Monday, October 27, 2008

Another View of Historic Houses

On this cold gray afternoon, I thought I'd share a fiction writer's view of historic houses. In The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith (best known for his #1 Ladies Detective Agency series), his heroine, Isabel Dalhousie visits Barnhill, where George Orwell wrote 1984. They tour the house,

"They peered into the small room above the kitchen, with its typewriter set neatly on the table and beyond the clear glass of the window, the day, now sparkling under a sky that had miraculously cleared."

Isabel mused, as others moved on,

"She thought about the seeing of what others had seen; this was the view that Orwell had while he wrote that dark novel, with its all seeing eye, Big Brother... She remembered being in Freud's house in Vienna and looking out of the window in his consulting room, seeing the small mirror hanging on the shutter the only item remaining in the stripped bare room, and thinking he had looked at that, the great doctor himself; he had looked out onto that particular stretch of sky, that courtyard. And then she remembered seeing James VI's cradle in the bedroom at Traquair and the thoughts that it triggered; and the bed at Falkland Palace in which James V had died, turning his face to the wall, bemoaning what he saw as the imminent end of a Scottish dynasty... And finally, as she tore herself away from the view, and the room, the thought crossed her mind that a bed was really a very strange thing--a human nest really, where our human fragility made its nightly demands for comfort and cosseting."

For some reason, reading this passage made me think of paintings of interiors--and sure enough, the Victoria and Albert Museum had several in their collections database online. There was a bit of a discussion early today on a list serve about whether people would come to a museum if their collections were shown on their website. On this topic, I'm a firm believer in sharing everything. I've been to the V & A Museum, and I wouldn't hesitate to go again. If I went again and saw these three images, I'd be thrilled, and think of them as old friends; if they weren't on exhibit, I'd still be pleased that I found a representation of them to quench my idle interest today.

And as for the fictional Isabel's visit? Just a reminder that we can hardly imagine what our visitors might be imagining.

Top to bottom:
The Kitchen at Elmswell Hall, York, Watercolor by Mary Ellen Best, 1834
The Stray Shuttlecock, Oil on canvas by Frank Dillon, 1878
Interior of the Parsonage, Horningsham, Wiltshire, Oil on millboard by John Sergeant, 1840

All from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Road to Ukraine

The road to Ukraine--it's finally starting to become real for me. From January-April, 2009 I'll be a Fulbright Scholar, teaching museum studies and working with museums in Ukraine. It's an amazing opportunity and I'm very much looking forward to meeting and working with students and colleagues there. My work will focus primarily on issues exhibits and interpretation.

One request for my blog readers. Resources for books and other teaching materials are extremely scarce in Ukraine. I'll be shipping all kinds of materials to help establish a useful library for the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, my host institution. If you have samples of items such as exhibition designs, gallery guides, school programs, educational kits or other materials and want to share, please contact me.

My other observation is about how, for me, this has become, already, a piece of personal meaning-making. I applied for the Fulbright because of the chance to work with museums and Ukraine was a country I only knew a slight bit about. However, as I think about it, I realize that I've come across Ukraine--and Ukrainian Americans-- in a number of different projects. Years ago, a project on ethnic resorts in the Catskills helped me learn about vibrant Ukrainian resorts and communities in the Catskills. The picture above--that's not from Ukraine, but of the beautiful wood church that's St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Jewett. Many communities here in the Northeast have Ukrainian communities--most recently I've had the chance to learn about that community in Sayre, PA as part of a project for the Sayre Historical Society. A part of the Dutch and American exhibit project Passing on the Comfort that I've worked on this year for the Mennonite Central Committee and the International Menno Simon Center is about Ukrainian Mennonites. And, as I've told friends and colleagues about the Fulbright, I'm amazed at how many say, "oh, my family came from Ukraine!" So I'm beginning to stitch together my own picture of Ukraine, and can't wait for the opportunity to really immerse myself in this vibrant, complicated culture.

I'll plan to blog regularly in this space about my time there--so check back. If you're reading this and wondering if I'm available for projects next year...yes! Whether I'm in Kyiv or upstate New York, I can still be in touch and will be back by the end of April.

From top to bottom: Ukraine Road, Jewett, NY
St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church, Jewett, NY
Members of Sayre's Ukrainian community on a picnic, circa 1910.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Beautiful Game

I'm not a huge sports fan, but a recent New York Times article about a new soccer museum in Sao Paulo, Brazil caught my attention. According to the article, it's a shrine with all the jerseys, balls and paraphernalia you might imagine, but it's also a museum that uses sport to explain a country; how "the national pastime has come to represent and inspire the multi-racial, samba-loving soul of the people" and how Brazil transformed an English schoolboy sport into "the beautiful game" of passing and dribbling that is Brazilian soccer today.

I was particularly struck by how the governor of Sao Paulo, Jose Serra, described his dream for the museum, "I imagined a museum fundamentally made up of ideas, memories and not so much of relics. I thought of something that would express the memory of our soccer, the great performances as well as our sufferings."

So I'll probably never see a World Cup game in person nor can I tell you about any of Pele's 1,282 goals, but, based on Jose Serra's dream, I'd love to see this museum of ideas and memories.
Above: Pele doing a bicycle kick

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Do Cookies Make Ideas Better?

Lately I've been spending time facilitating strategic planning with a number of small organizations. I'm just wrapping up my process with the Historical Society of Woodstock and on my beautiful drives down and back through the Catskills I reflected on what made this project such a pleasure. Woodstock is a unique place--where else does local history include knowing where Bob Dylan composed? It combines a long Catskill agricultural and industrial history with a twentieth century history that intertwines the local community, visual and performing artists, and popular culture. But it is not, as the town spends a good deal of time explaining, the place where the Festival took place.

The society was founded in the 1930s--and when I first met with the board last December, they had just come out of a very difficult time. The society had been run as a closed organization for decades and as a result, had no meaning for Woodstock's residents or visitors. On relatively short notice, they had had to move the entire collection to another building so improvements could be made on their own structure (owned by the town). It was a small board and I sensed some anxiety about the process moving forward.

Over the past months, that small group has really developed. At last week's meeting, announced one board member, "now we're a team!" They brought several important qualities to the planning process that, from my perspective, helped create an energetic and meaningful plan.

1. Openness and Creativity
They were open to all sorts of things: to advice from me, to what community focus groups had to say, to advice from other consultants and to new ideas from everywhere. It was a group of creative thinkers who felt free to share ideas with each other.

2. Not too Big, Not too Small
Many organizations dream big--but lack the resources to complete those dreams (see recent press about the Mark Twain House and the Mount for just two examples). The Historical Society of Woodstock's new plan is both ambitious, and I think, achievable, by a targeted use of volunteer and other resources.

3. Make it Fun!
I didn't go to any meeting where they didn't seem happy to see each other; to report back good buzz about the historical society in the community, a new object acquired, and to share a meal, or at the very least, home-baked ginger cookies and lemonade. That feeling of a welcoming place is beginning to spread to the community.

4. Listen to the Community
We held two community conversations about the future of the organization. One was parents and the other was long-time (ie twenty years or more) community members. Poets, musicians, highway workers, farmers, retirees and more. It's clear that a passion for this particular place and the values it represents motivates both new and long-time residents. History plays an integral role in that, as one focus group participant said, "Even the kid from Minnesota playing guitar on the green; he comes for the history of the place." All agreed that the mountains made the place special, they create, as one person remarked, “one big hug.”

The historical society's new plan focuses around the idea of conversations--in part, because, in listening to those focus groups, that's something that matters deeply to this community and that the historical society can do well for many different audiences.

Sometimes focus groups feel tacked on, not substantially a part of a planning process. Here, our sessions about vision, mission and goals really were strongly influenced by those lively community conversations, with lemonade and cookies, on sunny summer evenings in those beautiful mountains.

My Day as a Volunteer

Yesterday I spent the afternoon door-to-door canvassing for Barack Obama in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. If you're not an Obama supporter, don't worry--you can keep reading too. I chose to volunteer because I believe it's important, but today's post is about volunteering--about the lessons and reminders I took away from my participation. So, here's my top ten of things to remember as you work with volunteers based on my experience with the Obama campaign.

1. Make it easy. I signed up online and then got, via email, a useful, printable pdf file that contained all the information I needed: when to go, where to go, what to wear, what I might be doing, what I could bring (cell phone). When I got there, they had everything we needed to go out--clipboards, flyers, print out maps locating each house, lists of people to contact.

2. Be welcoming. That useful pdf suggested that you arrive before 10 AM. I couldn't, and appeared in the office around noon. No one said, "oh, I'm sorry, you should have been here at 10; we already trained people." Instead, I was enthusiastically welcomed, signed in, and given a task. (and, offered food and drink as well).

3. Make a personal connection. Around the room were construction paper squares with individuals sharing about why they supported Obama. In the training, the volunteer talked about her own beliefs and connections. It all connected me, the volunteer, with bigger issues--and then, to connected me to the people whose doors I was going to knock on.

4. Make it clear. The Obama campaign operates at a high level of detail (supporting Obama, leaning towards Obama, undecided, leaning towards McCain, other--loads of check boxes on forms). For all of us who learn in different ways, the information was provided verbally, and then also in a useful, easy to read cheat sheet as we went out into the field.

5. Train. A very different approach than many of us use. As each group of canvassers came in, another volunteer would sit and do a small group training. So just as we finished, a pair of fathers, with kids in tow, came in and were getting trained. And importantly, the trainer directed her comments both to the dads and to the kids, who were very excited about helping. Which leads me to:

6. Involve families. These were young kids, but I've found that, almost without fail, those who are active volunteers in any organization were introduced to it by their parents. As a kid, I spent my time at church rummage sales, fundraisers and other activities; my own daughter did the same at many PTA and historical society events. We might want to find more ways to involve parents and kids together as volunteers.

7. Trust. It's amazing if you think about it. This is a group that's never met me before, gives me 15 minutes of training, and then sends me out to convey their message to the community. And, I think my volunteer partner (who'd I'd never met before and was a first time canvasser as well) and I did a pretty good job. That's because they trusted us to do so.

8. Make people feel they're part of an important, collective effort. Obviously, the presidential campaign is important. Perhaps it's a bit harder to talk about the importance of cataloging a photograph collection or giving a tour to school kids. But let's face it, if we can't figure out ways to convey passion, to convey the importance of what we're doing, then we can't find volunteers and we can't keep them.

9. Give up those preconceptions. Every door you knock on is different. People have different life stories, different beliefs, and different histories. You never know who will surprise you.

10. Listen! I think this might be the most important. Recently, I've worked with a couple organizations who struggled to recruit audiences for focus groups and perhaps, haven't quite seen the value of seeking out community input. As we went door-to-door, I learned alot about what this particular community thinks. I learned the not-so-serious--that people really like Halloween decorations--and the serious--that veterans really are concerned about veterans' issues, that the economy trumps almost all concerns, that not all middle-class women think Sarah Palin is a good idea. Imagine if we all, at museums and historical organizations, spent more time listening to our communities hopes and concerns. What kind of exhibits, programs and historic houses could we do then?

And a day later, one more thing.

Follow-Up I received a phone call from a real person on Monday night asking how I liked canvassing, did I want to come back, and could I interest others in coming.

Top to bottom:
My Obama sticker after a day's work
I like Barack Obama because wall at Wilkes-Barre office
Campaign posters in garage window, just before the primary. Waco, Texas, 1938
Dorothea Lange, photographer, FSA/OWI collection, Library of Congress

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Every local historical society has them. There they sit, the wrong size to fit in a box or on a shelf, sometimes filled with crumbling pages of obituaries. Luckily, Jessica Helfand has written a new book and has a new blog, both called the Daily Scrapbook that encourages new ways of thinking about these oft-ignored parts of our collection. A graphic designer and scrapbook collector, she's produced an amazing look at history. As the website describes it:

Combining pictures, words, and a wealth of personal ephemera, scrapbook makers preserve on the pages of their books a moment, a day, or a lifetime. Highly subjective, rich in emotional meaning, the scrapbook is a unique and often quirky form of expression in which a person gathers and arranges meaningful materials to create a personal narrative. This richly illustrated book is the first to focus close attention on the history of American scrapbooks — their origins, their makers, their diverse forms, the reasons for their popularity, and their place in American culture.

I think the idea of narrative is what's really important here. In museum terms, these scrapbooks are ways of personal meaning-making, the ways in which we assemble our experiences into something greater than the parts.

So let's go back and look at some of those scrapbooks. I remember some beautiful and memorable ones that I've come across: a little book full of tatting patterns and instructions; a travel scrapbook evocative of a type of travel now long gone; a small volume with tenderly pressed plants from places visited on the Grand Tour. The not-as-beautiful but still memorable are those that have carefully pasted- down materials about the larger issues of a particular place and time: the scrapbook full of clippings about the destruction of communities in the building of New York City's reservoirs or the one about the unionization of carpet mills in Amsterdam, NY with its clippings and mimeographed meeting notices. And then of course, there are just those photo albums/scrapbook hybrids that just sort of perfectly capture a summer.

What should we museums do about all our scrapbooks? Sure, maybe an exhibit on them, but maybe we should look at them as tools to learn about constructing a narrative and telling a story. Perhaps we can learn about flow, about words and images together, about humor, and about a compelling connection with people.

Top to bottom:
Family album, Sayre Historical Society