Monday, February 20, 2017

Building a Learning Culture: Food Included

A few weeks ago, I spent two days working with board and staff at the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis, MN.  Since that visit,  I've been deep in learning about my own new job, but I find myself thinking about those days and about how collaborative learning cultures are built. I first visited ASI this summer, when I keynoted the Association of Midwest Museums conference. I was unexpectedly impressed (truth be told) with a place I pictured as a sleepy place with folk dancing and woodworking.  But I found a museum that was humming with invention. At a reception there, an ASI board member spoke about how the museum had shifted its mission as the community around it changed: now the museum was not just about the Swedish experience, but about the immigrant experience (particularly the Somali and Hmong communities) for many, past and present; through the lens of Sweden and the other Nordic countries.  As a result, I was thrilled when Bruce Karstadt, President & CEO, asked me back to talk creative practice in the context of strategic and interpretive planning.

What made ASI a learning organization?

Some of a culture of learning comes in an organization's DNA. It's hard to identify exactly where it comes from and hard to see from the outside (that's ASI on a gray January day, above).  For the board meeting, I shared a reading list before coming. It wasn't focused on strategic planning as a task, but readings that touched on the values of ASI: stewardship, hospitality, learning, innovation and sustainability and the museum's key themes of culture, migration, the environment and the arts. We know that our creativity is enhanced when we take in a broad range of information.  On the list were articles, Ted talks and podcasts, ranging from Theaster Gates' Ted Talk How to Revive a Neighborhood with Imagination, Beauty and Art," the New York Times series on welcoming Syrian immigrants to Canada, Dr. Fari Nzinga's “Public Trust and Art Museums,” on The Incluseum Blog and a tech article on why Sweden is a great place for innovation. It was a broad list and I was surprised that everyone at the meeting had done the readings and were anxious to dive into conversation about the relevance to the museum.  Boards bring a wealth of experiences to their board service and finding time for them to think big picture is one of the most important things a leader can do.  Bruce Karstadt encouraged that conversation which I'm sure will bear fruit as the planning continues.  

Lesson 1:  Good ideas come from everywhere. Cast a wide net in your information sources and share.

The next day, the staff convened for a day and a half of thinking and planning. ASI is large enough that not all the staff know each other well, so the chance to learn more about each other was an important part of this process. Everyone, including senior staff, put aside time to participate in the process.

Lesson 2:  Make time to think together.  Every time there's a conversation about community engagement, people ask where they should start. My answer is always the same.  Get out there:  go to different, new places in your community.  Meet people, talk, listen, learn, repeat.  We divided up into groups and headed over to Midtown Global Market, walking distance away, with food, crafts and more from vendors serving food from their home countries, hipster foodies, and more.  The groups' assignment was simple:  observe everything you could about how a market experience could help shape a new interpretive experience in the museum's historic Turnblad Mansion.  And of course, we all needed to eat--so we each went armed with $10 to get a great lunch.

Lesson 3: Get out there and listen. What did we learn at the Market? One, the way different stall owners introduced new information to us about food. They were interpreters, in the museum sense of the word, but so friendly and always starting where we were, not where they thought we should be. We found one restaurant that gave you a discount if you did a Bollywood move or two--and even provided the instructions. We realized that the audience for the museum and the users of the market had very little intersection. How could that be changed?  The museum already has some collaborations underway with different communities--but this visit gave the team ideas about new collaborations and how to deepen other partnerships.

Lesson 4: Lead by doing. That's Bruce Karstadt, ASI President and CEO, at left, with other staff members in the photo above. Leaders who don't participate send the message that others don't need to either. Bruce, Peggy Korsmo-Kennan and other senior staff were enthusiastic participants for all the time I was there. It makes an enormous difference when your staff knows that your leadership believes in what's happening--and wants to hear from all of you.

Lesson 5: Have fun. After our market visits, the groups were tasked with coming up with new interpretive experiences in the house. Those were serious experiences, but we had a great time planning and sharing them.

Lesson 6:  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  The time spent together built new understandings of the staff dynamics. At the end of the visit, the entire team dedicated some time to talking about how to streamline communication (those long email chains?  everyone everywhere hates them) and how to design ways for creative ideas to thrive throughout the whole museum.  

The museum also had 2 elements already established that you might consider adopting at your organization:  first, the annual Elsie Pederson (I think I have her name right) Day, named after a dedicated, tidy volunteer. The day is devoted, once a year, to cleaning up and refreshing staff offices. It's that time to get rid of those old brochures, the flip chart notes, the whatever.  The second is a regularly scheduled staff fika, drawing on the Swedish tradition of a coffee break, with baked goods, to take time out of a busy day and connect.

One brief side note:  I was moved by their current exhibit, "Where the Children Sleep - Photographs by Magnus Wennman,"  memories of which returned to me when I watched the Oscar-nominated short documentary, 4.1 Miles, about a Greek coast guard captain  going out, every day, to save thousands of refugees at sea.  Look at the photos; watch the documentary.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Learning Together: The 2017 Mentees

Once again, my annual call for participants in my small mentor program resulted in the chance to get acquainted with a number of you who made the effort to reach out and submit an application.  My thanks to all of you who shared your questions, your work, your ideas and more.  I'm pleased to announce this year's two mentees.

Tania Said is Director of Education at the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University in Muncie, IN.  She's had a varied career bringing her to this point--at the Smithsonian, in positions from an internship to Community Services Manager, at the Smithsonian's Center for Education and Museum Studies.  She worked at AAM and as Director of the Bead Museum in DC, but has now returned to where she did her undergraduate work.  Tania's questions revolve around ways to increase community engagement and ways to be an advocate for a more diverse workforce.

I loved her description when I asked an exhibit she had found interesting in the last year:
“What Lies Beneath” is a conservation exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I found it especially interesting because of my 12-year-old son and his friend’s reaction to it. They immediately dove into the answering the question of who painted the work of art in question, donning lab jackets, exploring the available tools, reading the docket, and writing their responses. While they skipped the introductory video, they clearly thrilled in finding out about the underlying painting by using and learning about x-ray and infrared scanning tools. The children’s reactions contrasted with the more typical response of watching me enjoy an exhibition and enduring any conversation I may want to have about it; instead, they were self-motivated. I believe this was not just how the exhibition was organized, but the diversity of information providers, and the excellent design presenting all of the opportunities for interaction. Adults visiting the small exhibition (less than 400 sq. ft.) seemed equally curious and willing to explore by not just reading and seeing works of art, but discussing it as well. 

The second mentee is Hannah Hethmon, currently familiar to many of you in the history museum field as Membership Marketing Coordinator at the American Association for State and Local History. Hannah came to the museum field from gaining a Master's degree in Viking and Icelandic Studies at the University of Reykjavík, Iceland, and previous experience as a marketing coordinator for Granite Grannies, Inc and a freelance copywriter.

Hannah wrote, "At the moment, I'm really interested in the ability of new technology, particularly social media, to democratize the museum invitation and become a powerful tool for letting more diverse (racially, economically, socially) audiences know that museums are for them as well."  That interest extends to her key questions for the year:
How can I help AASLH's emerging professionals create meaningful connections within the field without requiring physical attendance at costly conferences? And how can small museums use technology to become a valued part of their community member's lives before those people ever step foot in the building?

Secondly, I am trying to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to learn new aspects of the museum trade, participate in projects (or discussions, like the NCPH 2017 working group on "Community Engagement in a Digital World" I've joined), and make meaningful connections to others in the field from whom I can learn and with whom I can discuss ideas and strategies.
Again, thanks to all who applied.  And to Tania and Hannah, I look forward to a great year of conversation as I know I'll learn as much, or more, than I share.

Top Image:  women shipyard workers, Beaumont, TX,  by John Vachon, 1943, Library of Congress collection

Monday, January 9, 2017

10 x 10: My Favorite Posts from the Last 10 Years

This week is the tenth anniversary of this blog. I couldn't have guessed ten years ago, that I would still be writing on a pretty consistent basis, nor could I have imagined all the places I would go, the experiences I would have, or the lessons I would learn (some easily, some definitely the hard way). To celebrate, I've gone back and chosen a favorite post from each year. These posts weren't necessarily the most-read, but the ones that speak to me still.

My own lifelong learning and the chance to support learning through Donors Choose. On re-reading, an appreciation of my parents and of the chance to pay it forward.
Learning for a Lifetime

This post, about a project for the Montgomery County Historical Society, is really about the power of listening to visitors and communities.  I still share this experience on a regular basis as it continues to resonate, particularly in these times.
The Story of La Guerra Civil or Why I Work in Museums

I went to Ukraine for the first time this year, initially for four months as a Fulbright Scholar.  I blogged a lot this year--124 total posts.  Most posts were me trying to make sense of my time in Ukraine. In retrospect, I can see myself learning on the fly, even in some ways I didn't quite imagine. This year is also when my readership began to rise, as I was the museum person writing in English about museums in Ukraine and the post-Soviet world. This post, about a visit to Chernobyl, another experience that remains deeply with me.

Upon re-reading this post, I was struck by the continuing importance of deep personal connections. One of the stories is about Crimea, more meaningful and poignant now.

Not much extra comment needed.  Not much has changed since this post except more sustained attention to the issue of gender in museums.
Want to Be a Museum Director? Evidently, Be a Man

I'm lucky enough that my work takes me to all kinds of museums and I enjoy reporting back on work that surprises, intrigues and stimulates me.  Here, a Parisian museum totally took me by surprise, in the best way.
When Was the Last Time You Were Surprised at a Museum?

An interview, as history was being made, with my dear friend and colleague, Ihor Poshyvailo, about museums and Maidan. It's fitting that he's now director of the new Revolution of Dignity Museum in Ukraine.
"Our History Museums will Include the Events of These Days"

Over the last several years I've written often about the process of re-interpretation at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. In this one, we're encouraged to give up chronology in the service of more interesting interpretation.
Surrender the Chronology!

Connected to #museumsrespondtoFerguson, this post reflects on the ways I view my own responsibility to work for change after attending an AAM meeting.
We Are Not Separate from Politics: AAM and Beyond

Back to reporting on surprising museums--and tremendous labels.
Brilliant Labels in Dublin: Sweets, Nudes and U2

Here's hoping for another ten years of museum visiting, drinking coffee, meeting all of you, traveling, blogging and learning.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

2017: New Challenges, New Changes

Regular blog readers will know two things: one, that I've been pondering, post-election, the ways I might be able to make more of a contribution in the world; and two, that my career has taken all sorts of unexpected paths.  2017 will be a big year of change and challenge for me as both those items come into play. I'm incredibly pleased to announce that on February 1, I begin a full-time position as Global Networks Program Director for the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

If you're not familiar with the Sites of Conscience, it's a vital and important organization with a great team. As a network of more than 200 sites and organizations in 55 countries, it has the mission of "activating the power of places of memory to engage the public in connecting past and present in order to envision and shape a more just and humane future."  I've used the Coalition's resources in a variety of ways to help shape dialogue-based conversations in Ukraine and with other clients;  it's an honor to take this step of full involvement in their work.

The Coalition’s regional programmatic efforts are focused in seven regional networks: Asia, Africa, Russia, Latin America, Europe, North America, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  My team's work will be focused on developing opportunities for learning in all kinds of ways, including peer-to-peer. We'll encourage effective advocacy, and develop other creative, mission-based ways for sites to work and learn together.  Together we will facilitate plans for regional and cross-regional collaborations and work on expanded ways to share ideas and information.

There's much for me to learn. I look forward to sharing my learning process with all of you in blog entries in the coming year. To end this new beginnings post, I wanted to share a dialogue question from a participant in a Ukrainian workshop a few years ago. In this times, it's a good thing to keep those dreams for a peaceful, just world fully in our sights.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Baker's Dozen of Great Museum Experiences in 2016

I go to lots of museums every year. If you really want to know how many, you can check out the Google map I keep of my museum visits (museum nerdy I know). Some I go to for work, some for pleasure. Even with those ones visited for fun, I find myself pondering both the why and the how of the work we do. As I reflected about the year, I was always thinking about both the experience and the people I was with--clients, colleagues, friends or family.  This year's top ten roundup, turned into a baker's dozen, is all about the experiences.  Some of these connect to earlier posts, others were equally valued but never quite made it into the blog. I hope you enjoy them even a bit as much as I did. It's been a tough year, but there are always bright spots. I'll be curious if any of you see any common threads in what made my list. If so, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Frans Post:  Animals in Brazil, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
I love the Rijksmuseum for lots of reasons but I loved this exhibit when I saw it in November.  For seven years, beginning in 1636, artist Post was in faraway Brazil, sketching and painting flora and fauna.What made the exhibit great?  First, the drawings were discovered as part of a digitization project; second, it was a collaborative effort between an art museum and a natural history museum (see the llama above)  third, a witty, clean installation; and fourth, the exhibit encouraged deep looking and drawing. It was just fun, made more fun by seeing it with an old friend and museum-lover Irina Leonenko.

Columbus Art Museum, Columbus, Ohio
The Columbus Art Museum has made creativity the centerpiece of their work. Rainey Tisdale and I were lucky enough to get a walkthrough of their galleries with Cindy Foley, Deputy Director for Learning and Experience and we got to see a museum that embraces creativity in full flower. For instance, many museums would balk at putting a big jigsaw puzzle right in front of the work of art, as above. But these two visitors (notice, adults) were engaged in deep closing looking. They would pick up a puzzle piece, come in close to the painting, look and ponder, go back to the puzzle, talk to each other, and repeat. They spent far more time in front of this painting than they ever would have without this encouragement. In a gallery featuring American art, they're working to expand our ideas of the "American story," visitors were invited to share where their American story begins, and their vision for the future. 

Ukraine's Cultural Heritage Sector, Kyiv and L'viv, Ukraine
This fall, I returned to Ukraine with Lithuanian colleague Vaiva Lankeliene  (that's her above, with our thoughtful colleague Vasyl Rozhko, digging into data over coffee in L'viv) to assess the state of Ukraine's cultural heritage. It was incredible to have to opportunity to think deeply about not only the present but the past and the future. I found, not surprisingly, some everyday heroes who can inspire all of us as they work to shape a nation's future.

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Headquarters Exhibit
It was something entirely new for me to do an exhibit in a police headquarters. Thinking about audiences was challenging. But that's not what made this experience memorable.  It was that I had the chance to think about community in an expanded way. The Constabulary (the oldest police force in North America) is a community unto itself, with long, proud traditions. They wanted to honor those traditions but also wanted the exhibit to reach out to the greater Newfoundland community in the same ways they connect every day with citizens. Huge credit goes to the museum committee, headed by Jim Lynch, who were willing to let talented designer Melanie Lethbridge and I put forth different ideas on both concept and design. This volunteer committee was far more willing to talk and think about risk-taking in exhibits than many museums.

Big crowded art museums are always tough. There are too many people, my knowledge of art history never seems quite enough, the labels are either amazingly uninformative or filled to the brim with art historical terms I don't understand. Over the last four years of working with Context Travel, I've had the chance to take some great walks in great cities and museums. Last winter, in Florence with Context staff, I was tired, had a cold, and initially thought, oh, I can skip this. I've been to the Uffizi before. But Alexandra Lawrence, a Context docent (the word the company uses for their guides) and art historian, made the Uffizi make sense to me. She put forth a clear theme for the walk, returned to it throughout, carefully selected individual works to move that forward, and had us look deeply, all the while sharing her own great enthusiasm.  The kind of museum tour we all want and rarely get.  I left feeling both renewed and smarter.

Without a doubt, the best labels I saw all year. Funny, irreverent, thoughtful, meaningful--and somehow they absolutely reflected the spirit of the city. At the same time, the labels never shied away from the political--from women's rights to the 1916 Uprising.

I'm a former Girl Scout myself but honestly, hadn't thought much about the experience in years until Lisa Junkin Lopez, director at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah asked me to do some evaluation of a new visitor experience, the re-imagined Library. JGLB has a great staff, up for anything, but what made this experience really great were the girls themselves. Girls who were inspired, who wanted to change the world, who believed that they could invent and be anything.  In these challenging times, it was a great reminder that our museums can, and should, inspire all kinds of people, in all kinds of ways.  

I arrived in Riga last January to facilitate a series of workshops. But one of the first things that happened was to get a tour of the newly renovated National Art Museum from Una Sedlience, their deputy director. In the dark late afternoon, we got to wander through this beautiful building--before the art was installed. Up grand staircases, into magnificent rooms, through up-to-date open storage waiting to receive the paintings, and then up on the roof, overlooking the historic city. A magical experience in a gorgeous city.

At a workshop on increasing visitor engagement in exhibits, we experimented in the galleries devoted to Soviet-era history. Museum colleagues were asked to develop questions, post them near objects, and then, take some time and answer a question or two. I was blown away by the quality of the questions, and fascinated by the answers. Was the education system better?  Is your memory of Soviet times really the memory of your grandparents? Is collective better than individual? A grand experiment and one I'll long remember.

The Midwest Museum Association held its conference in Minneapolis this year, and a reception was held at the Swedish Institute. I've never been to a reception that was so much fun. I got to learn about outcome-based evaluation through beer tasting, ate amazing food, and participated in a crazy tour of the Turnblad Mansion. Scott Pollack, Director of Exhibitions, Collections and Programs, led us on a tour, accompanied by live music, where all of us where invited to tell a tale of the room we were in; followed by Curt Pederson, Curator of Exhibitions & Collections sharing a bit of the true story. Best of all was sitting down next to a board member who beautifully articulated a vision for the museum that's inclusive and welcoming to all.

Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT
Rainey Tisdale and I facilitated a two-day planning session as Mystic Seaport's team was working on the first exhibition in their brand-new building. Using lots of different creative tools, the team dug deep into identifying stories that mattered. What made this great? Working with Rainey, as always (see below) and a team that really seemed to enjoy each other. Also impressive was the museum's leadership team who were full participants in the days. We found many connecting threads and now SeaChange is open and on my visit list for 2017.


If you were in DC for the AAM conference, you might have gotten to see this exhibit. It was up for what seemed like minutes, but deserved a longer stay in the Smithsonian's castle. I got to see it with colleague Andrea Jones providing us a great opportunity to dig into the work. Big ideas, challenging content, artists really interested in engaging in an incredibly broad swath of the public. This project had it all.  It reinforced my sense that long-term exhibitions may be headed the way of the dinosaur--that nimble, responsive projects are our future.

Museums and Your Whole Self, NEMA Session with Rainey Tisdale
This year's New England Museum Conference was unlike any other conference I've ever been to.  It began the day after the election.  There were tears, hugs, confusion, and more. Rainey and I had a session on the last day. Originally were going to use the election as our focus to explore how museums can connect to our whole selves, not just our learning selves. That seemed wrong--everyone was too drained.  Rainey convinced me that the right topic was kittens, yes kittens!  She was absolutely right, and those of you in the audience were great participants as together we built out our giant paper dolls with crazy ideas to connect with our playful self, our spiritual self and more. I left feeling buoyed, grateful and determined.  

I already know that 2017 will bring more great experiences, even greater challenges for all of us and more dots on my map. I'm looking forward to all the challenges and my best wishes to all of you for the same in your professional life. Be brave, take risks, have fun--put your whole self to use. For inspiration, here's advice from a young Girl Scout.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Need a Mentor? Round 5 Begins!

In my last post I wrote about becoming a mentor. In this post it's all about those of you who want to become a mentee. Are you looking for an outside voice to help you think deeply about both your career and tough issues in the field? A push and/or a sympathetic ear? If you are, consider applying for my own little venture.

What's it like? The word cloud at the top of the post includes words that previous mentees used to describe the process after their year. Here's the deal for the coming year. Mark your calendar: the deadline for applications is January 4.  I welcome and encourage applications from anywhere in the world, although I'm sadly only an English speaker.

The Shape of the Mentorship

We'll schedule one-hour Skype or Google Hangout conversations at mutually convenient times once a month. In addition to the monthly conversations, I'll happily provide feedback, introductions as I can, and loads and loads of opinions. If I can, I'd love to meet you in person if we can intersect. 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. It's your mentorship and it's up to you to take responsibility in shaping it.

How to Apply

If you're interested, by January 4, send me an email that includes your resume plus your responses to the following questions. No word count specified. Say what you have to say, short or long.
  • What change would you like to make in the museum field?
  • When did you fail and what did you learn?
  • What's the most interesting exhibit or program you saw in the last year?
  • What key questions would you like to discuss with me during the year?
  • What non-work related book are you reading?
How Do I Decide?

Because this is my own individual project, I get to make my own decisions, sometimes with the counsel of a few trusted colleagues.  Previous year's mentees have been in graduate school, emerging professionals or mid-career types. I'm probably not very interested in you if your key questions are about becoming a consultant. This year, I'm particularly interested in those of you entering the field from alternative ways or whose career has taken a surprising path. Outside the US applicants, you're particularly encouraged to apply as well.

I want to be challenged and intrigued, I don't care about your Meyers-Briggs type or your grades in graduate school. I appreciate people who don't take themselves too seriously. I want to get off that Skype call every month ready to think more about your work and my work and the ways we can make change. Museums have a larger role to play in this complex world--but only if we dig in and get at it.

Questions, ask away!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Westworld, Museum Collecting, and the 2016 Election

In this guest post, 2016 Uncataloged Museum mentee Amanda Guzman contemplates the election and her current binge-watching fav Westworld for a look at the future of museum objects and the interpretation thereof.

In HBO’s Westworld, robotic, humanoid hosts – which (un)knowingly serve as too often tragic props in various narratives for the entertainment of guests in a futuristic park –  are periodically questioned on whether or not they have retained memories of their character’s loops in past storylines. The statement by one host, Dolores (pictured above) - “Doesn’t look like anything to me” - is a fascinating assertion then to make in this context. In the show, as in life, knowledge is power; the writers (“programmers”), administrators, and host techs (“butchers”) that manage the fictional Westworld park maintain order and their respective authority positions by the careful curation of knowledge. 

Why start a blog post about contemporary museum collecting practices and the 2016 election with this Westworld allusion?

Well, I began by musing on my current TV binge favorite because it relates to a question I have about how future museum visitors would and should approach, interpret, and mobilize past election material in developing their understandings of American history and their role within that narrative. To put it another way, I wondered how future audiences would come to perceive the election material of yesterday and today. Would they too say, “Doesn’t look like anything to me.”? 

As a bit of background, during the presidential election season, I noticed different museums highlighting and asserting the value of the continued collection of election material (particularly that of more traditional campaign memorabilia including buttons and signs) in the digital age.

To put it simply, election material not only publicly declares one’s partisan inclinations and preferred candidate but also (and perhaps more importantly) suggests a heightened level of pride in expressing those convictions.

To put it mildly, the 2016 presidential election – regardless of one’s political orientation – has been inarguably characterized by extreme levels of division and emotion. This has been widely commented on.

So, how might museums move forward with exhibition content in 2017? One answer is to acknowledge emotion (which can fall in the category of traumatic and dangerously crippling) and to mobilize it into larger social engagement with the important issues facing the country today – thereby transforming our publics from spectators to agential stakeholders.

Especially, in light of a noted increase in hate crimes and discriminatory rhetoric (some of which have targeted museums such as the San Diego Museum and Manhattan’s Tenement Museum), museums have a clear responsibility (and opportunity) to employ the facts of the past (and present) in projecting visions of the future – which include thoughtful, more inclusive conversations about ever-changing demographics.

The irony of this post was that I didn’t anticipate the emotion that I would have while writing, but here it is. To my chagrin, 2016 did very much look like something to me.

“Hooray for Politics!” Exhibit, National Museum of American History, Photo taken Fall 2016