Friday, August 31, 2012

I'm California bound--and you can join in!

Next week, I'm very pleased to be headed to San Diego's Balboa Park to be a member of a session on employee engagement at the 2012 Smith Leadership Symposium, Organizational Innovation and the Engagement Equation,  of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership on Friday, September 6.  A tremendous line-up of speakers, headed by Chip Conley, frequent Ted Talk speaker and hotelier;  Marianna Adams of Audience Focus, Inc; Richard Evans, who directs EmcArts' programs and strategic partnerships;  and Lori Fogarty, director and CEO of the Oakland Museum,  (and me!) will work with participants to  consider questions such as:
  • How do we leverage the creativity we focus on into the way we work?
  • What does engagement really mean?
  • How can our workspaces encourage creative work?
  • What can thoughtful metrics tell us about the synergy we seek to create?   And what do those metrics say about your organizational culture?
  • How are different generations approaching workplace culture and how can a culture accommodate those differences.
There will also be case studies on organizational change,  and I know there will be lots of thoughtful conversation along the way.  But if you can't make it to San Diego--you can still participate online.  In fact,  online participants get a special session, facilitated by The Center for the Future of Museum's Elizabeth Merritt,  to bring ideas  home from the morning sessions.    I'll be blogging after the fact, and trying to squeeze in a few tweets on Friday as well.

I've watched the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership from afar for a while, and it'll be great to get a chance to see their museums and other cultural organizations close up,  and enjoy the work of a thoughtful, passionate collaborative.

To register for the symposium,  online or in person,  or for more information, visit their website here. 
And as always,  if you want to join me for a cup of coffee or a drink, in either San Diego or Los Angeles,  be in touch!

Monday, August 27, 2012

What I Learned in Newfoundland #2: We Think Our Visitors are Us

Who do we think our visitors are?  Many, if not most museums may have only anecdotal ideas about the answer to this question.  Based on my experience with a specific workshop activity, I think many museum people are missing the point when we think about audiences.  

My Newfoundland learning #2 is a lesson reinforced from facilitating the same audience collage activity in five different locations in Newfoundland, preceded over the last several years, by the same activity (with many thanks to Susie Wilkening who developed it for AASLH's StEPs curricula) in Connecticut, Kentucky, Oklahoma City and Ukraine. Workshop participants (usually museum staff and volunteers) are assigned a character--say, a woman,  age 65-75,  and asked to create a collage that answers questions about her, such as: 

  • What is my name?
  • How old am I?
  • Do I have children?
  • If so, how old are they? 
  • Am I married?
  • Am I employed?  If so, what do I do?  Or, what did I do?
  • What are my hobbies?
  • What are my obligations?
  • What do I enjoy?
  • What stresses me out?
  • What drains my time?
  • Where do I shop?
  • What is my race or ethnicity?
  • Do I visit museums & historic sites?  If yes, which ones?
With some notable exceptions, these collages do actually reflect the demographics of museum visitors,  but not museum audiences.  When groups complete the collage,  the majority of them represent audiences that are white, college-educated and relatively well-off.  And of course, they love visiting museums!  If it's an older person depicted, it's someone who's active, who travels,  who eats interesting food, and who doesn't worry much about money or a debilitating illness. We tend to think about people like us--I think because that's what we're comfortable with.  So that often means those are the people we dedicate our museum resources to,  we develop programs for, we market to--so of course, those are the people that come.  Everyone else may be left out of the circle.
This was true in Newfoundland as well but a couple groups went deeper and their collages helped groups reach a deeper understanding of their potential audiences.  Four of my five workshops in Newfoundland were in rural locations,  with declining populations and I asked groups to develop profiles of older residents in their communities. In several profiles, older men had only an 8th grade education, as they had left school to help support their family by fishing, a common occurence for that generation ("no wonder they don't want those long labels!"  said one participant).  Because many Newfoundland men of working age now work away, in Alberta or on oil rigs (as they once went away to fish);  older generations are particularly busy with childcare and family responsibilities.  

At one workshop a participant gained a great understanding from this--it was a park,  and they had offered a special seniors day last year, with little impact.  But now it will be a grandparents day, with grandparents encouraged to bring grandchildren to learn about natural history.   What do older Newfoundlanders worry about?  their health;  who will take care of them;  their children and grandchildren;  the economy; and much more.  
For me (and I hope for workshop participants) the learning really started when we probed deeper about the assumptions embedded in the collages.  Why does he like to do that?  Where does she get her information?  Is that really her only worry?  

One goal of these workshops was to make the shift from what can older citizens do for heritage organizations to what can heritage organizations do for older community members.  And our evaluations showed that shift beginning to happen.  Participants commented:
  • It reminded me that seniors come from all walks of life.
  • Made me question assumptions I have about audiences.  Need to think about ways of broadening my perspective and being more inclusive.
  • See in the eyes of seniors, not just your own!
What other lesson did I take away from this?  I think we're often too lazy in thinking about the communities we live in.  There's a tendency to think of "the other" in terms of developing exhibits and services rather than really working to gain an understanding of peoples' interests and needs. We engage in that lazy behavior at our institution's peril, risking disinterest and irrelevance.  

Try out the profiling exercise with your staff and volunteers.  What do you learn? (and if you've been one of my workshop participants,  I'd love to hear your thoughts as well).  

Special thanks to Susie Wilkening and Jane Severs for their ongoing conversations with me on these issues.

Monday, August 20, 2012

What I Learned in Newfoundland #1: Stories Matter

I spent almost two full weeks in July traveling around Newfoundland,  facilitating workshops on the ways in which heritage organizations can engage older community residents in their work.  I had a tremendous time, traveling all over the province from Cape Spear to Gros Morne;  from St. Alban's to Cape Anguille and Twillingate (check out a map--I went all over!).  I met great people everywhere, saw incredible scenery,  ate some of  Newfoundland's distinctive cuisine and most of all, learned some terrific stories.   I know stories matter and I care deeply about how we use them in museums--but these workshops reminded me again of their importance.
I was looking for a way to open up a workshop that was different from the usual introductions and came up with the idea of asking participants to bring an object or image that represented an older generation.  And in each of my five workshops,  I learned bits of Newfoundland history from those objects--my very own version of the British Museum's history of the world in 100 objects.   From a bone pair of snow glasses to a miniature wheelbarrow carved by a grandfather;  from a set of sail mending needles to a coin from the company store in Corner Brook;  from a tea cozy to a photo of Nan in the garden;  from a milk pan to a hooked rug;  each object had a story--and each object would have been far, far less meaningful without the story.
I didn't ask each person to share their own object's stories, rather I asked pairs to take a minute each and learn as much as they could about the object, not telling them about any next step.  After those brief two minutes, I asked each one to share with the full group about what they had learned about the other person's object.  It was amazing how much you can learn in a minute;  and how important good listening is.  Imagine, local history museums, if you always took just one minute to learn about the meaning of each object a donor brought in.

Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of the, to me, most memorable object and story.  In St. Alban's, the workshop was at the Canadian Legion hall,  where there was a small museum dedicated to local residents who had served in the armed forces.  One of the participants had forgotten to bring an object, and she went in the museum and came back with a framed photograph of a veteran, probably in his '80s at the time of the photo.  It was her uncle, Alistair, I think, and she remembered the day he and all the other men came back from World War II.  "Oh, I can still see them sailing up to the dock,"  she said, "what a party there was that night...I was young, but it went on all night."    In that one minute,  I gained a little  understanding of the isolation and independence of Newfoundlanders,  the importance of family and community, and the ways in which a single memory can generate many more for others.   Thanks, Newfoundlanders, for sharing your stories with me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Can We Get 45 Minutes of Fame?

Last week, I wrote about AAM's work in crowd-sourcing sessions for the 2013 conference.  This week, Rainey Tisdale and I, who are are working on a book about museums and creative practice (more news on that very soon) jumped into another association's crowd-sourcing idea. The New England Museum Association is running a 45 Minutes of Fame Contest for a speaking slot at their annual conference coming up this fall in Burlington,Vermont. Our entry is above, sharing some of the places and things that inspire us to think about museums in different ways. So please, watch the video, feel inspired, and like us on YouTube. If you've got a great creative inspiration to share--please comment away!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Make Sessions Better!

For next year's American Association of Museums Annual Meeting in Baltimore, AAM has embarked on an innovative process of session development.  If you haven't taken a look yet,  head on over and do so.  Until August 24,  session proposals are open for comment by colleagues.  Some sessions seem fully developed, others are looking for presenters, and still others seem very much in t the idea stage.  This gives you a great chance to comment on how proposals could be stronger,  on approaches you find useful (or not so much), and if you're thinking of attending the conference, a chance to share your own expertise.

I'm involved in several proposals and we'd love your feedback on all of them.   Rainey Tisdale and I, as part of our Museums & Creative practice project have two on the docket.  First, we're proposing a session in which we share our own learning in this process. As our proposal, Building a Creative Culture at Your Museum says,  "We’ve sought input from colleagues across the field at every step of this project, so it seems appropriate to spend some time at the AAM conference sharing the final results with you.  During this session, we’ll start by outlining the most critical things we’ve learned about museums and creativity. Then we’ll run through the most important first steps participants can take as soon as they return home to start building a creative culture at their museum."
But we also want to take our creative ideas a bit further.  In You’ve Just Won a Museum Workspace Makeover! we're going to take ideas about creative spaces and put them to work redoing those museum offices.  You'll be able to submit your own office space for the participants to rethink,  and everyone will gain tips on how to make your workplace (in the basement, the historic house kitchen, or a cubicle) into a place where good ideas flourish.

My colleagues Tricia Edwards of the Lemelson Center for Innovation and Invention at the National Museum of American History and Eugene Chervony,  this year a Fulbright Scholar at George Washington University and I have developed a session that looks at the ways in which ideas and museum practice can be adapted cross-culturally, based on our very different experiences in Ukraine.
And finally,  Greg Steven and I hope to return, joined by Anne Ackerson of Leading by Design,  for a fast-paced session, Strategize Me,  on assessing and developing your own career path.  Last year's session was standing room only with great audience participation--we promise fun and fast-paced.

So head on over to the AAM website (whether or not you plan on attending the conference) and share your feedback.  How can we make our sessions more meaningful and useful to you?  I'm intrigued by a wide range of sessions--Unintentional Lessons from Visitor Surveys; Grow or Die:  Is Expansion the Best (or only) Strategy;  Making the Case for Bricks and Mortar Museums in a Digital Age; and Cats and Dogs Living Together.  Got a session idea yourself?  It's not too late!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Words + Image: Pondering Signage

While in Newfoundland for a couple weeks I found myself looking at many different types of mostly outdoor, but some indoor, exhibitry and signage.  That, combined with some current thinking with Rainey Tisdale about creativity on a shoestring, made me realize that sometimes, money hinders a presentation that connects with audiences and sometimes simple changes and solutions really make a connection.

Here's some of what I found along my tour of this incredible place.  (and the the way, I'm now a huge Newfoundland booster--go visit, it's terrific!) Above, one of my favorite labels on the beach boardwalk at Trout River.  It's done by school kids from a photo and really provides just enough information.  That's enough for me to understand about capellin while I'm on the beach.
This is from Cape Spear, the easternmost point of North America.  Again, it tells you what you want to know as you look out over the sea--and nothing more.  Also from Cape Spear, these interpretive panels are very simple, but the cut-out shapes and the large graphic make all the difference.
Below, something I didn't love at the Discovery Centre in Gros Morne (where I did see other things I liked).  Clearly a very expensive exhibit,  but I found myself utterly confused by what I should focus on first, what the interactives meant,  and so much text on vacation made me give up pretty quickly.
There seemed to be more variation in national park signage than I see here in the United States and I really appreciated it.  Below,  a panel from Gros Morne,  that shared information about an aboriginal guide and invited you to reflect as you walked along the trail.  It fit beautifully into the landscape, as you can see. Next,  an unusual round panel from a wet hike in Terra Nova, another national park that was very simple,with just a brief amount of information.
Two panels from Signal Hill in St. John's.  The first, a panel on fog that made me laugh because there was so much fog you could barely see the panel!  And the second, an old school identifier--a shiny brass plaque from the 19th century, still cared for with pride.
The temptation for too much text is always with us.  Here's two panels from the same small museum.  One I suspect is hardly read by any visitor;  but the second shot shows how clear thinking and decent photos convey important information.
I was interested in these outdoor panels that used graphic, almost cartoony imagery at Gros Morne National Park.  They felt like lovely children's books and I found myself much more attracted to them than the scientific illustrations or hard-edged photos often found in installations like these.
I saw a couple pieces of audio signage that made me want to learn more.  First, one from St. John's that I didn't get around to calling, but as I understand it,  takes you to an audio of personal stories about that particular place.  The second, a series of small, hand-carved very simple dioramas with audio at the Discovery Centre in Gros Morne.  The audio was music, or first person dialogue--interesting, and intriguing to do with the carvings.

And finally, two home-made signs.
Have any great examples of signage to share?