Friday, November 28, 2014

Abundant Thinking

Like many Americans, I spent yesterday, Thanksgiving Day,  surrounded by abundance:  of family, of food, of laughter and stories--all a reminder of how grateful and lucky I am.  But a conversation earlier in the week reminded me of how much more aware we could all be of abundance in our professional lives.   In talking with a colleague about what I'd learned at the NEMA conference,  she mentioned that she couldn't remember a workplace where there was space or time for those who attended conferences to share what they had learned.  But how easy would that be?  Rather than hoarding your knowledge, when you go in on Monday,  send out an invitation for a brown bag lunch conversation to share new knowledge--from conferences, from books, from blogs, from your hobbies.

Rainey and I have been thrilled that we've heard from a number of colleagues who have read Creativity and Museum Practice together as a staff, trying out ideas and sharing perspectives.  So if you don't know where to start--the Try This sections of the book are free ideas to jumpstart your creative efforts.

And to push the abundance further out, include people outside of your regular sphere:  invite other departments; volunteers; whoever you can think of.   Take that turkey-filled abundance back to work with you.  The more we think together, the more solutions we can find for the tough problems all of our organizations face.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Buyers' Guide for Museum Studies? And Two More Big Questions

Last week at the NEMA meeting, Amanda Gustin of the Vermont Historical Society facilitated a lively conversation between Cynthia Robinson, the director of the Tufts Museum Studies Program; me;  and a jam-packed room of participants,  on the Graduate School Conundrum.  Go or don't go? What kind of program?  How do I choose?  We covered lots of ground in the conversation and Amanda will be sharing the results of her informal online survey on her own blog, but I wanted to share, as many people are beginning the work on graduate school applications, the talk about a buyers' guide for museum studies programs.  It's very exciting that the public history world is embarked on such a project, but there's definitely a need for a specifically museum-focused one as well.  What would it include?

Here's the list, in no particular order, of the topics the session participants would love to see in a consumer guide to choosing a graduate program:
  • Placement rate:  in museums, in full-time jobs, in other positions.  One year out, five years out and overall.  Kinds of placements: in what type of museums, in what type of positions.
  • Course requirements and content
  • What's the work load?
  • What skills are really taught?  When was the last time the program analyzed the skills needed?
  • Cost and its unfriendly associate, average amount of debt upon graduating.
  • Financial aid available
  • Certificate or degree; online or in person or a combination
  • Evidence of faculty involvement in current museum work; ability to take courses from a range of faculty members
  • What kind of networking is available?  How do current and former students make use of it?
  • Diversity and gender equity among faculty and students
  • Internships:  where, how often, paid or unpaid?
  • What are the application criteria (i.e. should you have worked in a museum before applying?)  What kinds of career counseling is offered for incoming students, including those transitioning from other careers?
We ended up this part of the discussion talking about whose job it is to undertake such a buyers' guide.  Is it the graduate programs themselves--is there one willing to take the lead, set standards and metrics?  Is it the American Alliance of Museums?  Their newly released salary survey talks about conditions in the field--wouldn't it be useful to know more before you entered graduate school?  Who will step forward--and even more importantly, the field changes when we ask it to.  When will we start really pushing for this?

But don't forget my two big questions.  The first came before the session, over lunch with Sarah Sutton, who asked, 

Why is it, for a field that is all about free-choice and independent learning, that we have made graduate degrees a prerequisite for entry into the field?

and the second came from the session conversation,

If graduate schools are highly valued for the networks, and graduate schools, like the museum field, continue to lack diversity; doesn't using those only those networks to connect with and hire, ensure that our field continues to lack diversity?  In other words, same old, same old.

Readers, what say you?  Would a buyers guide be useful?  What should be in it?  And what other big questions do you have?

Special thanks to Amanda for putting together such a great session; and to NEMA, for such a thought-provoking overall conference.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

You'll Laugh, You'll Cry: Upcoming at NEMA

I'm excited to be a part of two sessions at the next week's New England Museum Association conference in Cambridge, MA.  Kudos to NEMA for attracting their biggest audience ever--evidently a very full house will be on hand with more than 1000 participants.

Rainey Tisdale and I will be talking Objects and Emotions on Thursday.   What would happen if you collected only happy objects?  Thought about emotion in designing exhibits?  Actually asked visitors how different objects make them feel?  We promise a session with lots of interaction--and even a teddy bear or two.   If you haven't already, I highly recommend taking a look at Rainey's recent Tedx Boston talk, Our Year of Mourning, about the exhibit project commemorating the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing.  Whether you're coming to the session or not, it will absolutely deepen your understanding of the power of objects and the meaning of work we can do (and you won't want to miss the Friday session where Rainey and colleagues will go into greater detail on that project and the impact empathetic museums can make.)

On Wednesday, Amanda Gustin, Cynthia Robinson and I will be talking the Graduate School Conundrum?  Worth it?  Needs to be different?  Why bother?  Essential?  More than 300 of our colleagues responded to an informal survey for the session.  We'll be sharing those results and facilitating a lively conversation about the issues and what we, as a field, should, might, and can do.

What else is up at NEMA?  Rainey and I will have Creativity in Museum Practice books on hand for sale and even a few creativity tattoos left.  If you haven't got your copy yet and will be at NEMA, be in touch!

I'm also looking forward to squeezing in some other sessions:  on my list are Worst Job Ever:  How to Create a Positive Work Culture on a Limited Budget and Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Museums as Places of Belonging.  But as always, I love meeting new people and catching up with colleagues so I want to make time for that.  If you want to chat over coffee, be in touch here, on Twitter(@lindabnorris), or semaphore.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Need a Mentor? Round 3 Coming Up

Update:  Applications for 2015 are open!  Here's the details.

Wonder what's next in your career?  Want an ear that's not your officemate or your spouse?  Want to think about bigger issues in the field?  Want to gain a little experience blogging?  If any of these are the case, this is just a quick reminder to keep an eye out for my annual mentor announcement, to come by early December.  This will be my third year; and the two previous years have brought me great, amazing conversations with new colleagues.

Who will be eligible?  Pretty much anyone.  You can be at any stage in your career, and you can be anywhere.  All that's needed is a commitment to a monthly Skype conversation and a willingness to think hard about what concerns you.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Big Changes Start Small

Change is a tough thing--and there are plenty of big issues in our field that need changing--from equitable pay to lazy collections to enhancing our creative practice.  But one of the things that Rainey Tisdale and I always remind people of when we talk about creativity is the idea that change starts small.  A successful (or even not successful with lessons learned) experiment will lead to more and more and more.  In the last few weeks, some small changes have bubbled up and I wanted to share.

Above is a photograph of a lobby space at the Rosenbach Museum and Library.  We'd been having some conversations about how to make the entire museum (slightly forbidding in its Philadelphia town house) more family--and overall visitor--friendly.  This space previously had only two chairs, separated from each other, and a few children's books.  Emilie Parker, director of education,  made just a few simple changes.  There's a rug and a floor lamp, so it feels more homey.  There's a coffee table with books piled up, inviting you to sit down and take a look; there's additional chairs (and unseen, free wifi).  Nothing here cost anything but the space is now regularly used and feels inviting and welcoming (even before the addition of the coffeemaker).  We came to the idea of this change by observing visitors and by, equally importantly, talking to the visitor services staff and asking for their ideas.  The result, as Emilie put it, "adult learners learning informally!"  

Walk away from your computer, go look at your lobby, and see what simple change you can make.

At the end of our Visitor Voices workshops in Ukraine, we asked participants what one change they would make.   It's extremely rare for opportunities for visitor feedback in Ukrainian museums (but not for the National Museum of Art, above) and many of our participants said that just beginning a feedback board would be an important change from the comment book.  "I want to create feedback wall to find out thoughts of visitors." Ukrainian museum comment books often have to be asked for, pulled out from a desk and grumpily provided--a practice not conducive to visitor feedback.  But putting out Post-It notes in a place where everyone can comment, is the simplest of change.  That small change shifts our own--and the visitors--understanding of our museum's potential. One participant wrote as a task, "Understand more that visitors are not as ideal as we want and cannot “consume” all this volume what we want to give."  

I'm working with the Lake Placid Olympic Museum on interpretive planning and Alison Hass, their director, designed a very simple way to capture visitor interest in potential topics.  Big posterboard and stickers.  As you can see, visitors have lots of opinions about what they'd like to see.  Very simple, easy way to begin to get visitor feedback.  And, by the way, I've never seen visitors who weren't happy to share their perspectives.

Walk away from your computer, go into your museum, and ask visitors what they think.  Next, walk away from your museum, go out into your community and ask people what they'd like to see at your museum.  Big changes start small.