Monday, August 31, 2009

We Can't Change That!

I'm often reminded that museums are in fact, pretty conservative places. Despite the fact that we show the work of those who broke the rules as artists, or who were game-changers in history, we cling to the way we've always done things. So it was a wonderful surprise in Dresden, in what seemed like one of the most conservative, old-line museums you could imagine--to see things done differently.

The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) has an incredible collection of Old Masters, just as the name implies. Rembrandt, Raphael, Vermeer, Rubens, Canaletto. But imagine my surprise when I walked in a room and saw a Native American totem pole next to a Rembrandt; and then, throughout the permanent collections, other artifacts from cultures around the world, installed next to these very traditional works of Western art. These weren't shunted off into a separate room, or next to less-than-important works of art. One installation was with Raphael's Sistine Madonna, considered the most important work in the collection.

Bright green labels provided the explanation and my rudimentary German (their website, and Google Translate) tell me that this is a joint project of the museum and the anthropological museum in Dresden--designed to explore themes that are common in all cultures--the struggle between good and evil, for instance.

I was intrigued by the project, but even more intrigued by the fact that the museum staff let go of things as they've always been (and by the way, you can also check out the museum in Second Life). So my take-away from this visit:

Get over it! Try something new!

And, in my ongoing quest for pictures--also very nice that they let you take photographs.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Does Pricing Change Visitor Behavior? It Did Mine.

I'm sure there are many studies about this, but a quick tale from my visit to Dresden. As I went into one museum, I thought, oh, perhaps I'll buy the city pass so I can visit lots of museums. I asked about it, and the woman behind the counter suggested I look at the brochure before deciding. I did decide, and then discovered that it made me visit museums, with their free admission, that I wouldn't have otherwise visited. I'm not overly interested in porcelain or armor, but the Porcelain Museum and the Armor Museum were worth a visit--even spectacular. To me, I wouldn't have sought them out, and paid a separate admission, but when I walked by the entrance to each, I thought, why not, it's free!

I compared that to my experience at the Museum of Modern Art last week, where somehow that $20 admission fee made me feel like I had to visit every floor, even though it was crowded, and I was tired.

So at one place, I felt I had to "earn" my money spent and at the other, I felt I got a special bonus. I know most cities, probably including New York, have a city card, but I wouldn't necessarily do it in a place close to home. Maybe promoting these cards is something cities could do for their neighbors, not just their visitors.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What Do Visitors Do at Art Museums?

Lately, in my museum visits I've been paying attention to what visitors actually do when they're in those exhibits we work so hard on. Below, just a few photos from a recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

So what do visitors do?

Mill around the entrance deciding what to do. A little additional signage could be helpful.

Read labels. But in the image below, this group gathered to read the label--but never stepped back to really look at the piece of art. Perhaps labels could encourage more looking. To artists and art historians that goes without saying, but not to everyone.

Crowd around famous works of art (in this case, Starry Night). This is usually accompanied by the taking of photos. Nina Simon's written a great post about photography in museums--and the reasons we should encourage it.

Visitors also seem to decide very quickly that some spaces are just pretty boring and not worth additional exploration. When I look at the above picture I feel like I should be making a dental appointment--this experience could be painful!

Listen to audio--in installations, in audioguides (MoMA's hefty admission was mitigated a bit by the free audio-guides) or on cellphones.

Seek out comfortable seating. This seating accompanies a design exhibit--but it also provided a much needed respite.

Talk to each other. My favorite comment was when a father, leaving the room with the Matisse, (several photos above), turned to his teenage son and said, with a huge smile across his face, "I never dreamed it was so big!" A wonderful demonstration of the power of seeing the real thing, and why people will still go to museums despite the web.

When was the last time you took a look at what people were doing in your museum?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Finding Sites of Conscience

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with Erika Gee and Maxim Novichenko of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. The coalition is a worldwide network of “Sites of Conscience” – historic sites specifically dedicated to remembering past struggles for justice and addressing their contemporary legacies. You can read a recent NY Times article about the coalition here.

In a wide-ranging conversation, we focused on my experience in Ukraine, talking about Chernobyl, Holomodor, and the Holocaust. I had the opportunity to learn about projects of individual sites such as the Gulag Museum at Perm 36 in Russia where events, dialogues, exhibits and programs helping to ensure that the human cost of totalitariansim is never forgotten.

But as I drove home, I thought about the many communities in the US where I have worked--and what sites of conscience might be in each of them.

I realized that almost every community has somewhere that is a place of conscience, whether it's a museum or historic site. We, as history workers, could take the lead in interpreting and telling stories about the fight for wages and worker safety, suffragists, abolitionists, pacifists and environmental activists. Many community museums have begun to tell those stories--but far fewer have begun to tell the more difficult stories of their past--the 1920s anti-nativist movement in upstate New York; the forced removal of Haudenousaunee during General Sullivan's campaign; the ways in which our communities treated the poor and the mentally ill; the inevitable pollution that was a result of industrialization; racial and religious segregation and discrimination; the often casual discrimination where some ethnic groups were slotted into low level jobs, and many more.

How can community museums begin the process of identifying sites and stories in their own communities? First, begin the conversation. Set aside time for your staff and your board to talk about the difficult parts of community history. Take a look at your collections and see if any of these difficult topics are embedded in your objects. One of the most powerful exhibition displays I've ever seen was one where, in its exhibit on slavery, the New-York Historical Society had a group of high-style 18th century objects--mahogany chairs, silver tea pots and the like. And the label? It said, simply, that everything in this case was made or used by slaves. It made those objects have an entirely different meaning for visitors. I haven't yet had a chance to see the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's Kitchen Table Conversations, but they definitely seem to provide a wonderful model for creating community dialogue about contemporary issues.

What else can you do?
  • Seek out different parts of your community for conversations and dialogue.
  • Consider who's not represented in your work.
  • Check out the Coalition's website under resources for models and more information. The coalition works by bringing groups together to share experiences, ideas and perspectives--the same approach will work in your own community.
  • Take a look at the Living Library, a worldwide project where you're given the opportunity to speak informally with people from diverse backgrounds "on loan" as a way of breaking stereotypes and challenging prejudices.
At a time when communities sometimes seem increasingly fragmented, museums and history organizations can be places where we come together, to consider our shared concerns.

Top to bottom:
Kern County, California. Undernourished cotton picker's child listening to speeches of organizer at strike meeting to raise wages from seventy-five cents to ninety cents a hundred pounds. Strike unsuccessful. Photo by Dorothea Lange, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress

Memorial Park at Perm-36, via Gulag Museum website

Two male workers make sausage casings for Adam Stecher in a cellar located on the edge of the Hudson River at #656 West 41st St., New York City, 1912. Barrels and machinery fill the room, which the investigator described as "excessively hot, humid and foul smelling." Factory Investigating Commission Collection, New York State Archives.

Living Library event in Edinburgh, Scotland

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Making Meaning through Measurements

What are these people doing? They're standing in line at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to help make a work of art. At a very crowded museum, a willing and patient line of visitors waited to participate in Roman Ondak's Measuring the Universe.

What do they contribute? Each one contributes two unique qualities. You step forward and a museum staff member measures your height, asks your name, and writes your name and the date at your height. The room started empty, but the exhibit closes September 14 and the room is almost full.

I found several elements fascinating: the staff member and the visitors approached it very seriously, so a sense of calm and quiet pervaded the room. No official line, but a line formed. The staff member took the time to pause so their friends or family could take a photo, and then afterwards, visitors often stopped to take their own pictures of their name and date. There was a pacing to the event that encouraged a bit of contemplation.

How could history museums use such an idea? How about collecting information about where your visitors live in the community, or their age, or even what kinds of possessions they own? Could visitors connect a network of places where they work, shop, or live?

I also found two other places at MOMA where visitors were distinctly making their own content in reaction to exhibitions. At the opening of the James Ensor exhibit, the very large opening label (above) encouraged people to pose as part of the scene. The exhibit, Looking at Music: Side 2 explored the experimental music and art of the 1970s. It's a great thing to watch visitors put on headphones and begin to dance--what were they listening to? Among others, the Ramones, of course. I watched one man take a cellphone video of his companion dancing which they then watched with great delight.

There's lots of looking at the Modern, so these planned and unplanned ways of audience involvement were small joys within the crowd of people.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Curiosity First

This week, several blogs (New Curator and the Center for the Future of Museums in particular) have been abuzz with discussion about whether a museum studies degree is worth it. As I read the posts, I thought about the worth of my own graduate degree and what I would look for in a new hire today. I came to the conclusion that there are some qualities, which perhaps cannot be taught, which make a good museum professional--from my own perspective. Feel free to disagree!
  • First and foremost: curiosity. If you're not curious about the world around you, about what other museums are doing, about the community you work in, then I think the museum field is not for you. I've asked interviewees about the last museum they visited and received a long silence. It's a big world and more than ever, there many opportunities to learn about it. I appreciate my colleagues who have deep interests and commitments outside their work: their artmaking, choral singing, French-horn playing, gardening, dog training, perspectives enrich their work. Paired with curiosity is, almost inevitably, imagination.
  • Second: ability to work as part of a team. I know there's a part of the museum world that likes to work deep in collections, on their own but I want people working with me who like to work with other people, who believe that collective minds produce better products. I still remember a colleague telling me about his stint as a very young director where, as a small staff of three, they spent one morning every week cataloging collections together--a great team-building effort.
  • Third: a sense of humor. These can be jobs with problems, with difficult people, with tough budget choices and more. It's a lot easier if a staff enjoys each other.
And a couple other skills that are assets:
  • Ability to develop and understand a budget. No matter what part of a museum you work in, it has a budget. Don't just shrug your shoulders and say, "oh, I'm a art or history person--I don't do numbers." Learn how those numbers are shaped and what they mean. That knowledge can be powerful.
  • Ability to speak in public (in my head, this is always paired with the other piece of advice I got from Louis C. Jones, founder of the Cooperstown Graduate Program--which was learn how to hold your liquor at exhibit openings.) The ability to be passionate and engaging about your museum to all kinds of groups--from elementary school students to seniors--can make new audiences care about the place you work.
  • Ability to be an early adapter about something. Most often this is now something on the web, but it might also be new lighting techniques, or green exhibit fabrication, or trends in education. These can be great ideas to share with colleagues. You can make your own little niche of knowledge.
  • Have a professional network. Much of my work has been about connecting people with other people. If you come into a position with a network of contacts--and preferably not just from your graduate program, you're a significant asset. They might be contacts in the community, in your field, or just a big random network.
  • Know how to write on deadline. It's great to be a good writer (and I always wish I were better), but if you're a good writer that takes forever, that's not particularly useful. And by the way, it goes without saying that understanding what deadlines mean is a very useful skill.
Do you need to go to graduate school to learn these skills? Absolutely not. Can graduate school help you refine and develop these skills: yes, for some people. Do I think the field benefits from the broadest range of perspectives and experiences? Absolutely yes.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Smithsonian Follow-Up #2

Thanks to Dana Greil at the Smithsonian Museum of American History for pointing me to two videos related to my post about the Greensboro Lunch Counter. The first (above) shows a bit of the program and museum staff discussing the presentation; the second (below) shows the presentation in its entirety--something I wasn't able to see, so was thrilled to find it on YouTube. My apologies for not being able to figure out how to show the first one in a full screen--you can see the non-goofed up version here.

I particularly noticed two things: first, the use of an authentic primary source to develop the program--an actual Civil Rights training manual and second, the many ways in which the presenter uses inquiry learning to engage the audience. He'll ask questions, repeat and go back, encourage more learning and the making of connections.

As I develop tours and programs, this is one that will serve as ongoing inspiration.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Is the Good Stuff Really Stored Away?

On several of my local and community history projects lately, we've had conversations about whether objects in the collections support a deeper, more inclusive view of history. And in at least one case we concluded that although the historical society has a large collection, rich in some areas, that it was weak in others and it made some interpretive approaches very difficult. I've often spent time on projects wishing for museum collections that included work clothes or other items to no avail.

At the same time that museum professionals wish for more inclusive, diverse collections, we're finding that our communities want more access to our collections. For instance, the Ohio Historical Society's recently announced revamping is based, in part, on the fact that the public wants more access to the collections--a conclusion based on three years of study.

I'm sitting on two sides of the fence here. On the one hand, I've seen plenty of collections that are virtually meaningless--uncataloged, poorly cared for, and representative only of the fact that no one knew how to say no to a donor. What would it mean if museums just threw open their doors and allowed access to all their "stuff?" Would people really be interested, or would they just wonder why we were so picky about providing access to it?

On the other hand, I also like access to collections and always appreciate models that allow me a chance to explore. Most recently, I visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum including the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, which, from my perspective, did a great job in providing visitors with easy, engaging access to collections. Online access to collections is an amazing thing--but there's still nothing like seeing the objects in person.

Here's a few images from my visit.

This is a very simple interactive at the information desk for the Luce Foundation Center where you got to select which item should go in the case. Interesting choices, interesting explanations, no electronics, and it made me check out the case in greater detail when I reached it.

This interactive helped place George Catlin's works in context. It is placed between two cases filled with Catlin's work and the map, images and audio excerpts from diaries gave the interested visitor a much deeper experience.

How simple and how useful this label is! Just a simple demystification of what those numbers mean.

Except for open collections storage, I'm of the opinion that drawers are often not used very often by visitors, but this young woman spent a long time looking here. So perhaps I'm wrong.

Simple to use computers, the accession label explanation shown above, and pencils and paper to write down information--all of which makes the space easy to use.

What questions might museums ask when they're planning open access to collections--here's some I might have:
  • What are the real strengths of our collection?
  • What do those strengths imply about our community, past and present?
  • How can we demystify our work?
  • How can we encourage surprising connections?
  • How can visitors share their own connections with others?
  • What can we do to encourage and shape our current collecting efforts?
Top: Phrenological heads from the Science Museum, London

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Invention at Play Follow-Up

I had an email from Monica Smith, Exhibition Program Manager at the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center at the National Museum of American History concerning my blog post about non-working exhibit elements there. A number of the elements I mentioned have already been addressed, and an amazing 3.5 million visitors have seen the exhibit since it opened in November, 2008. That visitation number presents incredible maintenance challenges and I very much appreciate Monica taking the time to provide feedback to the blog post.

In a conversation this week, someone asked if I gave museums an advance preview when I wrote about them on my blog. I usually don't, but have found that most museums find the post, probably through an RSS feed and my Google Analytics often show that a number of people from a single institution read a post about their institution.

I'm always happy when other museum-goers, staff at a particular institution, or the field in general take the time to comment, expand on my thoughts, ask more questions or disagree. Feedback is great!

Mr. Lincoln's Washington

Ford's Theatre, in Washington, DC has just spent two years and millions of dollars renovating the theater where Lincoln was assassinated and creating a new exhibition--so I was anxious to see the results and did so a few weeks ago. I remembered a long-ago visit, with compelling artifacts in a linoleum-floored basement exhibit space and the back bedroom across the street, where Lincoln died. Today, visitors have a much-revised experience, but to me as a visitor, it was less compelling and more frustrating. I know from my own work the many discussions, debates and compromises that happen in any exhibition process, but I came away wishing some decisions had focused more on the visitor.

The Theater expects more than a million visitors per year, and is free (though a charge from Ticketmaster to buy tickets online). The tours are timed, and so you enter the museum with a large group of other visitors. The start of the museum experience is a little disenheartening and frustrating. The crowd inches down a small staircase into the exhibit--which has a video almost at the start. That means that the audience stops to watch the video--which then means everyone else stands, waiting, on the stairs. The main label for the exhibit is placed in such a way that it's easily obscured--so you enter the space confused and a little annoyed.

Each group spends about a half hour in the exhibit space. There's lots to see--too much to see, I think, with some very crowded small spaces and then some randomly large, not very interesting spaces with not much to see. There's the war and generals; the Lincoln family; the conspirators; and four ex-presidents reciting the Gettysburg address. The crowd felt ready to leave the exhibit before the time was up--which seems curious given that there's lots to see.

Next part of the visit--a great use of a long ramped hallway into the theater. On either side of the wall is are hour-by-hour drawings of both Lincoln's and John Wilkes Booth's day on April 14, 1865. I noticed that visitors really looked and conversed here--much more so it seemed than with the high-tech video installations in the exhibit.

It was interesting to me that the experience in the theater itself was so lacking in drama. With an audience of both children and adults, we received a 20 minute monologue about the night of the assassination. Our interpreter was a fairly good story-teller, but why stand below the stage, where it's hard to be seen? And why, in a theater, wasn't the experience a bit more theatrical?

The Petersen House, across the street, was for me, a classic example of how a bad interpreter can ruin a visitor's experience. Because we had a baby with us, we left the theater a bit early and crossed the street to see if we could go through the Petersen House. As we approached, the interpreter, up the outside steps, was arguing with other visitors about what time it was and whether she could let them in. She looks at us and says, "you're a neutral party--tell them what time it is." Hmmm....and then, of course, she wanted us to leave the stroller just sitting on the street while we went through the house.

As the group comes into the house, she starts by saying very loudly, and in quite an unfriendly voice, "Don't think you're going to see that bloody pillow here," going on to say that the pillow had been conserved and was packed safely away. Virtually no other information was provided by the interpreter. Admittedly it's a very small house and a large group, but this interpreter provided an experience that we just wanted to escape as soon as possible. Quite a change from a place that I had vivid memories of.

So what would I ask the exhibit developers if I had the chance?
  • What was the big idea of the exhibit?
  • What does it mean when museum videos (also a question for the Smithsonian's Museum of American History) are all produced by the History Channel?
  • What sorts of formative visitor evaluation took place?
  • What have the staff been surprised by since the re-opening?
  • What do they wish they could have done differently?
  • Why is there absolutely no seating in the exhibit?--older people, families, all kinds of people might have made use of it.
  • What do they think are real successes in the interpretation?
  • Did the ongoing use of the theater as a theater preclude a more complex object theater presentation of the assassination itself?
  • How are interpreters trained and evaluated?
  • Was there any thought to how visitors could share their perspectives and thoughts?
  • How could it be made a more meaningful and reflective experience?
And for visitors, what is the main idea they take away?

If you're interested in Lincoln, I found the Lincoln exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History a much more engaging experience. It starts with a great introductory label (below) and gives a sense of the complexity of Lincoln, without the cacophony I found in the Ford's Theater exhibit.

I'm surprised sometimes when I meet museum staff who aren't really museum visitors. For me, being a visitor is a great reminder to keep the visitor/audience/community at the forefront of what we do.