Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Museum on the Frontline

My friend and colleague Olesya Ostrovska, an art expert in Kyiv, has graciously agreed to allow me to share this post, published last weekend, about current conditions at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, originally written as a post on Eurolution.doc Ukraine on Maidan, a Facebook page dedicated to sharing perspectives on current events in Ukraine "without cliche' or manipulations."  I know the museum well, having often visited met with colleagues, observed school programs and presented workshops there.  It's hard to believe, but as you can see in the photo above, the street protests are literally happening on the steps of the museum.  (Photo via ЄвроМайдан – EuroMaydanon on Facebook). 
Street fighting keeps on continuing in Kyiv, Ukraine. Not long ago, we wrote about “clashes of pro-Europe protesters with the police” but after the first protesters died of gunshots and torture the “clashes” turned into an all-out street war. The ‘battlefield’ is located meters away from the town’s prominent European Square and within a five minute walking distance from the Independence Sq. or “Maidan” – an epicenter of several month-long peaceful protests… peaceful until recently. Street war is going on in a generally safe city, which keeps on living its regular daily life. All is seemingly usual: people go to work, but, in their offices, many of them collect money for medications and warm socks for the protesters. People take rounds checking downtown pharmacies for first-aid supplies requested by Maidan doctors (appeals are posted on the Internet and passed along through social networks). Most pharmacies are short on bandages and first-aid stuff – demand significantly exceeds supply. 
Many people keep on coming to their offices located right in the hotspot of the street fights near that European square. One of places like this is the National Art Museum of Ukraine , the largest and the most respected art museum of the country. The riot police (Interior Troops of the Ministry of Interior of Ukraine) took their positions right at the doorstep of the Museum: “Molotov cocktails” hitting ground right next, stun grenades explosions - to which the museum workers have already become quite used – and black smoke billowing from burning car tire barricades hundred meters away… Maria Zadorojna, 38-year old museum director, has stayed in the museum for seven days in a row, from the first day of clashes when visitors had to be evacuated right through the police’s defensive formation. She considers that leaving the museum even at night is risky. Not because of her own safety. Because of the museum exhibits. Although the museum is officially closed, many Zadorojna’s colleagues spend all their time here as they are charged with keeping the museum exhibit collection safe: unique medieval icons, Ukrainian baroque paintings, avant-garde art of the early 20th century. Not later that a week ago, some masterpieces of the collection could be seen in dark-green and red painted halls at the first floor of the museum. The place was full of visitors and their kids attending museum’s art classes…. Now the first-floor exhibition is evacuated. 

During the first days of confrontation, the entire museum staff, regardless of the positions and despite the lack of invaluable in such conditions equipment, hours after hours dismantled and transferred to safety the works of art trying to protect them all. Now the halls are empty and prepared for any turn of events: one can see fire extinguishers everywhere, windows are closed with protective shields to prevent any damage from “Molotov cocktails” or stray bullets, the floor and the windows are constantly cleaned of soot coming from burning barricades built of used car tires. Museum workers consider the soot as a separate dangerous threat as, when it settles on icons, it can seriously damage them. Yuliya Vaganova, deputy Museum director, said that the riot police probably already know her and her colleagues quite well, thus letting them pass through the police checkpoints on the way to Museum pretty quickly. One can get around the “battlefield” on the way to the Museum yet the police let people pass only if they have museum worker’s identity cards on them. Therefore, some colleagues have to stay in the Museum for their “night shift” while the others bring them food and necessary supplies next morning. As of now, a temporary ceasefire between the protesters and the riot police is announced at the European square. The smoke is not so thick, the soot from the tire barricades is not so intense, and, hopefully, the Museum will live through a quiet night. But an improvised “field hospital” remains open. It’s been set up by protesters in nearby the National Parliamentary Library of Ukraine, right across the street from the Institute of Literature and Arts with its archives. Another night on an unusually quiet frontline. 
Translated by Andriy Zin

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Ukraine I Know

Many of you, Uncataloged readers probably have never thought much about Ukraine, except as my posts from and about Ukraine have appeared,  or when your museum thinks about traditional Easter celebrations and those painted eggs.  And perhaps you read my previous posts about the current protests (here and here).  But even casual readers of the news or Stephen Colbert watchers have noticed that something big is up in Ukraine.  Now what you see are armed policemen, burning tires, big crowds on the square,  and beaten protestors. As I do my best to follow the events of these days on Facebook and Twitter,  I think about my time in Ukraine, worry about friends and colleagues, and as a result, have decided to share a few words about the Ukraine I have come to know, a far more complicated place than the news pictures show--but a place that absolutely deserves our support.  So please forgive the non-museum related post--but it was museums that got me to Ukraine in the first place five years ago.

Many of the protestors are like you and me.  You might have come across reports that the people protesting on Maidan (the main square) are terrorists or provocateurs.  I urge you to watch this video. I know my former students from  the National University at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and many of my friends and colleagues have been out every day protesting.  It's not surprising that educated Ukrainians, many of whom have had opportunities to study or travel in western Europe or the United States, feel deeply committed to the concept of a civil society.   But several things have surprised me as I watch the protests.

First, when I first visited Ukraine, it seemed really difficult for many Ukrainians I met to think that they could stand up and make a difference--and that extended to things big and small.  At one point, I encouraged some colleagues to begin a museum educators group and someone said, "but who are we to start it?  It must be official."  What I see in the protests is that now,  many Ukrainians have realized that it's their time to stand up.  (of course, it's not everyone--I just read a translated open letter to "kitchen philosophers"  who stay at home.)
Second,  that I see so many faces of everyday people in the crowds:  not necessarily intellectuals,  or well-off people.  They look like the woman who sold me vegetables, or the man sitting next to me on the mashrutka going to work.  This protest is no longer about affliliating with Europe,  but it's about the right to live in a civil society, where corruption does not infuse every aspect of life (and make no mistake, it does).  It's beautiful to watch the courage and determination of everyday people (because now, even going to a protest carries a jail term--or worse).  On this year's Martin Luther King day, his words particularly resonated with me.
But other things don't surprise me.
  • Trust and Mistrust As an outsider and an American, I found this very complicated when I first came to Ukraine.  If you know a person--they are family, or you went to school with them, you absolutely trust them.  If you don't know them, you probably don't trust them.  The protests seem to have both reinforced this and at the same time, changed it a bit, as the protest movement moves beyond small groups of people you know into a larger movement.
  • Making Do.  Ukrainians have amazing skills in making do.  I've seen all kinds of creative fixes in all kinds of living and work situations and the protests are no exception.  A home-made catapult?  We're on it.  Torn down by the police?  We can build another.  Need to feed a lot of people?  We'll bring out the giant soup kettles.  Wearing helmets outlawed?  We'll wear colanders and pots for protection.
  • It's Cold Outside   I've laughed at several video pieces where I've seen foreign journalists interviewing someone and the Ukrainian interviewee interrupts to offer a hat, or mittens, or to say the journalist's coat is clearly not warm enough.  I often had people tell me the same.
  • The Language of Organization  in English translation, the language often sounds very Soviet to me as an American but fascinating to see that language used in a different context. 
  • Singing  Ukrainians are beautiful singers and singing has been a part of the protests.  One of my very first events I went to, on a very cold January evening, was a choral concert.  It's funny, I rarely remember hearing the national anthem sung,  but it is now sung regularly on Euromaidan. 
  • Social Media I've been able to stay in touch with friends via Facebook since I first went to Ukraine.  The protestors use of social media has been fast, comprehensive and a combination of moving and funny.   The film collective Babylon 13 is making great short films,  called Cinema of a Civil Protest.  They're well worth a watch.  And independent journalists have covered the protests tirelessly despite being directly targeted by the riot police.
  • Not Everybody's a Good Guy   There are right-wing nationalists on the side of the protestors.  To my mind, single-minded ethnic nationalists are not good guys really anywhere and some of these groups have made no secret of their aims.  However, it doesn't discredit the entire protest. And of course, there are plenty of people, from the president on down, whose goal is to preserve, not Ukraine, but their personal wealth and privilege.  Hopefully their time is soon ending.
  • There's Support Coming from Everywhere in Ukraine  Many Ukrainians often dismiss the east of the country as Russian and corrupt.  I've spent a fair amount of time in Donetsk, as recently as last May, and like everywhere I've been in Ukraine, I've been lucky enough to meet passionate people who care about the future of their country.  It's not a division between east and west, but a division between people who want a civil society with human rights and those who don't.
Make no mistake. Sometimes I found life in Ukraine (at several points, living just blocks from where the protests are in Kyiv) incredibly frustrating.  Bureaucratic rules,  a brusqueness that often shaded into rudeness, a reluctance to change, a sense of different values than I hold.  But honestly, sometimes I find that in the United States too (having just spent more than a few hours this week trying to track down a package from the Postal Service).  I can't predict what happens next in Ukraine.  But here's the Ukraine I know:
  • Talking with my graduate students about Ukraine's past and trying to puzzle out how museums might make a difference.  
  • Sitting in a kitchen in a Crimean Tatar settlement, thanks to my friend Barb, and learning how to make dumplings from Lenura.
  • Doing a workshop on visitor friendly museums in Kharkiv,  and hearing one participant announce at the beginning that interactive elements were "not for our people" and having her change her mind by the end of the day.
  • Moved to tears by the staff at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, as we worked together on an exhibit project,  when they brought out letters and other archival materials documenting how people--all kinds of people--had helped others different than themselves during World War II.
  • Sitting in a tiny cheesemakers' hut in the Carpathians,  eating cheese, bread, cucumbers and tomatoes, talking about the world.
  • Walking across in front of St. Sophia's at night, looking down to St. Michael's and thinking," this is a great city."
  • Hearing high school students in Donetsk share their oral history interviews with family members who worked in the mines.
  • And more conversations than I can remember: in the car to Opishne with Ihor;  on the train to Donetsk or the veranda of the Bulgakov Museum with Irina;  and with more people than I can count in kitchens, in cafes,  on the street, in museums, train compartments, and of course as part of the Pickle Project.  Ukraine is a beautiful place but it's the people that matter to me.
When I was there, often people I know would say, a bit laughingly,  at the end of a conversation with me, "Linda, you are so optimistic!"  It sometimes seemed a quality in short supply.  But, for Ukraine, although I worry greatly,  I still remain optimistic in every way for all of you.  To your future!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Families, Part 2

I was surprised by the number of comments that came as a result of the post about defining family audiences.  Evidently it's an issue for us as museum workers and as museum-goers.   If you're in California,  you might be interested in a session chaired by Margaret Middleton at the California Association of Museums conference, "Welcoming 21st Century Families in Museums" which sounds like a lively conversation on the topic.  I really appreciated those of you who shared your own issues as a museum-goer in the comments.  It's all too rare that we really think from a visitor perspective and how that perspective should inform our work00each thoughtful comment drives that work further.

But yesterday's news that the new National September 11 Memorial Museum will have a $24 admission charge but that families of victims will not pay any fees, brings so many questions to mind.  Here's just a few.
  • How will the museum define "victims' families"?
  • How do you prove you're part of a family?
  • How long into the future does the concept of "victim family" last?
  • Are there other family rates at the museum?  How are those families defined?
 Your thoughts?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

What's a Family Anyway?

I'm beginning work with the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia re-visioning their family programming.  The Rosenbach's collections are incredible, including Maurice Sendak's archives and they undertake a wide variety of programming.  New opportunities abound with a merger with the Philadelphia Free Library Foundation so it's an exciting time to be pondering what makes a great family program with the staff.

But we began with some conversations with staff and docents about what a family is.  To museum educators, family programs has quite a specific meaning.  Generally, it's programming designed for parents and elementary age children.  But is that how we should be defining a family?  Here's some of the responses:
  • They choose to be together and consider themselves to be a family
  • Wide range of ages
  • Group or unit that's somehow connected together but not necessarily living together
  • Some relationship:  love, blood, dependency
  • Self-defined as related to one another
  • 2 or more people long-term invested in each others well-being
  • Caregivers too?
  • Extended family who choose to associate together
  • A hierarchy of relationships, within an established group
  • and, as one docent definitively remarked, "It's not the 1950s any more!"
That's a giant pile of definitions that go far beyond the parent and young child relationship so often assumed in museum family programming.  I've found the USS Constitution's Family Learning Forum website incredibly useful in so many ways, so I went back to check out what they said about family definitions.  On their site, Lynn Dierking came to much the same conclusion we did.  Here's her definition:
Two or more people in a multi-generational group that has an on-going relationship; they may be biologically related but not necessarily. In fact, the general rule is that if a group defines itself as a family they are one!
We asked the volunteer docents at the Rosenbach to share their most memorable family experience in a museum.  Lots of intergenerational work at play:  grandmothers sharing recent visits with grandchildren;  a look behind the scenes at Williamsburg with family members;  learning a story about a family at a historic site.  One docent shared the experience of going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for an open evening event with friends, people she considered family.

Does this mean that we'll rename family programming at the Rosenbach?  Not necessarily, but I think we'll be asking this question as we go forward in conversations with all sorts of audiences and potential audiences and be particularly aware of barriers to participation that the lack of thoughtful language might bring.  How do you define families at your museum?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Surprise! My 5 Wishes for 2014

What will the new year bring?  Although at a New Year's Eve party the other night we made predictions and resolutions, serious and silly (think less,  climb more mountains, become a powerlifter were among the group's resolutions) I thought I'd just share my own five wishes for the museum field, and for my own work, for 2014.  Can wishes come true?  We'll see (perhaps with your help).

Wish #1  To be Surprised
My last museum visit of 2013 did just that.  I finally made it to the Museum of Jurassic Technology  It was, despite the fact that I knew about its approach,  surprising on many levels.  Surprise is an all-too-rare element in exhibitions these days, when much seems formulaic and overdesigned.  I'm looking to see exhibits that surprise and move me.  Got suggestions? 

Wish #2  To Connect
One of my most memorable museum experiences of 2013 was a very snowy Berlin day, with Twitter acquaintance Katrin Hieke, who made her way from Bonn to spend the day with me.  From a local history museum to the DDR Museum, from  the Jewish Museum to a walk past Checkpoint Charlie, I got the chance to learn about German museums, talk museums non-stop,  and in the process, gain a great new colleague resulting in a new project together.  I wish for more opportunities to talk with colleagues and learn about their cities and museums.  Upcoming in February are Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona,  Rome, Florence, Istanbul and Athens, so be in touch if you're in any of those cities. (and in the US,  Philadelphia,  Albany, NY, and other locations coming up too!)

Wish #3  Creativity into Practice (particularly at the top)
Rainey Tisdale and I think of our book, Creativity in Museum Practice,  as part manifesto, part tool kit.  We both wish that 2014 brings inspired creative practice into museums everywhere.  Museum leaders need to be in the front line of this effort.  I also wish, and intend to make real, creative practice in my own work every day.

Wish #4  Standards as Creative Constraints
I think a lot about standards, having worked with AASLH and as a MAP reviewer for AAM.  I tell organizations that they need to understand standards and how to use them.  But too often, I fear that museums use standards as a crutch for not going further, for not being more imaginative.  It's easy to make a plan to address a backlog of collections, but it's far harder to make a plan to involve your community. A standard doesn't prevent you from doing something--I wish that museums think of a standards as a creative constraint to push your organization further in your overall development.

Wish #5  More Great Clients
The shameless, self-promotion wish.  Last year clients like the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and Context Travel helped me learn so much.  Together we questioned assumptions; talked to visitors, to staff, to each other;  dreamed big dreams;  got inspired by great art, great cities, great literature (and more than a little bit of great food);  laughed, worked hard;  and together, took a risk or two,  knowing that we'd learn from success or failure.  If that sounds good,  I'd love to work with you.  Be in touch with your ideas.
 And finally, wish #6--as exemplified by my daughter and her cousins, above, have fun!