Saturday, February 28, 2015

How to Fix that "General Backlog" ?

This week I spent a bit of time in the collections storage of a local museum.  It doesn't matter which one, because I know I can find the same issues expressed in this discouraging sign almost anywhere; and particularly in local history museums here in the United States.  But then I realized how little was known about these collections, about how many items have wiggled their way into history collections because they are "old,"  or "maybe old" or "someone here might have used it" or just because, one day, someone left it at the front desk.

The whole experience was a great reminder that we all should be paying attention to and participating in the Active Collections project, an important effort from my smart and passionate colleagues Rainey Tisdale and Trevor Jones.

Here's an extensive excerpt from the project's manifesto:
Millions of artifacts in museum collections across the country are not actively supporting the institutions that steward them. Museums of all types are experiencing this problem, but it is particularly entrenched in history museums. Most history museums possess thousands of poorly maintained, inadequately cataloged, and underutilized artifacts. Instead of being active assets, these lazy artifacts drain vital resources. Multiple studies have assessed the problem of collections preservation, and each has proposed providing museums more money to process and preserve artifacts. But there’s little point in preserving collections if they don’t actively support the mission. We believe collections must either advance the mission or they must go.

Collections are expensive. The time and money required to catalog and store objects ties up valuable resources that could be used elsewhere. Fortunately, museum professionals are recognizing that significant portions of their collections aren’t pulling their weight, and attitudes are changing. But in the absence of a coherent philosophy or way forward, changing opinions have not yet led to changes in practice. Therefore the problem continues to get worse with each passing year. In addition, professional standards, funding models, and museum training programs still primarily support the idea that all collections are equally important, and that owning collections is as important as effectively using them. We believe a new model for thinking about collections is needed. 
Collections are important to history museums. Artifacts are a deeply powerful way to connect with what it means to be human and to understand the past, present and future. In his compelling book A History of the World in 100 Objects Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, argues that “telling history through things is what museums are for.” Museums are uniquely positioned to use things to tell meaningful stories—but to do so they need to collect the right artifacts and make good use of them. We believe that artifacts can be powerful tools—touchstones filled with meaning and connection—but only when used effectively. 
If museums existed simply to preserve things, the best way to save them would be to put the entire collection in an enormous freezer and never take anything out. But museums don’t just preserve things; they also use them to inspire, enlighten, and connect. Every day museums balance the twin needs of preservation and access. Every time a piece is used by a researcher or is exhibited, the decision has been made to shorten its lifespan. We weigh these decisions against the rarity of the piece, its condition, and how important it is to the institution. How is it that we distinguish degrees of significance when we deal with individual objects and yet we are paralyzed into inaction when we look at an entire collection? Major conservation surveys and statewide risk assessments assume that all collections are equally valuable and are worthy of the same standard of care. We believe some objects support the mission better than others—not based on monetary value or rarity, but based on the stories they tell and the ideas they illuminate. The ones that provide the most public value should get the largest share of our time and resources.
They have a wish list and are asking for your crazy ideas.  Check out the site, share it with your colleagues and your board of directors; start a conversation on Facebook; and consider that, if we could begin to think of our collections in this way, that sign above, which only makes our hearts and minds feel like the below, could go away--and we could make our museums passionate, meaningful places at the center of our communities.   Many thanks to Rainey and Trevor for bringing this forward--and now, all of you, let's get this conversation really started!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

What does Democracy look like at a Historic Site?

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit three different democratic institutions, two with long histories and one newcomer:  the House of Commons in London, the European Parliament in Brussels, and the Bundestag in Berlin.  When I went with college students studying the European Union, I didn't exactly think of them as historic sites, but of course they are.  The visits made me reflect on how many embedded messages I saw at each; how different they are from one another; and how powerful such spaces can be.  At all the sites, the one common take-away was a sense of process, not of butter churning or weaving, but of the complicated, often messy, but vital work of democracy.

Photographs weren't allowed in the visitors gallery United Kingdom's House of Commons, at Westminster, but it's a familiar sight (above)  from both the news and various films and television series.  It's unexpectedly tiny though--you feel as it you're on top on the members of Parliament--and it's absolutely clear that this is a place where tradition is venerated.  You're welcomed into the visitors' gallery by someone in formal dress; the mace is always in place when the house is in session; and speakers deliver their remarks face to face, never crossing that red line (that tradition holds is a sword's distance away). Although the chamber was partially destroyed during World War II; it still is all about tradition.  It's clear that the United Kingdom is a place where tradition matters, where even if voices are raised in debate; that a sort of gentility from an earlier century seems to prevail.  Our visit to the chamber came at the end of a great walk on the Monarchy and Parliament with Context Travel, so we came well-equipped to understand both the traditions and the centuries-old delicate balance between the two; something made real in this space.

The European Parliament in Brussels couldn't be more different.  The Parliamentarium (above) an interactive museum devoted to the work of the European Union is high tech and modern, providing multiple ways to explore the work of this young institution.  To me the central feature of the main meeting space was the emphasis on multiple languages, as the room is ringed by translators making every meeting available in every national language of member states.  It's not tradition that's venerated here, but rather it's the effort to make the experience both distinctive by language and distinctly unified by working together.  I wondered what will this site be in a hundred years--how will it be perceived?

And finally, the most moving of the spaces to me--the Reichstag in Berlin, now housing the German Bundestag (Parliament)  The building is not much more than a hundred years old, but has seen destruction by fire in 1933, virtual abandonment during the Cold War years, and now, since German reunification, a restoration that revealed to me a great deal about the ways in which Germany attempts to understand its own 20th century history.  A huge glass dome now tops the building, providing light and transparency (and amazing views over the city), serving, perhaps, as an antidote to so many dark days of the 20th century.

Inside,  you can still see graffiti from the Soviet soldiers who liberated Berlin at the end of World War II (although Wikipedia tells me that racist and sexist writings were removed upon agreement with Russian diplomats).   The building houses a number of striking contemporary artworks, all of which reflect upon the country's past.  Artists from each of the Allied countries of World War II, the victors over Germany, were commissioned to create works.   I tried to imagine a situation in which the United States would invite victors over us to create works of art in Washington, DC, and I couldn't.   It's a testimony to the power of art--and the power of individual stories found in the graffiti--that these are what I will remember for a long time.

The take-aways for me as a museum person?
  • First, visit a place you wouldn't ordinarily go to.  If you go to art museums when you're in a city, visit a historic site; or vice-versa.
  • Second, consider those implicit messages about big ideas--like power and democracy--that are embedded in all sorts of places
  • And thirdly, trust in the power of art and of individual stories.
Below, a shout-out, with the flags of the European Union,  to my funny, thoughtful, usually hungry, but often surprising and thought-provoking travel companions on these visits.  Their perspectives helped me see things in new ways.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Meet the Mentees

It's hard to believe that it's taken me until mid-February to post about the two new colleagues selected for the 2015 mentor program--but nine cities in nine different countries have held me up (much more later on museums visited along the way).  Again this year, I had an incredible pool of candidates, from several different countries, at many different stages of their career.  Some were graduates of museum studies programs; others had entered the field in different ways.  All of you who applied raised great questions and prompted me to think about new ideas and approaches.  Many thanks to all of you who applied, but I'm pleased to introduce Shakia Gullette and Susan Fohr.

Shakia is Curator of Exhibitions at the Banneker-Douglas Museum in Baltimore, MD.  She's working on her MA in African-American Studies and has worked for a variety of museums in the Baltimore area.  She's curious about:
At the present moment I am most interested in the treatment of the African Diaspora in other countries. It’s one thing to read about it, but to see it in person when you are travelling abroad is a totally different experience. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, a group of friends and I travelled to Amsterdam for the second time and we had the pleasure of participating in the Black Heritage Amsterdam walking tour. It was absolutely amazing!!! I discovered in greater detail the Dutch involvement in slavery and the role Amsterdam played in the Dutch slave trade.
One change she'd passionately like to see in the museum field is:
Right now for me, I would like to see more African Americans in the field. Within the last 20 years, there has been a great emergence of African American in the field but public history is still a field that many African Americans know little about. I stumbled into this profession, and I was actually encouraged to go the traditional route as opposed to entering the field. I would like to help young African Americans realize that public history unlocks a world of creativity that no other profession can do. If I can help to introduce this profession others that would make me feel like I have a greater purpose on this earth.
Shakia has loads of questions, both about her career path, about the field, about exhibit development, but she promises me,
My mind is always moving, and I always have questions, what I can promise you from me as a mentee if chosen, is that I will always have questions for you. Talking through my thoughts is something that I have done since I was a child, and through that process comes a million and one questions that sometimes go unanswered.

Susan is Education Programs Coordinator at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto as well as a active volunteer in a number of areas, including as (what a great title!) Supreme Gleaner, leading fruit picks in urban backyard.  She's an avid maker of all things textile.

She's curious about:
I have become fascinated by learning how the objects I use in my everyday life are created. To this end I try to engage in the processes of making things myself, and, as much as possible, make things from first principles. I love to knit, but I have also learned how to process a raw fleece, dye that fleece with plants I’ve foraged, and spin the fibre into yarn. I love to cook and make preserves, but I have also grown my own vegetables from seed. I have had to be realistic about how far I take this making – the allotment garden plot I had in the north end of the city became a lot harder to get to once I found myself with a full-time job downtown, and it’s hard to find space in a small one bedroom apartment to store a 7 pound fleece... 
I want others to be curious to learn about the origins of the things that they are using on an everyday basis, and I think there is no better way to nurture these conversations than to involve people in making things themselves. I don’t expect someone I’ve taught to knit embrace it as obsessively as I have, but I do hope that by trying the technique themselves, it will allow them to think more critically about what is involved in making their clothes. As one member of the contemporary craft community has noted, “the creation of things by hans leads to a better understanding of democracy, because it reminds us we have power.”
One change she would like to see in the field is:
The experiences described above highlight one change I would like to see in the museum field – greater creativity in the ways that museum exhibitions and programs engage all the senses. I have seen wonderful examples of this way of thinking at my own museum – for example, the playing of a jazz composition in situ with a West African batik cloth to show the similarities in rhythm between the pattern on the cloth and the music -- but I know we can do more of this. The Textile Museum of Canada has an incredibly rich collection of ethnographic textiles from all over the world, but these objects did not originate in the isolation in which they now find themselves at the museum. Many of them were used in the context of celebration and ritual; how can we incorporate the food and dance and music and song of the object’s origins within the context of the museum experience?
And not surprisingly, one of her key questions for the year is how to encourage museums to more creatively "present culture as a living and evolving practice, and encourage visitors to engage more fully in their culture, whatever that might be."

I'm looking forward to some great conversations in the coming year and you'll be hearing from both Shakia and Susan in guest blog posts here.