Friday, December 31, 2010

More and More: My New Year's Resolutions

I thought about a year-end review, or a top-ten list but decided instead, to share my professional resolutions for the coming year.  The past year has been an incredible one, full of adventures and a year that this blog seemed to find its footing with first, a big thank-you to all of you who read, commented and shared with others.  In 2011, I hope to:

Risk More
There's always a temptation to play it safe: to tell the interpretive story that is the non-controversial one,  to not say something when you really should speak out, and to just stay in your comfort zone.  When I applied to be a Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine, one of my goals was to go outside, way outside, my comfort zone.   The professional and personal rewards of that risk have been immense for me--allowing me to see things in new ways and develop new networks and connections.  I want to keep taking more risks in my professional life--saying yes to risky projects, trying something new, and encouraging others to do the same.  I'll try to ban the words, "Yes, but...." from my vocabulary this year.   My post about local historical societies as dinosaurs generated huge readership and many comments--and the best way to avoid that dinosaur fate might just to be, for each museum, to resolve to do at least one risky, visitor-centered thing this year.   I'm always on the lookout for great, innovative projects to share here--and for guest bloggers so if you undertake that risky new thing,  be sure and let me know.

Read More
I feel like every day brings more and more I should be reading.  Tweets send me to fascinating articles, bloggers old and new continue to draw me in with their thoughtful perspectives on our work,  and every morning, online newspapers beckon with their random assortment of  news (and all that's ignoring whatever Stumble Upon brings).   But at the same time, I have a growing pile of books that sit unread--and those are the focus of this resolution. 

My goal is to set aside time to fully dive into books--and perhaps I'll start by joining Nina Simon's newest book club effort and read Sustaining Innovation with all of you.    For a new exhibition project, the small project team and I have decided to divide up the secondary source reading and share our thoughts on the ongoing project blog (by the way, it's about greed in the early settlement of Western NY, a potentially risky topic) as a way of expanding our knowledge and, we hope, involving our audience.   My book club continues to inspire me to read books I wouldn't otherwise have read;  over a Florida vacation, my nephews encouraged me to join Goodreads.  It appears that reading is for me, becoming a community, a collaborative effort--a long way from those days reading books underneath my covers with a flashlight.

Write More
Thanks to the patience of editors Gretchen Jennings and Bob Beatty,  the Exhibitionist and History News each published articles about my experiences in Ukraine.  They proved an unexpected workout as I shifted from the informal, short-form blog entry to a longer, more sustained series of thoughts.  Blog posts will continue, of course, but I'm also contemplating whether there's a book in my future.  The writing process made me ponder whether the future of more academically-oriented journals about the museum field when so much good, reflective work is being produced all the time, on-line.   First up for me though:  some entries for the revised Encyclopedia of Local History.  What do you think should be included in the entry on exhibits?
Connect More
The best thing about blogging and tweeting is the connections to people.  For a long time this felt like a bit of a one way street, but this year it seemed to have changed, for reasons I'm not quite sure of. It's been great to have more comments, to meet some of you at conferences, and to read my fellow bloggers work (of course, Museum 2.0 but also Jasper Visser and many others).   I've been contemplating attending some sort of international conference or workshop this year as I'm continually interested in what's happening other places--suggestions?

I suspect I'm at the far end of the age range for museum bloggers, and one vital aspect of my work is the chance to make connections with people coming up in the field, with new ideas, perspectives and skills.  It's made me a bit impatient with my peers who grouse about those newcomers, or who harumph about social media.  I mean, who wants to connect with a harumpher! So I'm not quite sure about how I'll connect more, or who those connections will be with,  but I feel sure there will be new people to meet, talk, and share ideas with.

(Above, one of my favorite places, an abandoned building turned bar,  I had great conversations and re-connections this year, in Budapest, with my longtime friend Gyorgyi Nemeth).

Give More
At the end of 2010,  my colleague Sarah Crow and I launched the Pickle Project on Kickstarter.  We're at 25% of our goal, with just a month left to reach it.  I've been touched by the generosity of friends, colleagues and even perfect strangers in supporting our project (and of course, you can join them!)  It's made me resolve to be a better giver myself.   I'll be supporting one project a month on Kickstarter and will try to increase my local giving as well, particularly to museums and history organizations that are those risk-takers.

To all of you, a happy, risk-filled New Year!

Monday, December 27, 2010

It's a Girly, Girly World: Barbie and Avedon

I saw the Barbie exhibit at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis several weeks ago and just saw the Richard Avedon fashion retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and combined, they provided much food for thought.  Although I might guess that the cross-over audience isn't necessarily much larger than me.   The Barbie exhibit had raised so many issues for me and then, combined with the Avedon exhibit made me think about the ways in which museum exhibits, intentionally or not, convey messages about our culture.  And as a visitor, sometimes you can only guess what those messages are intended to be.
Eerily, both exhibits had very similar opening images--giant, hot pink, close-ups of a woman.  It's been a long time since I saw an exhibit I felt as conflicted about as I did about Barbie.  What did I like about the exhibit?  It did appeal to all kinds of people.  I liked the share your Barbie memory story--and in fact, as I've told other women about the exhibit, we've shared our own Barbie stories as well.
The exhibit used real objects in addition to interactive elements.   I don't remember noting whether these were museum collections or objects acquired for the exhibit.  So you get some sense of Barbie's change over time.
The interactive were great.   This simple draping one, on a kid-sized mannequin, worked so beautifully.  I saw several girls deep in thought as they tried it.
Several of the interactives made me a bit sad,  because they were museum-based versions of the kinds of things we did on a regular basis at home growing up.    A round table with supplies to create Barbie clothes?  That was the regular playroom table of my childhood, but I think fewer and fewer families have fabric scraps around the house (my mom sewed many of our clothes) and fewer and fewer families put the focus on hands-on creative work.   Good news for museums though, as the hands-on, direct tactile, meaningful creative experience  is something we can do very well.
The exhibit appealed not only to girls (though it was hard to get past all that pink!).  Here's a young boy intent on tracing a fashion drawing.
But--and this is a big BUT for me.   I left the exhibit thinking, "But what happened to feminism?  Did we not accomplish anything in the last fifty years?"   Nothing about how Barbie's body image sets up an impossible ideal for young girls.  Just a passing glance at Barbie's many careers over time but nothing about how she performs all of them in those tiny high heels.  I didn't notice anywhere where visitors were invited to rethink Barbie;  or to consider alternatives to the way Barbie presents women.   Not the stuff of a children's museum exhibit you say?  Perhaps, but at the same museum,  a meaningful exhibit The Power of Children:  Making a Difference takes on big, complex issues through the stories of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White.   To its substantial credit, it's not as if this museum is afraid of challenging content for their visitors.
And then just last week I saw Avedon Fashion 1944-2000 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (the show was organized by the International Center for Photography).   There's some similarities to the Barbie show--it's about women, and fashion, and certainly both shows are about consumerism, about material goods.  But I left this show feeling that I experienced entirely different perspectives on women in the second half of the 20th century.   Barbie is somebody's idea of perfection--and although Richard Avedon's images of women are breathtakingly gorgeous,  they are not perfect.   And certainly Avedon's job was to sell us clothes,  or the idea of a life women could have if they had the clothes.
But why so different?  The audience for the show?  Families, particularly those with young girls, in one case and art/fashion lovers in the other?  The fact that perhaps a show about a commercial product needs permission?  (for some non-permissioned art shows, check out Altered Barbie).   The idea that one thing is art and the other is product?  Art show vs. children's museum?  (there's possibly an entire book about corporate sponsorship and children's museums that could be written).   Corporate design vs. an individual artistic vision?  or just what I brought to each exhibition?

But I hope that each exhibit team would be happy that after seeing the Avedon show, the three of us sat down over coffee to talk about the two shows and what they meant.   Two former Barbie owners,  two photographers, one exhibit developer, and all three museum-goers:  we all brought our respective personal histories and viewpoints into the conversation.  And that would make each, in its own way, a successful show.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Will the Crowd Fund Our Project? A Kickstarter Story

Crowdsourcing--that's outsourcing your tasks to a large, unknown group of people presents a range of opportunities for museums--citizen science, mapping, identifying photo collections. But in a way, crowdsourcing of fundraising is one thing that I think small museums in particular may find very useful.  My colleague Sarah Crow and I have begun a project on Kickstarter and I'll use a series of entries on this blog to reflect on what we're learning in the hopes that it may be useful to others.

What's Kickstarter? 
It is "a new way to fund creative ideas and ambitious endeavors."  And it's framed around two core beliefs:  
• A good idea, communicated well, can spread fast and wide.
• A large group of people can be a tremendous source of money and encouragement.
What's Our Project?
We're the Pickle Project and you can find us here on Kickstarter and the Pickle Project blog here.   It's a project that sprang from our separate experiences in Ukraine as Fulbright Scholars.  We both love food and bring complementary interests in food--mine around food as cultural expression;  Sarah around issues of sustainability, and both of us in terms of how it shapes communities.   Our long term goal is to create innovative traveling exhibitions in Ukraine and here in the US that encourage community conversations about food, culture and sustainability. 

Why Kickstarter?
The great thing about Kickstarter is that you don't need to be a non-profit to seek funding.  For us, that's perfect.  We're in the earlyish stages of the project and although we will seek a non-profit partner, at this phase, it made great sense to venture out on our own.
How Do You Get People to Pledge?
Kickstarter is all or nothing so we need to raise our goal by February 1 in order to receive any of the money.  Kickstarter is all about your ability to get the word out.  Kickstarter doesn't do that for you, you need to.  How are we getting the word out?  We blog, we tweet, we email friends and encourage them to share it, we have a Facebook fan page, we use our groups on LinkedIn,  we're pursuing traditional media coverage--anything and everything we can think of.

How Could This Work for Small Museums?
There's only been a few museum projects on Kickstarter.  One of the most successful was the Neversink Valley Museum in Narrowsburg, NY and Seth Goldman, their director, was incredibly generous in sharing his lessons learned during the process of successfully raising funds for architectural drawings and other work for a new building.  The World of Witches Museum in Salem raised almost $5000 for exhibits and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art also raised exhibit funds.  Unsuccessful?  A Teachers Museum and the Museum of Hawaiian Shirts. 

Local history museums already have networks--your members and others in your community.  You also have those people who grew up in your community and moved away and those enthusiastic genealogist who email you seeking information.   And don't say that older people don't use the Internet:  an updated Pew Charitable Trust study shows that email is almost ubiquitous, even with those over age 74.   So your audience or network is out there!
What Have We Learned So Far?
Some simple lessons for us and we're only four days into our project.
  • Research:  look at other similar and different Kickstarter projects;  find someone who's done Kickstarter before to talk to and share their perspectives;  read Kickstarter's materials and other blogs about what works and what doesn't.
  • Ask Before Leaping:  We sent our initial narrative off to about a dozen or so friends and colleagues to read, long before we posted.  (You know who you are--thanks!).  Their thoughtful feedback told us one thing--that we needed to more clearly connect the story of food in Ukraine with people here, today, in the United States.  So we did.
  • Make That Video Work:  Neither of us were video experts (even though I have one in the house) but we knew we needed a video to draw visitors into the story.  Thanks to our work and the generosity of friends who have also spent time in Ukraine, we put together a simple slide show with great photos using iMovie.  Looks simple, but took far more time than I expected.  We didn't need it to be perfect--but we did need it to be compelling--take a look and see what you think.
  • Cool Premiums:  We also looked at what other successsful projects has offered for premiums and tried to balance the cost and effort of the premium with the amount pledged.  And so, if you, generous reader, pledge $1000 Sarah or I will bring a Ukrainian dinner to your house!
  • All or Nothing Means no Messing Around:  Kickstarter is all or nothing.  You set the amount, you set the time frame (up to 90 days) and then, boom!  you launch the project.  You only get the money if you raise the full amount.  We know how much money we have to raise every single day between now and February 1 and that means no coasting, that every single day we'll be out there tweeting, facebooking or otherwise connecting with our networks.  So far, we're on target.
And finally, Don't be Shy!
As any fundraising professional knows, you don't get support if you don't ask.  So here's my ask.
Head on over to Kickstarter and support the Pickle Project because:
  • You love food
  • You're interested in cross-cultural understanding
  • You want to see how it works
  • You wish we understood more in this country about how to grow, cook and eat sustainably
  • You're interested in Ukraine
  • You've had a great time reading this blog this year
  • You want to support a passionate project in its emerging state
  • and of course, if you love pickles!
Thanks to all those who have already stepped up to the plate (the dinner plate perhaps) and supported us.  I'll continue to post our lessons learned--if you have specific questions, please comment away.  You can track our progress on the widget to the right and of course, we look forward to seeing you as a supporter!

Photos, top to bottom:
Market vendor, Opishne
At a Crimean Tatar feast.  photo by Barb Weiser
Milking in the Carpathian Mountains, photo by Christie Nold
Strawberry picking,  photo by Grace Eickmeyer
Women at the pottery festival, Opishne
Riding home from school in Crimea, photo by Grace Eickmeyer

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Click! It's in the Details

At the Children's Museum of Indianapolis I was struck numerous times at how thoughtful so many parts of the museum were.  There wasn't necessarily a single graphic identity and there were not a great many staff out on the floor, but effective signage and design really provided a sense that this was a museum that cared about its visitors.  Above, both the simple step and the tunnels underneath (with some objects installed down there) mean that small visitors really get to appreciate the model train layout.  Some other examples:
Next to a very big locomotive,  a label with the kinds of questions that visitors really have, not the questions that we as museum people might have.
An area for stroller parking near the carousel.  Many of these family-friendly amenities are probably a part of any big children's museum but I was reminded today of my experience at a very well-visited museum where the staff member, with a shrug, suggested to my sister-in-law that she just leave the stroller on a busy city street.
I liked that interactive stations had these stools that could be easily moved around by almost any age visitor.  Easy for parents to take a break and for kids to work together.
In the elevator a sign that is both about visitor services and about safety.  I appreciated knowing what sort of staff id to look for--and the elevator was a useful place to convey that information.  And below, two public examples of a museum that relies on, and appreciates its volunteers.

As you can see, design that's all over the block in terms of typography, color, and more, but that seemed very much in line with the museum--it's a place with so much to think about and explore that a more highly managed approach to design and signage might seem out of place.  And a final image:  in the special winter/holiday exhibit,  everyone having a great time with all kinds of kitchen, family, cooking and more roleplay.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Click! Dinos in Indianapolis

This past week I was in Indianapolis for a few days and took the chance to visit the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, a place I'd been interested in seeing for a long time.   I found a busy museum that had thought about so many ways to connect with visitors.  So here, the first of several posts, this one focusing on the dinosaur exhibit;  others to come about Barbie and more.  The thoughtfulness begins with the entrance to the exhibit:  it's a spectacular walk down a ramp, with the biggest introductory label I've ever seen.
But that big label also expresses the exhibit's big idea very clearly.  Up close, it says,
Right!  A big idea with a subject, a very, and a consequence (that's the we learn part).   And then the exhibit provided so many different ways to learn and explore.  Active questioning really provided ways for kids old enough to read--and any parent or caregiver--to delve deeper.
There were touch screens, but they were placed at kid height.   Other interactives were placed at varied heights, so everyone could enjoy them.  Although the space was theatrically lit, and the big fake rocks and bigger dinosaurs must have been important elements--and were for several of the kids I saw while visiting,  the whiz-bang of that had less interest for me--and perhaps for kids--than the things scaled to their size, that they could engage with.
I didn't get a picture of a great section about dinosaur babies that toddlers loved, diving in and out of big nests.  There was a lab, where scientists were at work (or were sometimes at work, not today) In the lab, there were various games, puzzles and other items--but each label said, "Today in the lab."  Those labels might say that day after day, but it made this space feel a bit special.  This struck me as such an easy thing to do in all kinds of exhibits.  You could have just a few items to change out on a regular basis.
And this exhibit had a rare thing:  a sense of humor shown best in a series of miniature dioramas--really miniature period rooms for dinosaurs,  as it were.
Why of course, they take the baby for a walk!   I don't have any huge interest in dinosaurs, but every element in this exhibit felt thoughtful, without being precious or controlling.  Lovely.