outlook on its community and the ways in which it can be a valued resource for it. In dynamic environments, external conditions change and will absolutely change the way in which a museum can and should serve its community. Furthermore, valuing service to its community must be actively owned across the museum, be integrated in the museum’s culture, and persist through changes in leadership and times of scarcer resources.
And Jeanne also includes a wrap-up of statements from museum organizations (is yours represented?) and links to the work of museums directly addressing the issue.

Gretchen Jennings, of Museum Commons, who did the work of bringing a disparate group of bloggers together to begin these online conversations, shares a guest post from Melanie Adams, Managing Director of Community Education and Events at the Missouri History Museum and President of the Association of Midwest Museums.  Writes Melanie,
Museums should not be reactionary, but instead find ways to regularly engage the community. Exhibits and programs with a community focus should not happen only after a tragic community event, but take place throughout the year. By providing a space for difficult conversations on issues of race, class, gender identity, and immigration, museums establish themselves as a place where communities can come together to discuss conflict and begin to find resolution. Then when something does happen in your community, it would be natural for you to address the issue and you will not be seen as taking advantage of an already tense situation.
What should your resolution be for the New Year?  How about finding ways to have those conversations before a community crisis, not after.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

#MuseumsrespondtoFerguson




Over the past year, the themes of courage and empathy have repeatedly come into my professional life, from watching Ukrainian museums and the Revolution to working with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center on ways to convey emotional, not physical, courage to museum visitors. Increasingly, I find that I am looking inside myself and at the field to see how we can be bolder, how we can invest in communities before a time of crisis when our communities need us.  Over the last week, Gretchen Jennings has virtually brought a diverse group of museum bloggers and colleagues together to think about our individual, organizational and field-wide responsibilities in terms of the events in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island.  Here's our statement. I hope you'll join all of us (see the full list at the bottom of this post) in this effort.

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and related events

The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve. 

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role--as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit--in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change. 

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook---that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by...

      Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media

      Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily

      Checking out Art Museum Teaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson:  Connecting with Resources

      Sharing additional resources in the comments
      Asking your professional organization to respond
      Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum.It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
      Looking at the website for International Coalition of  Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.
Participating Bloggers and Colleagues
Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons
Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum
Aleia Brown, AleiaBrown.org
Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities
Porchia Moore, Cultural Heritage Informatics Librarian at the University of
South Carolina and Regular Contributor for Inclusuem

Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching
Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum
Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities
Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
Rainey Tisdale, CityStories
Jeanne Vergeront  Museum Notes
Image:  Author and activist Kevin Powell moderated a town hall meeting on issues concerning events in Ferguson, Missouri, at the Missouri History Museum on August 25.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What Do You See in This Picture from the Rijksmuseum?

This picture has been all over my social media feed for the last week.  It's a group of teenagers engrossed in their phones in front of Rembrandt's Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. And the more I read comments from my colleagues, the madder I got.  I didn't get mad at those teenagers, I got mad at my colleagues (and others) whose comments included "so sad,"  "sigh,"  "how have we let this happen?"

As it happened, I spent a day at the Rijksmuseum last winter including some time in that very room looking at the art and yes, taking photos.  Here's one I took.


The same absorption, but with a different tool.  Would this have caused the handwringing?  Probably not.  Instead, we'd celebrate this deep dive into a topic.  How about this?


Wow, a student reading to learn more (take a closer look to see what he's reading).  Just imagine, for a minute, what could those students at the top of the post might be doing on their phones:

We all know that photographs only capture a single moment. It's the viewers' perceptions that help define the image.  Students absorbed in cellphones is just one image--and can be defined in so many ways, positive or negative.  To expand the pool, here are some more images of what I observed teenagers doing at the Rijksmuseum:  looking, talking, engaging.



But why did the comments make me mad?  I'm mad because it revealed some serious failures to me: a failure of empathy, about understanding these students, their lives and their needs and a failure of imagination,  unwilling to imagine what else they might be doing on their phones.  I'm mad because despite the enormous potential (and the resources devoted to them) of these new tools, far too many museum people still think of them as useless or silly or sad.  Many commenters saw distractions; far fewer saw potential.

I think there's an enormous amount to be said for learning to just look at art. I saw teenagers at the Rijksmuseum and plenty of other places learning to do just that (and a big shout-out to the Rijksmuseum education team who I saw engaging audiences of all ages and of course, to the abundant generosity of Rijksstudio projects)  I think balancing lives lived digitally and in the real world is a huge challenge for all of us.  But I also think the comments I saw pulled back the curtain on a not-so-attractive part of our field.  That's the part that still thinks we know best.  What did you see when you looked at that picture?

Update:  thanks to tweep Jason Alderman (@justsomeguy) for pointing me to the photographer; and very many thanks to Gijsbert van der Wal for taking and sharing the image.



Monday, December 1, 2014

Abe, You and Me: Mentorship Round 3


“The best way to predict your future is to create it”
                                                  Abraham Lincoln

As regular readers of the blog know, for the past two years I've had my own informal mentor program. I started it, honestly, because of a certain dissatisfaction with the field. I wanted to make a contribution to the future on my own terms (after a round of a number of session proposal rejections) and because I don't work in a museum, there weren't opportunities to mentor colleagues on an organizational basis. I'm continually reminded that our field is facing big, thorny, complicated issues that will take all of our energy to solve.  Taking Lincoln's advice, this project is my small shot at creating that brighter future for museums. It's been an experiment all along the way--but worth continuing. So it's on to Round 3!

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.

Who Can Apply

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 and your curiosity and passion make great conversations happen for both of us.

The Shape of the Mentorship

We'll schedule hour-long monthly Skype or Google hangout conversations at times convenient for us both.  In addition to the monthly conversations, I'll happily provide feedback, introductions as I can, and loads and loads of opinions.  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.

But it's not my solely my perspective that matters in this process.  Here's what the three mentees from the last two years shared with me.  As you can see, they are each very different people, so the year's conversations were different for each of them (and me).
Catherine Charlebois: I got to meet someone new, expanding in the process my horizons and having the privilege to access her experiences and sharing thoughts on museum's inner works. 
Each month I was looking forward to our meetings but never (I have to be honest here), had the time to think deeply on what our conversation should be about. I felt bad, because since I was the one who had applied for the mentorship, I should at least prepare something or know what the theme should be... And each time I was just surprised that we didn't need that much directions afterward, it was just the real and authentic pleasure of sharing thoughts, desires and dreams of what museum are and should be that guided us through our conversations and each time these filled up my tank of energy.
Megan Wood: This year of mentorship was great as I transitioned into a new job. It has been valuable to have someone outside my daily life to talk to and get advice from. While many of us have informal mentors, the structure of this pushed me to think about progress from month to month.
Alicia Akins: The opportunities to guest post, be introduced to people, have an unbiased third party take my questions seriously, and to realize that in the midst of learning I could also be learned from have bolstered my confidence and helped me think more proactively about the future.
How to Apply

If you're interested, by December 21, send me an email that includes your resume plus responses to the following questions.  No word count specified.  Say what you have to say, short or long.
  • Tell me about one thing you're particularly curious about--in any part of your life
  • 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?
  • Share a description of your first creative act 
  • What change would you like to see in the museum field?  

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 that 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 graduate students and more.  Be interesting not dull; demonstrate an interest for the field rather than just your own career. I'll make a decision no later than January 5, 2015.

 Questions, ask away!