Sunday, May 24, 2009

What I Learned in Ukraine 2: A Generalist amid Specialists

I'm a generalist--I've worked with history, art and children's museums and historic houses and sites. I've run organizations, administered grant programs, developed exhibitions, tours and school and public programs. I've done evaluation, a bit of public relations, and strategic planning. I've taught museum studies courses and professional development programs. I know, from my exhibit and program work, a bit about the history of carpet manufacturing in Amsterdam, NY; vacationing in the Catskills and the Finger Lakes; Mother Ann Lee and Jemimah Wilkinson; the history of several Maryland counties; slavery in New York; to name just a few; and now of course, a bit about many parts of Ukraine's history and culture. All of the above isn't to blow my own horn, but to reinforce the idea that I really am a generalist, interested in almost everything.

Ukraine is a nation of specialists--that extends to every aspect of society. You can't buy shampoo in the grocery store--you have to go to the store that sells beauty and paper products--and that's not the drug store. At the travel agency, you can only buy a train ticket from the train person (too bad if she's at lunch). And of course the person who stamps your official piece of paper for whatever reason, is always a different person.

At museums the same holds true. Museum workers all are trained as scholars with academic specialities within a narrow focus. They come to that specialty early in their careers and there's virtually no shifting to a different career path and little ongoing professional training. I sometimes found it hard to explain what my work was, what my business was (I found no equivalent business in Ukraine). I appreciated the depth and concentration with which many of my Ukrainian colleagues approached their work. But only in the larger institutions were there museum staffers whose jobs were to work with the public.

After I learned how to do a bit of explaining about my work, I found being a generalist pretty useful. My colleagues had many questions about American museums--from grant-writing and fundraising to pay scales to statistics. Those statistics were the hardest thing to come by--because of American museums don't operate as part of a single bureaucratic structure.

One of my most rewarding projects came as a result of my generalist nature. As I led a workshop about proposal writing, the director of the National Museum of the Book discussed how she wanted to offer workshops in papermaking for children, but they had no funds available to pay a master papermaker. I laughed and said, "You don't need a master papermaker. I can make paper!"

I think somewhat unbelievingly, Valentina Grigorievna agreed that I would come and teach her staff to make paper--and together we could do the workshop instead of seeking funds for a master. Harkening back to some long-ago programs and by doing some judicious Googling, I developed a list of supplies; Irina and I made our treks around the city to gather them, and we successfully taught the museum staff how to make paper (and to block print, bind simple books and make pop-ups). The kids loved it, and the best part was to visit the museum again, before I left, and to see the workshop that is now offered every Saturday--refined and taught by the specialists on staff.

I did appreciate the specialists--but I hope that museum leaders continue to encourage the development of new skills for their staffs, and I know that many staff members welcome the opportunity to grow and stretch their wings.

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