Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Drops and Dialogue: AAM Thoughts Part 1

It was a bit of a strange experience to go almost directly from Ukraine to the AAM conference in Philadelphia. The financial crisis exists in both places, but the manifestations are a bit different. At any rate, it was great to see colleagues, hear some interesting sessions, and think about the connections between museums here in the US and in Ukraine. But it's certainly true in both places that, as my colleague Anne Ackerson always says, "Ideas don't cost money!"

Favorite session and best place for new ideas--I think the same as last year--Eye on Design, curated by Nina Simon. It was an incredibly energetic, fast-paced look from 10 different museum people at inspirations outside the museum. Great ideas (check out the slide show) but also a great presentation. I so appreciated the lack of those long boring presenter bios and loved that Nina gave us questions to ponder--encouraging us to be creative thieves-- that produced an immediate buzz and delighted looks from the presenters as the audience dove into sharing their ideas.

I moderated an Idea Lounge on Chernobyl (see posts below), and how it might be interpreted for American audiences. It demonstrated the challenges that an exhibit like this might face--it seems very far away, but several of my idea loungees really connected to the topic--because they live near a nuclear power plant themselves. So the challenge for this project, as it moves forward, is to contemplate what aspects of the story are most compelling for audiences in this country. We discussed whether it could be a meaningful childrens' museum exhibit, really bringing those slightly older kids into a museum to discuss the connection between science, governmental policy and the lives of everyday people.

I'm a bit of a session-shopper (sorry speakers) and sat in on parts of two sessions which drew on the work of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. In one, three museums that had developed exhibits related to textile work and industry talked about specific projects that not only looked at textiles, but also about their work as a part of a network of sites to talk about immigration in this country. With a firm commitment to the idea that museums can serve as neutral ground for difficult conversations, staff from museums in New Bedford, Lowell, and Philadelphia both pulled various strings of history together with contemporary life.

I particularly enjoyed Madelyn Shaw's description of the process at the New Bedford Whaling Museum--not a place I would have expected to see textiles, but, as she said, this was a case of different people doing similar tasks--from a Cape Verdean sailor on deck mending sails to a Quaker lady sewing at home, to workers in a textile mill, all had their heads bent deep over their work. I loved that the museum gave guest passes to each company for their workers to use.

At another session, staff from the Sites of Conscience and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. This session really made me think about my time in Ukraine, and about how, in the long run, I hope that Ukrainian museums (and more American museums) can begin to embrace these new models. My scribbled notes show me part of the Skirball's mission statement, "Guided by our respective memories and experiences...we aspire to build a society in which all of us can feel at home." With the emphasis on dialogue--the idea that museums can serve as a way to challenge authoritarianism, foster communication and encourage the exchange of perspectives between visitors--I can begin to imagine how this might happen in Ukraine, a post-Soviet country struggling with issues of identity. As so I loop back to Chernobyl, a topic and a place deserving of sustained dialogue in Ukraine and throughout the world.

Although it seems a bit strange to write a post that ranges from a session that included presentations of creative book drops, giant crossword puzzles and the power of play, to sessions about sites of conscience, they're all a part of what can make museums powerful places in all of our communities. I'm glad to be a generalist.

Top to bottom:
Federal Art Project, W.P.A., [between 1936 and 1941], Library of Congress
Eye on Design Slide Show
Inside Chernobyl exhibit, Kyiv Ukraine
Textile mill working all night in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Photograph by John Collier, Library of Congress

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