Thursday, December 11, 2014


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,
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!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Abundant Thinking

Like many Americans, I spent yesterday, Thanksgiving Day,  surrounded by abundance:  of family, of food, of laughter and stories--all a reminder of how grateful and lucky I am.  But a conversation earlier in the week reminded me of how much more aware we could all be of abundance in our professional lives.   In talking with a colleague about what I'd learned at the NEMA conference,  she mentioned that she couldn't remember a workplace where there was space or time for those who attended conferences to share what they had learned.  But how easy would that be?  Rather than hoarding your knowledge, when you go in on Monday,  send out an invitation for a brown bag lunch conversation to share new knowledge--from conferences, from books, from blogs, from your hobbies.

Rainey and I have been thrilled that we've heard from a number of colleagues who have read Creativity and Museum Practice together as a staff, trying out ideas and sharing perspectives.  So if you don't know where to start--the Try This sections of the book are free ideas to jumpstart your creative efforts.

And to push the abundance further out, include people outside of your regular sphere:  invite other departments; volunteers; whoever you can think of.   Take that turkey-filled abundance back to work with you.  The more we think together, the more solutions we can find for the tough problems all of our organizations face.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Buyers' Guide for Museum Studies? And Two More Big Questions

Last week at the NEMA meeting, Amanda Gustin of the Vermont Historical Society facilitated a lively conversation between Cynthia Robinson, the director of the Tufts Museum Studies Program; me;  and a jam-packed room of participants,  on the Graduate School Conundrum.  Go or don't go? What kind of program?  How do I choose?  We covered lots of ground in the conversation and Amanda will be sharing the results of her informal online survey on her own blog, but I wanted to share, as many people are beginning the work on graduate school applications, the talk about a buyers' guide for museum studies programs.  It's very exciting that the public history world is embarked on such a project, but there's definitely a need for a specifically museum-focused one as well.  What would it include?

Here's the list, in no particular order, of the topics the session participants would love to see in a consumer guide to choosing a graduate program:
  • Placement rate:  in museums, in full-time jobs, in other positions.  One year out, five years out and overall.  Kinds of placements: in what type of museums, in what type of positions.
  • Course requirements and content
  • What's the work load?
  • What skills are really taught?  When was the last time the program analyzed the skills needed?
  • Cost and its unfriendly associate, average amount of debt upon graduating.
  • Financial aid available
  • Certificate or degree; online or in person or a combination
  • Evidence of faculty involvement in current museum work; ability to take courses from a range of faculty members
  • What kind of networking is available?  How do current and former students make use of it?
  • Diversity and gender equity among faculty and students
  • Internships:  where, how often, paid or unpaid?
  • What are the application criteria (i.e. should you have worked in a museum before applying?)  What kinds of career counseling is offered for incoming students, including those transitioning from other careers?
We ended up this part of the discussion talking about whose job it is to undertake such a buyers' guide.  Is it the graduate programs themselves--is there one willing to take the lead, set standards and metrics?  Is it the American Alliance of Museums?  Their newly released salary survey talks about conditions in the field--wouldn't it be useful to know more before you entered graduate school?  Who will step forward--and even more importantly, the field changes when we ask it to.  When will we start really pushing for this?

But don't forget my two big questions.  The first came before the session, over lunch with Sarah Sutton, who asked, 

Why is it, for a field that is all about free-choice and independent learning, that we have made graduate degrees a prerequisite for entry into the field?

and the second came from the session conversation,

If graduate schools are highly valued for the networks, and graduate schools, like the museum field, continue to lack diversity; doesn't using those only those networks to connect with and hire, ensure that our field continues to lack diversity?  In other words, same old, same old.

Readers, what say you?  Would a buyers guide be useful?  What should be in it?  And what other big questions do you have?

Special thanks to Amanda for putting together such a great session; and to NEMA, for such a thought-provoking overall conference.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

You'll Laugh, You'll Cry: Upcoming at NEMA

I'm excited to be a part of two sessions at the next week's New England Museum Association conference in Cambridge, MA.  Kudos to NEMA for attracting their biggest audience ever--evidently a very full house will be on hand with more than 1000 participants.

Rainey Tisdale and I will be talking Objects and Emotions on Thursday.   What would happen if you collected only happy objects?  Thought about emotion in designing exhibits?  Actually asked visitors how different objects make them feel?  We promise a session with lots of interaction--and even a teddy bear or two.   If you haven't already, I highly recommend taking a look at Rainey's recent Tedx Boston talk, Our Year of Mourning, about the exhibit project commemorating the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing.  Whether you're coming to the session or not, it will absolutely deepen your understanding of the power of objects and the meaning of work we can do (and you won't want to miss the Friday session where Rainey and colleagues will go into greater detail on that project and the impact empathetic museums can make.)

On Wednesday, Amanda Gustin, Cynthia Robinson and I will be talking the Graduate School Conundrum?  Worth it?  Needs to be different?  Why bother?  Essential?  More than 300 of our colleagues responded to an informal survey for the session.  We'll be sharing those results and facilitating a lively conversation about the issues and what we, as a field, should, might, and can do.

What else is up at NEMA?  Rainey and I will have Creativity in Museum Practice books on hand for sale and even a few creativity tattoos left.  If you haven't got your copy yet and will be at NEMA, be in touch!

I'm also looking forward to squeezing in some other sessions:  on my list are Worst Job Ever:  How to Create a Positive Work Culture on a Limited Budget and Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Museums as Places of Belonging.  But as always, I love meeting new people and catching up with colleagues so I want to make time for that.  If you want to chat over coffee, be in touch here, on Twitter(@lindabnorris), or semaphore.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Need a Mentor? Round 3 Coming Up

Update:  Applications for 2015 are open!  Here's the details.

Wonder what's next in your career?  Want an ear that's not your officemate or your spouse?  Want to think about bigger issues in the field?  Want to gain a little experience blogging?  If any of these are the case, this is just a quick reminder to keep an eye out for my annual mentor announcement, to come by early December.  This will be my third year; and the two previous years have brought me great, amazing conversations with new colleagues.

Who will be eligible?  Pretty much anyone.  You can be at any stage in your career, and you can be anywhere.  All that's needed is a commitment to a monthly Skype conversation and a willingness to think hard about what concerns you.

Stay tuned!