Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What Makes a Good Story?

In today's (8/21/07) New York Times, Regional Editor Jodi Rudoren answers readers' questions. In addition to the several question about why and how she and her husband (also a writer) combined their two names into one (take that, you genealogists!) she also answered a question about what makes a good story, something she had spoken about in a writing class. I thought her answer was fascinating in how it related to the work of developing museum exhibitions. She said,

"I think I probably pointed out that stories, even the truest of them, even the hard-news boring-but-important ones, need to have: plot (an arc of stuff happening), characters (people you care about and can relate to), conflict/tension, scenes (that you witness and describe in vivid detail) and a beginning, middle and end (though not necessarily presented in that order).

I probably also posed the question, "What is a story?" and offered the ridiculously simple formula:

1. Something people care about.
2. Something people fight about.
3. Something people wonder about.

And I might have said something about making people laugh or cry -- or both.

"Tenets of Good Newspaper Writing" is an intimidating title; I'm afraid that whatever I would say, I'd be leaving much more out. I'd start any such list with something about good, deep, vivid, person-center reporting being at the heart of good writing. The lead paragraph, and as much of the story as possible, should be stuff you couldn't have written before you went to the place or made your phone calls, something you couldn't have written when getting the assignment. The quotes should be carefully chosen and sharply edited so that each quoted sentence is a fresh, original thought expressed as only the quoted person can, not something that could be more simply stated in paraphrase. Oh, but now I haven't said anything about organization and big-thought nut paragraphs....anyhow, it's a start."

So think about it--when was the last time you used the frame of what people care about, fight about or wonder about in developing an exhibit? Her observations on newspaper writing are people-centered in a way we often forget. Caring, fighting, wondering--those are things we all do. And "good, deep, vivid, person-center reporting"--that's what our research should be as well, leading us away from this 'this is a this and that is a that" approach so often seen at community museums.

It's funny that I came across this just as I randomly watched "All the Presidents Men" on television last night. Although I am glad to see that Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman have aged, just like me, and that it was a great period piece for the 1970s. It was most importantly an empassioned reminder of two writers' commitment to the story. Although community history may not have the stories that bring down a president, every place has stories that make people care, fight or wonder about.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Learning for a Lifetime

Much of the talk in museum work today is framed around the idea of free-choice and life-long learning--the idea that we choose to visit museums, rather than the not-so-free choice learning of the classroom--and that, if we can get people started early enough, they'll be interested in learning for their entire lives. In sorting a big collection of family slides from my growing up, I realized that, as a kid, how much of your free choice learning is shaped by your parents (not so free choice, perhaps). I (and my four siblings) were lucky to have parents who provided us with all sorts of experiences, many of them museum ones. In those slides, here we are in Boston, on the Freedom Trail, at Plimouth Plantation, in Washington, and in two of the craziest looking places, the New York World's Fair in 1965 and Expo '67 in Montreal. But we also explored close to home as well. Here we are taking a hike in one of the state parks near Ithaca, and riding on the Arcade & Attica Railroad, a steam railroad in western New York.

What did we learn from all that? I developed a love of history and museums--but am the only one who's made that a career. But for all of us, and now for my own daughter and her cousins, I think we gained a sense of a world of possibilities, a sense of the many places we might fit in the world. For many, a museum visit is not about the knowledge learned, but about the experience with family or friends, and the knowledge that exploration (even when you're that glum teenager forced to travel with your family) can be a life-long pursuit. Thanks Mom and Dad!

I realize that not every family has the resources to travel or to visit museums--even the ones in their home towns. For that reason, museums' commitment to our younger audiences is so critical. Whether it's through school programs or after school programs, or free family visits, we can provide these opportunities for students to dream, to see things in a different way, to realize that it's a big exciting world out there. I think though, it's the responsibility of all of us to reach out to all kinds of kids, in our work and in the rest of their lives, to help create those memorable experiences.

Earlier this year I donated funds to a project through Donorschoose.org and got my reward, of sorts, just the other day. At Donorschoose, teachers request funds for materials and experiences for their students, all over the United States--and you choose which to support. There are lots of request for equipment--but I really wanted to support a project that was about experiences. So what did I support? A project that brought second graders in Chicago together. Two classes, from different parts of Chicago have been penpals this year, and their teachers wanted them to meet each other--and experience a different culture by meeting in a Chinese restaurant--in Chinatown-- to celebrate Chinese New Year. The teacher noted that many of the students had never left their own neighborhood.

What was my reward? Part of the great concept of DonorsChoose is that you receive thank you letters from students and teachers. The teacher noted that it was an experience that students would remember for a lifetime. And the students--what did they say? "My penpal helped me with my chopsticks," "We ate chicken and rice and alot more," "My penpal was very nice and I was nice back to her," "I tried new food. My friend Cookie said now it's time to try something new and I did."

These days, so much talk about curriculum-based learning--but really, the learning that lasts is the kind like this...the kind that opens our minds and hearts to new people and new experiences. Thank you Ms. Renie and students at Harte Elementary School for such a great reminder. It was my pleasure!

Top: James, Holly, Linda and Mary at the New York Worlds Fair
Center: Chinese restaurant, by Kevin Rooseel, from morguefile.com

A Dutch Surprise

After my trip to Holland, I'd written about the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, and had told numerous people, including some clients, about their innovative exhibitions. Imagine my surprise when I opened my mail one day to find a package from them--what could it be? Inside, a note that said, "We read your blog!" and several catalogs from their museum. A great surprise from a great museum. Thanks, staff at the Jewish Historical Museum!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Metrics of Success

What makes a museum a winner?

A recent issue of NEMA News, the newsletter of the New England Museum Association, featured an abridged version of a piece written by Maxwell Anderson for the Getty Leadership Institute, "Metrics of Success in Art Museums" (full article here). Published in 2004, he proposes that three indicators: exhibitions, attendance and membership, are currently used by many to measure success in art museums. He proposed an alternative framework of 11 new metrics--and as I read it, I wondered how those metrics might apply to the small museums and historical agencies that are at the core of my work. In order to be adopted, Anderson comments, these new metrics must be "directly connected with the core values and mission of the art museum; be reliable indicators of long-term organizational and financial health, and be easily verified and reported."

So let's see:

1. Quality of Experience--as Anderson says, the most important factor in any museum is the quality of a visitor's experience. In art museums, the artwork itself is sometimes the most important factor. But in local history museums, that rocker from Great Aunt So and So just doesn't cut it. The one area where local history museums sometimes do well here is that visitors enjoy personal attention--for those who like a one on one tour, a local history museum is often the place. But confusing hours, badly written labels, and just big rooms of "stuff" do not an engaging experience make. As well, Anderson importantly notes that looking at the demographics of a community compared to the demographics of museum visitors is important. If all your visitors are over 75 years old, you might not be reaching all of your community. Big points to those small museums who work hard to engage their visitors.

2. Fulfillment of Educational Mandate--In New York State, museums are chartered as educational organizations by the New York State Board of Regents--so in this state, at least theoretically, museums should be thinking in this direction--not just in taking care of (or storing) objects. As my colleague Laura Roberts was noted (and I believe she was quoting someone else)--do we want to be in the warehouse business? Just because you're chartered as an educational organization doesn't mean you're meeting this mandate. How many school groups come? Are your school materials connected to school curriculums? Have you thought about life-long learners? How about life-long learners who learn differently than just hearing a monthly lecture? How do you reach new residents in your community? Or people who have been left out of the historical record?

3. Institutional Reputation--both local and larger. Some thoughts on local reputation--if I stopped on the street in your town, could someone tell me where your museum was? Even if I was only two blocks away? I've certainly had people unable to do that, which perhaps suggest that you're not connecting much with your community. How many volunteers do you have? How consistent are they in their commitment to you? Interestingly, Anderson also suggests asking visitors directly to articulate the museum's core mission. I'd love to see those percentages at any institution!

From local to larger--safe to say, few local history museums have national reputations. However, I do believe that attracting funding (state and federal) to your institution is a way of broadening your institution. Even the smallest historical societies can be successful here--and it's a way of measuring yourself against the big guys--and nice for your community to know that their local place can do that!

4. Management Priorities and Achievements--do you have a plan? Do you use the plan? And what percentage of those goals and objectives are you actually achieving? Do you do an annual budget? I can't tell you the number of all volunteer organizations I see who don't do a budget, just rely on the money in and money out theory. This theory guarantees that you won't move forward as an organization.

5. Caliber and Diversity of Staff--For Anderson, "the caliber of a museum's staff begins with the number of curators and educators on the payroll as a percentage of total staff size." In a small museum, the director perhaps, has to wear all these hats. Perhaps it should measure the amount devoted to exhibitions and education, as compared to the keeping the doors open (lawn-mowing, snow removal) kind of functions. I think for small museums this also means that board members have to educate themselves about what makes a well-qualified staff, consider what appropriate pay is, and commit themselves to finding support for the position or positions. In another direction, I see an increasing number of small museums who are also looking for directors of development. If you have a staff of three or less, you don't need a development director--this is appropriately the work of the board and of the director, working together. Diversity--still a critical, oft-un-addressed issue in the museum field and organizations should seek employees to represent the diversity of their community.

6. Standards of Governance--Anderson suggests an assessment where trustees are asked to article the museum's core purpose and how it has been advanced over the past year. Great idea, and useful to any size organization. He also suggests that trustees be asked annually to differentiate the division of responsibilities between board and director, and to give an example of how that worked in the last year. I see uncounted numbers of organizations with director/trustee issues. They're not impossible to resolve, and I think often of several board mentors early in my career as a director that supported and challenged me, giving me great models to learn from.

In governance, don't forget the make-up of your board. Anderson suggests how many trustees donated works of art or a sum equal to or greater than the museum's operating budget over the last five years? Those tests may not work for small organizations, but how about--
how many board members contribute to the annual appeal (that's above and beyond the membership)? How many attend some sort of program during the year? How many are able and willing to speak about the museum to other community groups? More questions from Anderson: How many board members are members of minority groups? How many are members of other art museums? or, any kind of museum? Do board members visit other museums of any type? Have they sought out or taken advantage of board training opportunities?

7. Scope and Quality of Collection--One measure Anderson proposes here is the number of artworks on display. For small museums, a reversal somewhat might be in order. Do you display everything you own? If you do, probably not that interesting? Have you developed a collecting plan or do you just take everything that comes in the door?

8. Contribution to Scholarship--Do staff or volunteers publish in any fashion? It could be regular columns about history or the collections in a newsletter or in your local newspaper. Is this kind of article more than just a recitation of facts or genealogy, but an article that provides an integrated approach to the topic? Do scholars use your library/archives? Do staff speak at conferences--either about a topic, such as the New York History Conference, or about museum issues, such as the Upstate History Alliance/Museum Association of New York conference?

9. Contributions to Art Conservation--Not a critical focus for many small museums, so perhaps this metric is better framed around the ideas of basic collections care. What is the storage like? Do staff and volunteers understand professional standards and strive towards them? Do they seek out training?

10. Quality of Exhibitions--This metric comes back around to the first one about the visitor experience. He suggests judging exhibitions by the degree to which they contributed something--and I would suggest that this might be measured, in a survey sort of way, by measuring if exhibitions presented caused visitors to see or understand their community in new ways. That understanding can be developed by careful attention to both content and design--with of course, the Big Idea of an exhibition always at the forefront of each project.

11. Facilities Contribution to Core Mission--"Architectural conceits" and vast halls mentioned by Anderson are rarely seen in small museums. But adequate space to house your collection, create engaging exhibitions and provide educational programs is vital for small museums. But this might not mean more space--more organizations should be encouraged to work collaboratively in communities, sharing space, time, people and resources.

Want some other ways to think about your museum's success?

Look at AAM's standards for accreditation at aam-us.org

New York State's Standards for Museums and Historical Organizations, found at the Museum Association of New York's site

and to assess exhibitions, Beverly Serrell and others worked on the Framework for Assessing Exhibitions, which can be downloaded at here, or found in her book, Judging Exhibitions, A Framework for Assessing Excellence.

Photo: Winner at the Delta County Fair, Colorado, by Russell Lee, 1940, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress.

Food Museums Part II

Well, perhaps better described as an empty calorie museum. Just in the last week or so, the New York Times had a review of the new Coca Cola museum, known as the World of Coke. I have to say, there's something about any museum that has a place known as the Happiness Factory, that scares me a little bit. Very Willie Wonka sounding. Pretty expensive--with an admission price of $15, that means each visitor is paying that amount to be sold advertising--because, enjoyable though it may be, that's what this sort of corporate museum is.

I found it interesting that I couldn't find any pictures of exhibits, even on their own website. Their own website just has exhibit concept drawings, and I suspect, like many museums of all types, they don't allow photography in the galleries. That's a pet peeve of mine--I understand no flashes, of course, but I know feel like all those no photographs rules feel really corporate and big-brotherish--when all I want to do is take a photo of a really inventive label or interesting installation. So I might go see the Coke Museum (and I could certainly persuade my daughter to see the Andy Warhol exhibit there) but I can't imagine putting it high on my list.