Thursday, October 29, 2009

What I Learned about Museums from my Seat in the Jury Box

I spent this past week performing a duty I'd never done before--I served on a jury. I did pay attention, I promise, but in some of those long pauses for one thing or another, I realized that the court had some lessons for me about how visitors might think about our museums.

What did I learn?
  • It's a hard thing to be a first-timer. You're not quite sure where to go, what to do, and who all the other people are. And of course, there are guards--a little intimidating to be sure. First-time museum visitors must feel the same. But it's awfully nice to have to perform my civic duty in a beautiful, historic space--the Delaware County courthouse (above), where the courtroom feels not very different than its original 19th century self.
  • Facts do not a compelling story make. It's pretty challenging, particularly when you aren't allowed to take notes, to make sense of a sea of small details. Every detail seems the same size. Ever visit an exhibit like that?
  • It's hard not to have choices. In the courtroom, you're at the mercy of the judge. He or she decides when you come, when you leave, what you can hear. Think about the last guided tour you took.
  • But it helps to have a thoughtful guide. Our judge was pretty good about explaining things (although we all still want to know how court stenography automatically turns into plain text on the computer). Not too much talking, but enough that we understood our purpose and responsibilities--the big idea as it were.
  • It really is a place that brings different people together for a common purpose--perhaps the original crowd-sourcing. There we were, a museum person, a stay-at-home mom back in school, a magazine editor, a hairdresser, a contractor, a salesman, a retired dispatcher and others. In the in-between times, we talked about our jobs, whether mountain lions really exist here in the Catskills, why our villages are dying and how that might be reversed, the growth of the Slow Food movement, and everything in between. It made me realize how rarely we really spend time just talking with people different than ourselves--and how museums could work to encourage that in so many different ways. Many museum interactions are designed to be among people who already know each other and one hesitation about audio tours of any type is that it diminishes conversation. How can we design interactions that encourage real conversation (see the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's Kitchen Conversations for one example)?

Nina Simon just wrote a great post about facilitating brainstorming sessions. That, combined with my courtroom stint, made me wonder what we would get if we tried problem-solving or brainstorming the same way juries do--putting people into situations where they listened, without notes, and were asked not to discuss the problem or idea with their colleagues until the end of the process. And in fact, we were repeatedly asked not to form an opinion, even in the privacy of our own mind--until the entire information-gathering process was completed. What would the result be? In this case, I can't tell you the results of this particular deliberation--the defendants accepted a plea bargain after four days of court. But I'd love to try this in a different situation.

And one final thing--from the selection of the jury to the end of the trial, the judge made it very clear that, although we didn't have much control, we were the most important part of the process. So much so, that as he dismissed us, he offered to meet us back in the jury room to answer any questions and hear any feedback from us about the process. We took him up on the offer and learned a bit more about the system and felt free to share our opinions. When was the last time you saw a busy director do that with visitors?

Although this was a busy week for me, juggling grant applications, reports and a pile of other work, thanks to my fellow jurors and Judge Becker, I learned to think in new ways, in the most unexpected place. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Demographic Digging

I'm not necessarily a numbers person (okay, almost every museum person I've ever met says the same thing) but I've found myself increasingly interested in both demographic data and information that can be gained from relatively informal online surveys done by small organizations. Earlier in my career I spent lots of time with manuscript censuses from the 19th century--looking for information like how many barrels of apples did a farm produce, or how many mills were in a community. But now my emphasis has changed.

When doing strategic and interpretive planning, I work with organizations to gain a fuller understanding of their own communities--and I've found that many of us don't actually understand our communities that well. We tend to have our own perspectives and to operate within our own social groups. To combat that, a trip online to the US Census is a great thing.

What can you learn here? Whether the population of your county or city is increasing or decreasing; whether you have a higher percentage of people over 65 than in the rest of your state; that half of the children in your county live below the poverty line; that a substantial number of your community members speak something other than English as their first language. All of those numbers--and many more--can have significant implications for how you think about your museum. What kinds of implications: do you need to put an emphasis on free programming to draw families and children who might not be regular museum visitors? Those over 65 are different than they used to be--but with a big group, it suggests both audience and volunteers. English as a second language speakers: consider how to integrate their history and traditions into your work. If you're a board member or director, set aside some time at a board meeting to really explore the information about the place you live and work.

Where else to look for information? Check out your local tourist agency. They may be able to provide you with visitation statistics from other organizations and the kinds of queries that visitors pose to them. Online surveys reveal attitudes but also some fascinating information. I've had people say that older people will never take an online survey; but in one survey, 92% of the members responding were over 50. Good news for reaching people online; perhaps not such good news for long-term membership growth. Still looking: economic development agencies, school districts and more have loads of information online.

And don't forget--everyone can learn about your organization as well. Guidestar has virtually every recent tax return for virtually every non-profit organization in the United States. What does the 990 tell you? In brief, how an organization makes and spends the money your donors give you.

Image: 1950 census taker, courtesy of the US Census Bureau

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Whipped Cream and a Cherry on Top

This week brought a convergence of ideas. Yesterday, at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference, in a session on sustainability, Elizabeth Merritt of AAM's Center for the Future of Museums spoke long-distance in a session on sustainability. She spoke about a number of trends, but then encouraged us all to consider a game-changer. Some change in the future that would change everything--and she suggested that the "what if?" could be "what if there was a revolution in education?" a total change in the way we educated our citizens.

Today, Thomas Friedman's op-ed piece in the New York Times suggested just why we might want to do that. He writes:
As the Harvard University labor expert Lawrence Katz explains it: “If you think about the labor market today, the top half of the college market, those with the high-end analytical and problem-solving skills who can compete on the world market or game the financial system or deal with new government regulations, have done great. But the bottom half of the top, those engineers and programmers working on more routine tasks and not actively engaged in developing new ideas or recombining existing technologies or thinking about what new customers want, have done poorly. They’ve been much more exposed to global competitors that make them easily substitutable.”

Those at the high end of the bottom half — high school grads in construction or manufacturing — have been clobbered by global competition and immigration, added Katz. “But those who have some interpersonal skills — the salesperson who can deal with customers face to face or the home contractor who can help you redesign your kitchen without going to an architect — have done well.”

Just being an average accountant, lawyer, contractor or assembly-line worker is not the ticket it used to be. As Daniel Pink, the author of “A Whole New Mind,” puts it: In a world in which more and more average work can be done by a computer, robot or talented foreigner faster, cheaper “and just as well,” vanilla doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s all about what chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherry you can put on top. So our schools have a doubly hard task now — not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.
Think about it. Are you a "plain vanilla" museum worker? Or even more critically, are you responsible for a "plain vanilla" museum? What makes you plain vanilla? In my book, there's one striking factor that seems to characterize these institutions and people--a reluctance not just to think outside the box, but even to look outside the box. I'm always surprised when I talk with people who don't read museum publications, blogs, or even take the time to visit other museums. And that's not even counting all the other places we can draw inspiration and ideas from.

And one more convergence--in his talk at MAAM, AAM president mentioned that AAM has (finally, in my opinion) opened full participation to those of us who work in museums but not as staff members. I see a growing number of creative, interesting people who have chosen to work outside a single institution. Every day I use skills, knowledge and perspectives I gained in my work as a museum and service organization director. But...the opportunity to put the chocolate sauce on that easier to do from my perch as a independent museum person? For me, at least, the answer is yes, but it does pose some interesting questions for the future of the field.

Photo: Macs, in Penn Yan, photo by Drew Harty

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Stuck for Ideas?

Where do exhibit ideas come from? Sometimes they're collection driven, sometimes the project is driven by a donor's ideas, sometimes it's driven by a desire to spotlight a previously ignored part of community history. I believe that almost anything can be made into an interesting exhibit, given enough thoughtful discussion in the planning process. Here's two recent exhibits--one online and one not, that demonstrate that idea.

First, the real world exhibit--the National Building Museum has just opened an exhibit called "House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage." The exhibit's big idea is right up front on the website description:
Cars. We imagine them always in motion, but they spend most of their time at rest.

We have all spent time in parking garages, but we rarely stop to think about what they have meant for our cities and ourselves.
I'm interested that the exhibit concludes with the question, "What does the future hold for parking?" although I might be more interested in the question, "what would the US look like without the need for parking?" And as an aside, I love that the parking garage in Rockville Town Center uses historic photos to "decorate" their parking spaces. I've put this on my visit list the next time I'm in Washington so I can see what an exhibit about parking looks like (somehow I envision punching a button to get a ticket to enter).

The second exhibit is a collaborative, online one. The Collections Australia Network is building a national collections database (and by the way, how about the US doing the same thing?) by developing thematic stories. Their first project, Not So Innocent Objects is below. The video was made using free software: IMovie and Google Earth and the result is an surprisingly compelling tour through crime and punishment as shown through the objects and images in Australian museums.

A compelling look at crime, but also a compelling case for sharing collections online. I came across this on Museum 3.0, a great place to learn what colleagues worldwide are thinking and working on.

Friday, October 16, 2009

More Fun, Less Text

Have you ever been in a conversation about changing behavior in a museum or exhibition? Questions like How can we get people to start an exhibit in a particular direction? how can we get them to participate in interactives, what if they touch they objects? are usually a part of that conversation. And too often the answer turns out to be some sort of text.

Thanks to my friend Sarah Crow, here's a video from the Copenhagen subway. Perhaps the solution to all these dilemmas is more fun, without label text!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ten Ways to be Better

I was a bit cranky in my last post about museums and change, without offering many useful suggestions. So here's a quick list of ten easy cheap (or free!) things any small history museum could do to create change in their organization.
  1. Start a blog. Blogs are free, incredibly easy to set up, and provide a way for your museum to communicate with your audience on a timely basis. Don't know what to write about? Joanna Church of the Montgomery County (MD) Historical Society has a great object a week blog; and the Alice Miner Museum in tiny Chazy, NY highlights both programs and collections.
  2. Change something in your permanent exhibit--anything! At the National Museum of American Art's Luce Center, you get to vote on what piece to place in a case. Let your visitors decide.
  3. At a board meeting, take time to really walk through your museum, inside and out, and see what you could do to make it more visitor friendly.
  4. Change that faded paper sign or label.
  5. Make your admission free!
  6. Change your open hours to suit your visitors, not your staff.
  7. Think about what parts of community history aren't represented in your museum--and then go out and learn about it. Call a community elder and sit down for a conversation.
  8. Turn down that unprovenanced object that duplicates something in your collections. You can say no.
  9. In developing your budget for next year, squeeze one new program in, even if it means giving up one that you've always done.
  10. If you don't have a strategic plan already, start one! And for all organizations, make sure that your vision and mission are not just boilerplate stored in a drawer, but inspirations that guide and shape your work.
And a bonus suggestion: ban the words, "but we've always done it that way" from your organization.

Top: Women assembled at Wheeley's Church, near Gordonton, North Carolina, to clean, 1939. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Change: The Big Scary Thing on Your Museum's Doorstep

As fall begins, it still seems like the time for new projects, just as it did on those first days of school. As a result, I've spent a fair amount of time the last couple weeks talking to both boards and staff about planning, new projects, and organizational change. And, somewhat to my dismay, I've begun to wonder whether the economic climate is leading organizations, to metaphorically speaking, turn out the lights on the front porch and hide from change.

What does it mean when organizations resist change? The results are easy to identify. Your audience begins to drop; you tell me you just can't ever find any new volunteers, because everyone is too busy; you have a shrinking board because no one will volunteer; your exhibits look dated; your objects go uncataloged but you keep taking irrelevant things because you can't say no; your website is a year out-of-date; and your community walks right past your door. In short, you become less and less relevant to your community--and after all, that community is your reason for being. And then, of course, the cycle becomes self-fulfilling. Yes, no one cares about you because you don't show that you care about them.

I've discovered that this resistance to age isn't a generational one. It's certainly not all young people who embrace change; or older people who resist it. In the museum field, there's sometimes a certain conservatism combined with a sense of superiority, that really hinders us from digging down deep and finding out what our communities need and how we can make a difference.

These are critical, difficult times for many of the places where we work. Some may think that hunkering down and doing as little as possible, or doing the same old thing over and over--just because it costs less or is easier-- are the answers. But I wonder whether, after the recession recedes, if those organizations will be left high and dry as their communities look to more meaningful places to spend their time.

No particular answers in this post, but a few examples of hopeful signs from organizations I work with:
  • A local historical society planning for an exhibit that explores the idea of greed in the community's early settlement. Now there's a topic that will resonate with today's visitors.
  • The small staff at a another small museum spending half a day to really talk about their current exhibit and how they can improve the next one--and doing it from a visitor-centered perspective.
  • The surprising comment from a retired board member in an interpretive planning session about new ways to use technology--a way I had never imagined.
I'd love to hear about organizations who are sitting down at budget time, looking at the strategic plan, and saying, "let's try one really great idea," rather than just settling for the day-to-day.
And that, I hope, will keep the goblins from your door.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Simplest, Most Powerful Interactive of All

I've been in what seems like hundreds of discussions about designing interactive elements in museums. Should we use technology? Should there be puzzles, or art supplies, or flip books? What do we want to convey to visitors? What age visitors will be interested? How will we evaluate them? What did we learn in the prototyping?

But this week I got to experience a different kind of interactive--an activity that was stunning in its simplicity and incredibly powerful in result. Above is my picture of Henry Greenbaum and Erika Eckstut, volunteers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The interactive was just what the sign says--a chance to speak with these two Holocaust survivors about their experiences. They sit at a desk in the lobby, and talk to any visitor who wants to know more--school children, older people, international visitors. They--and other volunteers throughout the week-- tell their stories. Erika is from Czechoslovakia, survived attacks on Jews in her village, and then her family were forced to settle in the Czernowitz ghetto. Henry was born in Poland, his family forced to move to the Starachowise ghetto and then, to a labor camp, to Auschwitz, and then, a four month death march. Henry, his two brothers and one sister survived the Holocaust--his mother and the other five children all perished.

When I asked Henry why he volunteered, he said, "I am here just for myself." He works every Friday, and when I asked if there was something he particularly wanted young people to take away from a conversation with him, he said, "They should speak out. Don't let it happen to any human being," and referenced the museum's work in speaking out about genocide around the world today.

No touch screen, no flashing lights, just the most powerful interactive of all--conversation between two people.