Friday, February 24, 2012

Got an Idea? Let's Talk

The first couple months of 2012 have been pretty quiet, with a fair amount of finishing up reports and grant-writing, both of which keep me pretty close to my messy desk.  But starting next week,  I'll be out and about much more.  So this post is an open offer--if you have a project you're interested in starting and want someone to bounce ideas off,  if you want a little career advice,  or if you want to chew over what the museum field is right now and what it might be,  below are some places and times where I'd be happy to sit down over a cup of coffee (on me, even!)  and chat.  And of course, you can always find me here.

A colleague gently nudged me last fall telling me that I wasn't very good in this blog at telling people what I actually do--and encouraged tell readers that I actually work for organizations, in addition to writing the blog.  What might I work with you on?  Projects that are about shaping compelling narratives in either an exhibition or historic site;  developing new skills;  and listening to communities through prototyping, community conversations or other activities that connect your organization with the diverse communities you work in.   I like experimentation and like working with museums and historic sites that are ready to change things up,  to try something new (and I like to have fun).

So, if you're contemplating that leap into the new and want to talk about it,  here's where you can find me in person:

February 27-28,  Indianapolis, IN, facilitating a train-the-trainer session for AASLH's StEPs program.

March 5-6,  Regina and Swift Current, Saskatchewan, facilitating a workshop on exhibit development for the Museums Association of Saskatchewan

March 8-9,  New York City—so what exhibits should I make sure to see?

March 12,  Long Island, facilitating a workshop for the Long Island Museum Association

March 16-20,  Washington, DC, for a meeting at AAM and lots of museum-going.  Again, what should I not miss?

April 22-24,  at the Museums in Conversation conference, Albany, NY doing a session on career planning with colleagues Anne Ackerson, Marianne Bez, Gwen Spicer, and Christopher Clarke

April 25-26,  Burlington, VT, for a talk with Sarah Crow about the Pickle Project at Shelburne Farms

April 28-May 2 at the AAM meeting in Minneapolis participating in a session on memorials and memorial museums and one on career planning.

May 21-22,  Middletown,  CT,  facilitating a workshop for the CT StEPs program of the Connecticut Humanities Council and the Connecticut League of Historical Organizations

Photo:  Uncle Chicken on Flickr

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The List--What's on Yours?

Leslie Kesler's last guest post,  about what she learned in leaving a job,  generated a great deal of conversation.  I'm really pleased to have her return with the thoughts about what she's doing with the unexpected free time that has unfortunately become a part of many museum workers' lives.  Check out her to-do list--but more importantly, her thoughts on how that surprising list connects to her professional self. 

In my last post, I mentioned that one of my coping techniques, anticipating a layoff, was making a list of things that would be fun to do. Not necessarily trip-to-the Riviera-fun – though I certainly wouldn't turn my nose up at that – but realistic, budget-friendly, possibly skill-building fun.

Some selections from my list:
  • edit a Wikipedia article
  • finally make a dent in scanning all the old family photos I've been promising Mom I'd get to. Maybe start a tumblr with them. Add a few to Historypin
  • start a blog.  Or, hey, maybe guest blog somewhere
  • try out the new National Archives citizen archivist dashboard
  • finally sit down and figure out what Google+ is all about and if I should be on it
You may be sensing a tech theme here, and if so, you'd be partially right. Playing with new technology is something I enjoy, something that gets me energized thinking about new possibilities. I'm not especially proficient at it, but I think it's fun.

But it's not all about the electronic devices.  Also on my list are:
  • (re)learn how to use a sewing machine
  • tackle some around-the-house projects that stretch my comfort zone with tools and handyman tasks
  • try some new recipes. Bake some bread
  • poke around in flea markets and thrift stores

I've noticed a couple of themes running through my list. One, of course, is a focus on skills and on producing tangible products. I suspect there's some compensation going on there and I am amused by it  even as I find it unarguably therapeutic. I picture my inner six-year-old storming around inside my head, defiantly stomping her foot at the universe and insisting that yes, I am, too, competent – despite having recently had the pins knocked out from under my professional self – because I can make things! So there.
The other theme I notice is about giving myself permission to spend time on things that I'm not very good at (yet), and that I'm certainly not going to be efficient at. In fact, I'll probably fail at some, and I'm telling myself that's OK. One of the costs of being on an ever-accelerating treadmill, at least for me, has been reluctance to try things that might not work. When every minute counts, it's hard to justify the  time to take chances. But losing track of time while totally absorbed in the process of figuring something out is one of the real joys of work, at least for me. Plus, that's often where some really good creative stuff happens.

When this blog post was still just a concept, Linda insightfully pointed out that it probably had some synergy with Jasper Visser's post here. I think that's right. I've been missing having time for play – constructive play, not goofing off – and it's something I need to recapture for myself before I find my way back onto the treadmill.

What about you? What recharges you? What would you put on your list?

List by flickr user Ben Cumming  
An Artist's Workbench by flickr user empiredude1

Thursday, February 9, 2012

My Day as a Docent: What Do You Think?

Last month, guest blogger Tegan Kehoe (above) wrote about her training to become a docent at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the conceptual shift from a history to an art perspective.  She's back, to share her experience of her very first docent shift, just a week after the Gardner's grand re-opening.  We'd love to hear your perspectives on working directly with visitors--comment away!

My first shift as a volunteer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was on a Saturday afternoon, just over a week after the historic museum re-opened to debut its new wing. The excited returning visitors and curious new visitors gave the museum an incredible energy. When I arrived, the line to the admissions desk was out the front door.

While all volunteers, new and old, get into the swing of things with the reopening, the museum is asking us to come a half-hour early for a pre-shift meeting. We went over where we would be stationed and other tidbits of useful information. It was a relaxed meeting that helped me learn the names of my fellow volunteers and reassured me that I knew what I was doing.

I spent my first hour of my shift on the second floor of the historic building, surrounded by paintings by the Old Masters, furniture from Renaissance Italy, sculpture from ancient Rome, and more. The Gardner is not an ordinary museum. The art is arranged the way the museum’s founder and patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner, felt the pieces were most inspiring, and very little is labeled. Visitors often need help finding the rack of laminated room guides or determining which guide corresponds with which wall. I was asked a question every few minutes. Excited and nervous, I focused on correctly and helpfully answering visitors’ questions rather than on using the techniques I was trained on. I did ask a few families, “How are you enjoying your visit today?” and that got conversation going, but for the most part, it was busy enough that it seemed both overwhelming and impractical to engaging visitors in deep, thoughtful conversation.

My second hour was in the new wing’s Living Room, a glass-walled space for informal learning, reflection, and discussion. The space is inspired by Mrs. Gardner's tradition of hospitality, and has couches, bookshelves full of books on all topics (although art certainly predominates!), a timeline of the museum's history, a touch-screen panel with more information, and even two birdcages with finches like the one Mrs. Gardner kept. There were two volunteers stationed in the living room, which I liked. I got to know my fellow volunteer, there were enough visitors to keep us both busy, and having two of us meant we had time for have longer, deeper conversations with the visitors.

I spoke with visitors who made the Living Room their first stop and wanted to know what else they should see and how to get there, and also with visitors who had already explored the historic building. My favorite conversation was with a woman who was impressed by the sheer size of the early Renaissance tapestries in the Tapestry Room. 
The last hour of my shift, I was in the new special exhibitions area, a spacious, three-story room on the second floor of the new wing.  It's a beautiful space, but contemporary art is more hit-or-miss with me than earlier art, and I felt unsure of what to do with myself while greeting visitors there.

At one point, a woman asked me, “Why is the ceiling so high?” I explained that the ceiling was actually adjustable, and for this particular installation, it was at the highest of three possible levels.
“But the art doesn't go nearly that high... there's so much white space,” she said.
“This is an exhibit of an individual artist's work, so it was the decision of the artist,” I said. 
After she left, I realized I had missed an opportunity to ask her, “Why do you think she did that?” or, “What do you think about having all that space there?”

Later, another woman asked me, “What was on the artist's mind when she made these sculptures? I read the pamphlet and I still don’t get it.”
“Well, what do they make you think of?” I asked.
“I don't know.” She paused. “What about you?”
We were standing by a drum that had a small painted tile and a handful of bobby pins on its head. I was glad, because it was the only sculpture in the room that evoked something specific for me.
“This one reminds me of doing college theater, with all of the props and supplies mingled together in the green room,” I offered. 

Then her husband, who had been looking out of the enormous windows, spoke up. “There was this bar I used to go to, you know, the kind with the dueling pianos. This guy named Eddy was ninety-one, and he had been working there for seventy years. His job was to stand between the pianos with thimbles on his fingers, holding a metal tray with coins on it, and he tapped out the beat like that. I think that's what it would sound like if you hit the drum and the bobby pins bounced.”

“Huh,” said the woman, sounding baffled, but more amused than frustrated “You have the green room, and you have Eddy, but what do I have?” 
She looked at me. Her husband moved over to one of the eight foot by ten foot paintings.
“Something to think about between now and your next visit?” I said.
“Yeah, I guess so!” 

Did I help that woman feel empowered to form her own opinions about art? I'm not sure. I do think I planted a seed to get her thinking, though, and I know that the three of us had an enjoyable, meaningful conversation.

The Gardner embraces the model of having many volunteers who make a small monthly time commitment. I wouldn't be able to fit it in if they required more each month, but I'm happy to commit to the two years they ask volunteers to stay in the program. I will be working about two shifts a month. After I have gained more experience there, I'll write again to reflect on what I have learned talking about art with the Gardner visitors.
 And, related to my last post, check out the Gardner Museum's thoughtful mission statement here. 

Images, top to bottom:
Tegan Kehoe in front of the Gardner Museum, by Matt Kamm
Living Room and Gallery by Kidsturk on Flickr
Hallway connector, by Tegan Kehoe

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mission Accomplished?

How often does your museum staff think about your mission?  You know, that thing that says, "the mission of x is to do y?"  In the past month, I've visited one museum that totally missed the opportunity to clearly share its mission, talked about mission with a group of small history museum staff and volunteers, and co-written a new mission statement for the Pickle Project.  Each of those situations made me really think about why missions matter--and how we can delve deeper into them.
The missed opportunity was at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.  When we arrived,  we paid admission and then were asked to gather at a desk in the lobby to wait for a staff member to provide an orientation.  Okay, fair enough.  We stand around,  other groups of visitors stand around,  we wait for a visitor to come out of the bathroom and have a staff member say, "oh, you're back!" which is sort of a strange way to start a visit.  Thus gathered, we're led down the ramp to the lower level.  Ah, I think, here's where we'll hear about what tolerance means, or what the museum hopes to do, or what its mission is. Nope!  We hear that one exhibit is to the left, one to the right, bathrooms upstairs.  After the visit, I went back to the museum's website.  It says that the museum is dedicated to challenging visitors to understand the Holocaust in both historic and contemporary contexts and confront all forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world today.  Why would you not introduce/reinforce/engage visitors with that powerful idea when they enter your museum?  A totally missed opportunity at a place where I expected much more.

At a StEPs-CT training in Connecticut,  I asked participants to introduce themselves to the group with their organization's mission statement. Out of the group of 25,  I'd say easily half were virtually identical.  "Collect, preserve, educate..."   "history of x town,  Connecticut, the nation"   "collect real and personal property" and the long list of activities including historic markers, publications, exhibits, presenting, educating, taking care of historic buildings.  Only one or two mentioned the audience in ways other than the phrase, "the general public."  The next day, we had a great discussion about those mission statements--about why they're important and not just boiler plate--a discussion greatly helped along by AASLH's StEPs program and its benchmarking checklist.   When your mission is the frame for your work, or the sieve through which all your activities must pass, it just makes sense to have a mission that really matters--and to make sure that everyone knows what it is.

Some time ago, Dorothy Chen-Courtin provided workshop participants with a useful way to think about mission--one I've continued to share with others.   She encouraged us to keep asking why or so what?  Why do you collect things?  Because no one else does.  So what?  Because they're disappearing.  So what?  The goal is to push, push, push until you really figure out the why--the meaning;  who it's for;  and what your lasting impact will be. In writing this post I looked at many, many museum mission statements thanks to Google.  And I've come to think that "appreciate the history of..." is just not enough.  I can appreciate all kinds of things without wanting to make any effort to go any deeper.  Is appreciate in your mission statement?  Can you make a case for why?  And if your organization has a hard time attracting donors or community interest--could it be that your mission just doesn't inspire passion or commitment?
Where are some good models for mission statements?  Here's some I particularly like (and thanks to Anne Ackerson of Leading by Design for sharing many of these).
  • The National Civil Rights Museum, located at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, chronicles key episodes of the American civil rights movement and the legacy of this movement to inspire participation in civil and human rights efforts globally, through our collections, exhibitions, and educational programs.
  • The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center¹s mission is to preserve and interpret Harriet Beecher Stowe¹s Hartford home and the Center¹s historic collections, create a forum for vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspire individuals to embrace and emulate her commitment to social justice by effecting positive change.
  • Through its preservation, research and interpretive initiatives, Historic Cherry Hill focuses on one Albany family’s search for order and stability in response to personal and social change, encouraging the public to establish an emotional connection and critical distance in order to gain perspective on their own history and lives.
  • The mission of the Minnesota Historical Society is to foster among people an awareness of Minnesota history so that they may draw strength and perspective from the past and find purpose for the future.
  • The Brooklyn Historical Society connects the past to the present and makes the vibrant history of Brooklyn tangible, relevant and meaningful for today's diverse communities, and for generations to come.
  • In writing mission and vision statements, The Historical Society of Woodstock drew inspiration from that community's rich and varied artistic traditions:
    The Historical Society of Woodstock will be the common thread that brings together the rich and colorful tapestry that is Woodstock. The society then provides a more detailed mission:
    The Historical Society of Woodstock shapes our future through a shared understanding of our past.  We accomplish this by:
    .   Creating engaging programs for all ages
    .   Collecting and caring for our history
    .   Encouraging and undertaking research and documentation of our history
    .   Making it possible for all of us to share in our history
  • The Pacific Science Center has what seems like a sparely worded mission: ...inspires a lifelong interest in science, math and technology by engaging diverse communities through interactive and innovative exhibits and programs.  But that mission is accompanied by a passionate vision statement:   
    We envision communities where children and adults are inspired by science, understand its basic principles and bring their scientific curiosity and knowledge to bear in the world.  
From an outside view, all of these mission statements share several common elements.  They are passionate.  They don't view education as a one-way street.  And, I'm guessing, each was the subject of intense discussion and debate during their development.  Go back to that science center statement:
  •  Bringing curiousity and knowledge to bear in the world.   
A passionate statement of the work of any museum. Heard any good mission statements lately? 

Why by markheybo , Questions by Gurdonark both on Flickr.
Museum of Tolerance parking garage and stickers.