Monday, May 28, 2012


Last week, at a workshop with twenty five Connecticut organizations who are part of the StEPs CT program, I began the day by asking participants to share a time they felt really welcome at an museum or historic site--and the group shared a wide range of answers that really expressed the many ways in which visitors want to interact with us  (and, by the way,  it was a great way to shift the day's dynamic from museum worker to museum visitor).

Here's some ways visitors felt welcomed:
  • Getting a special peek behind the scenes.
  • A tour guide or docent who really engaged and spent time with them.
  • A tour guide or staff who really left the visitor alone to explore.
  • Knowledgeable docents.
  • Front desk people who looked happy to see you,  who looked up when you came in.
  • Staff who worked to find out your knowledge and interests.
  • Labels that worked at many different levels (although in general, welcoming museums are characterized by people, not labels).
  • Labels and lighting big enough and bright enough
But there was one story that I'll paraphrase here that really struck me as important.  One of the participants, a board member at a volunteer organization,  choose to describe a long-ago museum visit.   She remembers walking home from the swimming pool one day when she was a kid, with a few friends, in their swim suits, carrying their towels and for some reason, which she can't now remember, they decided they wanted to visit the historic house they passed on the way.  Marching up to the door,  they rang the door bell.  She doesn't remember paying any admission and thinks the woman working there just let them in for free,  in their swimsuits.   She still remembers what she saw that day, and how exciting it was when the guide took a foot warmer down, opened it up, and let them look inside.  She had a great smile on her face decades on as she shared the story.

Over a great dinner in Minneapolis,  Susie Wilkening and I had a long conversation about engagement with objects and about whether objects really matter.  This story, with the simplest of objects and the most welcoming of museum workers, reinforced for me the power of both people and objects.  It's the combination together that makes museums compelling, unique places.  What's your welcoming story?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Memorials, Museums, and Each of Us

At the AAM conference this year I was privileged to be a member of a panel in a session, Interpreting Human Tragedy:  In Memoriam,  which sprang from last fall's issue of Exhibitionist on the same topic for which we had all written. Stacey Mann of Night Kitchen Interactive took the lead in organizing our session.  I joined Stacey,   Danny M. Cohen, Ph. D. of Northwestern University, School of Education and Social Policy; Ian Kerrigan, Assistant Director of Exhibition Development at the National September 11 Memorial Museum and Wendy Aibel-Weiss, Director of Exhibits and Education, Tribute WTC Visitors Center.

We really wanted this session to be a conversation,  so Stacey encouraged us to take a leap of faith and not do any sort of formal papers or presentations.  In several conference calls, we brainstormed questions that were interesting to us, and we hoped interesting to an audience.  Stacey began with a brief framing of the issues-which included an invitation to the audience to ask questions at any time--and turned to us,  squished together on the tiny stage, and began asking questions.    

It was so gratifying to have people come up to the microphone and ask such thoughtful questions, and to feel that our own thinking out loud, pondering responses, perhaps provides a better model for our work than the reading of papers.  So here, a recap of key ideas/questions and comments,  as they came forth in the session.  It's a long post,  but I hope worth reading.   Please continue the conversation by sharing your comments below and many, many thanks to Stacey, Ian,  Danny,  Wendy, and all of you who participated (and shared via your tweets.)

We talked about how memorials can tell stories...but importantly,  as Ian mentioned, that these museums take memories combined with,  as he put it,  "agreed-upon facts."  But those agreed-upon facts often feel a burden, as it is becomes a way of codifying history.  The challenge in the 9/11 museum, opening later this year, is to share, to audiences, the event that changed the world as we know it.  And with a changing world, how to design for future audiences and events.  But Danny reminded us,  that "ownership" of events often leads to definitions that may exclude other groups and other narratives.

Place really matters...the fact that an event, whatever it is, happened here.  So Holocaust museums in the United States or elsewhere outside Europe, or in my own experience, the Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv vs. actually visiting Chernobyl,  are entirely different experiences and mean entirely different things to visitors.  Place is powerful.

That discussion of place led to a consideration of these places of tragedy as sacred spaces--and the struggle many have with cell phone pictures,  teenagers giggling and the like.  Danny, whose deep experience in Holocaust education brought a broad perspective to our conversation, mentioned two important responses to what some seem as inappropriate behavior. One, that many survivors comment that they're okay with the noisy groups of young people--that those young people are alive, representing the future denied so many;  that it can be seen as almost a joyful affirmation/antidote to the tragedy.  Second,  he reminded us that these are often traumatizing sites or exhibits and what seem to be inappropriate responses are really coping mechanisms.

And then the questions really began from the audience.   One asked about the inclusion of images of dead bodies in an exhibit on the Armenian genocide.  Should the images be shown in a way that you have to make a choice to see, as at the Holocaust Museum in DC?  Are there other approaches?   The purpose of these images may be only to shock or provoke, and as a learning scientist,  Danny feels strongly that provocation is harmful to a real learning process.  The goal, in a thoughtful, reflective museum, should be to move a visitor from a purely emotional response to an intellectual, reflective, analytical response.  Mere shock never does that.

A staff member from a military museum asked about issues of including the enemy,  particularly in exhibitions about recent US wars--and how to depict the enemy.  Danny asked how often, for instance,  exhibitions about the Holocaust show Nazis in any way but in uniform.  He reminded us that these were people, with families, with emotions--that by showing them only in uniform, we may wiggle out of the consideration of our own human responsibility. 

A question about interpreting the site of a Native American massacre brought conversation--and many shared ideas from the audience-- about  the responsibility of the victors, whoever they may be, in interpreting history--a museum's responsibility of balance to create an exhibition that really provides, through the active involvement of communities affected,  multiple perspectives.  From a 19th century event in the American West to African revolutions...for an exhibit about social media and African revolutions,  the question, "can we trust social media to properly document revolution?"   From someone on our panel (ah, my note-taking fails me),  the idea that we have to trust that our visitors are capable of the same question--and of thinking about the answers.  Perhaps those questions can be asked of the exhibit's visitors.

And a question for us about what the take-away message of memorials and memorial museums could or should be.  As a group, we tried to puzzle out an answer.  The first phase of a project might be memorialization, often driven by what the victims feel is appropriate.  The second might be education--just that our audiences gain basic knowledge and facts.  But the third stage is how we inspire action,  how to ensure that we, as individuals, as I somewhat inelegantly phrased it,  make a decision about whether we are Oskar Schindler or wimps. 

I'd been procrastinating about writing this post, worried about doing justice to the thoughtful panelists and audience members, but today I was reminded how important this work can be when I read this NY Times article about the extremely ad hoc, personal,  dangerous, underground--and inspiring-- efforts underway by Syrian citizens to provide food, shelter, medical care and other support to Syrian communities under attack by their own government.  Said one university student involved in the work, “All our lives we were raised to be afraid. But you get to a point where you realize you are strong because you can speak and do.”    

And of course, as museums, we have powerful voices to raise. We can also be strong because we can speak and do.

Image:  Memorial gate, where people from all over the world have left momentos to honor the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist hijacking of Flight 93. Shanksville, Pennsylvania by Carol Highsmith,  Library of Congress collection

Monday, May 7, 2012

Love Those Minnesotan Labels!

Can labels be creative?  Not what's said in them,  but what they look like?  When I say the word "label"  what comes into your head?  A white piece of mat-board with text, mounted on the wall?  At the Minnesota History Center and Mill City Museum (both part of the Minnesota Historical Society)  I saw more inventive, ingenious label installations than I'd ever seen before in a single place.  Over and over again,  text was displayed in surprising ways,  that encouraged me to read more,  to explore, and to appreciate the sense of humor and playfulness that the exhibit teams brought to projects.

Here's just a few examples from several different exhibits.  Above, visitors could hand-crank reproduction sausage through a grinder,  reading a memory of sausage-making as the links spooled along.  Below left,  census information is printed on a (I'm sure) reproduction piece of clothing.  Below right, a silhouette and a informational pillow represent one of the house's earliest residents.
Everyone seemed to love this installation in the Greatest Generation exhibit.  Oral histories and photos were printed on paper dry-cleaner bags, and visitors could move the rack around to read. Below, more food story labels, on bread and cans.
And a few more food-related ones--a dining table with signs on the back of chairs,  text on plates, and the simplest of fake food--hand-sewn potatos and wooden carrots.  You could open the oven--and there's the turkey, basted with oral histories.
I watched several families gingerly sit, below, on a bed,  and listen and laugh as their weight triggers an audio segment.
And finally, this one from Mill City.  Because as clever as these labels are,  if they didn't help us towards a "so what?" understanding, then they would just be design tricks.  Instead, each one made the museum feel friendly--like they wanted to sit down and share a compelling story with you or encourage you to consider something new.  After my few days in Minneapolis,  the labels seem to embody Minnesotans--very Minnesota-friendly!   For more information about the Minnesota Historical Society's work on the Open House: If These Walls Could Talk exhibit, where many of these images come from,  be sure and check out Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene and Laura Koloski.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bridging Distances: The View from Belarus

I have a number of blog posts in my thinking queue as a result of my time at the AAM conference and in Minneapolis' great museums,  but I'm very pleased to share this post by Katrin Hieke (kontakt[at] of Bonn, Germany, about her experience in Belarus.  It's partly a tale of social media, as I saw her tweet that she was going, we connected, and through some Ukrainian and Fulbright friends and colleagues, the network expanded.

Now, where at all is Minsk? In February 2012 and rather surprisingly, I received an invitation to travel to Minsk in Belarus. Even for Europeans, this land seems to be very, very far away - in many ways. 

This year, over the course of several months, the Goethe Institute in Minsk is holding a training series for museum staff, historians and didactics in basic fields of museum management. It is meant to serve as a starting point for the discussion of specific issues and tasks of the Belarusian museums as well as to stimulate developments. The programme has been designed by Dr. Kristiane Janeke of Tradicia History Service (who is both an expert in museum management als well as of the Eastern European museum scene) in cooperation with ICOM Belarus & ICOM Germany.
My part there was to conduct a one-day seminar on “Museum marketing as an instrument of a systematic management process”– something I have done quite a few times before and felt safe at.

But as soon as I started preparations I realized, that this would indeed be a very special job. To begin with, information about the museum scene in Belarus is very rare. In the information age, where it feels that all information is readily available on the Internet, this feels strange. Only lately Kristiane Janeke published a (German) article about the museum landscape of Belarus (Kristine Janeke: Die Museumslandschaft in Belarus. Belarus-Analysen 4, 22.11.2011, page 6-12) So I extended my research to other channels and networks and thanks to Twitter, Linda learned of my plans and  put me in touch with Christi Anne, who lived in Ukraine for several years and is now in Minsk studying Russian, and Alla Stashkevich, the ICOM chairperson in Belarus, who also attended the seminars. Thanks to all these sources, I felt my way up to the questions of the current situations of the museums in Belarus, virulent issues as well as everyday life in Minsk.
For my seminar, of course, the question of the perception of marketing as part of the museum management was particularly interesting; how marketing could at all work in a very regulated and controlled country without a significant "market" as such; where marketing might be under the general suspicion of selling out and the commercialization of culture, reduced to advertising, not affiliated with the museum's goals and mission of the museum (which actually still is the case in some places in western Europe and beyond).
The second challenge in addition to the unusual setting was a very practical one: how to run a seminar in which I do not speak the language of the participants? Natalja Ilkewitsch from the Goethe Institute did not only a lot of the necessary organization and preparation, she also translated my slides in advance as well as my talk and the contributions of the participants. You did a brilliant job, Natalja! 

It became somewhat difficult as soon as discussions started among the participants themselves. Knowing that a lively network among the museum professionals is only just emerging and absolutely vital for the development of the museum scene, I found it difficult to weigh this and the need to move forward in the seminar; and also, since unable to follow all remarks and comments, to distinguish the important objections, understanding issues and problems from the cursory whispering. The participants showed a lot of patience, because they too had to wait for the translation of their many brilliant, sometimes quite critical questions. Definitely I was inspired by the overwhelming enthusiasm and curiosity of those 25 museum directors, officers, scholars, educators and curators from university up to cultural institutions from all over Belarus and of all ages. 
So in the end, they made me reflect a great deal on the German and Western European museum marketing approach.  My Belarusian colleagues where thinking about what to learn from that, but absolutely not in ways of unquestioned adoptions. 
In some seminars or customer meetings in Western Europe marketing ideas are lightly dismissed as unrealistic. But here, although the initial situation is much more difficult and the possibility of achieving it so much smaller, there is a tremendous motivation and ongoing considerations as to what might be implemented and how this could somehow be achieved. This is particularly surprising  when I learned that sometimes the producing of an ordinary museum flyer must be approved by the authorities; that there is almost no campaign budget and generally a vast dependency on governmental funding and thus externally fixed targets and tasks. There is no real link to the international museum world or access to comprehensive literature and training opportunities, let alone the option of visiting or even cooperating with other countries and their museums. And in addition, there are of course all the many problems and challenges that museums face all over the world: deficiencies in the infrastructure, lack of programs or offers for the target groups or too few staff, to name just a few.
The objectives too, in addition to resolving the major problems mentioned above, can easily be compared with those of other museums worldwide. Often mentioned in the course of the seminar was the wish to reach more children (besides school trips), young people and families; to connect the museums to the tourism sector (though this is a totally different challenge in itself), open up to multimedia and social media, develop a brand and so forth.

I very much hope that the training series will, despite the political situation, strengthen the skills and the creativity of the museum professionals and help to carry the apparent will of networking and shaping their museums of the future into the daily museum work to finally develop modern, socially relevant museums within an independent museum scene in Belarus. 

For me, Belarus is now a lot closer. And I truly wish all the many energetic, motivated people I've met there, that the country will eventually be able to join the worldwide network of museum people, putting Belarus back on the international museum map. 

Images, from top:
Lenin statue in Minsk, photo by Katrin Hieke
Street scene, Minsk, photo by Katrin Hieke
Seminar participants, photo by Yana Rovdo
At the seminar:  left to right, Kristiane Janeke, Katrin and Natalja, photo by Yana Rovdo
Touring the National History Museum in Minsk with Eugene Chervony from the Natural History Museum in Lviv (Ukraine) and Christi Anne Hofland whom I had the great pleasure to meet and spent a day in Minsk. Both are not unknown to readers of this blog!  Photo by Katrin Hieke
The National Art Museum in Minsk, photo by Katrin Hieke