Monday, January 30, 2012

Behind the Curtain: What's Driving the Latest Change in Ukrainian Museums?

Transparency and change:  two things I care deeply about in my work with museums. Last week, thse two concepts connected in unexpected ways.  Early last week I facilitated StEPs training for a group of Connecticut history museums for the Connecticut Humanities Council and the Connecticut League of Historical Organizations.  Then, late last week, and continuing this week,  there is the news from Ukraine that the directors of several national museums have been summarily relieved of their duties by the Ministry of Culture and replaced by new directors, none of whom have museum experience.  Removed have been the directors of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, St. Sophia's (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites)  the Taras Shevchenko Museum,  the National Gallery of Art, and Pyrohiv, the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life--even more removals are rumored.  These are all government museums, but in American terms, picture the removal of the directors of the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, and Colonial Williamsburg, all at once, with no real explanation.

In the United States, transparency in the age of the Internet has become easier in every way--and the government assists, to some degree, in the process of creating transparent organizations.  If I want to know about any non-profit in the United States,  I can look up their 990 tax filing on Guidestar.  I can see how their money came in, how it came out,  how much they have in cash reserves, how much their director is paid, and who their board members are.  Our national museums, the Smithsonian, releases its budget information and journalists regularly cover museum issues ranging from deaccessions to fundraising.   Our small group in Connecticut talked about the reasons why such transparency is important--and I emphasized the fact that, whether a museum takes grant support or not,  the public still supports you--that we operate in the public trust, by virtue of a museum's tax-exempt status.   That's a lesson worth remembering no matter how big or small your organization is.
There is no such pattern of transparency in Ukraine.   Unfortunately, Ukraine continues to rank high on the list of Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index and these removals do nothing to dispel concerns that these changes are meant to benefit individuals.  The reasons given for the firings are sketchy.  Some directors have been accused of financial irregularities,  and at other institutions the need for "change" has been promoted--that museums need to find new ways of doing business.  And of course, that all these dismissals have happened at once speaks to a larger goal, one that is not visible to the public.

So what about that change?  

I'm in full agreement that many museums in Ukraine need changing.  And in fact,  I headed a team that did an evaluation of one of the above museums in 2010, recommending significant changes.  I've seen positive changes in a number of museums each time I return and do everything I can to encourage new ways of thinking.  But, and it's a big but,  it's entirely unclear, because the process has been sudden, outwardly capricious, and without clear rationales or outcomes,  that any change will be for the better.  There has been some talk of monetizing collections--selling off the nation's cultural heritage in order to pay debts.   These museums occupy some very valuable real estate in Kyiv--it's entirely possible that inappropriate development will be allowed to take place.   There have been reports of conversations between the Ministry of Culture and a Canadian firm who promises a systematic way to catalog and monetize collections (but who appears to have no museum clients). On January 31,  the Minister of Culture will hold a press briefing where, one suspects, more answers will not be forthcoming.

Part of the discussion among museum colleagues in Ukraine has been that these new directors have no museum experience. Ukraine is still a place where experts are highly valued.  The track record of directors without museum experience here in the United States is mixed, but there have been successes.  It's possible that a new director with a willingness to listen and to learn could create positive changes.  But without a clear explanation of why the changes were made and without a commitment to a transparent process in every area of museum operations,  I find fear t that the changes will be for the financial benefit of a few, rather than for the benefit of the nation's citizens. New Ukrainian museum directors, please prove me wrong!

A particular thank you to the Ukrainian Center for Museum Development for their work in covering these developments at an extremely challenging time.  Keep up the great work!

Updates: The story of Ukrainian museums continues to develop in complicated and not entirely unsurprising ways.  The Minister of Culture held a press conference earlier this week in which he didn't do much to clarify things, except in several areas.  He said that the collections would not be monetized, would not be used to pay debts or as collateral.  Museum colleagues will, I'm sure, continue to be vigilant about this. Evidently the director of the National Art Museum has not been released and at least two of the directors have done interviews or made efforts to be slightly more transparent.  The new director at Pyrohiv,  Dmitry Zaruba,  has invited journalists to visit the museum and has said that all museum employees will be wearing name tags (small progress, but progress!).   The new director of the Shevchenko Museum, Dmitry Stus,  the son of poet Vasyl Stus, who died in the gulag at Perm-36 (now a museum) gave an interview where he sets out several thoughtful goals for the museum and appears to be listening to staff, even saying, after three days,  he is not ready to decide who is right.

But all that said, it's still unclear about the why for these changes and about how the new directors will be accountable moving forward.  Because of course, problems have existed in these museums for decades, with little or no attention from the Ministry of Culture.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Learning to Talk About Art

Welcome to another guest blogger!   Tegan Kehoe is an emerging museum professional who's also a volunteer docent at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as it reopens, with a wonderful new wing, on January 19.  This is the first of three posts from Tegan going inside the docent process from learning to doing.  As professionals, we spend lots of time talking about docents and what they should/could/might be doing.  Here's her inside view.
As a museum professional, I believe that working directly with visitors should be a lifelong practice for me.  I had thought for a long time that I might want to volunteer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a small, beautiful Boston institution full of art from all time periods. Until recently, I had too many other things going on in my life, including being a tour guide at two history museums, but this fall, after starting a desk job, I realized now might be the time. It’s also a very exciting time to be at the Gardner, because they just completed a new wing, opening to the public on January 19. They recruited a large group of new volunteers, and I applied just in time. In November and December, I attended a series of trainings to get oriented to the museum’s story, the collection, and how to help visitors have a great experience.

While I’m excited to get involved at the Gardner, I’m a historian, and there’s a voice in my head asking,  “What do I know about art?”  We aren’t expected to be encyclopedias -- in fact, the most important part of our role is being a friendly, welcoming presence in the galleries -- but I want to help visitors make meaning of what they see. Thankfully, the Gardner volunteer trainings include a few very useful kernels of museum education theory.

At the trainings, I was re-introduced to John Falk’s theory that museum visitors are influenced by their own conception of themselves and their reasons for attending a museum. There are Experience Seekers, who want to see and experience something new, especially a landmark or a well-loved destination, Facilitators, who bring their children or out-of-town relatives to a museum to give them a good experience, and three other archetypes that describe a visitor’s reason for being there.  

I think it’s a very useful way to think about visitors. There is no value judgment in acknowledging that visitors want different things. A part of me feels that in an ideal world, every visitor would be hungry to learn, learn, learn, and maybe stop and gaze at a painting or artifact in wonder. In reality, it’s not my place to say this is what visitors should want, and it’s not always what I want when I’m the visitor. Museums are for the public, and we do visitors a better service by trying to help them get what they want out of the experience. Still, I believe that it’s key to take advantage of teachable moments -- just to do it in a way that’s appropriate for the individual.

Another of the trainings introduced us to Visual ThinkingStrategies, an art education tool that uses questions. To demonstrate the process, a Gardner staff member showed us an image of a painting not in the museum’s collection, and asked us, “What’s going on in this picture?” A man sat at an office desk reading some papers, while a woman stood at the filing cabinet. Several people noted that something in the room seemed not quite right. Our leader asked, “What do you see that makes you say that?” and a young woman said the walls were oddly blank, as if the office’s occupants were not really settled there. An older woman replied that she didn’t find the blank walls odd at all, given the time period of the piece. As the leader asked, “What more can we find?” we went deeper into the mood of the room. We all agreed it was nighttime. I saw that we seemed to be looking down from above, as we could see the top of the door frame and the cabinet and the top of the figures’ heads. It gave a feeling of distance from the subjects.

As we talked, I was surprised to realize I kept waiting for the “reveal” moment, when we would be told the work’s title, year, and painter. It wasn’t coming.* VTS is about affirming the viewer’s ability to have a high-quality experience with the art, and meaningful ideas about it, whether or not they know anything about it. The system is designed for classes, rather than informal interactions, and volunteers aren’t asked to practice VTS strictly, just to use it as a guide. I like this model, because I think it will help me engage with visitors. Before I know much about the collection, it will give me something to say, and later on, it will save me from the temptation to just rattle off my favorite facts about a work. Still, I wonder how I will do at keeping Visual Thinking Strategies in mind when I volunteer. Will it feel awkward? Formulaic? Or will it blend seamlessly with asking visitors how they are enjoying the Gardner?

While I think I’ll start out a little out of my comfort zone, it helps to think about the whole visitor experience, not just what knowledge I can impart. I’m really excited to do this. I feel privileged to become a part of a team that sets high standards for itself with regard to visitor experience. It is said that Gardner arranged the pieces with the intention of inspiring the viewer, and I expect to be repeatedly inspired. I hope that over time, I will continually build my skills at helping to share this inspiration with museum guests.

My first shift will be on Sunday afternoon after the debut of the new wing. I will be posting again to let you all know how it goes!
*For your gratification, if you’re feeling the same way I was, it was Edward Hopper’s 1940 painting Office at Night. I later looked it up online.
Tegan Kehoe is a Boston-based emerging museum professional and historian, whose many professional interests include free-choice learning, nonprofit management, and local history. Her own blog, Cambridge Considered, [] covers the history of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also the sometimes-leader of a nascent Stitch and Bitch (knitting and other crafts club) for history and museum professionals in the Boston area. 

Top:  Banner outside the Gardner Museum by Dave Gilbert eye2eye on Flickr
Bottom:  Office at Night,  Edward Hopper

Monday, January 16, 2012

Learning While Leaving: Unexpected Lessons on the Way Out the Door

Late last year I invited readers to become writers--to consider writing as a guest blogger here at the Uncataloged Museum.  I was thrilled to have several people take me up on that offer--and very excited to share this post from Leslie Kesler (read more about her at the end of the post).  In this and upcoming posts Leslie provides food for thought from an important vantage point that's facing many colleagues these days.  Thanks Leslie!

On December 1, I learned that my job, historian and curator at a local history museum and historic house, was being eliminated. Like many other non-profit organizations, our museum had experienced a pattern of revenues lagging behind expenses. Faced with an unsustainable trend and a duty to ensure long-term survival, trustees determined the time had come to make deep cuts, cuts that would include eliminating more than half of staff positions.

It is hardly a unique story. I have several museum colleagues who've been through a variation on this scenario and you probably do, too. Stories others had shared, including at sites like Blue Avocado, were both helpful and comforting as I navigated through shock, grief, and confusion.

At my museum, the decision had been made to implement layoffs with a month's notice, a choice for which I am sincerely thankful. Everyone responds differently, but for me it was therapeutic to be part of wrapping up my projects. I felt that I was a still a trusted (albeit short-term) member of the team, and that what I did would make a difference, two things gave me a much-needed short term focus.

Surprisingly, wrapping things up turned out to be a learning experience. Closing down my job gave me more insight into my strengths and weaknesses than any formal performance review I've ever had. It illuminated some of the unconscious choices I'd made in doing my job and showed me their ramifications. More than once, I found myself making mental notes for the future. “Okay,” I'd mutter to myself, standing in the chaos of a half-packed office, “Next time, please remember . . . “ 

To set and stick to priorities, ruthlessly
I'd been trying to do too much and part of me knew it. But it was easy to get caught up in the moment and convince myself that everything was critical, or that taking on just this one more little thing really would make a difference. It was easy, that is, until I had only a few finite weeks of time left to spend. Then it was very clear to me which tasks were the best use of my time and which ones I should drop, without second-guessing or guilt. I began to wonder how I could train myself to maintain that kind of decisive focus over the long haul.

To cultivate better digital housekeeping habits
My system works great . . . for me. But my desire to hand projects off quickly, in apple pie order, was quickly foiled by the need to cull hundreds of old e-mails about daily project minutia, purge outdated drafts of documents, and rename folders whose contents had strayed far from their original label. I talk a good game about keeping orderly records that any team member can step in and use in an emergency. But I wasn't living up to that ideal, at least in the digital realm.

To always prioritize work on critical documents
Here's one place we got to pat ourselves on the back. I lost track of the number of briefing notes I wrote that included “consult the recently-updated collections policy for details.” I marveled at how quickly our team regrouped and set priorities, something I attribute partly to time invested in disaster planning. No, we didn't have a plan for major staff layoffs. But we did have practice at thinking through scenarios of sudden change, identifying likely impacts, and making decisions about how to mitigate them. I'm convinced it made a difference.

The true potential of the work blitz
Once we had a plan, our collections team set to work on the top priorities. Some of the things we tackled had long been on our “someday we ought to . . .” list. Without the prospect of a future someday in which to do things perfectly, we forged ahead with the best imperfect solutions we could devise. In the end, we accomplished an amazing amount, including fixing some inherited situations that we'd worked around for years. Just about every place I've ever worked has declared occasional “work days” when everyone puts aside daily tasks for an all-out effort of some sort, usually focused around cleaning. What if we declared a different kind of blitz? What if the question was what can we do together in one day, or one week, to address our top priority issues now?

The hidden costs of feeling overwhelmed
A funny thing happened on the path to my last day. I kept thinking of things that I wanted to do, or try, or read, in January. So many things, in fact, that I had to start an actual list. Quite a few were related to skills I used in my job. Many were things I'd already considered, despaired of shoe-horning into my schedule, and started feeling vaguely guilty and defensive about not managing to accomplish. Now, all of a sudden, they sounded like fun again. Suddenly and viscerally, I understood that my pattern of trying to do too much hadn't just dulled my efficiency. It had also taken the edge off my zest for experimenting and learning new things, potentially depriving me of both joy and some useful new skills.

Two weeks post-job, I'm still not sure precisely where I'm headed next. Someday, I hope to again have a job very much like the one I just left. It's what I love to do, and I'm good at it. I'll be even better next time, if I can hang onto the lessons I learned on the way out the door.

What about you? What have you learned from unexpected twists in your career? 
In her twenty years as a public historian, Leslie Kesler has worked variously as a frontline interpreter, education manager, curator, and staff historian for museums in the southeastern U.S. Most recently, she was historian and curator at a local history museum and historic house in the North Carolina town where she grew up. In addition to history and museums, she enjoys running, baking, and books, with a particular fondness for mystery novels.

Top: Creative Commons licensed photo by flickr user Maker Mama
Bottom:  Creative Commons licensed photo by flickr user greg.turner

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dropping in at the Getty

My last post about what any museum can learn from the Getty has drawn lots of attention (and thanks to all who retweeted and shared it).   So I wanted to share another experience from my visit there because I think, in one small space, it exemplified the museum's thoughtful approach--and again, it's something that almost any museum could do, scaled to fit your own circumstances.
As I walked down a hallway, I saw a sign that said Sketching Gallery--and as I approached, there was a buzz of activity.  It's a small gallery,  filled with art (real art, not reproductions), tables, drawing horses, and people.  That's what struck me at first--it was a group of people that was so diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnicity--everything!  And everyone had their pad of paper and pencils--eagerly ready.
 At the front of the room stood a white-haired man and a younger man (who exuded a lovely kind of calm) sitting on a stool.  This was a life drawing drop-in class.  No experience needed.  Some people had started drawing, others were awaiting instruction.  More people continued to squeeze into the room and the education staff greeted everyone, provided supplies, and encouraged them to find a space--on the floor, on a chair, wherever.
An educator provided a brief introduction--drop in life drawing, every Thursday in January,  come to one or all, and here's the instructor.   The instructor was great--because rather than beginning with a lecture about life drawing,  he had everyone jump right in--start drawing, he said!  And everyone, of all different abilities, began.   And he began circulating the room, asking to sit where participants were seeing so he could see the model from their perspective.   All of a sudden, surrounded by art, the room grew quiet as participants really looked and drew.
I didn't stay for the full hour,  but also took some time to look at the interpretive labels around the room and chat a minute with the educators.  The sketching gallery is always open and so these labels provide context--explaining the great classical tradition of sketching from great works of art--and provide tips on looking and thinking.
You can read more about the Sketching Gallery here.   But the description--and I'm afraid this blog post--doesn't quite convey the spirit of the place which was fun without being silly, serious without being formal, planned without being overly directive, and reflective without being way too quiet.

Although not every museum has a Rubens to exhibit, we all do have beautiful, interesting or fascinating objects.  And we could all create ways--and spaces-- for our visitors, no matter what age or interest, to look deeply, try something new, and enjoy themselves. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Five Things Any Museum Can Learn from One of the Big Guys

Last week I was in Los Angeles and took the opportunity to visit the Getty Museum.  I'd never been before and from the long view, it's a place that you imagine being pronounced THE GETTY,  in a deep, sonorous voice,  that has more money, more everything, than anywhere else.  I imagined it as sort of snooty.  And to my delight,  I was totally wrong.   It is a fantastic setting and few of us have a building designed by Richard Meier and gardens designed by Robert Irwin.  Plus, now that I'm back in gray upstate New York, I equally appreciate the sunny setting that few of us have as well!

But the Getty Museum had five aspects that any museum, no matter what your size or discipline, can and should emulate.
1.  Be Friendly  Above,  as a family was going through the galleries and a young boy stopped to look at a sculpture,  a guard stepped forward, smiling, and told the classical myth about the piece.  Being friendly also extends to spaces.  In the center courtyard, there's plenty of tables, welcoming both to those who chose to buy food and to those who bring a picnic lunch.  The Getty's free, but parking is $15, so it means that only $15 could provide a whole day's outing for a family.  A great, friendly deal.  
The gardens are manicured to a T so I imagined it might be the kind of place where you couldn't even walk on the lawn.  Instead,  Frisbee players, readers, loungers,  plant lovers, photographers, kids, adults, all felt welcomed to enjoy the spaces.  

Visitors could photograph everywhere except in the temporary exhibitions.  In several other LA museum visits,  photography was forbidden even in permanent galleries with few objects.  At one museum, when I asked why,   I got a shrug and a "well, they say so,"  from the front desk staff.  Not friendly (and hence, why you won't be seeing those museums here.)

This friendliness,  the feeling of being welcomed, didn't feel phoney,  but it obviously was something that was reinforced by museum leaders. 
2.  Offer Choices  The audio tour offered plenty of choices:  a highlights tour, a tour featuring food in art, tours by time periods, tours for families.  And even within an audio clip itself choices were offered.  As I listened to a curator talk about one piece, it ended with, "and if you want to hear more about the reaction to the piece from the artist,  press 5."  It made me more curious about hearing more--a sense of what's next, rather than just a longer audio to listen to.  There were lots of other choices as well--indoors/outdoors;  self guided/guided tours;  drop-in programs;  and more.
3.  Write Great Labels In particular, the labels in the Pacific Standard Time:  Crosscurrents in LA Painting and Sculpture and the Lyonel Feininger temporary exhibits were terrific.  No pictures allowed in these temporary exhibits and I didn't take notes, but my memory of these is that they were each different in feel, but eminently readable.  The Pacific Standard Time ones were sort of muscular, with lots of active words and a real sense of the power and experimentation of the time period.  The Feininger ones were quieter,  and took the visitor through a life filled with art--but also with family and colleagues.  They were more like having a quiet conversation.  And both seemed blessedly free of the sort of art history jargon all too often found in art museum labels.   There were also additional materials that provided great starting places to think about art, as in this looking at photographs piece.
4.  Be Fun  Because the setting is so spectacular it did seem a place where people really relaxed.  It's not the crazy fun of a children's museum, but a place that's really enjoyable--for all kinds of people (and another note--one of the most diverse audiences I've seen in a long time).  The family room was creative and fun.  In a very small space, they took five works of art and created activities around them,  It worked for many different kinds of learners, from kinesthetic to verbal and everyone seemed to be having a great time.  In another post I'll talk about their Sketching Gallery, an entirely different kind of fun.   The large-scale sculptures really encouraged fun exploration outdoors as well.  The images below show the family fun space that relates to the sculpture below it.
5.  It's in the Details  It's pretty sunny at the Getty and this bin of umbrellas below highlights their attention to details (although I have to admit, I thought they were for rainy weather until I saw a tour group sheltered underneath them). 
This attention to details extends to signage,  to the organization of school group clipboards, to the nametags saying "educator" that are given to teachers with school groups.  It feels like every day, someone thinks about how the museum looks to the visitor.  But what was interesting, that attention to details doesn't feel stiff and formal, but rather welcoming.  A favorite small detail:  the informality of this removed from exhibit card just tucked into the label. 
Obviously, the Getty has significant resources to bring to bear on these five items.  But at any museum, we can pay more attention to them.  We can welcome visitors, we can make sure our signage makes sense, we can have more fun, we can write great labels, and we can pay attention to the small things that make a big impression on our visitors.
And one more:  Appeal to our better natures 
As we waited to take the tram back down,  a sign invited us to take an online survey.  All of us have seen them, and survey takers usually have a chance to win a membership or something of value to them.  This turned that aspect on its head.  For every visitor taking the survey,  the museum would donate $10 to Inner City Arts.  I felt great helping!  What if you said for each survey taken,  you would offer free admission to a family?  How else can we get people to think about the largest aspects of community, not just themselves?

As we were leaving,  I glanced at a small plaque near a bust of J. Paul Getty himself, where it notes that the museum has been dedicated to "delighting and educating its visitors."  You sure did!