Monday, January 31, 2011

Feeling Bogged Down?

In a post last fall, I wrote about whether local history museums are in danger of becoming dinosaurs.  It became my most read post, by a huge margin, so obviously, there's a big concern about organizations that are bogged down, stuck in the mud.  But there are answers out there. Today,  I want to encourage small and mid-sized US museums--of all types-- to consider taking part in an easy, thoughtful way to get unstuck.  It's the American Association of Museum's Museum Assessment Program.

I've been a MAP reviewer to two separate organizations over the past year or so.  Very different places, very different organizations.  One was a very small history organization in a very small town in the mountainous west;  the other a historic house part of a larger organization in the Mid-West.  Both applied for the MAP program (which does not cost your organization anything) because they knew they could be better.  The MAP process is an easy application, followed by a self-study and a consultant visit.  In reviewing the self-study documents for my two museums, I found that it gave each organization a chance to really think about its work:  about what they do, who they involve, what they collect, and critically, from my perspective, how they connect with their communities.   And I hope my site visit gave them a chance to ask questions, to hear how other museums organize their work and connect with their communities, to brainstorm a bit and consider the "what ifs" that should be a part of all of our work.   The site visit isn't a judgment--it's a chance for you to work with an experienced museum professional and gain her perspective.  After the site visit,  the consultant completes a written report, which can provide important information and guidance as the museum moves forward.

(And by the way, as a reviewer, I've loved the chance to learn about a new museum, meet new colleagues, and see new parts of the country.)

You can apply for one of three MAP assessments:
  • Organizational
    Collections Stewardship
    Community Engagement 
Each one has a slightly different focus--and a different focus on the roots and how your organization grew--and can grow. Check out the website to find out what's right for you.  Still confused?  The MAP staff is ready and willing to speak with you--just contact them at or 202-289-9118.  But don't delay!  The postmark deadline for this year's applications is February 18.   
 Photos from Pie-Town, New Mexico,  FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kickstarter Lessons, Part 2

Several weeks ago, as the Pickle Project's Kickstarter effort launched, I wrote about what we had learned as we did the planning and began.  And now, with just two weeks left, I wanted to update about what I learned about raising money in this way--and how it connects to so much else we do.

Some background:  the Pickle Project is an effort by fellow Fulbrighter Sarah Crow and I to document and share Ukrainian foodways with American audiences because we think we all have much to learn from a culture where many people grow, eat, forage, cook and preserve in sustainable, seasonal, local ways.  About a year ago we began a blog, which has been enriched greatly by guest posts by friends and colleagues who are, or who have, lived and worked in Ukraine.  But we're just two people with an idea--we're not a non-profit--hence, Kickstarter, a way for creative people of all types to crowdsource funding for projects.

So what else have we learned?

Your own network is the best network.  This type of funding really relies on networks and we've discovered that our own networks are the best way.  My network of museum colleagues, both those I really know, and those who know me virtually--as well as both our networks of friends (thanks Book Club members!) have been incredible supporters.  Neither Sarah or I have Ukrainian roots, so it's been a bit harder to break into the Ukrainian diaspora, but with some assistance,  including Sarah appearing on a Canadian Ukrainian radio show, Nash Holos,  over the weekend and a listing in a weekly Ukrainian email update,  we're beginning to see more support there.  The lesson is that it's hard to jump cold into a network. And of course, networks are built one by one by one.  If you're contemplating any project, consider who your organization knows and who knows you.
It takes time.  Every day, as anyone who follows me or the Pickle Project on Twitter knows,  we tweet,  update the Pickle Project Facebook page, and encourage people to support us.  We've appeared on radio shows,  emailed to our lists of contacts and friends' contacts, and done press releases and flyers. We knew this already, but it's really hammered home that the big wide world of the Internet is only as big as you make it.  And that takes time.

But global is global.  We've had supporters from Hawaii to Sweden to Ukraine and everywhere in between.  Amazing!

Givers are givers.  I would say that the biggest groups of supporters to date are museum colleagues,  students or recent students, and Peace Corps volunteers. I suspect none of those groups are distinguished by having fancy cars,  big houses, or even in some cases, jobs.  As a result, Sarah and I have been incredibly touched by their support.  And of course, there's plenty of statistics that demonstrate that people with lower incomes donate a higher percentage of their incomes to charity than those with larger incomes. 

Pictures, stories--and passion--count.  A bit into the effort, I started posting a food picture a day, either historic or contemporary,  on Twitter and on Facebook.   We've heard from several people that they love seeing those little pictures arrive every day.  Just words aren't enough.   On Kickstarter and on the blog,  we try make the topic fun, interesting, and even moving.  Our Kickstarter video is a little homemade effort which took a great deal of time but hopefully reaches out to those who know Ukraine--and those who don't.   I think giving is connected with passion.  I was reminded of this as I looked at  year-end fundraising letters in my mailbox.  One from a local organization moaned about money and proposed nothing new.  But another was full of optimism and plans.  One felt full of passion, one did not.   I suppose what this means is that whining is not a fundraising strategy!

Take the jump!  As we've begun some conversations with possible funders, the fact that we already have a presence via social media is proving to be of interest to them.  I often hear from people who say they don't have time to do a blog, or a website, or a Facebook page at their organization.  It takes time, but isn't that what museums and history organizations do?  involve people in our work?  If you're one of those museums who say they don't have time,  try keeping track of all staff and volunteers do over the course of a week or month.  If you're a staff member, could you let that fundraising committee plan without you?  perhaps.  If you're a volunteer or potential volunteer, do you want to learn something new?  probably.  In particular, I think small museum leaders can really take a jump here and begin to involve people in new ways.   The web is an equalizer for small organizations.

So how are we doing?  With just two weeks left to go,  we've reached more than 50% of our goal.   For the next two weeks, we'll be tweeting,  updating our status,  and doing even more to get there.  We hope you'll join us!  If you're contemplating a Kickstarter project and want to know more--please get in touch and we're happy to share more of what we've learned, as Kickstarter veterans did with us.

And our biggest takeaway?  It's a big, wide, generous world out there.
Thanks to Grace Eickmayer for the top and bottom photos.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Click! Mobile Media at the MFA

Over the holidays, I took a trip to Boston and visited the new Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts.  I'm not a huge fan of audio tours, but thought I would try out their new multimedia guide after I read about it online (and by the way, having found that information once, it now seems hard to find there).

After the recent discussion by Arianna Huffington and Nina Simon's thoughtful, impassioned rebuttal, I thought it made sense to think about this guide from a visitor's perspective.  What did I want from it?  What did I expect?  Was it easy to use?  and most importantly of all, did it deepen or change my experience?  Did I bug other visitors?
The front desk attendant gives you a brief verbal introduction to using the player. I don't know how that would have worked if it had been really crowded when we entered.  There was a charge for the guide, but a discount for members.  I sat down and played with a bit before entering galleries.   This is most definitely not a tour, but rather a tool to use as you go through the galleries, as the only way you find a piece to learn more about is by seeing the headphone symbol on the label.   I expected to be guided from place to place, but then, once I figured it out,  just went in the galleries and explored.   I found myself juggling the media player, my camera, and a map; occasionally pulling out a notebook to make a note.  So it seemed like a lot to handle--I wonder if the next step in media players in museums is one that allows you to take pictures as well.  Wouldn't that wind some people up!

I found myself not so interested in the audio, as usual for me.  But two particular components I found really compelling--they drew me in and I'll remember them for a long time--I think they illustrate what these kinds of guides may be best at for visitors--or at least visitors like me.
At Mary Cassatt's In the Loge (above) I got to see a sketch for the painting and also learned that this woman's curious look at other operagoers was not considered appropriate behavior and saw a painting (Renoir, perhaps?) that depicted what was appropriate behavior.  So in a very short time, I learned a bit about Cassatt's artistic process;  appreciated the work and thought that goes into creating a painting, saw the work of another artist on the same topic, and even learned a bit of social history.   It would have made for a long label, but it was a perfect sized bit.

And then there was Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley.  One of the masterworks in the Americas wing, it had a bustling crowd around it.  I sat for a minute and listened (and watched) to an African American community member (and member of the board of trustees, I think) discuss this painting on my little media player.  He remembered seeing it as a young man and was struck by the authority of the black man commanding the boat--and how rare it was to see, in life or in art, an African American shown in a position of authority.  I was touched by the memory--but it also caused me to look closer at the painting--to really look at that man commanding the boat.
These two pieces reflected what I often want when I visit a museum.  I want some context (that's the history museum part of me) and I want to connect emotionally.  Honestly, I don't care so much about dates or styles so that sort of catalog entry available on the guide didn't encourage me to explore more than a couple of those.   And of course, I liked being able to explore at my own pace and in  my own way.  Disturb other visitors' experiences?  I don't think so.
I didn't have a kid with me so I can't speak for the kids' guide (above)  from a kid's perspective.  But from an adult perspective, I found it pretty so-so.  Somehow an adult narrator speaking from a kid's perspective made it all seem both dull and a bit phony.

And a quick shout-out to the MFA's member program.  We were enthusiastically greeted at the door and asked if we were members and the free admission, discount parking, discount on the media guide, and discount in the restaurant made that Christmas present to my husband seem like a great thing!