Thursday, October 18, 2012

Where Do Your Exhibit Ideas Come From? Here's One Place

For a long time, I've talked with colleagues about the differences between exhibits that spring from ideas or concepts and those that come from objects.  Both have their strengths (and their weaknesses) and it's useful to consider where you're starting as you think about where you want to go.  But now I'm adding a third category--exhibits that spring from our audiences--not only the kind of crowd-sourcing content that involves voting (see Nina Simon's recent post on this) but those that spring from conversations with our communities.  These audience-driven exhibitions can involve an institution in thinking and re-thinking what we learn along the way, involving us in an iterative, creative process made richer by looking outside the simple frame of our collections.

The Chemung Valley History Museum wanted to develop a new exhibition.  We began the process by talking with several groups of local residents, including a high school history class.  There was uniform agreement  in all the groups that the sort of chronological presentation that characterizes most long-term local history exhibits was not interesting to most people (been there, done that, they said).   But,  said a student, "wouldn't it be cool if you could see how people our age lived?  what their lives were like?"  There have been some other great exhibits on teenagers (Chicago and New Jersey)  but we wanted to see what it might be like here.  We asked non-teenage groups about what they thought--and suddenly their faces lit up and they began discussing their own teenage years.  Teenagers it would be.

Often, this kind of idea languishes until a museum staff finds funding to pursue the next step.  But the team in Elmira decided all the resources needed were enthusiasm and a bit of time.  They held community conversations with several local groups of seniors and set a booth asking for information at the county fair.
This week, we sat down with that information to think about what we'd learned and what the next steps might be.  I'd read the summaries of the conversations and so decided to make objects and location as starting frames.  Armed with our hand post-it notes,  we listed all the objects mentioned in the conversations and began to sort them into thematic groups.  Almost immediately, we noticed something:  clothes were most often mentioned and we recalled a comment early on in the process from a community member, "don't make it just about poodle skirts."   Because, it's the top of mind.   But we wanted to think harder.  We then went back and listed objects that were implied in the conversations and added them (those are the circled ones) to our growing wall.  How many of these 20th objects are in the museum's collections?  Very few.  And we found unexpected objects:  under a theme of work,  lawnmowers, newspapers, diapers all were mentioned in discussions of first jobs. 

What themes did we see in our object post-its?  Independence,  gender, romance, big world issues.  What themes did we not see?  Cultural diversity,  the role of religion, class,  and neighborhoods.   We know those themes exist in this community, but we now know we need to work a bit harder on collecting that information.
We wondered if some of these issues might be found by thinking about places mentioned--so we posted those in a rough county map, above. That helped us see neighborhoods better, but also,  with these two notes below, note the way that the outside world had enormous effects on teenagers.
This iterative process--where we talk to each other and community members,  reflect, and go back out and talk again,  is not only an exhibit building process--it's a community building process.   (and for me, because this is the city where I grew up, a fascinating exercise in individual and collective memory). It's becoming clear that ownership of this exhibit will not be solely the museum's, but rather something that is created--and changed on an ongoing basis-- by the people whose stories we share.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

I'm Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

One of my great joys over the last several years has been the opportunity to think more globally about the work that we do in museums and cultural organizations while at the same time, getting a chance to delve deeper into local communities.  I've got three upcoming projects I want to share with you that will offer new ways for me to expand my perspectives and understandings.
For the next six months or so, I'll be working as an education consultant with Context Travel, a small company that creates walking seminars for the intellectually curious in great cities of the world.  This fall I'll be taking tours and meeting their docents (all scholars and specialists) in New York, Philadelphia, Boston here in the states and in London, Rome, Paris, Naples, Florence and Venice.  The tours are amazing in their depth and variety--from Power and Propaganda in Roman Art and Architecture to Charles Dickens, Storyteller of Victorian London;  from The Birth of the Cocktail in  to a Paris Market Walk-- Context Tours provide a very special way to engage deeply in a city.

After my information gathering and learning this fall, I'll be developing resources and workshops for staff and docents,  and returning next spring to London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid,  Berlin and Istanbul, to share ways to enhance what is already a highly regarded venture.  An adventure all around, and an opportunity for me to think more deeply about the ways in which we present the history, art and contemporary life of the places we live and work in.  (and by the way,  European Uncataloged readers:  I will try and squeeze some time in for museums--and would love to meet you as well!)  Look for blog posts inspired by the walks and city visits during November.
 "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library, " wrote Jorge Luis Borges.  A new project of the Museum Association of New York,  the New York Library Association, and Museumwise will work on making that paradise even more creative and interesting for the youngest members of our community.  I'll be managing an IMLS supported planning project to explore the ways that libraries and museums can work together to create engaging history-based exhibitions, sized and geared for early learners using children's rooms at libraries. New York colleagues will be hearing much more about this, but I'm very excited to explore what such a collaboration might look like and what new ideas we can bring to the table by working together.
And finally,  I'm happy to announce my return to Ukraine this winter for a couple weeks in February.  With my dear friend and colleague Gyorgyi Nemeth of Hungary,  I'll be a Cultural Manager in Residence at Eko-Art, a dynamic organizaton,  in Donetsk.  The residency program, developed by the Centre for Cultural Management in L'viv, aims to bring diverse perspectives on culture and the opportunity for a productive exchange of ideas.  Specifically, we'll be working with young people on imagining innovative ways to share the industrial history of Donetsk--a city where that history is so important that a statue of a coal miner welcomes you into the city.  (And Ukrainian colleagues--I'm attempting to sneak a few days in Kyiv as well, so I hope to see many of you!)

Top two photos via the Context website;  middle and bottom photos via Flickr.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Banish the Boring

I'm just heading back from the American Association for State and Local History conference in Salt Lake City where I facilitated a session called Banish the Boring,  with the hope of getting my museum and history colleagues to think more deeply about the ways they do presentations (particularly at conferences) and be more experimental in our approach.  We know our museum audiences don't learn most effectively when faced with a dark room and dense powerpoint slides.  But it still mystifies me that we persist in making many (far too many!) conference sessions work this way.   So I thought I would start this 8:30 AM session with voting as you walked in the door--you got asked to vote for three top questions and then small groups worked to find new ideas for those top three that can help solve these common issues.  Here'sthe real-time solutions participants suggested. Special thanks for Alice Parman for not only notetaking but also typing up and sending me the notes--a really luxury as a session follow-up!   I think these provide great guides for rethinking sessions--but the larger question is how we can rethink the overall conference experience to enhance learning and connections. But that's the subject of another post!  If you have suggestions on the specifics or on the overall conference experience, please share in the comments.

Am I afraid of using humor in a professional presentation? 
• Establish your authenticity—then be as funny/real as you want. Authenticity relates to your own comfort level.
• Use video clips, etc.
• Use drama
• If a joke falls flat, acknowledge it. Just keep moving forward.
• Arrange with a friend to help you out in case it falls flat.
• Humor should be relevant to your topic.

How do I tactfully cut off someone who is taking over the session?
• Engage a person who’s not talking: “We haven’t heard from you yet.”
• Parking lot technique: after the session we’ll go into more detail.
• Subtly cue a fellow panelist that it’s time to wrap up
• Universalize—summarize
• Let’s meet afterward
• If you’re passing a mike around, hold onto it yourself
• Ringer(s) in audience to intervene
• Come with prepared questions to move things in a different direction
• Move around. Get closer to the person. Physical intimidation. Do what a Rotary president does when a speaker goes on too long.

How can I start a session with a bang?
• Use question or metaphor
• Pictures of things that look similar but are different
• Tell a personally engaging story
• Talk about something you did that fell on its face
• Ask audience members to reflect, write
• Give them a question, they write the answer; same question/written answer at end of presentation, have they changed perspective?
• Setting the stage
• Move people around
• Begin with anecdote, technology, video
• This is an open meeting, you’re in charge of the agenda
• Play music really loud (Nina Simon)
• Hire a high school marching band

How do I make my session description sound interesting, but accurate?
• Know your audience
• Be as accurate and specific as possible
• Fun things, active verbs
• Key buzzwords, but not too many
• Catchy title that refers to topic—alliteration, humor
• Write creatively to awaken interest by connecting to readers’ needs
• Session descriptions as little narratives/stories. See Ira Glass, What makes a good story? on YouTube

How can I develop small group activities that get to the point of the session?
• Copy what Linda did in this session
• Ask questions, group provides the answers
• Group builds something, solves a problem
• Engage people in something related to the topic
• Goal of activity must be established first
• Find out what people want to know
• Written instructions
• Talk to people like it’s a group of friends
• Speaker bingo: head shots of presenters, if you hear or meet 4 you get bingo, then you are entered in a drawing. Two-line bios of presenters on other side of bingo card.  (Comment: don’t read bios to the audience—especially if those bios are already in the program!)