Sunday, May 31, 2020

If I Ran a Museum in the US Right Now


It's been months since my last blog post--as my Gang of Five told me, "when you're ready to write again, you will."  I had an idea a week or so ago that I never got to, but today I realized that I needed to reflect publicly on the events of the last few days here in the United States.

On December 1, 2013,  I wrote a post called "If I Ran a Museum in Kyiv Right Now." I had (and still have) a deep affection for Ukraine, its people and its possibilities and December 1 was the day that student protests morphed into something bigger and different, leading to many deaths, a revolution and a war in the East of Ukraine with Russia that continues to this day. My dear friend and colleague Ihor Poshyvailo read that post late at night, and he's been generous in saying that it inspired him to go to Maidan and begin collecting the stories and objects.  He's now the director of the Museum of the Revolution of Dignity, the museum that emerged from those days.  But in fact, friends, colleagues and former students immediately began doing so many things:  they were on the barricades, they served as medics, they made and delivered food--they supported each other and their community.

As I watched my social media feeds over the last few days I was struck by what seemed to be a lack of action and support from US museums.  Marilia Bonas, a Brazilian colleague asked on Twitter, "Waiting to see more and more american museums public statements against racism.  EUA (USA) had a strong position in defence of the new museum definition in Kyoto. Where are you guys?" 

So when directors spoke up, it really stood out:

Lori Fogarty of the Oakland Museum wrote, in a museum tweeted signed directly by her not just about support, but about action: "Members of our staff are engaging in brave and authentic dialogue about this moment...We will also be exploring ways for the Muaseum as an organization to respond, continue the vital work of equity and inclusion and insure that we give voice to the cry for an end to violence against black people, people of color and other brothers, sisters and siblings who feel the impact of marginalization and inhumanity."

Jorge Zamanillo, Executive Director of History Miami sent a direct message to his community in the Instagram post below, directly assuming responsibility for the harm that museums have caused in the continuing legacy of racism.  



If I were the director of a US museum right now, I would speak out.  But equally importantly, I would see what actions we, as a museum, could take.  It's no secret that museums are financially hurting right now, just as members of our community are.  

So what can you do?  Begin by asking some of these questions.

  • Can your museum serve as a safe haven for those who feel unsafe from the police?  What kind of direct aid can you give?  I saw somewhere today (who can help find info?) that staff from a museum in New York were outside with masks, milk, and other supplies for protestors.  
  • How can your museum begin dialogues? with whom?
  • Have you looked deeply at your collections, your hiring policies, and the ways in which you welcome visitors?  
  • Have you joined the protests in your city?
  • How are legacies of racism embedded in all of those--and how can you change them?
  • If you're a director, have you had a frank conversation with your board about expectations for their behavior and support of anti-racist work?

In 2013, I suggested that Ukrainians might want to begin collecting objects.  To be honest, I can't decide if that's something museums should be doing right now.  We should not be doing that unless we address the larger systemic issues of society and our institutions at the same time.  The answer to addressing those issues will be different in every community--but every museum--from the smallest historical society to the Smithsonian can play a part (see the National Museum of African American History and Culture's new web portal Talking About Race or check out the work of the many Sites of Conscience in the United States and around the globe addressing the difficult work of reconciliation--we have many lessons to learn from elsewhere).

If you want more suggestions, check out this blog post from Museum Education Roundtable for specific suggestions to support your community and to make change within your organization. It should be no surprise that the quickest professional organization to respond was one comprised of museum educators--hardest hit by Covid-related unemployment yet most connected to community.

A year or so after I published that post about Ukraine, I was one of a number of bloggers who jointly shared the post, #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson.  It's deeply saddening to realize how true that post still rings:
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?
I wish I had more answers than questions, but I want to end by expressing my particular appreciation for young colleagues who have been far braver than I ever was at the start of my career:  Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, who spearheaded the #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson effort along with Gretchen Jennings, and whose regular tweet chats on the topic gave shape to new approaches;  other bloggers and activists,  and the many colleagues now working for fair and equitable treatment through the formation of unions at their museums.  I am in your debt.

Top photo:  Photo by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr



Saturday, February 29, 2020

A Wellcoming Power of Ten in London


Years ago, Rainey Tisdale introduced me to the concept of the power of ten, developed by the Project for Public Spaces--the idea that public places need more than one reason to be there--preferably ten!  So in a park, for instance, you might walk, birdwatch, eat, play with your dog--you get the idea. Museums have gotten better at this, but many still have a long way to go.

I was reminded vividly of that concept when I visited the Wellcome Collection a few weeks ago in London--the entire museum had loads to do--but in particular, I found the Reading Room to be one of the most welcoming (sorry, no pun intended), fascinating, friendly museum/library spaces I had visited in a very long time.

First, it's a beautiful space, so the first thing you might do would be just to enjoy the space (above, photo from the Wellcome Collection website) But what else did I see people doing?

Read--there all kinds of books on the shelves, just ready for you to dive in.

Draw your self-portrait--and share it with others.


Play board games--and another complicated game I never quite figured out!


Look at art.


Build things with giant foam blocks--with your family or with perfect strangers--and the prompt was to imagine what abstract ideas might look like in physical form.


Share a drawing of what you eat to feel better.


Join in a facilitated conversation--for all ages-- about toys that represent all of us.


Send a postcard (oh yes, postcards free for the taking)


And also, dream, chat, connect, wonder, and more.  There were things you could do by yourself, there were things you could do with people you came with, and there were things that you could do with people you'd never met.  You could learn new things, or visit books that were old-friends.  You could use your physical self;  your emotional self; your connected self.  And importantly, I don't remember one piece one piece of digital technology (although there was lots in other parts of the museum, deployed in some interesting ways).

The Reading Room felt both the most old-fashioned place and the place of the future--where we learn to deeply connect.  Thanks Wellcome Collection, for making a rainy London afternoon so memorable!


Saturday, January 11, 2020

Museum-Catch Up #3: No Labels Needed


We went to Mexico City for Christmas and visited lots of museums--a lot!  This is just a quick post about the National Museum of Anthropology.  The collections here are tremendous--I learned a great deal about cultures I knew little about.  Objects were beautifully displayed, labels were useful, and I loved the way the museum used both indoor and outdoor space.

But there was one place where a label wasn't needed--the objects themselves made an impact on me.  You can see it at the top of the post. After going through all of the exhibition galleries on the ground floor with the evidence of sophisticated cultures, this two objects are displayed side-by-side:  a simple wooden cross, evidence of European colonialism and a stone statue with the features destroyed, a visible symbol of the Spaniards' efforts to destroy existing cultures.

It was a great juxtaposition and one I'll long remember.  #MuseumsAreNotNeutral.

And, just because, some other images from the museum below.











Monday, December 30, 2019

Changes for 2020: Mentoring and Take 5


Seven years ago, I posted my first call offering an annual mentorship.  I decided to do so because I wanted some control over any influence I could have in the future of the field.  I'd gotten several conference session proposals rejected--ones I thought were great--and I came up with the idea and thought I'd float it and see what would happen.

The result:  over those seven years, hundreds of you have applied, and I've had the chance to spend time each year working with one or two incredible colleagues at different stages in their careers.  I always felt I learned as much--if not more-- from our monthly calls as the mentees did.  Here's looking at all of you--I have loved talking with you once a month,  meeting you in person when I can, hearing your career updates--every bit of it!  Giant bouquets of flowers to Alicia, Tania, Catherine, Claire, Megan, Tadia, Amanda, Susan, Shakia, Doreen, Hannah, and David for your enthusiasm, commitment and energy.  Some mentees dropped away, and that's okay too (aside from the ghosting thing)--our lives are all complicated and it may have been not the right thing.

But I've decided to not do a mentorship call for 2020.  As all of you may have noticed, I blog much less these days--and that's partly because my job at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is consuming in all good ways, but leaves me less band-width for other things.  I'll be back, I hope, in 2021 looking for new mentees to connect with.

At the same time, there are also changes coming to Take 5, the monthly newsletter of ideas produced by our Gang of Five, five colleagues who initially came together to share and support our own work.  The years together have been so important as sources of support and inspiration. Again, it's primarily a question of time for me, and I'm so pleased to announce that the incredible Anne Ackerson will continue to produce it--so if you don't receive it already, do subscribe here!

My first 2020 goal?  Catching up on blog posts about museum visits in 2019.  And after that, to blog more regularly. Stay tuned. 

My second goal?  Convincing more of you to be mentors.  The Getty Leadership Institute will soon be launching Polaris, described as "a new online mentoring program that will be available to museum professionals across the U.S. Those working in or with museums can develop leadership skills and collegial relationships by being mentored or by mentoring others," supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. 

My third goal?  to continue to connect with and learn from museum colleagues, social justice activists, artists, and everyone working to make a better world.  If you're any of those type of people and want to have an informal conversation about those issues--be in touch.  I do love, to be honest, random conversations.

I'll end this post with deep gratitude to my Take 5 gang: Anne, Marianne, Carolyn, and Gwen (and another member of the original group, Christopher) and all my mentees.  You're the best!


Sunday, December 8, 2019

Museum Catch-Up #2: Rethinking in Amsterdam


I got to spend a very quick weekend in Amsterdam this fall, and saw two museums rethinking in big ways. The Amsterdam Museum's decision to remove the name "Golden Age" from its description of the Netherlands got lots of press around the world.  Thanks to my friend Annemarie de Wildt, a curator at the museum, I got to attend the opening of Dutch Masters Revisited, an installation within the permanent collection at Hermitage Amsterdam.   The permanent exhibit is a huge hall of group Dutch portraits--and the temporary installation is 17 portraits of prominent Dutch citizens depicting a diverse group of people who, based on historical research, are known to have lived in 17th- and 18th-century Netherlands.   Curator J├Ârgen Tjon A Fong of Urban Myth brought the group of photographers and citizens together for meticulously created shoots. There was a great deal to appreciate (warning:  many label images ahead!)


  • the museum explains what it's doing and why.
  • the contemporary portraits are really integrated into the gallery itself.  They're not off in another room or small scale.  They have the same grandeur and importance of the historical works

  • the museum connects past to present in numerous ways. Although I didn't necessarily love the hallway portraits of today's civic organizations, I did appreciate, that within the exhibit, you were encouraged to donate.


  • Labels had provocative titles, asked good questions, asked you to reflect, and provided some surprising info about Amsterdam--without being overlong or info-loaded.

At the opening reception, Margriet Schavemaker, artistic director of the museum, noted publicly that she had recently returned from ICOM in Kyoto, and reaffirmed that although the new museum definition was not approved, it would be the way the Amsterdam Museum is working and will continue to work (for more on that conversation, see this blog post).

Probably five or six years ago I had visited the Tropenmuseum and found it a bit sleepy--a sort of old-fashioned ethnographic museum.  But on this visit, I found it transformed--in approach, in look, in a serious rethinking of their work.  Such a pleasure!  Just a few examples grabbed in a quick visit are below.

Their permanent exhibition, Things that Matter, connected material from around the world with a wide range of contemporary issues--from migration to climate change to the use and misuse of traditional culture by others.  All the issues were framed as questions:

  • When do you feel at home?
  • When is culture yours?
  • What do you believe in?
  • What brings back happy memories?
  • Is the climate changing your culture?

It was fun to dip in and out, and the large scale video installations really worked in the big space.








I was particularly interested in the exhibit Afterlives of Slavery, described as "an exhibition with a discussion platform that places the stories of the enslaved and their descendants centre stage."  The exhibit looks at both the history of enslaved peoples, but also, how those histories continue to impact the Netherlands today (see ongoing examples of controversy around Zwarte Piet).   I liked the feel of the exhibit, as if it really was an ongoing discussion.






I did wonder though, about the emphasis on the history of enslaved peoples in the Caribbean, as related to the Dutch, and why nothing about the history of the Dutch and slavery in what is now New York State was mentioned.  I'd love to see those connections made.

In both these exhibits, I felt like there must have been many many meetings -- and some prototyping--of questions for visitors.  I loved that these were big questions, without single answers.  They were ones that would encourage conversation among visitors.

At both museums in Amsterdam, I felt a kind of courage paired with necessity:  a sense that it has taken museums far too long to address these issues, and the importance of making change.  Although every museum may not be able to afford beautiful portraits or large-screen videos--it's the thinking that matters here.  And that, of course, comes for free!

What else did I do in Amsterdam in a single weekend?  Why of course, ride a bright red bike with AnneMarie and explore the city!  What could be better than exploring a city with a city museum curator?


Sunday, November 17, 2019

Museum Visit Catch-Up #1: The Manga Museum


I've been on the road (or more accurately in airplanes) a huge amount this fall, and have visited a number of thought-provoking exhibits and museums.  I saw things I loved, things I definitely didn't love, and things that raised interesting questions for me.  So now, despite a two-month gap in blogging, I'm going to attempt to catch up with all of it over the next couple weeks.  First up, the Manga Museum in Kyoto, Japan.

After an intense few days at the ICOM meeting, Katrin Hieke and I took an extra couple days to explore Kyoto a bit more--and for some reason we decided that the Kyoto International Manga Museum would be first on our list--and we were so glad we did!

This is a museum where a mission perfectly meshes with an understanding of audience and with exhibition design and content.  For the uninitiated (like me), manga is Japanese comics and cartooning.

The permanent exhibit does a great job in posing--and then answering--all kinds of questions about manga:




It also included a fascinating section on who makes money in manga, something rarely seen when talking about creative work, but a part of all creative work.




The permanent exhibit also explored how a storyline is shaped--which reminded me to go back to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a great tool in helping us think about narrative in exhibitions.


In this permanent exhibit section, you were surrounded by manga books--so many of them, and it was delightful just to be able to take them down and read.  Everyone did!


There were different types of temporary exhibitions--including one focusing on a trailblazing woman manga artist.  Another temporary exhibit was sort of a playoff between different types of toys. You could make an appointment to consult with a manga artist about your own work, and even spend a bit of time on a computer (although tech was a very small part of this museum).




But what where mission, design and activities merged together was in the places all over the museum that were for reading.  Everyone felt welcome to pull out a book, sit down, lie down, sprawl out, and read.  There are lots of rules in Japanese society, here it felt like the only rules were to read, to be respectful of others reading, and to enjoy yourself.




There were a few key takeaways for me:
  • Understand that your museum attracts both newbies (that was me) and specialists (those who want a deep dive into manga).  Provide opportunities for both.
  • Design spaces so people understand what you can do in them.  
  • Great label-writing --clear, concise, fun--always matters.
  • Make room for passion.  You could see it in the work of the artists, but also in the intense focus of visitors.