Saturday, November 26, 2011

Do You Need Every Single Thing?

Often when conversations about new museum initiatives come up,  the reason for inaction is that there’s too much to do and not enough funding.  I won’t argue with the fact that right now is a really stressful financial time for every organization, but I do want to propose that perhaps, local history museums own too many meaningless objects--and that paying attention to meaningful objects will give us more time, more money, and more connections to our community.  After all,  consider the BBC/British Museum collaborative project, A History of the World in 100 Objects, a connection my colleague Christopher Clarke made at the WNYAHA meeting last month at the same time I was working my way through the BBC audio.

A couple months ago, I was working on a planning report for a museum looking to be more targeted about their contemporary collecting efforts.  A tweet looking for other models sent me to the McLean County (Illinois) County Historical Society and Susan Hartzhold, their curator, was good enough to chat with me about their efforts.

This historical society is an old one, founded in 1892, and a relatively large one,  with 9 full-time staffers.  When collecting started, in 1892,  all the objects were collected with provenance—a way of enhancing and reinforcing a sort of ancestor worship, I suspect. Susan’s been on staff for 20 years and she describes the issue as “stuff vs. meaningful stuff.”  As an organization, they were facing decades of collecting from curators who, for whatever reason, didn’t ask the questions that would provide the context for the object.

Some historical societies and museums might just shrug their collective shoulders at that issue—but McLean County chose another direction.  For the last ten years, the staff has gone back and looked at every single object,  trying to find, through research,  what meanings there are for each object—who owned, who used it,  how it compares to others.   They have looked at 18000 objects and deaccessioned 6000 of them.

There was not a collecting policy until the 1970s and now, Susan says, they have become, as a staff, hard-nosed about the collections they hold.  They have gotten rid of things that qualify as a “cabinet of curiousities,”  had no provenance or were in poor condition.  They have established benchmarks (i.e. limitations on the number of something—like wedding dresses from the same period) and objects with provenance always trump objects with no provenance.

It’s taken ten years and is part of a larger strategic plan—but what’s equally important, the size of the collection still stands at 18,000 because the society has continued to collect, but have been much more focused and strategic in their collecting.
What is that new collecting like?

Much of it has happened through partnerships with community organizations.  A local Black History Project grew from a teachers’ project and the museum became a repository for materials that were collected documenting the African American community in the county. 

There is an active South Asian community and the museum worked for five years to more fully engage with them—a task that was helped substantially by bringing in a traveling exhibit on Asian Games and inviting groups to support the exhibit.  But the engagement didn’t end with the traveling exhibit, the museum continues to work with the South Asian community.

There is a growing Hispanic community in the county and the museum has begun efforts to engage with it.  Susan admits that it’s a challenging effort as the museum is located in a courthouse, which makes many new immigrants fearful. They are currently working towards a partnership with a community’s Hispanic group to develop programming  for an upcoming exhibit about traditional Mexican arts.

Susan makes the point that these community efforts take a long time, take patience.   She says, “We have to go to them, we have to say, what can we do for you?’   

And that’s a great take-away from this story.  Collecting and caring for collections is a time-consuming process—but a wasted one unless we really approach the process in a thoughtful way—both in terms of what we have and in terms of how we engage with our communities today.

Images and captions courtesy of the McLean County Historical Society, and many thanks to Susan for taking time to share her work.

The nightgown was donated by a local woman, Jean, who was born in 1916.  When asked about the nightgown, Jean had a wonderful story -- She said that she was surprised by the gift, that it really wasn't her style.  She felt that her husband had purchased it for one of two reasons:

             1) He didn't know what to get her, so he let a sales clerk in the lingerie department at the local department store  "convince him that it was exactly what she wanted."  During that time period lingerie departments always had female sales clerks who helped both male and female customers. It wasn't unusual for clerks to help male customers pick out gifts for their wives or girlfriends.

             2) "He'd seen way too many Jean Harlow movies"
Jean said she only wore the nightgown once, but the story and the nightgown tells us so much about  the culture of the time period.
The pottery was brought to America by  the Alvarez's family; purchased in Zacatecas, Mexico. The donor’s father came to Bloomington in 1972, her mother and 2 brothers followed in 1974.  She joined them in 1975.  Her parents returned to Mexico in 1995, but the rest of the family stayed.

Monday, November 21, 2011

You Can Help Preserve an Endangered Culture

In 2010,  Peace Corps volunteer Barb Wieser found me through this blog, and we've since had the opportunity to get to know each other in person.  I've visited her in Crimea and had the chance to learn about the Crimean Tatar people's complex, rich history and her work at the Gasprinsky Library (and to learn how to make manti with her wonderful neighbors!) Barb's now working to raise funds to assist the library in its preservation work and I wanted to share her story with Uncataloged Museum readers.  It's easy to make a contribution--and I hope you can join me in supporting the work of the library.   Here's her story:

I am a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer and have been serving at the Gasprinsky Crimean Tatar Library in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine for over two years.

A little background on my site: The Gasprinsky Crimean Tatar Library was founded twenty years ago when the Crimean Tatar people began to return to their homeland of Crimea from which they were forcibly deported by Stalin fifty years earlier (an action in which 46% of the population died and has since been labeled a genocide). Living in exile in distant Soviet republics, the Crimean Tatars were forbidden, like many other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union,  to teach their language or practice the traditions of their culture. As a result, by the time people were allowed to return to Crimea and reestablish their communities, after the breakup of the USSR, much of the culture was lost and the language had become endangered. The Gasprinsky Library was founded to preserve, protect, and revitalize the Crimean Tatar culture and language; to be, as my counterpart at the Library so eloquently puts it, “the keeper of the memory of the Crimean Tatar people.”

However, like many cultural institutions that are a part of the Ukrainian government, the Library suffers from a severe lack of funds to do anything beyond building maintenance and salaries (the average salary for a librarian in Ukraine is only about $200 a month). Many of the documents of the library are in urgent need of preservation, particularly in a digital form that would give them a much wider audience. 

The Peace Corps gives Volunteers the opportunity to do fundraising in the U.S. with their Partnership Program in which people can make a tax exempt donation to support a Volunteer’s project. With this Partnership project, we hope to raise $3000 which would allow the Library to purchase a small flatbed paper scanner for the numerous archival paper documents—letters, unpublished manuscripts and other donated papers—and also to purchase digital scans of some of the library’s old microfilms. The Library is particularly interested in purchasing scans of the microfilms of the newspaper Terdzhman, published from 1883 to 1918 by the Muslim educator and reformer Ismail Gasprinsky, whom the library is named after. Perhaps no other document is so vital to understanding the culture and history of the Crimean Tatar people than Ismail Gasprinsky’s newspaper, but currently access to it is limited to a very few people.

The Crimean Tatars are a unique Muslim people with a vibrant, tragic history. The Gasprinsky Library, the de facto cultural center of the Crimean Tatar people, has struggled hard to preserve the language and culture of their people. By making a donation to this project, you can aid in that struggle. Thank you so much for your support.
Photos top to bottom:
Many of the library’s important original documents are in a state of disrepair.  
 Billboard in Simferopol marking the anniversary of the day the Crimean Tatars were deported (May 18, 1944)

Many Crimean Tatar writers, political leaders, intellectuals, and artists have donated their papers to the Gasprinsky Library.

The Gasprinsky Crimean Tatar Library, located in the city center of Simferopol, the capitol of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Ukraine. The Library is a historic building that was the site of a madrasah (Islamic school) in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Take the Ten Word Story Challenge!

At yesterday's AASLH webinar on storytelling, I invited participants a ten word story challenge as a way of using our imaginations about the historic spaces that we share with our visitors.  What's a ten word story challenge?  At some point, it's said that Ernest Hemingway was challenged by a friend to write a story in ten words--he responded with a story in only six.  His story?
                        For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Many of the participants in the webinar had wonderful responses when I asked them for a ten word story about the image shown at the top of this post.  The responses had a sense of drama, of excitement, that is often not found in historic house interpretation.  Here are just a few of the responses:

The dog passed, the lamp went dark.  No one ever ate in this room again.   
Answered an ad to go to the prairie as a bride.
The house is still; mourners are in the parlour.
Mother left. The children found her dog.
Yikes! Empty space on wall!  Out looking for another picture.
Awoke. Snuck off. Had fun. With who?
A quiet man had lunch. 
After the earthquake the lamp eventually stopped swinging.
The light was lit, they led them into the hall.

 Take the challenge--what's your story of this place?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What Makes a Museum Exhibit Sociable?

The vast majority of us visit museums with other people--but many museums are just beginning to consider that sociability within the exhibit development and design process.  Maria Mingalone of the Berkshire Museum and I are presenting a session this week at the New England Museum Association conference where we hope to talk with participants about designing exhibits for social experiences.  Is it the concept?  the design?  do we think too much about just interactions for families and not enough for adult visitors?   Are there exhibit elements that automatically make an exhibit sociable or unsociable?   (For an important take on this,  take a look at Kathy McLean's new book, The Convivial Museum.)
But for our session, we'd love to hear from you in advance of our presentation about what you think.  Please share your stories (or pictures) of exhibits that encouraged or discouraged social interactions.  What works for your organization?  What pitfalls have you overcome?  and are there unwritten rules about social interactions at your museum.  Do tell!

Sociable museum activities happen anywhere. 
Top to bottom:  MassMoca, photo by Drew Harty;  American Museum of Natural History, and the Rijksmuseum.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Want to Be a Museum Director? Evidently, Be a Man

This is just a quick post that I hope stimulates an organization or individual to do considerably more research--and, I hope encourages feedback and comments.  On Facebook, I like the Art Museum Partnership as they post interesting news, including appointments of new directors at larger museums.  I realized that it seemed like almost every face that popped up in the announcement of a new director was a male;  a white male. 

And I thought really?  So I went back through their FB announcements to the beginning (mid-August of this year).  And here's what I found.  Of the 15 directors named,  only 4 were women, just 26%.  Two of those four positions were at university art museums, which may suggest a different process than a board hiring process undertaken by stand-alone museums.  Admittedly, this is a highly unscientific survey, but revealing nonetheless.
Certainly, as anyone who's ever attended a museum conference can attest, this is a field filled with women.  Why so few women museum directors?  What do we know about the make-up of boards--are they mostly male?  What is it that boards think male directors can do better?  And as a field, why don't we make more noise about this?  Funny how future of museums seems an awfully lot like the museums of the past.