Monday, July 27, 2015

Tough Talk Part 2: Stowe Center Conversations


In my last post, I attempted to make the case (made more effectively by so many others) that museums need to become places where we can talk about tough issues.  Last week, I got a chance to sit in on a Stowe Salon at Lunch, at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, in Hartford CT,  on the subject of white privilege which was skillfully facilitated by Michelle McFarland, Branch Manager of Hartford Public Library’s Mark Twain Branch. A frame for the conversation was the article, "I, Racist" by John Metta, which coincidentally was also used in the last #museumsrespondtoFerguson twitter chat.

Before it began, I was curious about who would come to the Stowe Center, not exactly in the middle of a highly trafficked area, during their lunch hour, to talk about white privilege.  Stowe Center has a great track record of their evening salons, with guest speakers, but these lunchtime conversations are a new effort.  Who came?  Almost forty people, with a great diversity of age, gender, race and ethnicity, and life experiences. What happened was moving--and yet only a start--to the conversations that can happen.
 

My scribbled notes can't convey the whole conversation--I was trying to deeply listen and to take notes, but here's a bit of what people said.  I haven't put these in quotes but these are as close to quotes as I can get from my notes.
I had to get past my own history (Irish) and think about what we are now and the privilege that I and my children have. 
I want to disagree that solving social and economic issues will make racism go away. 
We can no longer pretend that racism doesn't exist just because no one is shackled.
Racism only happens in silence. 
As a white person I have the obligation to speak up.
Do statistics make us whites comfortable?  Is it a way not to face up to the issues? 
We need to think about the intersectionality of racism with all the other isms. 
It's more than just a matter of balance, it's a matter of justice.
The group ranged widely over topics, ranging from a teacher commenting on the de facto segregation of Connecticut schools, to the 1965 Moynihan report and its long-ranging effect on how we think about race and family,  to the ways in which differing family structures are not judged as failures in other countries. Some of the older participants reflected on their own lives in terms of progress made and not made.  There was both a sense of discouragement--that this is still an issue--and at the same time, a sense of hopefulness, that, as one person said, "This time we live in--we're moving the ball forward with the discussion about what racism is.  We're not just talking about the grand dragon in robes."  

After the conversation ended, it continued in small groups.  People exchanged phone numbers and emails, went deeper to learn more about one comment or another; and almost an hour later, people were still standing and talking deeply to people they had never met before.

As I write this, I'm in Seattle about to head off for two days of a University of Washington Museum Studies program convening on dialogue in museums so I'm sure I'll have much more to ponder.  But from my ongoing Stowe experience and this particular conversation, here are some of my takeaways.

  • Believe in your strong mission.  The Stowe Center's programs stem directly from their mission, which says in part,  [the Stowe Center] "promotes vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspires commitment to social justice and positive change."  If you don't have a strong, community-focused mission, spend time re-thinking it.
  • Don't be afraid to experiment.  The lunchtime salons were an experiment.  The staff said at the first one, they had only set-up a few chairs.  And keep experimenting.
  • Don't be afraid of the conversations. People did disagree in this conversation, and sometimes there were parts that were hard to hear.  But we need to.
  • Make a long-term commitment.  This harkens back to the session that Melanie Adams of the Missouri Historical Museum did at AAM describing that institution's long commitment to conversations about race.  Community engagement takes time.
  • Frame the conversation, facilitate well and set ground rules.  Michelle did a great job always keeping the conversation respectful, focused and yet wide-ranging.   Staff noted that the evening salons, with guest speakers, tended to be less conversational.  This set-up provides room for different conversations.
  • Make time for follow-up.  As we watched the one-on-one conversations happening after the conversation ended, the staff and I talked about the need for refreshments, comfy chairs and other ways to keep those opportunities going.

Michelle ended the conversation with a quote from Bayard Rustin, “The proof that one truly believes is in action.”   That's true for all of us.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Still Wondering if History Museums should Talk about Tough Issues?


I've been in the museum field a long time.  This past year has felt like a time of real change in the way we're thinking and talking about museums and their social responsibilities.  From #museumsrespondtoFerguson to debates about whether we're ready to tell the stories of what the Confederate flag symbolizes, to in Ukraine, the debates and legislation about de-communisation and the removal of all Soviet symbols, there's been incredible conversation and debate both within and outside of the field about our work of representing the past.

But this past week or so, I've been reminded about why this is important--and why we, particularly as history museums, need to continue to work harder.  As I've been out and about in upstate New York, I've come across several obviously brand-new Confederate flags flying from houses or tacked up on barns.

What does this mean?  I haven't stopped to knock on any doors to find out but I 'm struck by its contrast with the other parts of this region's history.  My own county sent more than 2500 men to fight in the Civil War and statues of Civil War soldiers are found in almost every county seat.

Why the flag now?  It might mean that the owner just doesn't like being told what to do by anybody--a part of a long-standing libertarian streak here.  It might mean new prejudices emerging.  It might mean a resurgence of organized racism in an area where, in the 1920s, the Klan was highly active (and more than a few Klan uniforms exist in museum collections) It might be in protest against NASCAR's request that fans refrain from flying the Confederate flag at races.

Last December, the American Association for State and Local History issued a statement as a part of #museumsrespondtoFerguson.  It read, in part,
As integral members of American society, history organizations have a responsibility to collect, interpret, and engage in our country’s history, including both the harmonious and the controversial histories. Difficult histories include the recollections of controversy. By commemorating and teaching difficult histories, organizations and museums can make a powerful statement to the collective narrative effectively demonstrating that difficult histories matter in the present. Museums and history organizations must take risks to represent difficult histories, even when they are uncomfortable and even painful to recall. Historical representations of difficult histories have the power to awaken a passion in citizens by asking them to look at history from multiple viewpoints, viewpoints that can reveal the struggles for a more just and compassionate moral order. AASLH continues to lead and advocate for inclusive interpretation that reflects all voices with mutual respect. As our nation grapples with the events surrounding Ferguson, Cleveland and New York, AASLH encourages all its members to look to their history collections and their position within their communities, and to participate in community healing by providing access to history exhibits, programs, and educational materials. 
I urge history museums to take those new flags I saw as a call to action.  We can't say that the flag--or the debate over slavery and contemporary issues-- has nothing to do with us, us Northerners, us rural residents, us whatever we are. It does have to do with us and we need to make our museums places where thoughtful discussion can take place around painful histories and the challenging present.

If you're really unsure of where to start, begin in your own archives and collections.  What's represented, what's not represented?  What stories do your documents tell?  And start the conversation--unsure about how to do that?  Begin checking out resources including the Front Page Dialogues now available from the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience and the ongoing blog posts by our thoughtful and passionate colleagues at The Incluseum.

Don't be afraid to begin talking-- and listening-- now.

Image:  Protest outside the South Carolina capital, from Flickr user Perry B. McLeod.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

What, Me Worry? Crowdsourcing Teenage Memories


It's sometimes tricky to figure out the starting place for collecting memories for an exhibition project.  Do newspaper press releases work?  What about the Facebook page? The museum staff's own network?  How do you figure out who will be a great interview and what topics really resonate, given the constraints of time and money?  How can we approach it more creatively?

I've been experimenting with a new way of doing this preliminary collecting and wanted to share what I've learned (and some questions I still have).   I'm developing an exhibition on 20th century teenage life in Chemung County, NY for the Chemung Valley Museum (this also happens to be where I spent my own teenage years).   I was really interested in the ways in which teenage life reflected larger changes in the culture.  So I began with the incredibly thoughtful group of questions developed by StoryCorps on their Great Question List.  If you've ever sat in your driveway, letting a StoryCorps piece finish, you know that they go far deeper than we, as museums often do.

But then, where to find people to talk to?  And how to get them to share?  We did a really simple survey using Google Forms to begin the conversation and shared it on the museum's Facebook page and on the ChemungHistory.com's Facebook page.   We've received dozens of responses, and many who also volunteer to be interviewed.  It seems as if the privacy of responding to the survey, rather than responding publicly on Facebook is a bonus.  Our respondents were born in decades ranging from the 1930s to the 1990s,  testament to Facebook's reach in terms of age demographics, and it appears we have both men and women responding.

And what are we learning about teenage life?  A great deal, from worries, to first jobs.

What did you worry about?
I worried about getting caught drinking and going to bars and I worried about getting killed while hitch hiking!   On a more serious note, at a young age I got involved in the animal rights movement and worried about animal abuse. In junior high I threatened Woolworth's with a boycott and told them my friends and I would not shop there anymore unless they took better care of their turtles. They installed a new roomier tank for them within a month. It was empowering. It taught me about the power we all have to make change happen.
Zits, hair, weight, boyfriends, getting a license and grades.
Being unhappy as an adult. Being stuck in a miserable job. Life having no hope. Ya know, the regular stuff.
Family anger. Finding a girlfriend. Getting drafted for Vietnam.

war, race riots
And several, like Alfred E. Neuman at the head of the post, said, "not much!"

We've learned that far fewer of our informants have photos of their high school years than we would have expected and that cool clothes ranged from mood rings to clogs to white pedal pushers to your leather jacket.

We've also got an exhibit soundtrack going from the answer to, "What song do you hear that still reminds you of high school?"  Which of these represents your teenage years?


Questions that still remain:

  • Can we turn these respondents into interviewees and project contributors?
  • How representative is the group of people who respond?
  • How can we spread the word even more widely?
  • Where are those photos hiding?  (for many in Elmira, the  devastating 1972 flood may provide the answer).

I'm really interested to hear if anyone else is crowdsourcing in this kind of way for local history projects.  Please share away, if you are.


Friday, July 3, 2015

Re-Engaging Your Community


Today's post is from another of my mentees this year, Shakia Gullette.  Here, she shares her experiences in the work of rebuilding her museum's community connections.

Over the last two years, my museum,  the Banneker- Douglass Museum,  located in the heart of Annapolis, Maryland, has made great strides in creating an atmosphere that reconnects the museum with the community in which we serve. Unlike most museums, we share a unique bond to a local grassroots movement that united a group of dedicated individuals who fought tirelessly to save our current location from demolition.Together the groups underwent petitions, picket lines, and court battles in order to save the historic building. In Annapolis and its surrounding areas, it was common to see the “Save Mount Moriah” t-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters produced by this mighty collation who demonstrated their dedication to the cause through unity in numbers. During the early years of the museum, community members continued to show support by hosting bake sales, meetings of support and essentially made the museum the nucleus for operations.

Over the years, a great deal of changes have been made. Some of the dedicated community leaders have since passed away and the museum lost its community based appeal. In response to this issue, we began our transition to re-assert ourselves as a community based organization during our 30th anniversary in 2014. For us, this has been a task that we had to approach delicately. Our first step in creating a community engaged atmosphere was to create exhibitions that involve the community directly. The last two exhibitions that we have created have relied on the use of items that belong to community participants. In order to gain the trust of the community once more, we had to make a conscious effort to display exhibitions that the community really wanted to see.

In this post I’ll talk about the first two steps that were taken by my museum in hopes that we can inspire a conversation on what it takes to engage the community in which our museums represent. Community engagement is an art that I have learned takes a great deal of finesse and compromise to achieve the ultimate goal—not just establishing trust or in our case regaining it.


Step One- Test the waters

When it comes to planning programs and exhibitions, sometimes our organizations go with what works and don’t necessarily respond to the needs of the community. I know, some of you have a board to answer to and that sometimes hinders us. What I’ve found helpful is to put out a call for participation to see if there is any interest in your topic. Typically, the call goes out through word of mouth, email blast, or in some cases through the members of your board. Your call for participation should be very clear and concise. Your mission statement might be your starting point in a call for objects for a temporary exhibition. For example, my museum is the state of Maryland’s official repository of African American history and culture, my guidelines will always be 1.) something which highlights African American Marylanders and 2.) whether or not he/she is or was a Maryland state resident. Testing the waters also lets the community know that you value their opinions and welcome their participation.

Step Two- Accept or Reject

For some of us, step two is very similar to the process of selecting a piece of art for a juried art show. A juried art show involves a panel of judges who select a piece of art to be showcased in an exhibit based on an their application entry. Step two was an important step for me because this was my first opportunity to meet an interested community member. The initial meeting is crucial as it sets the stage for the beginning of a potential lending relationship. Here, I always try to assure the person that I am grateful for their participation and that I respect their object and its significance to the topic. For example, when we put together a community art show, we not only invited artists but we also solicited the participation of collectors. One of our community collectors collected an array of different objects including vintage lunch boxes, baseball cards, dolls, books and a lot of cool items. This participant was an older woman and I made the trip to her house to see the objects that she wanted to display. I was very interested in the lunch boxes, as those were the first things that she showed me. I guess she figured if I was willing to accept the lunch boxes into the show she would be able to trust me with a different set of objects that she felt comfortable with. To my surprise, a few days later she called me and described to me two first edition Readers Digest magazines which showcased the beginning of Alex Hayley’s epic novel Roots: The Saga of An American Family. If I hadn’t shown all of her items respect, there was a possibility that she would have never felt comfortable enough to mention that she was sitting on a gold mine! In the end it worked out for us and for our community lender. We were able to reconnect the legacy of Alex Hayley and Kunte Kinte with the city of Annapolis and for those newcomers our community lender’s objects started a new conversation. 


These two steps were just the tip of the iceberg for a process that will take time to finalize. As I reflect on these two steps I would like to hear from you. What steps have you taken to engage your community in either exhibitions or programs at your institution? What were some of your pitfalls? Lets talk about it and see how our experiences can help one another.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Do You Wave at Your Visitors? Island Lessons


I'm spending this week vacationing on Vinalhaven, an island in Maine.  It's a place where we spent summer vacations more than a decade ago, but our return has reminded me of a local habit that is one perhaps we all should adapt at the museums we work in.  Here on the island, no matter who you drive by, you always wave.  When you're driving, it's never a big wave, sometimes just a couple fingers lifted off the wheel.   And on a rainy day, I learned that it goes even further.  I had walked into town, and on the way back it began to rain.  Almost immediately, the first car to pass me stopped and asked if I wanted a ride;  I said no, and not very long after, but in much harder rain, a truck, driven by a young construction worker, also stopped to ask.  I accepted the second, had a nice chat with a life-long island resident and got dropped at my door.

What can museums learn from this?  It's just the lesson about being welcoming to everyone.  How often have we walked in a front door and had the person at the front desk barely look up at us?  If, as a regular museum visitor, this makes me feel unwelcome, think about how it makes  new museum visitor feel?  I still remember a visit to the Getty Museum, when one of the guards stepped forward to have a conversation with a boy and his father about a sculpture.  It totally shifted the dynamic from guard to friendly museum staff.

Like being on an island, we need to recognize that we--visitors and locals--are all in this together, and the simple act of friendliness--eye contact, hello, small conversations--are one small ways that we can demonstrate our connectedness.  Next time you're in the gallery say hello to a visitor or two;  and if you supervise front-line staff, ask them to smile!


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What Would You Bring to a Museum?


My friend and colleague Fabiana Chiu posted this on her Facebook page last week and I was so intrigued by the idea I asked to share it more widely.
Museums are filled with meanings. Those meanings are offered by us, the people who go to and work in/with museums. What if instead of paying an entrance fee, we each brought an object of ours as payment in lieu? Something that we think is related to/reminds us of the exhibit we are there to see? A point of connection, a conversation starter, an offering to appease the soul. For instance, What would you bring to the Frida Kahlo show at the NY Botanical Garden? What would you bring to her if you were to meet her in person? I would bring her one of my plants.
And in a PS, she explained the image at the top of this post:
PS, the succulent pictured here was purchased and raised by me when I was in my teens. When I left Peru for good, my dear aunt Blanca adopted it. Here it is, 30 years later, alive and well, strong like us.
What exhibit or museum would you bring an offering to?  And what would you bring?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Underestimating Our Visitors: Part 2


It's hard to believe that it's been two years since I shared Shannon Burke's observation about visitors gained during a prototyping day at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.  She noted that we tend to both over-estimate our visitors' knowledge and underestimate what they're up for.   This past weekend I was back at Stowe Center, doing more prototyping and was reminded of the underestimating part--and why prototyping is always, always, worth it.

In the interpretive planning for the new experience at the Stowe House, we'd been struggling with how to convey the impact that Uncle Tom's Cabin made in its initial publication as a serial in the National Era.  Our designer, Roger Westerman, came up with a suggestion--an audio installation that conveyed the sense of one voice reading, then another, then an entire room filled with voices reading the book.

And here's why you prototype.  We weren't at all convinced (okay, Emily was)  that this would work so we decided to give it a try, on Stowe's birthday celebration, when there were many visitors. Rather than audio, we decided to try it as a participatory activity. After a brief (very brief--that's another lesson we're continually learning) introduction and passing out of an typed excerpt,  I read a sentence from a chapter.  I asked one person to join me in reading, and then invited the whole group to read along.  Our groups were amazingly varied that day:  from a high school basketball team, to seniors, to international visitors.  And they did!  Not only did they read along, but when we did a debrief, they talked about not only their understanding but also about what it felt like to them.

They absolutely understood, through their own voices, the sense of the words spreading across the country, from person to person.   But equally importantly, they felt valued and cared for.  One visitor said that he'd never had the opportunity to use his voice on a tour, and loved it.  Another likened it to church, in a sense of fully participating.  In that vein, a clergyman offered us some good advice about enhancing the experience from his own work.  One person said she loved to read aloud; another said she hated it, but because I didn't make anyone read but made it optional, and in a group, that she felt comfortable doing it.  

Do we still need an audio installation?  Maybe not.  Our simple prototype taught us that the collective experience is really what matters.

But here's my bigger take-aways as you work to design new experiences in museums or historic houses:

  • Don't be afraid of emotional connections.  Many, if not most, visitors crave them.
  • Prototype, prototype, prototype.
  • Primary sources are powerful.  Don't hide them amidst your own words.
  • Big ideas don't need big budgets.
  • Don't be afraid of failure (we know that's an essential part of the creative process) and equally importantly, support risk-taking.  One of the great parts of the Stowe Center interpretive team is the way they support each other (and me) and encourage prototyping ideas.
  • Consider ways to make your tour groups a tiny community for the length of the tour.  As one person said about the debrief of several different experiences:  "Maybe the conversation, us talking here, is really the important part."
  • Celebrate success.  Yay Stowe team!