Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Mid-Revolution: Ukrainian Museum Updates

As most of the world now knows, the situation in Ukraine has been rapidly changing.  Last week's shocking death toll has led to the disappearance of the President and other ministers, warrants for their arrest, and a new government in the making, but the situation still appears unstable.  As I’ve written and shared posts by others about museums’ reaction to the revolution there, I wanted to share a few updates on museum-related issues.  

In honor of the fallen heroes of Maidan,  Ukrainian museums announced the cancellation of all activities until the end of February, but continued to open their exhibition halls.

Although the collections of the Museum of the City of Kyiv were secure when Ukrainian House was occupied by protestors, evidently after protestors vacated the building the riot police broke into collections storage.  Some objects are missing and damaged, full details are not known.  It's also suspected that the inspection of former government officials houses will reveal objects, from icons to rare books, that have been stolen from museum collections.

The Minister of Culture has been dismissed by Parliament; and a group of artists, activists, and museum professionals have already gathered to propose the qualifications for new candidates and develop of strategies of arts and cultural expression and development, hopefully leading to the  and transformation of the existing system of management of culture. Also this group, the Assembly of Art Professionals is working over legal mechanism and practical  tools to control and influence the ministry of culture activities in the future.

A homemade catapult used by the protestors now bears a sign telling passersby that it is under the protection of the National Museum of Art and will become a part of the collection.  As mentioned in an earlier post, the Ivan Honchar Museum has  started collecting objects, memories and stories.  They  have succeeded in obtaining many important artifacts including an icon painting from the center of Maidan, and  helmets, shields, paintings, posters,  painted bits, gas masks and more.  This initiative was supported by a few other institutions including NGOs, and now the museum staff are working systematically over the project “Museum of Maidan."   

Various other museum and exhibit proposals are being announced, including the idea of an exhibit of Maidan’s doctors and medics at the National Museum of Medicine in Kyiv.  The museum has issued a call for object, images and stories.  

Blue Shield Ukraine was founded last week to ensure the preservation of museums and cultural objects in times of emergency.  This has included a plea for the care of some of the dozens of Lenin statues toppled over the last weeks, as some are listed as monuments of national significance.

One of many proposals for the use of former President Yanukovych’s lavish mansion, private zoo, and golf course, is for a Museum of Corruption. (from the photographs, it could also be the Museum of Bad Taste).   Evidently this museum’s archives could also be extensive as the paper documentation on corrupt purchases and payoffs was also found there.  Journalists, in a unique effort, have banded together to save these papers and eventually, provide a full reporting of how unbelievable sums of money were looted and spent.

Ukraine's story of this revolution is far from finished, but it's been inspiring to see my friends and colleagues move from the barricades to directly to saving important materials and considering big, structural changes in the way museums and culture work.  I'll keep you posted.

Note:  I've not been successful in finding a credit for the photo in this post, but would be happy to add it if informed.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

No Bells and Whistles Needed: The Rijksmuseum

Last week I had the chance to visit the Rijksmuseum in its newly restored  and re-opened, glory.  I’d been aware of their great website,  Rijkstudio,making hi-res images available for free, and encouraging people to make imaginative, creative re-use of images from their collection.  So in my head, perhaps, I assumed that technology would be a key part of the visitor experience at the museum itself.
And to my surprise, I discovered exactly the opposite.   There was an audio tour, which I did not take, but what really shined through was the idea that museums are places of discovery, but many of us need a bit of help in our discovery.  We might not need a fully immersive, high tech experience, just a bit of knowledge to start our journey.

The Rijksmuseum provides a low-tech experience, but it's clear that there was a substantial investment in creating the most thoughtful experience possible.  From a visitor perspective, it seems the investment was in thinking, in people time, rather than hardware.  In conversation with another Dutch colleague,  he thought that the museum considers its website as a way to reach people outside of the museum;  but that the experience at the museum needed to be entirely different--a great lesson as we plan new experiences and exhibits.

I saw this attention to detail--to the visitor experience-- in a number of different ways.  First, the introductory room labels are so well written, in both Dutch and English.  They are clear, in the active voice, brief, and informative, giving a “so what?” clarity to each group of objects.  They provide, in effect, the 101 explanation of the topic at hand.
And then, particularly in the Gallery of Honour,  I was amazed at how many people were using the laminated handouts available.  These kinds of handouts exist in many museums—but I have never seen so many people using them.  What made them work?  They were not just repetition of label text, but they were really about looking at the work of art.  At the top of the post and below, are all kinds of people using the handouts.  I saw one family, Italian speakers, using the handouts so they worked even without understanding the written words.  I really liked that they encouraged you to look closely and even to compare paintings next to each other.   They weren't jargon-filled in any way.
I also trailed around several school groups and I also discovered that they took an approach that really encouraged curiousity, without lots of bells and whistles and with a kind of informality that made students feel at home.  Almost every student in every school group had a phone and was taking pictures, and as a group of students moved to a new location, there was a small bit of time permitted for that picture taking (even selfies in front of The Night Watch) and then, down to conversation.   Rather than forbidding photos, this meant that students created memories, but also found time to listen.  Each school docent had a big shoulder box of objects that they also carried--I didn't come across any of them in use, but as you can tell from the image below, they were simple things.
I found the Rijksmuseum a refreshing reminder that I need to bring this same kind of clear-eyed passion and focus on the visitor to all my work with the kind of confidence I saw embodied here. And of course, amidst the 375 million euro renovation, a clear demonstration of, as my colleague Anne Ackerson taught me, "Ideas don't cost money." Plus, as a bonus, what other museum can you ride your bike through!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Upcoming: Broken Relationships and Creativity in Amsterdam

Just in time for Valentine's Day! Uncataloged readers are invited to join Annemarie de Wildt, curator of  the current Amsterdam version of the Museum of Broken Relationships at the Oude Kirk,  and I for a walk-through of the exhibition followed by drinks and conversation about museums and creative practice on Monday,  February 17.

I'm really looking forward to seeing this exhibit and will be fascinated to see what the public call resulted in, and how Annemarie put it together.   And I hope, so will you!  Meet us at the entrance of Oude Kirk at 4:00, and I'll soon post where you can meet us for a drink later.

It's a great chance to dive into the creative work of developing an exhibition, engaging communities in storytelling, and of course, a chance to meet and share with colleagues.  Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Upcoming: Creative Practice Meet-Up in Florence

Come meet me and hear about Creativity in Museum Practice at an informal meet-up at the Palazzo Strozzi on Tuesday, February 11 at 18:30 (Sala Ferri, Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza Strozzi 1, Florence, Italy)   I'll share some tips on creative practice, hopefully useful no matter your work in a museum or elsewhere,  a chance to learn from all of  you, and the opportunity to connect with other creative colleagues over an aperitivo.

The Strozzi's programs and exhibits are incredible examples of creative practice, from family kits to audience-friendly labels,  to contemporary art on issues of concern to the city, so I'm thrilled to join all of you at such a fascinating place.  Hope to see you there!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Practical Dreaming: 2014 Mentorships

I'm very pleased to announce my 2014 mentees, but first a bit about the process.  Although I had fewer applications than last year, the process didn't get any easier for me.  This year I had more people further along in their career, and my final two selections reflected that.  (Don't worry, emerging museum professionals,  I may try an experience restriction next year!)  This year, all of the applicants were women and they came from four countries, including the US,  and came from history, science, and art museums;  along with a independent professional or two.  My choices were framed around two issues:  one, if I thought I could be helpful, and two, if the questions posed were also questions I was interested in exploring.

I've been touched, this year as last, by the clarity, depth, seriousness and humor of the applicants.  And this year I got a bonus!  Amanda Gustin of Vermont didn't apply for the mentorship but she shared her own answers to my questions on her blog Amblering.  What's not to love about someone who impersonates an FBI agent as a child?
I can call up a dozen memories of imaginative play as a child - once, when a cousin of mine and I were grounded and stuck up in my bedroom for an afternoon, we snuck into my father's closet, dressed up in his suits, tied together bedsheets, shimmied out the second-story window, and circled back around to the front door, where we rang the doorbell and pretended to be government agents investigating cruelty toward the children living in the house. (I believe my mother laughed in our faces and sent us back up to my room.)
But on to this year's mentees:  Catherine Charlebois, Curator, Exhibitions and Collections at the Centre d'histoire de Montreal in Montreal, Canada, and Megan Wood, who begins her new position as Associate Vice President for Education and Visitor Experience at the Historic Ford Estates in Dearborn, Michigan this coming week.  They are each in transitions.  Catherine's museum is contemplating a major move and expansion and Megan of course, is embarking on a new job with new responsibilities and challenges.   And in both cases, they felt a professional voice outside their museum, might be a really helpful thing.  So I hope that's true, and here's some of the questions we'll be considering.  

Catherine's primary interests are in oral history and in exhibition development:
  • Oral history in museums. I want to discuss every aspect of it, but especially its use in exhibitions.
  • How to transform a museum to a participatory museum?
  • Where to look for cutting-edge museum initiatives (in all fields)?
  • Creating “user-friendly” museums
  • Teamwork
  • Inventive and/or unusual cross-disciplinary initiatives in museums 

And for Megan, the same combination of practicality and dreaming:
  • How should I build and effective department? 
  • Interpretive planning and long-range exhibit planning. including interpreting a historic property (and estate really) in a really new, dynamic, and engaging manner. 

I'm looking forward to our monthly conversations--and because each of the mentees will be contributing three blog posts over the course of 2014,  I hope our conversations will ripple out into your work as well.

And a few quick follow-ups from this process:
  • I'm pleased to share that Alicia Akins, my mentee, is a Spring 2014 Createquity Fellow. You'll be able to check out more of her writing over there.
  • It's been really lovely to hear how many of you have embraced the idea that forming your own Gang of Five can be useful in your career.   My own Gang continues to a source of inspiration, advice, and just plain fun.  If you haven't already, subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter, Take 5 for quick takes from us on everything from passion to leadership.
  • There's amazing creativity in so many of us--I could see it in all the applications.  We're interested in spreading the creativity word, so please share your creative problems and solutions with us over at our Creativity in Museum practice website.   And the problems of leadership can be solved with some creative brainpower--that's being reinforced as I read Anne Ackerson and Joan Baldwin's book, Leadership Matters. Well worth a read, no matter where you are in your career.