Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fabulous Italian Labels

I saw some amazing labels in Milan, Italy.  No, not the ones you expect, like Prada or Gucci, but real, live terrific museum texts.  In general, I've found that Italian museum labels are pretty bad--either containing the barest amount of text or deep into theoretical knowledge that the average museum-goer can't penetrate.  But evidently Milan is a place where engaging labels have taken hold--and even more of a feat, engaging labels in English.  I have a huge appreciation for museum label writers who engage all of us in a language not their own, making the labels sing with a kind of poetry.  I'll be writing another post with some further reflections on the ICOM conference, but before it's too far away in my mind, enjoy the labels!

First, at the Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia.  An ICOM open night was also a public free night, so the museum was mobbed, but amidst the crowds, I found myself intrigued by labels like these.  I found many of the labels I liked more poetic than the usual.  Here's an opening label for the entire museum.  It says,
The museum is alive. It belongs and is open to all.  Today the world spins fast and we are all looking for explanations and opportunities. The museum is alive; it is the museum of the becoming of the world.
And an exhibit on clocks and watches, asked a philosophical question to begin:

I only had time for a few exhibitions, and those I saw quickly, but I found the exhibit Food People, a particular standout.  It looked at the future of food, and was very clear about the ways in which community feedback helped shape the project, as explained in this label.

The introductory labels helped us understand the theme, and why this exhibit was in a science and technology museum.

A hallway exhibit explored how we imagined the future of food, from 1900 to today and evidently there's a Trekkie at work at the museum, because one of the examples was this,  that food would be replicable and multi-cultural, with Star Trek dialogue as the text.

A very different museum is the Pinocoteca di Brera, a classic picture gallery, but with a new director, James Bradbourne, formerly of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.  I loved that the gallery now explained its purpose with a quote from a former director, Franco Russoli.
"A museum is a place for participation, not for evasion or isolation or separation, that liberates its visitors by engaging them."

Also at the entrance and throughout the museum, new labels explained why museums do what they do and the changes they see in the galleries.   New family labels and labels written by artists and writers, encourage us to think in new ways about what we're seeing.

I love that this label connects St. Peter's expression in the art with the physical properties of the painting, conservation issues, and another way to look at all the other work in the room.

Here's a description devoid of art historical terms, yet getting us to think about the work's composition and thinking about what might have happened outside the frame, before and after the scene depicted in the painting.

At the Milan Triennale, which happens in venus indoors and out all over the city, I found the exhibit, Neo-Prehistory:100 Verbs curated by Andrea Branzi and Kenya Hara. The visitor wound through an exhibit of seemingly unrelated objects, one hundred tools, each identified by a verb that took us from pre-history to the present.  Rely:  an iPhone; Despair:  a bomb; Fascinate:  a bottle of Chanel No. 5. The verbs' definitions are the only label text in addition to the simplest object ID labels.  Yet I found myself puzzling and reading each one.  Sometimes I was drawn by the object to read the label, but sometimes vice versa.  How does the story end?  Regenerate, with a visualization of the human heart.

Is there a takeaway about these labels as a group?  I think it is that there is no one way to write a label and that each exhibit, each institution, must find their own voice, but it must be a voice that speaks to visitors and connects us emotionally, to our whole selves.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Authenticity is a Lie

Like anyone who works with historic houses, sooner or later, I find myself in conversations about authenticity.  How do we know how the furniture was arranged? What exactly was that color shown in a black and white photograph?  What did it smell like?  Sound like?  At different times of year?   As insiders, we know those questions and talk about them, as we strive for something that I've now come to believe is a fiction, yet something that our visitors believe is the real deal.  So yes, the "authenicity" that visitors think they are experiencing is often a lie.

Over and over again, I read in visitor surveys or hear visitors comment, "oh, it's just like it was back then,"  when it so clearly to me, seems like it isn't.  This blog post isn't meant in any way to dismiss the work of serious historians and curators who work to know more, all the time, about these inhabited spaces, but rather to suggest that we need to be clearer in owning up to what we know, and what we don't (nor any disrespect to the Seven Gables, pictured above in an early postcard).

There's a few issues that these visitor comments really raise for me.

First, the fact that somehow we, as museum/historic site people are often unwilling to acknowledge the complicated nature of historical practice. As a result, visitors get a shocking lack of complexity in thinking about history.  For instance, do I think 19th century historic houses in the Midwest had needle-pointed bell pulls to cover all of the electric light switches in each room?  Not for a minute. Did visitors think so?  Perhaps, because they were presented as part of the historical furnishings.

Second, our adherence to earlier furnishings efforts leaves out so many people in the story of domestic places. For instance, why are servants and enslaved people only, if at all, present in the kitchen and back spaces? Long ago, participants in the Museum Institute at Great Camp Sagamore were tasked with developing an interpretive interactive that could illustrate how this beautiful great camp in the Adirondack wilderness only ran because of the presence of servants.  One group came up with different colored footprints on the floor to represent servants and Vanderbilts and their guests. The servants' footprints came and went in a dizzying array, all through the course of the day, into a space generally interpreted as a space for the wealthy to relax.

Third, we're not all the same.  Spinning wheels, dresses thrown artfully on beds, children's toys arranged carefully and the fake apple in the kitchen bowl.  How can we get visitors to engage in learning when it feels all the same?  Wasn't anybody a slob in the 18th or 19th century? Weren't some people lovers of technology and others not?  (see Denis Sever House, London, below, for an alternative approaches to the slob question).

Third, can we really know?  And can imagination substitute for knowledge? In houses without specific documentation, we make guesses at what kinds of furnishings would be right, but can we ever really know?  Can we know, as we do in our own homes, the emotional temperature of a space? How it feels happy on a summer evening or Christmas, but a darker emotion on a gloomy November afternoon?  Would it change the way the house was furnished?  When I worked on interpretive planning with the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site in Buffalo, the site where TR was sworn in as president, we experimented (and now made permanent) a changed breakfast table. From a formal setting, we changed it to a chair pushed out, rumpled newspapers, and a coffee cup--all, we hoped, a way of engaging visitors' imagination to wonder about the thoughts of a man completing breakfast as he just learns he's become president.  We learned that those changes helped visitors see TR as a person, rather than an abstraction.

As I'd been thinking about historic houses, I had the chance to see the exhibit Rooms:  Novel Living Concepts at the Milan XXI Triennale.  The exhibit began with an overview of Italian design in domestic spaces (above)  reinforcing the sense that the ideal is often what get's presented in history, Then I encountered an imaginative 11 rooms, designed by artists and architects, asking us conceptually to consider past, present and future. Would we think like a bear if we lived in a bear-shaped space? What do we think the future is?  What would life be like in one of these calm white rooms?  Where would the slobs keep their stuff in some of these places?

Wandering through these rooms, I wondered if we shouldn't be more willing to admit that our period rooms are artistic creations rather than exact recreations of history.  They are certainly expressions of self (and sometimes that self-identity that comes from ancestor veneration), of aesthetic taste and choices, and are designed to convey a message, oft-unspoken.  Relatedly, some recent conversations about historic houses and the nature of interpretation also sent me back to Patricia West's Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House Museums; well worth a read if you haven't already.

Rooms ended with a text label that said in part:
Talking about rooms inevitably brings feelings and emotions into play.  Our memories are linked with rooms, not easily described precisely by dint of being too personal.  The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space believed that rooms remain with us, but not just in our memories: they are an assemblage of organic habits and can also lose their shape.
 What's the answer?  Greater transparency about our work, for sure.  And a commitment to experimentation as we find ways to uncover and convey deeper, more inclusive meaning in our interpretive work.

Your period rooms:  sometimes misshapen organic habits, filled with memories.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Milan-Bound: Exploring the Cultural Landscape

In a few days, I'm headed to my first-ever ICOM triennal conference, with the theme of Museums and Cultural Landscapes, joining thousands of museum colleagues from around the world in Milan, Italy. For most American museum professionals, ICOM is a bit out of our professional networks, but thanks to my German colleague Katrin Hieke, it entered my view in a more substantive way when we combined forces with two other colleagues to cover, in social media, the tri-national Museums and Politics conference in Russia in 2014.  I'm excited to expand my networks and meet and learn from colleagues around the world over the course of a week.

ICOM is organized by interest committees and I'll be presenting in two of them.  With Rainey Tisdale, I'll be talking about the Creative Cultural Landscape in the CAMOC section--that's the Committee for the Collections and Activities of Museums of Cities.  We'll be focusing on the way that museums can be players in building cities' creative capital.

I'll also be presenting a talk entitled, "Terra Incognita: Museums Studies Students and the Global Museum Landscape,"  at ICTOP, the International Committee for the Training of Personnel.  This talk is inspired by the course I taught last fall online for the Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies Program, where students worked with five museums from around the world to develop community engagement projects.  I'm curious about how we, particularly Americans,  can expand our understanding of museums around the world as a way of enhancing our own practice.

Plus, trying to get to as many other sessions as possible, meeting colleagues from around the world, recruiting new museum partners for this fall's course, exploring Milan's architecture and museums, and having an aperitivo or two.  I'll be tweeting and instagramming as @lindabnorris, from July 3-10, so if you want to see what's up, find me there!  If you're in Milan, I'd love to meet you and learn about what you do...so please be in touch for that aperitivo (to get you thinking, below, at Bar Basso).

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Who Inspires You? Or Your Visitors?

We often think--or hope--that people are inspired when they visit our museums or historic sites. "We have great stories,"  we say, and hope that our visitors can make their way through the thickets of details and biography.  Interestingly enough, I've been working on two projects recently where I've actually been asking visitors about inspiration.  And because it's Father's Day tomorrow, it seems a particularly apt time to report back from my conversations.  Above, my own dad as a kid.  In my own childhood, he was always the one behind the camera, so rarely spotted on film!

At the Old Manse, a historic house in Concord, MA and a part of The Trustees, we asked people, before they visited the house, who inspired them. (a big shout-out to JHU museum studies student Caren Ponty, who's been volunteering on this project with me). This was a way of thinking about how to connect personal stories to the broader story of the house.  It was a bit of surprise that family came out way ahead. Here's what some people said about parents and grandparents:
  • Folks and family—we respect ‘em---lots of influence
  • Mother:  always positive, never complaining.  Shining example, always walked, saw color, religion
  • My dad…despite dyslexia, taught himself to read, Ph.D in biochem,  told he would never work, did, and now 95
  • Friends and families with motivating passions.  Their interests become my interests.
  • My parents—role models, do a good job of Christian lifestyle
  • Grandpa—always wanted to learn and wanted us to learn
  • My mom, because she tried to make the world a better place—not many people let someone take things apart to see how they worked.
But a few other people (and one animal) also came in for some shout-outs:
  •  People who make and do social activism, who write and do
  • My dog—she’s always happy
  • Communities and churches that help the less fortunate
  • George Washington—smart, brave, changed the world
  • William Shakespeare—loved the literature, resonates after so many years.  Still relevant
  • Jane Austen—her ability to communicate understanding of human nature and Charles Dickens—for people and characters
  • Resilient people, so hope for humanity
Our challenge now is to think about how we build on these responses--how we understand that the stories of family and inspiration are not limited to Emerson, Hawthorne, or those who witnessed the beginning battle of the American Revolution from the Old Manse's windows.  It's about how we share the stories of oft unsung families, such as those of Phyllis, Cesar, and Cate, the enslaved people who also lived in the house and who of course, had their own unrecorded family stories. How do we connect the stories of this house with the family stories of newcomers to this country?  Can we develop a shared well of inspiration?

In Savannah, I've been working with the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace to consider the visitor experience there.  A large percentage of their visitors are Girl Scouts, and they come ready to be inspired by Daisy (as she was known), the founder of Girl Scouts.  We've been asking them to complete, on a "Dear Daisy..." postcard, the following: "We heard about how you made a difference by founding Girl Scouts.  Here's how I would like to make a difference."  And the responses are as varied as the girls themselves:
  • keep animals and humans healthy
  • make sure that I am kind
  • let girls do what boys do
  • help people accomplish their dreams
  • create self-flying cars with mini-fridges
  • become President
  • keep your legacy for as long as I can
These Girl Scouts get that deep connection with Daisy.  And someday I have no doubt that I'll be getting from place to place in that self-flying car with a mini-fridge! I want all our historic sites to inspire that same deep well of inspiration. Our visitors--and our communities--want us to connect with them.  They want to be inspired by place, by story, by connections to their lives.  They're not particularly inspired by old-fashioned furniture, by dates; by complicated genealogies or by what you or your guides are inspired by.  The challenge for each of us seems to be to work together to let go of what we think visitors "need to know" and to embrace personal meaning-making.

One quick note about the how and the way of these conversations.  They continue to be one of the most rewarding parts of my work.  Take a few minutes out of your day and ask visitors (or non-visitors) some questions.  But make those questions meaningful, not just informational.  I ask those informational questions too, but the great conversations come when thoughtful questions are asked. Make those evaluations fun--the Girl Scouts thought the Dear Daisy postcard was an activity, rather than a chore. Final vital piece of information: anyone will answer a survey in exchange for a box of Girl Scout cookies.

Monday, June 6, 2016

CrossLines Teaches a Generous Lesson

While in DC, like many other AAM participants, I got a chance to visit CrossLines, a two-day exhibition in the Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian, developed by the Asia Pacific American Center there. It was described as a Culture Lab on intersectionality (which doesn't quite have the lure of other Smithsonian attractions like rockets and ruby slippers.). Artists from around the country working in an immense variety of mediums and ways of getting us to ponder our connected--and disconnected-ness, gathered together for a two-day exhibition.

There was much, much to look at, think about and talk about... but two big museum-person lessons stood out for me, that can be useful to all organizations, large and small.

First, risk and experimentation. The Smithsonian is big, big! And somehow the folks at the Asia Pacific Center persuaded the powers-that-be to take a risk on a project that had a relatively quick turnaround, involved loads of collaborators, in an iconic building, and had challenging content. Amazing. So those of you who work in institutions where someone say that you're either too big or too small to experiment? Use this as a convincing argument. What will audiences think? I can hardly imagine a more general audience that folks on the Washington Mall on Memorial Day weekend. Audiences are always up for more than they we think they are.

Second, generosity. In museums, we expect that people have certain knowledge when they come in, or that it's important for them to get what we want to say. Many, if not most museums are still using a megaphone model for visitor engagement. We think it's generous to share our hard-won knowledge with visitors, It's really not. Reserving the privilege of knowledge and perspective to you, the museum, rather than the visitors is an act of hoarding, not generosity.

But the artists at CrossLines? Happily they were unsteeped in museum pedagogy. Everyone I spoke to or observed made amazing efforts to connect with visitors at the place where visitors were. Nobody appeared to judge about what visitors knew or didn't know--and I'm guessing there were some tough comments coming from some visitors. If you wanted to talk about process, they would talk about that. If you wanted to talk about identity, they would talk about that, if you wanted to talk about the communities they're from, or in my case, the process of developing the collaborative work--all those. In other words, those artists demonstrated that one effective way to share complex issues to to just connect...with whoever walks in the door. The result: all kinds of people who might never have visited a contemporary art show, or thought about intersectionality and privilege, or even talked to someone different than themselves, had a chance to do all that.

Thanks, CrossLines staff and artists for such an inspiring experience that I'll long remember. Did you visit? Please share your thoughts.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Mistakes Were Made

My time at AAM is brief this year, but I hope you'll consider checking out the two Saturday sessions I'm participating in, First up, I get to share my big mistake in Sean Kelly's deservedly famous session, Mistakes were Made session, along with Sean and George Neptune. There's a big, beautiful (more-or-less) trophy up for grabs for your best failure story. We've all got something to learn from our mistakes.

And then in the afternoon, Fabiana Chiu-Rinaldi. Dwan Reece and I will be sharing our career paths and how power, responsibility and community intersect in our work. We've had very different paths, and are looking forward to the chance to reflect with participants.

And of course, if you see me in hallway, bleary-eyed from hay fever and travel, absolutely say hello!


Monday, May 16, 2016

Should Museums Be More Like Constables?

I'm working on an exhibition for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Historical Society, in St. John's, NL.  I've been digging deep into their archives to learn more about the two hundred year history of the force, but a few weeks ago, I found some materials that I thought held some important lessons for museums.

I found a file containing a series of reports from 1948 from outport communities all over Newfoundland.  This was a critical time for what is now a province, because the vote about whether or not to become a part of Canada was drawing near.  It seems not far away, but as you'll see, it was still a time when those communities were often cut off by weather and bad roads.   These monthly reports were generally titled, "Economical and Social Life of the District,"  and were written by the local constable to be submitted to the chief constable in St. John's.

Here's a few excerpts:

In Corner Brook, in January, "the economical condition is quite good, and people in the main are employed gainfully and there is no report of able-bodied relief.  However, the herring fishery during the month is not nearly as good in previous years..."   and in February, the health of that community was "good during the month and there was no serious illness; there was however, a series of colds with no ill effects."

From Gander in February, "The Social aspect of the community remains more or less unchanged. However there has been some activity in connection with the various churches and the British Red Cross...the Gander Public Library is also filling an important position in the life of the community and is also increasing its services to the public..."

February was a quiet month in Ferryland, "There were no dances or parties of any kind held during the month" and the economy was bad, "Quite a number of men from Ferryland, Calvert and Cape Broyle are applying for relief."   In Trepassey, the weather was so bad that "the roof blew off Leonard Hachette's house and was beaten into matchwood."  As the bad weather continued there, "the men are complaining very much of having no food for their cattle.  There is no hay or oats anywhere in my territory as there is no boats running from here to town they cannot get food."

Spring finally comes that year, and the constable in Clark's Beach reports in April, "There have been no seals taken this month.  The people are all getting their fencing done for planting their vegetables...a card party and supper was held in the C.E. school at Salmon Cove and it was well-patronized by all."

Every month, the constables also took the political temperature of their towns around the issue of confederation or not, even though, said one,  "it's difficult to say."

What do I think museums can learn from these reports?

I can't tell you the number of times I've heard museum staff, board and volunteers say, "but no one comes, no one is interested."  That's because, I believe, you're not interested in them.  What would happen if you regularly spent time at a board or staff meeting talking about the social or economical conditions of your community?  Could you then learn about concerns--and equally importantly, learn about the parts of your community that you, as an organization don't connect with in any way?

I'm also struck by the empathy shown in these reports.  There's a real understanding of how and why relief is needed, of what benefits a community, and of the challenges and successes of community life.  That comes from attentiveness to the places we live--and all the people who live there too.  Our work can and should be a reciprocal process--that's how we can become essential parts of community life.

Top:  Constables and community member, RNCHS collection
Bottom:  Adults in kitchen, Pools Island, Bonavista Bay, Gustav Anderson Photo Collection, The Rooms.