Thursday, June 25, 2015

Do You Wave at Your Visitors? Island Lessons

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What Would You Bring to a Museum?

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

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Underestimating Our Visitors: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Buzzing Around: A Mentee Reflects on Professional Development

Each year, I ask my mentees to share something about their work and their ongoing learning in a few blog posts. First up this year, Susan Fohr, who is Education Programs Coordinator at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto.

My identity as a museum educator has been most profoundly shaped in recent years by my involvement in two professional networks -- the Canadian Art Gallery Educators (CAGE) and the Mozilla Hive Toronto Learning Network – which have each impacted my practice in very different ways.

CAGE is Canada’s professional organization for educators and programmers working in the art gallery field, which hosts an annual symposium in a different region of the country each spring. I attended my first CAGE symposium in Toronto in 2012, during which I realized I had found a group of people who face the same joys and challenges in their day to day practice, and who share a similar philosophy about the role of educators within our institutions and society at large. I did not hesitate in putting my name forward to be a part of the CAGE executive at that year’s annual general meeting, wanting an opportunity to be a part of ongoing conversations with my colleagues throughout the whole year. Being a part of the CAGE executive, a volunteer role, has allowed me to develop new professional skills outside of my role at the Textile Museum of Canada– I have been involved in the planning of three national conferences, handling registration in the role of Treasurer this year.

The symposium has become a highlight of my professional year over the past four years, allowing me to reconnect with colleagues from across the country as well as learning from international leaders within the field of museum education. Paging through the now full notebook that I have brought with me to Toronto, Montreal, Kelowna and Regina is a testimony to the range of ideas, perspectives and approaches that characterize contemporary gallery education both nationally and internationally. From sessions on best practices using tablet computers on gallery tours to conversations about representing and working with indigenous communities I have been introduced to a wide range of interpretive strategies that I have been able to apply in our programming at the Textile Museum of Canada.

The CAGE symposium provides a wonderful recharge every spring, but it has helped me appreciate the need for a local network and professional colleagues with whom I can connect in person and work with collaboratively on projects throughout the year. Interestingly the professional network that I have developed in my own community consists mostly of educators working in other informal learning settings like libraries, maker spaces and neighbourhood programs for youth.

Toronto is just one city in which the Mozilla Foundation has initiated a learning network (New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh are others), allowing organizations with the shared purpose of working with youth and promoting digital literacy “to explore how to better link to, learn from and support one other, while thinking strategically about how to make it easier for great programs to spread, and to connect mentors with shared affinities to generate richer experiences for youth.” In addition to the promotion of digital literacy and 21st century skills, entrepreneurship and a celebration of all forms of making are touchstones of programming supported through these networks. The former director of Mozilla Hive Toronto often used the analogy of a buffet to describe the network -- each of the 60+ organizations is invited to sample from a range of opportunities provided through the network. From monthly conference calls and meetups to funding to support projects developed collaboratively by more than one member organization, Mozilla Hive Toronto provides professional development for educators within the network, as well as opportunities to share knowledge, tools and audiences, ensuring that resources are used most fully and holistically across the network and the communities in which we work.

As one venue for informal education, museums have a lot to learn from maker spaces, neighbourhood youth programs, entrepreneurship programs, and tech startups. My involvement in both CAGE and Hive have revealed the common challenges that we face as educators across disciplines can only be addressed through collaborative practice and an openness to share knowledge, resources and expertise. By identifying our own unique strengths and needs, as well as those of our colleagues and partners, we can develop ways to work more efficiently, creatively and respectfully.
Here are some examples of symbiosis that have been achieved by working strategically within these professional networks:

Connecting with new audiences
In the spring of 2014, the TMC was developing a series of workshop modules for youth that explore the future of fashion. We wanted to explore 3D printing, wearable electronics, printmaking and garment construction; some of these topics were new to us, so we reached out to our partners within the Hive Network who could help us develop our competencies so we could lead future workshops ourselves. Recognizing past challenges we’ve faced in attracting youth participation in programs at our museum, we offered to host our workshops in the well-established youth drop-in programs offered by Hive partners at public library branches, another museum and neighbourhood youth programs. These organizations were able to provide new workshop offerings, and we were able to develop our competencies in delivering content related to 3D printing and soft circuits.

Sharing unique knowledge and best practices
In 2008, the TMC organized an exhibition of carpets from Afghanistan which incorporate images of war such as tanks, grenades and helicopters.  Understanding the challenging nature of some of the subject matter within the exhibition, we developed a resource guide to distribute to educators, anticipating some of the questions that might arise from the exhibition and providing background information about the historical and cultural context of the objects on display. As the exhibition began to tour Canada, this resource guide was included in the touring package, Having met me at a few CAGE conferences, a colleague from one of the institutions that hosted the exhibition reached out directly for additional advice on how to engage students in the exhibition content and recommendations for potential public programs. It was rewarding to see how another institution could build on our successes and adapt the content to the needs of their own community.

I hope these examples will provide inspiration for looking to your own networks for support as you embark on a new project. Our professional networks should allow for more than just opportunities for reflective practice and considering the big issues within our disciplines; our professional networks are there to support our day-to-day practice as museum professionals.

Images, top to bottom:

Integrating traditional skills and new forms of making in a wearable electronics workshop, spring 2014 Photo by Susan Fohr

2015 CAGE Symposium delegates receive a tour of the exhibition Moving Forward, Never Forgetting with curators Michelle LaVallee and David Garneau at the Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan Photo by Carey Shaw

Installation view of the exhibition Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan, 2008 Photo by Jill Kitchener

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Teaching/Learning: What's the Take-Away?

A few weeks ago, I wrapped up my first semester of teaching Museums and Community Engagement online for the Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies graduate program.   This experience was very much about both learning and teaching for me. In this post, I'll share a bit of what I learned about my own professional practice and excerpt some of the students' plans about deepening their practice around community engagement.  I'm sharing my lessons learned not because I think all of you, dear readers, will become online professors, but because the challenges I faced are the challenges that many museums face as we work to engage virtual visitors.

What did I learn about teaching?

First, online teaching is different than classroom teaching (no kidding, right?) and both of those are different than doing professional development workshops.  Mastering the mechanics of online learning was definitely a learning curve for me,  but equally important, and sure to be the subject of more of my experimentation, was how best to build a sense of community among 15 students, all over the world, and me, all working together.

Second, structure matters more than in an in-person process.  I found there's more give in in-person teaching--there's a chance to explain further, to see a puzzled face, to ensure that there's full understanding.  It was a lesson for me (a great lesson to always be reminded of) that we need to meet our audience (be it students or museum-goers) where they are--not where you assume them to be.

Third, levels of risk-taking vary.  In any workshop I do, I always have at least one new element as a way of challenging myself.  I changed a fairly substantive element of this course part-way through, and some students found it easy to address that challenge, others found it perhaps confusing and difficult.  Both those thoughts are equally valid, and it's my job to explain the why and the how better, to make those less comfortable with risk (a key element of creativity) more comfortable with a new process.  Giving a grade, something that never happens in professional development workshops, complicates that process of risk-taking,  but is a reality none-the-less.

Fourth,  keep building those skills. My skill as a forager of information proved to be important.  As #museumsrespondtoFerguson and other topics of discussion surfaced in the field over the last few months,  I found it important as a teacher to continually share new information.  My networking skills and social media presence made it possible to easily find five organizations to serve as case studies. A big shout out to Jakob at the Skagen Museum, Tania at the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University, Megan at the Henry Ford Estate-Fairlane, Laura at the Carbon County Museum,  and Lindsey at the Laurel Historical Society.   I put out a call for volunteer organizations on this blog's Facebook page and instantly got volunteers.  These five, representing a diverse range of organizations, generously shared their time and perspective with collaborative teams of students, providing some real-world experience as they developed a community engagement plan.  Although many of the students in the program are already working in museums, this provided them with a chance to work on an issue outside their regular job duties and outside their institution.

And what did my students learn?  Because, after all, that's what really matters.  As part of their final reflection paper, I asked them to share a personal or organizational plan for continuing to deepen their understanding of community engagement.  I found so many of their thoughtful responses worth considering for myself, and wanted to share some of them here.

Here's one personal plan:

  • observe
  • participate
  • communicate
  • stay informed
  • practice and evaluate
And another:
  • actively researching the new resources I have been provided this semester
  • sharing this information and opening up dialogue in the workspace
  • networking with others in the field
Several students were quite direct about how they were going to improve the community engagement process in their own institutions.  It was exciting for me to learn how they were going to put specific tools and knowledge to work.  One wanted to strengthen her evaluation skills, so as to understand more about audiences; while several others felt more equipped to ask more challenging questions as a part of any planning process.  Said one, "During these discussions it will be important for me to have case studies and research evidence the future, after starting a dialogue with my supervisor, I we might then be able to put together a focus group of employees from different departments who would help to spread across the museum the results and positive effects of community engagement initiatives."   One action plan identified the goal, actions, resources, potential issues, and potential solutions for engagement at a complex site.  Her clear analysis made the chances of success more likely.

I loved that one student found herself sharing her observations on weekly readings, AAM talks, and other materials in staff meetings and even in carpools...and her frank thoughts on why she wasn't always successful.  As she wrote, "[community engagement] is a process that I now understand truly never ends."

In working on creativity, Rainey Tisdale and I are often sharing about simple tools that each of us can use to build organizations' shared creative muscle power.  Seeking out stimulation from a broad pool and sharing that information is critical. It was very rewarding to see how many thoughtful ways my students came up with to accomplish the tasks of seeking, sharing and spreading.

But the two biggest takeaways from my students came perhaps from a single essay:

"Now I use every chance I have to listen."
"Change is hard and scary."

Go to it, students!  And thanks to the 15 of you for such a stimulating semester of learning for all of us.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Any Questions? at the Oakland Museum

Last week, I visited the Oakland Museum, whose work I've heard about since I was a graduate student.  So much to think about, but one particularly take-away for me was the number and variety of visitor feedback stations.  Questions, questions, and more questions, and almost everyone had loads of Post-it feedback and almost none had that sort of dopey, teen-ager kind of feedback that often surfaces.  Feedback stations were scattered across all three parts of the museum--art, natural history, and history and care was given to the visual presentation of each one.

What's in common with these stations? 

One, the visitor--that's you-- is always at the center of the invitation. "Share your story,"  "How is the drought affecting you?" "Tell us your thoughts." "We want to hear from you."

Two,  the questions are interesting--and sometimes surprising.  "What does the California's border evoke for you?" is a far more interesting question to ponder than "what do you think of immigration?"

Three, there's space in the exhibitions for changing questions:  "How is the drought affecting you?"

But equally importantly, throughout the entire museum, a visitor can see that they are important, that these voices matter.  Just a few quick examples.  First, this panel from Tell Me Where the Mirrors Go, a project of Maria Mortati and the Guzman-Mondragon family, first-time visitors to the museum, who, over the course of several visitors, explored the museum and shared their impressions.  It's not just temporary notes, it's a concrete sense of visitor voices in the art gallery.

And again, a sense that visitor voices really matter in this audio installation and this label for a poster from the 1960s.

And finally, as you enter, the biggest place to share your voice--a giant blackboard at the museum entrance.  When we arrived, this staff member was just posting a question for Free Fridays, but when we left, it was filled with responses.

I'll definitely be thinking about these (and the many others I photographed here) the next time I work on feedback stations.  Thanks Oakland Museum!

Monday, May 4, 2015

We Are Not Separate from Politics: AAM and Beyond

Attending AAM is always a whirl of competing priorities.  Which session do I go to?  Do I skip a session in favor of catching up with a colleague?  Where do I find the best fried chicken (in the case of Atlanta)  What museum do I want to make sure I see?  and most importantly, how do I make sense of it all?  What's rising to the top for me?

As I returned home and had a chance to reflect, the issue that rose to the top for me was the sense that museums are deeply involved in politics, whether we want to be or not.  I'm wondering whether this is a true change, or just the issue of the moment.  Here's just a few ways in which I saw individuals and groups, inside and outside of museums, pressuring for social change, for museums to be a stronger, more equitable part of our communities.

One of my very first stops in Atlanta was the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.  It's a place that uses museum techniques--but, except for the display of Martin Luther King documents on the ground floor, does not use objects, making extensive use of still images, audio and video.  Without a doubt, one single interaction will stay with me (and so many colleagues I spoke with) for a long time. At a reproduction lunch counter, you sat down, put on headphones, placed your hands on the handprints on the counter, closed your eyes, and were transported through an audio installation, to sitting at that lunch counter during the sit-ins.  Very simple, but with the effect of making the point that each of us have responsibility--and need the courage--to participate in social change.  

Programming and events of the week however, reminded all of us that the United States still has much work to do in terms of human rights.  I attended a session by Melanie Adams of the Missouri Historical Museum and the take-away there was the idea that being of service in your community (as the historical society has been since the events in Ferguson) wasn't something that happens overnight; but in this case, the result of more than a decade of concentrated partnership building.

#MuseumsrespondtoFerguson came up repeatedly at AAM and many thanks to my colleagues and fellow bloggers and tweeters who are keeping the conversation going.  This particular conversation got additional heft when an article on appeared, featuring this passionate quote from Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture:
Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, North Charleston, and now Baltimore have been seared into our consciousness. Yet this violence, this loss of innocence and life is not just an issue in urban African American communities—it casts shadows on Native and Latino life; it has sparked a national conversation and a movement that challenges America to confront issues of race and fairness that have haunted this country from its inception. . . .I also know that there have been key movements in our past when events, when tragedies, when injustice has galvanized the nation and the pain has led to profound change. This may be such a momen of possibility; a moment of change. [above image is a sign acquired by the museum]
But here's a question.  Where is the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in this conversation?  These are American issues, not just African American issues.   For more of what Baltimore museums and cultural organizations are doing in response to protests, check out this blog post from Informed Humane and for what any history organization can be doing, check out this Facebook post from the tiny Laurel Historical Society, looking back at its own history.  Honestly, when a tiny historical society is doing more meaningful, more important work than our national history museum, it's time to wonder why.

While AASLH posted a statement earlier encouraging our history museums to engage and the National Council on Public History posted a blog entry,
"The NCPH meets in Baltimore next year. We shouldn’t ignore what’s happened there this week", AAM continues a studied silence.  We should ask for more from our professional association.  In that vein, I was immensely impressed by the presentation by Sharon Heal and others from the UK Museums Association on their campaign, Museums Change Lives, with the social commitment of the project and the rigorous approach to its implementation.
We are not separate from politics.

Speaking of  changing lives, an informal group called Museum Workers Speak convened a rogue session at AAM to discuss improving working conditions & other internal practices in museums & cultural institutions.  Not surprisingly, the session drew a large and passionate audience, both in person and through social media.  Here's just a sampling:
I'm here because I'm tired of my institution not valuing their staff as the resources they are.

The more contact museum workers have with the public, the less they're paid, and vice versa. 
I am sick of working for places that have more value for their cultural resources than human resources

Let's change the idea that "organizing" is a "bad word" in museums. That may be what we need. 
I'm really impressed that the this activism is coming from, in many cases, the newest generation of museum workers.  I think those of us in different places in the field need to listen; I think graduate programs need to listen; and I think particularly, directors and boards of directors need to listen. (check out the Storify for a fuller account).  As Porchia Moore tweeted, "BRING this info BACK to YOUR MUSEUM Don't ask where to begin. Partner and collaborate. GO!!"

We are not separate from politics.

(as an offsite parallel, the Guggenheim Museum was closed down on May Day by protests against the work conditions of those working on its new site in Abu Dhabi.)

We are not separate from politics.

Also at AAM,  I had a chance to chat with folks from The Natural History Museum project in the Exhibit Hall, addressing a different kind of political issue.   An artist/environmental activist project, it aims to "cultivate a mode of inquiry that challenges museum anthropologists to engage natural history with an interest in what is left out because that is also part of our relation to nature...Natural history museums often come under pressure to betray this future, to sell it off to the highest bidder.  The Natural History Museum occupies the split in the institution, taking the side of a collective future."  (from the Natural History Museum brochure).  They've taken aim at fossil fuel industry and those who represent it, and sit on natural history museum boards.  For a fuller take on their work, read their guest post at the Center for the Future of Museums' blog.

We are not separate from politics.

There were too many other vital conversations in sessions and among colleagues to capture them all, but I want to end with a talk that happened, not at AAM, but in New York, just after I returned.  As Michelle Obama opened the new Whitney Museum, she reminded us--and the watching general public--about our responsibilities:
"There are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers, and they think to themselves, 'Well, that's not a place for me, for someone who looks like me.' " 
"I guarantee you right now there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. I know the feeling of not belonging in a place like this. And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people....

So what I want to ask those out there watching -- absolutely -- (applause) -- if you run a theater or a concert hall, make sure you’re setting aside some free tickets for our young people. If you run a museum, make sure that you’re reaching out to kids in struggling communities. Invite them in to see those exhibits. Can you use technology to bring those exhibits to kids in remote areas who would never, ever be exposed to art otherwise?...One visit, one performance, one touch, and who knows how you could spark a child’s imagination. "
But here's the question.  Are all these events a sea change, or just a temporary wave?  I hope that collectively they represent a change in our profession, a change in the approach to the work we do, and a sense that we no longer are just temples, but active players in the sometimes messy, always compelling life of a nation and the world.

We are not separate from politics.  We are not separate from the world.