Sunday, May 31, 2009

Throwing Open the Doors: Visitor Friendly Museums

This past week, I visited three museums that exemplify the simple ways in which we can make our museums places for our communities. It's not about giant capital projects or fancy flat screen TVs at the entrance--it's really about the spirit of the people who work there.

The Erie Art Museum in Erie, PA is housed in a very imposing classical art museum building. They do have a big capital project for a new entrance now underway, but two doors down is a unique part of the museum. The museum operates an art and frame shop. The shop provides the museum with framing, but also does contract framing for the community. However, as the museum director, John Vanco says, "it's also a part of our educational mission," by providing guidance and resources for conservation-appropriate framing for the community. As you enter the museum or the frame shop, the people who work there just seem happy to see you. They welcomed all visitors, answered questions, and just generally made it feel like a place for everyone.

The Art Museum also has an active folk art program and folklorist Kelly Armor works extensively with a diverse local community: basketmakers from Burma, bobbin lace makers from Slovenia, blue grass musicians, Korean watercolor painters and many more. Erie has, for its size, a large number of refugees from around the world and the museum has played an active part in making Erie feel like home.

At the Lewis H. Latimer House in Flushing, Queens, director Vivian Warfield has big plans and is taking simple steps to engage her local community. Like many New York City historic houses, the house is in a very small park, but surrounded by an intimidating fence. How to cope with that? New banners are being made to hang on the fence--in English, Korean and Mandarian. And when she's at work, Vivian opens both the back and front gates, so passersby can walk through one of the only green spaces in the neighborhood. She's also taking Mandarian classes so she can work more directly with her Chinese neighbors. Latimer, an African-American inventor, has a complex, surprising story, and one that will resonate with anyone interested in technology, African-American history, or the all American story of struggling for success.

A rainy day visit to the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum in Brooklyn reminded me that interpreters, those people on the front lines, are the people who make a visitor's experience memorable. The Wyckoff is a small (so small that the staff offices are in a nearby trailer) Dutch farmhouse in a now fully urban area. Into this tiny farmhouse, educator Shirley Brown-Alleyne and her staff squeezed four school groups at once--almost 120 students--and provided a substantive experience for all.

What made the experience compelling? Each interpreter approached the subject matter--everyday life--in their own way. Corry was a quiet storyteller--starting from the kids' own knowledge and experience. "How do we keep our food cold?" "What kind of roots do we eat?" He always kept his voice low, and rather than having a big line waiting to use the butter churn, he smoothly integrated the switch to a new student churner within ongoing conversation about spinning and weaving. Katrina used songs and full body movements to engage her students--while provided context about Brooklyn as a farming community.

Shirley told me that Ella Mae, another interpreter, would have learned all the students' names by the end of her time with them. And sure enough, she did--and had also learned which of the students, in the incredibly diverse class, were not yet English speakers and had enlisted some of their classmates to serve as translators for them, gently providing time for that to happen. Ella Mae's dramatic voice explaining ink-making and students signing an 18th century oath of allegiance, made it seem like they all felt part of a dramatic moment.

But most important, I think, is how she connected the Wyckoffs to this class of immigrant students--from Pakistan, Peru, China, Guatemala and everywhere in between. She talked about how the Wyckoffs remained Dutch and became American--just like their own experience and that of their parents. "What do Wykoffs [now a broad, sprawling family] look like? Everybody in this room." This place became not just a place for venerating Dutch ancestors, but connecting a long-ago story to the lives of those who visit.

I'm sure most of my readers have visited a museum where it felt like visitors were either an intrusion or just cash cows. It's a tough time for museums, no doubt, but it's a tough time for lots of people. As I think about which museums will emerge from these challenging times, I'm beginning to think that it will be those museums who figure out how to do more with less--and that the more needs to be about connecting to community.

If you work in a museum, spend an afternoon working at the front desk or observing visitors to see if your museum is visitor-friendly, and what low-cost changes you can make. You might be surprised.

Top to bottom:
Students at Wyckoff House
Erie Art Museum
Latimer House
Welcoming school buses at Wyckoff House
Corry and a school group, Wyckoff House

Friday, May 29, 2009

What I Learned in Ukraine 3: Let the Light In

Transparency is something I take for granted--particularly now with the web. I can look up non-profits' financial information on Guidestar; I can search collections databases at many museums, I can learn about the provenance of Nazi-era art or information on Native American collections that have been or will be repatriated. Museum associations like the Museum Association of New York and the American Association of Museums keep me informed about legislation affecting museums. Outside of museums I can find information on my state legislators and their pet projects, read (increasingly online) journalists uncovering all sorts of scandals and corruption at every level of government and business. I'm not naive enough to think that everything is available and accessible, but my American experience makes me think that, given enough time and effort, I could uncover information on almost anything.

Not so much in Ukraine. In Soviet times, information was closely guarded and that legacy continues today on many levels. My students were surprised to learn that archival collections, like the Library of Congress, had millions of items online, available for free, to all comers, without registration. Many scholars still closely guard their information and it's fairly rare for colleagues from different museums to work together, sharing information and ideas. At several workshops, we worked on proposal writing and the chance to openly share and discuss drafts was new to participants.

One experiment in American museum transparency that's gotten a great deal of attention recently is the Indianapolis Museum of Art's dashboard. On the dashboard today, I learned that the museum has 13 works of art on loan to other organizations, that it uses 59,713 KWH of energy per day, and that 28, 899 students have participated in school tours or programs--and much more information about the museum's collections and operations. I imagine big scrambles to get good numbers at the IMA, but I think the result is fascinating and will lead other museums towards the same amount of fluid, real time, transparency.

But the lack of transparency isn't just in museums. Although my direct contact with corruption was pretty limited, Ukrainians assume that corruption exists in every part of life--the country ranks 118th out of 179 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index for 2007 (the last one I could find). I heard stories of directors selling museum collections for personal profit; saw restaurants built on protected parkland, and experienced minor public employees seeking payments. Politics, on every level, is considered by most Ukrainians to be a corrupt process, with a corrosive sense of cynicism about elected officials.

There's lots of funding and lots of effort from the US and Western Europe devoted to addressing issues of corruption in Ukraine. Having only the snapshot of my four months there, I can't say how it's working. However, it seems clear that eradicating corruption is a long haul, and it could be years before real, system-wide change happens, and trickles down to every aspect of society. As a result, museums will continue to suffer. Even a strong director has a hard time fending off dishonesty from above and below. Ukraine's museums--and its citizens-- deserve better.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Art Arsenal, Controversy and Museum Night

As I'm back in the US, I'm working to keep up on Ukrainian museums. This post is just a grab-bag of Ukrainian issues and news and I invite my colleagues to share their news and perspectives.

Art a priori

The Eidos Arts Development Fund, a foundation devoted to contemporary art in Ukraine, has undertaken a major project, Art a priori, to pair young curators with contemporary artists in the development of site-specific installations in traditional Ukrainian museums. I had a chance to meet with Eidos staff when I was in Kyiv and learn about this effort which includes training for the young curators as well as support for the artists and marketing.

The projects (10-12 in all) have begun to take shape. To my knowledge, there's not been much discussion about what's appropriate to exhibit in Ukrainian museums. In the US, discussions about the Enola Gay, the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and Robert Mapplethorpe have been a part of museum discourse for years. I recall a discussion in my class at Kyiv-Mohyla about how American museums made decisions about what was exhibitable. My students seemed surprised that each museum made their own decision--and that the government did, at times, interfere, but generally, freedom of expression won. The concept of artistic free expression is still an emerging one in Ukraine. A press release from Eidos notes:
On May 21, 2009 the exhibition «New History», winner of the International Curatorial Competition “Art a priori: Contemporary Stories” announced by “EIDOS” Arts Development Foundation, had just started at Kharkov Art Museum, Ukraine.

Video works, photographs, installations, and objects made by well-known and young contemporary artists from Ukraine, Russia, Sweden, Rumania and Slovakia were displayed among artworks of the permanent collection. The opening was astonishing. It included a press-tour, a curatorial excursion for visitors, and a special exhibition tour for students studying art history.

But by the next morning, May 22, the art project was prohibited, despite plans to show the exhibition till May 25, and the exposition had to be uninstalled by personal order of the head of the museum. The order banning the exhibition was given in an incontestable and aggressive manner. The head of the museum pointed to obscene words contained in the art works and incompatibility with the museum's exhibition policy.
I don't yet know more from Kharkiv, but I admire the Eidos Fund's ongoing interest in supporting young artists and shaking up the museum world a bit.

When I was in Ukraine, I did have some conversations with museum workers about the proposed Art Arsenal in Kyiv. The Arsenal is a great historic building near Pechersk Lavra that has had a number of uses proposed for it. Its latest iteration is as Art Arsenal, a museum or exhibition that highlights other Ukrainian museum collections. Workers at several other museums expressed concern that their most important artifacts would have to be loaned, or permanently transferred to this new "museum."

What will it be? A press conference today, I hope, provided more information. The very concept that a new museum could lay claim to the collections of other museums seems inconceivable to Americans--but because museums and collections in Ukraine are all governed by the Ministry of Culture, it is possible. The current argument for the comprehensive museum is that the hundreds of Ukrainian museums, like US museums, only exhibit 5-10% of their objects and that by focusing attention at a central location on the country's treasures, more attention will be devoted to museums in general.

The staff at the Center for Museum Development do a great job of keeping the Ukrainian Museum Portal up-to-date with all kinds of information about Ukrainian museums--I use Google Translate and hopefully get at least a sense of the issues and events.

And, a new event, Night at the Museum, at the National Art Museum, which I learned about from my friend Anna's blog, Museum_my friends and me. Nights at the Museum are found all over Europe, and this is the second year for the Art Museum. Last year, a high end party--this year, open to all, and more than 900 visitors in just a few hours. The gallery rooms were darkened and visitors could explore with flashlights and in the entry, a DJ played music combined with images. Anna and her colleagues have had an interest in attracting teenagers to the museum and from her blog, this looks like a great start. Soon the museum will be stiff competition for the teenage-attracting club right across the street.

From top to bottom:
Night at the Museum, from Anna's blog
Opening at the Kharkiv Museum, from Eidos Fund
The Arsenal, 2008, from goldencalf at Flickr
Night at the Museum, also from Anna's blog

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.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Inside TR's Brain

Two full years ago, I began working with the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, NY on a project to rethink the house's interpretation. Last week, I got to see the results.

For those of you who don't remember this aspect of American history: In 1901, President William McKinley is shot by an assassin while at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Wounded, he lingers--Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt comes to Buffalo, is told that McKinley will survive, and heads to the Adirondacks with his family. McKinley's condition worsens and he dies--Roosevelt receives a telegraph, takes a harrowing midnight ride down the mountain and arrives by train to Buffalo. He goes immediately to Ansley Wilcox's house--where, later that day, he takes the oath of office.

The Wilcox House was saved by a group of local activists and became a National Park Service site, operated in partnership with a local organization. Over time, the site's interpretation became, as many do, a confused (and confusing) accretion of knowledge and supposition. This particular house sat uncomfortably between a site where something momentous happened and your typical Victorian home.

The staff (led by director Molly Quackenbush, the staff intepretive team members were Lenora Henson, Mark Lozo, and Janice Kuzan) and board saw an interpretive opportunity as they embarked on a major capital project to recreate the former carriage house as a visitor center, gift shop and multi-use space. They knew that a beautiful new space should be accompanied by, as they said in their capital campaign efforts, "a museum for the 21st century." I went back to some of our original planning documents. Our goals in the new interpretation were:
  • Create a family-friendly experience for both local residents and tourists
  • Provide a transformative experience for visitors that encourages citizen engagement, both locally and nationally and encourages additional exploration into Roosevelt’s life and impact
  • Have visitors leave saying, “Wow!”
Only time will tell what visitors think, but it was a pleasure for me to see how our original ideas played out in media and exhibits developed by Boston Productions and exhibit designer Linda Ziemba. It reinforced, for me, the sense that historic site interpretation is dependent on us finding the real stories that engage visitors. Here at this site, it wasn't the story of a Victorian house, or even the story of the Wilcox family. It was the big, compelling, only happened here story of an accidental president and of the activist presidency he pursued.

We began our work the way I think all good interpretive processes begin--with lots of conversation--at a day long planning meeting that included staff, board members, teachers, a high school student, scholars and docents. We wrestled with the big ideas of the site and how best to convey them. From that, and with subsequent refinement, we came up with our interpretive themes and a sense of how those might work in the building. Those themes focused on the events of that day, the ways in which America evaluates what is a just society, and the fact that TR's activist presidency produced policies which continue to affect the country.

Our ideas--and a prototype tour--were put to the test in January, 2008 with two focus groups--one group who knew the site well and the second a group of local residents who had never visited. Evaluator Catherine Harris drew out a great deal of useful information from both groups that helped our continuing discussions. Our original orientation area idea, focusing on five questions we thought visitors might have--switched to a clearer focus--to that of the Pan-Am exposition and Buffalo in 1901--to transport the visitor back to the time and place.

But other ideas remained the same from start to finish. We wanted the visitor to feel like they were experiencing that day. Simple changes in the dining room made it seem like TR had perhaps just left after finishing a cup of coffee (Bet you didn't know he's the originator of the phrase, "good to the last drop"). In the morning room, where he wrote a proclamation to the nation, curator Lenora Henson used copies of original telegrams sent to him that week (uncovered by her in the Library of Congress) to convey a sense of citizens, famous and not, connecting to him. In the library, an audio installation re-creates the swearing in--including imagined back dialogue from the more than forty people who were crammed in the small space.

But what about TR's brain? We wanted in some way to connect visitors with the multitude of issues that face any new president. As the docent helps the visitor imagine TR's mind that day, they leave the dining room, just as TR left the house to pay a call on Mrs. McKinley. The visitors then enter into a media installation that conveys, through Roosevelt's words and those of his contemporaries like John Muir and Andrew Carnegie, combined with photographs and objects, the critical issues of the day--TR's brain, as it were.

We also wanted visitors to think about today--to think about what they might do as President. In the morning room, the docent has the opportunity to ask visitors to take a few minutes to jot down what they might say if they suddenly became president. In our prototyping, it was thrilling to see how willing visitors were to do this, how much they enjoyed the opportunity to talk about this country's opportunities and problems, and how thrilled they were to see the facsimile of Roosevelt's address--with its many cross-outs and corrections. We tested this in January, 2008, when the presidential campaign was just ramping up. None of us could have quite imagined the past year and a half, and I suspect visitors will continue their interest in this activity. Museums can be a place of connecting about real issues and, with this new interpretation, this site has created many new opportunities for conversation.

One caveat and one kudo:

There's a lot of technology in this site now--it certainly made many things possible but in a few cases, I'm not convinced that the same results could have been achieved with a simpler solution. Any site has to be prepared to effectively manage technology--both when it works and when it doesn't. The site will be planning for the long run care and feeding of their technology.

And, talk about making a bridge between visitors and the subject matter--as I sat on a bench in the orientation room, watching film footage of the Pan-Am Exposition, a docent leaned over and said, "It's just like you're at the Pan-Am--that's just what people did--sit on the benches and watch the world go by." Very nice.

Just a note to potential visitors: the second floor exhibitions were not yet installed--the site re-opens to the public on June 20.

Top to bottom:
Library, Wilcox House
Orientation area
Dining table
Issues Room
Bench in the Pan Am exhibit area

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Live Long and Prosper: Audiences, Star Trek and History Museums

Well, yes, I went to see the new Star Trek movie the other night. As we left the theater, Drew said, "On your blog, how would you connect Star Trek to museums?" So here goes--how could history museums be more like Star Trek?
  • Tell real compelling stories about people. The audience was dying to know all about Kirk and Spock's early years. Of course, these are fictional creations, but in each of our communities there are everyday people with compelling lives--those are the stories we should be sharing.
  • Figure out how to start with what people know. In a movie like this, it's all about the pop-culture references and the references to earlier versions. It gives the viewer (or museum-goer) somewhere to start, but doesn't exclude the first-time viewer.
  • Have cool objects. Okay, most local history museums don't have phaser guns (or whatever they're called), but they do have cool objects--if we take the time to put them into context. In the goofiest of ways, every community museum has an object that transforms a raw material into a usable item, or creates heat and warmth, or transports us from one place to another. I don't think local history museums should be all about process, but understanding how things work is intriguing to many.
  • Be a place where people can gather together. Isn't affinity group just another name for Fan Club? Become a place where like-minded people can gather (for fun, without admission, organized by themselves) to explore topics that interest them.
But, one cautionary note: if we, as museums, become too immersed in the occasionally arcane knowledge of our subject, we run the risk of only talking to people like us, interested in the same thing--in the same way, I suspect, that might happen at Star Trek fan conventions. So, rather than just sticking with the same old thing, consider going boldly forward to those new worlds.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What Did I Learn in Ukraine?

Before I left Ukraine, I had several people ask me what I learned from Ukrainian museums--and since I've been back, I've had even more conversations about what it was like, what museums are doing, and if living in a different country is hard. It's taken me a little time to begin to consider what I learned. I'll try and reflect on my entire experience in a series of short posts, rather than one very long one.

First, I encourage everyone to consider some sort of international program. My time in Ukraine was as a Fulbright Scholar--if you want to learn more, check out information for Fulbright Scholars and the Fulbright Scholar program for students. These programs send US scholars and students internationally and bring international scholars and students to the US. Most Fulbright Scholars are faculty members, but there is room for non-academics like me as well.

I've also been lucky enough to participate in two other international exchanges. Long ago, I partnered with a museum in eastern Hungary as part of the no-longer existing International Partnership Among Museums program of AAM and ICOM. That's resulted in a continuing strong tie with a colleague--we'll be presenting together at a conference in Germany this fall.

And, a program worth considering for all young professionals--Rotary International's Group Study Exchange Program sends teams from individual Rotary districts for five week experiences in other Rotary districts around the world. Current Rotary rules specify that you must be under 40 to participate. I was lucky enough to spend five weeks in Mumbai, India and have other colleagues who were part of GSE teams to Brazil and West Africa. This program isn't focused on museums, but the chance to stay with families and experience everyday life in another country is not to be missed.

Why do I think these experiences are so important? In Ukraine, I found that many of the most forward looking people were people who had had the opportunity to study or travel to the US or Western Europe. And I think that's equally true for Americans as well. The world knows much more about us than we do about them. As museum people, we think about aspects of culture every day. It sounds simplistic, but an experience in another country really does provide different views on the value of culture, cultural norms, and the meanings we draw from history and a sense of place--all of which can help make us more reflective both in our work and in our communities.

It's also a very good thing to spend some time as an outsider in museums--where you are the person who can't figure out how to pay admission, who can't read the labels, who isn't sure if that special program is meant for them. I came back with a renewed commitment to making museums as accessible as possible, to as many people as possible.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Damien Hirst in Kyiv

Ukraine doesn't make the US news much--except for the gas crisis this past winter. But this weekend, the Washington Post did an article on Damien Hirst's exhibit at the Pinchuk Art Centre. I visited the Pinchuk several times, including this opening, and did a presentation on museum education, with a focus on contemporary art museums, to their staff (who were thoughtful and interested despite being just days before this opening--and evidently it's harder to install flies than you might think!)

When I read this, I'm most interested in the comments from visitors--

"The world is cruel, and this is a picture of real cruelty. It makes you think."

[I am] "shocked and on the verge of tears looking at this. It's as if the world has gone mad."

"I was very curious to see this...For me, I can hardly call it art. It's zoology."

"I think I might leave my body to an artist like this."

For Ukrainians, for whom the Soviet system of "approved" artists has left a difficult legacy, the opportunity to see work like Hirst's, whether they like it or not, is drawing thousands of visitors. When I first visited the Pinchuk I longed for some interpretation--and found none. I understand from their director, Eckhard Schneider, that they have hired and trained young people to give guided tours for this exhibition--and that training even included a tour with Hirst himself. A great new step--I'm anxious to hear how it's worked out. Museum tours in Ukraine were often delivered lecture-style and Hirst's work seems particularly suited to tours framed more around conversation and discussion. And, I hope they're doing a little evaluation to find out what visitors thought about the tours.

Top to bottom:
Crowd at opening weekend outside the Pinchuk Art Centre; Damien Hirst signing autographs outside the opening; at the Hirst opening

Friday, May 8, 2009

What Would You Like at a Conference?

I've been thinking a bit about last week's AAM conference--I heard some very interesting sessions and had some good conversations with friends and colleagues, and, admittedly, was a bit jet-lagged. But what else do I wish for in a conference?
  • Name tags that aren't worn down by participants' waists
  • A map of the conference center
  • More than a token three minutes to "discuss" in sessions--and some way to follow up that conversation
  • Not having to wear a sweater indoors when it's 80 degrees outside (hey, what about that global warming?)
  • The chance to fill out session evaluations online rather than being handed paper every time
  • Moderators who don't read the participant' bios
  • Technology that works (thanks, AAM, it worked everywhere I was) and I loved the print handouts on demand feature
  • Fewer people talking about their own projects and more people, as in the Eye on Design session, talking about what really matters to them--outside of their own work place
  • Better powerpoints--fewer words, more images, less reading of words on screen
  • More times and ways to talk, in conversation with colleagues--I see this happening at many conferences, including AAM--Idea Lounges, Dine and can we create more of them?
  • Some other ways to meet new people rather standing in line for food, or one of those three minute "discuss" sessions
  • Hotels that don't charge for Internet access
  • As in Philadelphia, great food nearby the conference center--Reading Market is the best!
All that said, I've run conferences myself, and know how many millions of details there are. AAM's seems to run smoothly and I appreciate their willingness to try new ways of presenting. It's always easier to have opinions from the outside, but what would you like in a conference?

Above: No AAM shots--but a workshop at the National Art Gallery, Kyiv

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

How Diverse are We?

At another Idea Lounge at AAM, Dwan Reece, Carol Enseki and Fabiana Chiu-Rinaldi moderated a thoughtful, complex discussion on diversity in the field. To all of our amazement, there has never been a survey that establishes a benchmark for diversity in the field, despite decades of conversation. And, despite those decades of conversation, we all felt that the field, particularly in terms of leadership, is not substantially more diverse than twenty years ago.

In the session, there was discussion about indicators of qualities that allow diversity to flourish in an institution:
  • openness to staff learning
  • willingness to learn by doing, as well as ongoing training
  • a real commitment to diversity, rather than lip service
  • having realistic expectations for staff
  • having a diverse board which helps signal real change, and change from the inside
  • supportive leadership, grounded in an understanding of diversity

At the same time, the group (all women, by the way) came up with many more questions than answers.
  • Has the emergence of many new museum studies graduate programs filtered out other accessible routes into museum work?
  • How does an institution think about values? Are we relevant and valuable to the community?
  • How can mid-level staff keep fostering conversation about and focus on diversity?
  • Is the museum field ready to have a diverse field of candidates for leadership positions?
  • How can a group of people move this conversation forward in the field? (There is a Diversity in Museums Committee (DivCom) at AAM--but the link to the DivCom website is dead...hmmm.)

Think diversity doesn't have anything to do with your museum? All of the demographic trends tell us otherwise. Take a look at the Center for the Future of Museums discussion paper, Museums and Society 2034 for a look at the changing demographics of the United States, in both rural and urban areas. Have you thought about the diversity of your community? When I do strategic planning with a museum, one of the first places I suggest looking for information is the US census. It's the place to find out real information about your community--and perhaps overturn some of those long held assumptions.

It's troubling to think that progress has been slow, but heartening to talk with such a committed passionate group who made their way to a far conference location, at a very early hour.

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

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Heart of a Wild Rumpus

While at AAM in Philadelphia, I visited the Maurice Sendak exhibit, There's a Mystery There--Sendak on Sendak at the Rosenbach Museum and Library--and found, to my delight, an exhibit that was full of wonder, sophisticated in concept, and yet accessible on so many levels. It was an exhibit that was fun to look at and I thought it must have been fun to work on because the care for audience--and for the exhibit's content--seemed so evident to me.

What made it such a good exhibit?

You could enter the content at many levels--there were substantive, lengthy section and object labels--but they were well-written and provided fascinating insights into Sendak's work and life.
But that wasn't the only way to explore content: you'd think an exhibit on this particular topic would have had many interactive elements--but the space at the Rosenbach is small--and so beautifully printed free gallery guides were in each room, each with a punch-out character that you could use on the small brochure "stage" that you collected first, to create your own stories.

On one side, the guide read, "Dear Grown-ups" and on the other, "Kids!" The Grown-up side provided grown-up commentary, asked questions and suggested fun activities for home. The side for Kids asked great, kid-level questions--both about close observation and about feelings. The guide encourages kids to ponder questions such as:
  • What's the strangest dream you can remember?
  • How do you think dreams are like stories and what can you learn from them?
  • How does he make trees in each book and how does that give each forest a certain character?
And one telling detail expressed how much the Rosenbach staff thought about audience. In each room, small wooden step stools were pushed under the cases, so young audiences could pull them out, step up and take a close look at Sendak's original illustrations.

The exhibit was divided into four clearly understandable and accessible sections: Kids: Innocence and Experience; Beasts of Burden, Influences and Into the Forest. Each opening label clearly framed the concept for the viewer, and the family gallery guide pieces supported it. The work shown included the very beginning drawings and illustrations, ideas shown in development, final illustrations and the books themselves. In addition, Sendak drew from a world of inspiration and the Rosenbach's rich collections provided more context in several areas of the exhibition.

Unobtrusive video installations in each gallery featured interviews with Maurice Sendak himself, with whom the Rosenbach has a long association. I just watched a few of them, but they were both brief and interesting--I liked seeing him, at his desk, explaining the tools he uses--just the same as when he was a kid.

One more detail: at one video monitor, set on a desk, a label mentioned that Sendak often clipped newspaper articles and photos for inspiration--and he kept them in his drafting table drawer, for inspiration. You're then invited to open the drawer and take a look at laminated copies of some of those newsclips--which then invited me to ponder the connection between the clips and the finished work.

I saw the exhibit after hearing Malcolm Gladwell's talk at AAM, which was about the ways in which creativity is not usually the result of a single stroke of genius. Rather creativity, in any field, is sustained, deliberate work. Sendak is a masterful illustration of this, mining his own childhood, sources ranging from Melville to Mozart, and his own deep, complex imagination to create a sustained body of work that's delighted generations of readers young and old. I came home and took a quick trip to the shelf of no-longer used kids books in my daughter's room--and there were several Sendak books--Max and Little Bear quite at home in my house. Like many good exhibits, it helped me make meaning, not only of Sendak, but also connected me back to my own family memories.

There's a companion website, with this quote from Maurice Sendak on the home page:

"That's the best fun in all this--the layers of meaning, the layers of storytelling."

Well, isn't that true for exhibits? And if not, why not?

Moishe from minipixel's photostream on Flickr
Rosenbach exterior, from srhbth's photostream on Flickr
Where the Wild Things Are, from JAmor's photostream on Flickr

Friday, May 1, 2009

More Student Exhibit Ideas

Although I'm back in the US, and will be posting about sessions I attend at AAM, I've still got a pile of potential posts from Ukraine. So before I get too far behind, a look back at some of my other student exhibit projects from my course at Kyiv-Mohyla. Their final assignment was to develop an exhibition around some aspect of Soviet life--any aspect. They had to consider a big idea, interactives, design concepts and how the exhibit would be evaluated. And although I probably won't get time to write about them all, each and everyone would have made a fascinating exhibit. It was a major shift to go from imagining exhibits that are strictly chronological or encylopedic, to these more conceptual ideas with many avenues for audiences to engage in the subject matter. My students all approached the projects with interesting eyes, diverse perspectives, and a sense of humor--great qualities in exhibit developers!

Two Types of Appearances
This exhibit analyzed the two ways in which Soviet women were portrayed--one, the worker, and the second, the more fashion-conscious woman called "artistic." The second was a look denied to most, and really only available to party bureaucrats.

Podstakannick (The Glass Holder)
This served as the title for an exhibit about Soviet train etiquette and culture. Having taken overnight train rides here, I can attest that much about the Soviet system, including the podstannick, still remains, although the class thought that one aspect of the trains--conversing with compartment-mates--had drastically changed with the advent of cell phones. You no longer passed the long ride talking, playing cards and sharing food with strangers, you now talk on the phone to people at home.

Nadiya thought this exhibit should be installed in a train itself, a sort of moving historic site, and that each class of car be interpreted in the appropriate place. She developed interactive contests, including the speed spreading-out of bedding, and wanted interpreters, in costume, to portray typical "Soviet types," engaging the visitors in conversations.

Flat #6

I didn't see, anywhere in Ukraine, re-creations of workers flats, houses or communal farms--and I'm hoping some of them get saved and restored and that some version of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum takes hold here. But here's an idea for the recreation of Flat #5, a communal flat--that, as Katya said, embodies the idea of Soviet ideology--that you are always under surveillance, always being watched. These flats were spaces where families had individual rooms, but the kitchen and other areas were shared communally. You would have the chance to fully inhabit the space, with living history actors portraying characters such as the babushka who sweeps the floor and asks you to wear your slippers.

And the most interesting concept? That had the end, you would have the opportunity to spy on your neighbors--other museum visitors--as they visited the flat.

Soviet Tourism as a Resistance Strategy
I enjoyed it when students looked to their own family history as a source of inspiration for these exhibit projects. Oksana looked to her mother's history as an avid hiker and outdoorswoman for this project. (That's her mother above, I believe). The Soviets organized hiking and tourism, but then, it become popular to hik and enjoy the outdoors outside of the Soviet system--so hiking and kayaking became ways for people to be together, to share ideas, and to operate, in fact, outside of those watchful eyes in those communal houses. Oksana found a nice selection of objects--including those family photos, but also cameras, tents, medals, and clothing. Singing--a very popular Ukrainian pastime--also had a part in this resistance--and so Oksana, Sasha and the rest of the class sang songs by popular "bards" from the 60s as part of this presentation.

Soviet Fashion--1950s-1980s
Another exhibit about fashion--and about the dichotomy between what fashion was promoted, what fashion was available, and how the culture and the state viewed differences. The push and pull tension with the West is always evident, not least in this image from when Christian Dior showed his designs in Moscow in 1959.

The Human Sides of the Cold War
An impressionistic exhibition, made even more so by the Bob Dylan sound track that accompanied the presentation. The goal, I think, was to show, to both countries, different sides of life, inspired, in part, by the story of the young American, Samantha Smith, who visited the Soviet Union in 1982. The only project to produce a poster (above)

Soviet Esoterica
One of my students has a longstanding interest in Esoterica--which in Soviet times evidently means an entire grab-bag of alternative practices--yoga, pyschotherapy, magic, shamanism--all sorts of things. She designed an exhibit in several spaces that both presented the objects, the people involved in the esoteric underground and then provided a space where current practicioners of all these elements, still not wholly understood or accepted, could meet and share information about their beliefs and practices.

The best intro label came here, from Katya:

In this exhibition, you will meet those you have likely only heard about. People who live on the edge of official culture. People who retained their identity despite being pressured into silence. People who did not officially exist. This is their story.

And I should say, by the way, that I taught in English and that my students produced all their materials for me in English--so not only did they have to think in different ways that they were used to, they had to produce the ideas and information in another language. Quite an impressive achievement.

Soviet Weddings
There were some great Soviet Realist wedding images in Anna's presentation, but I choose this one because it's an image I saw repeated in Kyiv over and over, particularly as the weather got warmer. Anna looked at the way the state controlled marriage in Soviet times and the ways in which ethnic traditions received a sort of controlled nod of the head in the ceremonies, and proposed that today, the tyranny of the state has been replaced by the tyranny of the wedding photographer--which she illustrated using a video of her own wedding.

The tradition of wedding couples visiting monuments still holds true--I never found out exactly when this started but some thought that it started after the Great Patriotic War (World War II) as a way to recognize and honor those who had died so others could live. At any rate, at every statue in Kyiv, every spring weekend can be seen brides, grooms and a full bridal party.

His Labor Made
This last one was fascinating...and hard to explain. Really more an art installation than perhaps an actual exhibition, but absolutely about Soviet times and the uses of memory. The exhibit would be installed in a round space. Projected on the floor would be large photos of Soviet citizens posing in groups (my student used photos from her own family collection). Mirrors on the ceiling would be endlessly reflect those group photos. Moving around the circular walls would be an endless loop of images of Soviet leaders, overlooking all those Soviet groups. In the center, a large flat-screen TV would show a music video that uses Soviet objects and images in a form of kitsch, I guess. Interestingly, this project, the most conceptual, provides the visitor with many, many opportunities for individual meaning making.