Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Museums & Creative Practice

I'm pleased to announce the start of a new book project with my colleague Rainey Tisdale.  Museums & Creative Practice is a our effort to understand how we can be more creative museum workers--how we can embed creative practice in all aspects of our work.  Rainey,  an independent curator and blogger at CityStories,  has been actively thinking about creativity for some time,  and over the last year or so, we've begun a lively long-distance conversation about the creative process  and how it can be applied to museum practices.

We both believe that creative work can—and should-- be a part of every part of a museum’s efforts, from the gallery attendant’s work to the director’s.  As both of us travel and visit museums far and near,  we see that the innovative, compelling museums—of whatever size and discipline,  are ones where the creative process is embraced on many levels. 

We’re curious about how creativity is encouraged and nurtured;  how visitors respond to expanded creative efforts;   and how creative efforts take form in different types of museums—from art to science to history.

This is a joint project between Rainey and I because we both believe creativity flourishes with collaboration.  And that’s where you come in as well—we hope many of you will become our colleagues, sharing your perspectives, your great creative finds, and of course, your creative ideas.  Here’s where you can find us:

Our work will result in a book, but we have several starting points that we hope become a part of.  First, a new blog, Museums & Creative Practice.  We'll use this space to update our work, to share resources we find, and of course, to hear back from all of you.

We want your thoughts on what makes you creative (or not);  on the most creative museums you know;  and about what you'd like us to think about in the course of this project.  The survey is short (!) and you can take it here.

We'll both be at the American Association of Museums conference in Minneapolis next week (yes, this year's conference theme is "Creative Community") and we are hoping to talk there with as many colleagues as possible about this project. We're holding two informal Museums & Creative Practice meet-ups.

  • Monday, April 30, 12:30-2:00. Grab a takeaway lunch and meet us at the cafe seating in the lobby of the convention center, near Dunn Bros Coffee
  • Tuesday, May 1, 6:00-7:30. Join us for a drinks and discussion at The Local, 931 Nicollet Mall, a few blocks north of the convention center. The reservation is under Rainey; we'll be at "Arthur's Table."
Can’t join us in person but want to share your thoughts? Please comment here, or on the new blog.  We look forward to hearing your thoughts and sharing our progress with you.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Power of Paper

I'm always packing up paper to take to various workshops. Just today, I put together my paper, markers and scissors for a session at next week's Museums in Conversation conference in Albany.  So I'm used to watching people write on big pieces of brown paper,  stick up Post-It notes and piece together three-dimensional interactive prototypes from construction paper.
But this week, at the Corning Museum of Glass, I was struck by how powerful paper can be when you ask visitors or participants to make use of it.  I was at Corning to hold some visitor conversations around a re-doing of a section of their innovation exhibit,  the section focusing on advances in glass bottle-making.  The staff had known that the section, now more than a decade old,  just didn't quite do it anymore and they've been working with my colleague Christopher Clarke to re-shape the interpretive effort.   He suggested that it might prove illuminating to talk to some visitors about both the current gallery and the proposed re-designs--that's where I came in.
The great team at Corning put together full-size graphic mock-ups and recruited three groups of participants, ranging in age from 7 to over 70.  With each group, we met in the lobby where I distributed simple note-pads and pens to everyone; we then trooped upstairs to the current gallery.  I was interested in seeing what an open-ended approach would do, so I just asked them to note down what they saw,  any issues they saw,  what they liked, and didn't like.  And all of a sudden,  that pad and pencil were really important.  They looked deeper, they wrote down sections of the label text,  they drew pictures--no matter what age they were.  They were intensely serious and focused on their task.  I think the pads and pens were empowering in some way.  We really did want to know what they thought!
All of us then adjourned to a conference room to look at the proposed new graphics.  In the first group,  we had a useful conversation, but the second group was composed of kids from 7-17 and I was a little concerned about participation.  Out came the Post-It notes.  Each participant was asked to put a note by one thing they they found interesting and one they found confusing.  Again, the paper and pen were empowering.  They looked really hard,  they read all the labels, they sort of went back and forth between different elements trying to decide.  And then, because the notes gave me a place to start the conversation,  it was easy for that group (and another group as well) to share their ideas. After all, everyone had participated.  The pads and the Post-Its helped everyone in the group feel that their ideas were equally valued, and provided a safe space to think individually and collectively about the exhibit and design.  Perhaps it's really not the paper, but the idea that we really asked--that we did want to know what our audience thought.

But here's my favorite part of my time in Corning.  When we came in the second day,  there were a couple of additional Post-Its up.  Evidently during the morning,  a staff member named Betty came into the empty room,  saw the Post-It comments,  understood that we were looking for interesting and confusing elements,  shared her own observations and signed her name. Thanks Betty, Corning staff, volunteer participants and Christopher for such a great learning experience.  I'll keep those pens and paper handy!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Memorial Museums: Join A Conversation

From the September 11 Memorial and Museum to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum to the Holodomor and Chernobyl Museums in Kyiv and Gulag museums in the former Soviet Union, to Holocaust memorials and museums in Europe and the United States,  interpretation at memorial museums has become a part of our international museum practice--and perhaps more importantly, these museums have become important ways for the public to understand violent, complex and often horrifying aspects of our common history.   As we reframe the idea of museums into a third space, with a community-centered focus,  it's more important than ever to consider the range of questions that these museums provoke in our work.

On Monday, April 30, 9:00-10:15 AM, at the AAM Annual Conference, I'll be joining an talented group of colleagues for an open dialogue exploring the  interpretation at memorials and memorial museums.  Chaired by Stacey Mann, Director of Learning Strategies, Night Kitchen Interactive, Philadelphia, PA (who did an amazing job moving our session from idea to reality), the presenters include Wendy Aibel-Weiss, Director of Programs, Tribute WTC Visitor Center; Danny Cohen, Lecturer, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL;  Ian Kerrigan, Assistant Director of Exhibition Development, National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York, NY and me. The session sprang from all of our contributions to the fall, 2011 issue of Exhibitionist: Museums, Memorials, and Sites of Conscience. 

As a group, we've identified a list of key questions for discussion. A few of the questions on our list:
  • How do collective memories of different atrocities and violent events differ across time and between communities? 
  • Why do visitors make a pilgrimage to contemporary sites of tragedy?
  • In this age of instant global communication, who “owns” an international tragedy?
  • Are there age-appropriate guidelines to exhibitions that focus on human tragedy? How can museums engage children and younger audiences in these topics?
  • How might the marginalization of particular histories impact collective memory and collective action?
  • Should memorials and ways of commemorating be designed to change / shift over time?  If so, how?
  • How do we balance individual loss and collective stories?
  • Who determines the "truth" of a memorial museum?
  • What happens when the "truth" presented by an authority changes?  or when the authority changes?

But we've designed this as a conversation (we promise, no endless talking heads)--so we'd like to hear from you, whether or not you'll be at the conference.  What questions do you have about memorials and memorial museums?  What do you want to make sure we share our perspectives on?  What do you wonder about?  What issues do you think memorial museums are frightened of facing?  What do you think the long-term impact of these museums can be?  Please weigh in here in the comments with questions, ideas and perspectives;  plan to join us on the 30th; and of course, check back here for a full report.

Image: Brian Kusler on Flickr

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Layer Cake? A Crown? Thinking about Museum Standards

A couple weeks ago,  I was pleased to be asked to join a day of thinking about museum standards at the American Association of Museums in Washington.  Twenty or so colleagues, from New England to Hawaii, representing museums ranging from county historical societies to the Getty Museum, along with staff from AAMAASLH and IMLS,  spent the day talking about AAM's Museum Assessment Program (MAP),  Accreditation, and AASLH's StEPs program for history organizations. Our goal was to focus on how we might, collectively, design a program that moves all museums forward.    I've been a MAP reviewer and now have worked extensively with the StEPs standards both in developing curricula and webinars for AASLH and in a state-wide training program in Connecticut so I was happy to join a great group of colleagues in a lively discussion.

From my perspective, it seemed as if, for a long time,  the Accreditation program was the crown jewel in our field, attainable by few,  and with benefits that were never clearly articulated.  And perhaps others held that same view,  because only a tiny (4%) percentage of US museums have attained that status.  AAM's thoughtful rethinking seems to reflect that same concern.  If we say our museums are great, that they matter, that they are worthy of public and private support--but then say, oh, only 4% of museums meet our own standards, what message does that convey?  So what do we, as a field, do?   Because, it's important to note that all these efforts come from the field, not from a governmental oversight agency.  (New York is an exception, in that the Board of Regents sets forth its own standards,  but there is no state agency that actually enforces any of those standards.)

The MAP staff posed a number of questions to the group.  What elements might be embedded in the MAP process to encourage the goal of Accreditation?  Does MAP need a report card or rating scale?  Can StEPs indicators be used as indicators for Accreditation readiness?  How can these programs best connect?  How can we propel museums up the continuum?

 The metaphors flew fast and furious.  Would a field-wide standards program build layer, upon layer, like a cake?  Or like a crown, with accreditation as the top points?  Are we building a house, with a sound foundation?  Going up a set of steps?  Is it like a board game where you need to accomplish a certain number of steps to move forward?

Despite--or perhaps because of the abundance of those metaphors, there were several important areas of agreement.  One, that the field can--and should-- to push itself harder in terms of encouraging museums of all sizes, shapes and disciplines to meet standards.  Second, that these programs will work best when we all (including other specific organizations such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) work together to find common ground and share information in a clear, understandable framework.  In metaphorical terms, that we move from a series of silos to an interconnected approach.   I shared my own personal hobbyhorse--that standards need to focus, not just on collections (easier to assess plans and policies there) but also need to focus on an organization's ability to connect with their audiences and communities.

I think progress in this area will result, in part, from an understanding that we, as a field, can't be all things to all people--and that individual institutions must make hard choices about their future.  I'm pleased to see several places where these conversations are happening.  

On my must-see list for two upcoming conferences are sessions that address some of these hard choices.  At the upcoming Museums in Conversation conference in Albany, on April 23 historian and exhibit developer Christopher Clarke and Gretchen Sorin, Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program will introduce and referee a sure-to-be-lively conversation framed around the statement  “New York State’s smaller history museums would be better off if they radically reduced the size of their collections.”    At the AAM conference in Minneapolis,  on Tuesday, May 1,  Marieke Van Damme, Deputy Director for Development and Planning, Bostonian Society Old State House Museum, Boston, MA and Rainey Tisdale, Independent Curator, Roslindale, MA join Ole Winther, Head of Department, National Heritage Agency of Denmark, Copenhagen, to discuss sweeping reforms, including widespread mergers, taking place at museums in Denmark and Norway and whether such reforms would work here in the United States.

The conversation is sure to continue on many levels--but I'd like to hear your thoughts.  When Ford Bell, President of AAM,  set the stage for our meeting, he commented, (I'm paraphrasing)  "the more institutions in the excellence tent, the better for advocacy."  And that doesn't just mean advocacy for government funding, it means advocacy and connection to your community on every level, in every way.  How can we bring more organizations into the big tent of excellence?