Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Baker's Dozen of Great Museum Experiences in 2016

I go to lots of museums every year. If you really want to know how many, you can check out the Google map I keep of my museum visits (museum nerdy I know). Some I go to for work, some for pleasure. Even with those ones visited for fun, I find myself pondering both the why and the how of the work we do. As I reflected about the year, I was always thinking about both the experience and the people I was with--clients, colleagues, friends or family.  This year's top ten roundup, turned into a baker's dozen, is all about the experiences.  Some of these connect to earlier posts, others were equally valued but never quite made it into the blog. I hope you enjoy them even a bit as much as I did. It's been a tough year, but there are always bright spots. I'll be curious if any of you see any common threads in what made my list. If so, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Frans Post:  Animals in Brazil, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
I love the Rijksmuseum for lots of reasons but I loved this exhibit when I saw it in November.  For seven years, beginning in 1636, artist Post was in faraway Brazil, sketching and painting flora and fauna.What made the exhibit great?  First, the drawings were discovered as part of a digitization project; second, it was a collaborative effort between an art museum and a natural history museum (see the llama above)  third, a witty, clean installation; and fourth, the exhibit encouraged deep looking and drawing. It was just fun, made more fun by seeing it with an old friend and museum-lover Irina Leonenko.

Columbus Art Museum, Columbus, Ohio
The Columbus Art Museum has made creativity the centerpiece of their work. Rainey Tisdale and I were lucky enough to get a walkthrough of their galleries with Cindy Foley, Deputy Director for Learning and Experience and we got to see a museum that embraces creativity in full flower. For instance, many museums would balk at putting a big jigsaw puzzle right in front of the work of art, as above. But these two visitors (notice, adults) were engaged in deep closing looking. They would pick up a puzzle piece, come in close to the painting, look and ponder, go back to the puzzle, talk to each other, and repeat. They spent far more time in front of this painting than they ever would have without this encouragement. In a gallery featuring American art, they're working to expand our ideas of the "American story," visitors were invited to share where their American story begins, and their vision for the future. 

Ukraine's Cultural Heritage Sector, Kyiv and L'viv, Ukraine
This fall, I returned to Ukraine with Lithuanian colleague Vaiva Lankeliene  (that's her above, with our thoughtful colleague Vasyl Rozhko, digging into data over coffee in L'viv) to assess the state of Ukraine's cultural heritage. It was incredible to have to opportunity to think deeply about not only the present but the past and the future. I found, not surprisingly, some everyday heroes who can inspire all of us as they work to shape a nation's future.

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Headquarters Exhibit
It was something entirely new for me to do an exhibit in a police headquarters. Thinking about audiences was challenging. But that's not what made this experience memorable.  It was that I had the chance to think about community in an expanded way. The Constabulary (the oldest police force in North America) is a community unto itself, with long, proud traditions. They wanted to honor those traditions but also wanted the exhibit to reach out to the greater Newfoundland community in the same ways they connect every day with citizens. Huge credit goes to the museum committee, headed by Jim Lynch, who were willing to let talented designer Melanie Lethbridge and I put forth different ideas on both concept and design. This volunteer committee was far more willing to talk and think about risk-taking in exhibits than many museums.

Big crowded art museums are always tough. There are too many people, my knowledge of art history never seems quite enough, the labels are either amazingly uninformative or filled to the brim with art historical terms I don't understand. Over the last four years of working with Context Travel, I've had the chance to take some great walks in great cities and museums. Last winter, in Florence with Context staff, I was tired, had a cold, and initially thought, oh, I can skip this. I've been to the Uffizi before. But Alexandra Lawrence, a Context docent (the word the company uses for their guides) and art historian, made the Uffizi make sense to me. She put forth a clear theme for the walk, returned to it throughout, carefully selected individual works to move that forward, and had us look deeply, all the while sharing her own great enthusiasm.  The kind of museum tour we all want and rarely get.  I left feeling both renewed and smarter.

Without a doubt, the best labels I saw all year. Funny, irreverent, thoughtful, meaningful--and somehow they absolutely reflected the spirit of the city. At the same time, the labels never shied away from the political--from women's rights to the 1916 Uprising.

I'm a former Girl Scout myself but honestly, hadn't thought much about the experience in years until Lisa Junkin Lopez, director at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah asked me to do some evaluation of a new visitor experience, the re-imagined Library. JGLB has a great staff, up for anything, but what made this experience really great were the girls themselves. Girls who were inspired, who wanted to change the world, who believed that they could invent and be anything.  In these challenging times, it was a great reminder that our museums can, and should, inspire all kinds of people, in all kinds of ways.  

I arrived in Riga last January to facilitate a series of workshops. But one of the first things that happened was to get a tour of the newly renovated National Art Museum from Una Sedlience, their deputy director. In the dark late afternoon, we got to wander through this beautiful building--before the art was installed. Up grand staircases, into magnificent rooms, through up-to-date open storage waiting to receive the paintings, and then up on the roof, overlooking the historic city. A magical experience in a gorgeous city.

At a workshop on increasing visitor engagement in exhibits, we experimented in the galleries devoted to Soviet-era history. Museum colleagues were asked to develop questions, post them near objects, and then, take some time and answer a question or two. I was blown away by the quality of the questions, and fascinated by the answers. Was the education system better?  Is your memory of Soviet times really the memory of your grandparents? Is collective better than individual? A grand experiment and one I'll long remember.

The Midwest Museum Association held its conference in Minneapolis this year, and a reception was held at the Swedish Institute. I've never been to a reception that was so much fun. I got to learn about outcome-based evaluation through beer tasting, ate amazing food, and participated in a crazy tour of the Turnblad Mansion. Scott Pollack, Director of Exhibitions, Collections and Programs, led us on a tour, accompanied by live music, where all of us where invited to tell a tale of the room we were in; followed by Curt Pederson, Curator of Exhibitions & Collections sharing a bit of the true story. Best of all was sitting down next to a board member who beautifully articulated a vision for the museum that's inclusive and welcoming to all.

Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT
Rainey Tisdale and I facilitated a two-day planning session as Mystic Seaport's team was working on the first exhibition in their brand-new building. Using lots of different creative tools, the team dug deep into identifying stories that mattered. What made this great? Working with Rainey, as always (see below) and a team that really seemed to enjoy each other. Also impressive was the museum's leadership team who were full participants in the days. We found many connecting threads and now SeaChange is open and on my visit list for 2017.


If you were in DC for the AAM conference, you might have gotten to see this exhibit. It was up for what seemed like minutes, but deserved a longer stay in the Smithsonian's castle. I got to see it with colleague Andrea Jones providing us a great opportunity to dig into the work. Big ideas, challenging content, artists really interested in engaging in an incredibly broad swath of the public. This project had it all.  It reinforced my sense that long-term exhibitions may be headed the way of the dinosaur--that nimble, responsive projects are our future.

Museums and Your Whole Self, NEMA Session with Rainey Tisdale
This year's New England Museum Conference was unlike any other conference I've ever been to.  It began the day after the election.  There were tears, hugs, confusion, and more. Rainey and I had a session on the last day. Originally were going to use the election as our focus to explore how museums can connect to our whole selves, not just our learning selves. That seemed wrong--everyone was too drained.  Rainey convinced me that the right topic was kittens, yes kittens!  She was absolutely right, and those of you in the audience were great participants as together we built out our giant paper dolls with crazy ideas to connect with our playful self, our spiritual self and more. I left feeling buoyed, grateful and determined.  

I already know that 2017 will bring more great experiences, even greater challenges for all of us and more dots on my map. I'm looking forward to all the challenges and my best wishes to all of you for the same in your professional life. Be brave, take risks, have fun--put your whole self to use. For inspiration, here's advice from a young Girl Scout.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Need a Mentor? Round 5 Begins!

In my last post I wrote about becoming a mentor. In this post it's all about those of you who want to become a mentee. Are you looking for an outside voice to help you think deeply about both your career and tough issues in the field? A push and/or a sympathetic ear? If you are, consider applying for my own little venture.

What's it like? The word cloud at the top of the post includes words that previous mentees used to describe the process after their year. Here's the deal for the coming year. Mark your calendar: the deadline for applications is January 4.  I welcome and encourage applications from anywhere in the world, although I'm sadly only an English speaker.

The Shape of the Mentorship

We'll schedule one-hour Skype or Google Hangout conversations at mutually convenient times once a month. In addition to the monthly conversations, I'll happily provide feedback, introductions as I can, and loads and loads of opinions. If I can, I'd love to meet you in person if we can intersect. From you, I'll expect two or three blog posts on deadlines we mutually set and of course, active participation and questioning along the way. It's your mentorship and it's up to you to take responsibility in shaping it.

How to Apply

If you're interested, by January 4, send me an email that includes your resume plus your responses to the following questions. No word count specified. Say what you have to say, short or long.
  • What change would you like to make in the museum field?
  • When did you fail and what did you learn?
  • What's the most interesting exhibit or program you saw in the last year?
  • What key questions would you like to discuss with me during the year?
  • What non-work related book are you reading?
How Do I Decide?

Because this is my own individual project, I get to make my own decisions, sometimes with the counsel of a few trusted colleagues.  Previous year's mentees have been in graduate school, emerging professionals or mid-career types. I'm probably not very interested in you if your key questions are about becoming a consultant. This year, I'm particularly interested in those of you entering the field from alternative ways or whose career has taken a surprising path. Outside the US applicants, you're particularly encouraged to apply as well.

I want to be challenged and intrigued, I don't care about your Meyers-Briggs type or your grades in graduate school. I appreciate people who don't take themselves too seriously. I want to get off that Skype call every month ready to think more about your work and my work and the ways we can make change. Museums have a larger role to play in this complex world--but only if we dig in and get at it.

Questions, ask away!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Westworld, Museum Collecting, and the 2016 Election

In this guest post, 2016 Uncataloged Museum mentee Amanda Guzman contemplates the election and her current binge-watching fav Westworld for a look at the future of museum objects and the interpretation thereof.

In HBO’s Westworld, robotic, humanoid hosts – which (un)knowingly serve as too often tragic props in various narratives for the entertainment of guests in a futuristic park –  are periodically questioned on whether or not they have retained memories of their character’s loops in past storylines. The statement by one host, Dolores (pictured above) - “Doesn’t look like anything to me” - is a fascinating assertion then to make in this context. In the show, as in life, knowledge is power; the writers (“programmers”), administrators, and host techs (“butchers”) that manage the fictional Westworld park maintain order and their respective authority positions by the careful curation of knowledge. 

Why start a blog post about contemporary museum collecting practices and the 2016 election with this Westworld allusion?

Well, I began by musing on my current TV binge favorite because it relates to a question I have about how future museum visitors would and should approach, interpret, and mobilize past election material in developing their understandings of American history and their role within that narrative. To put it another way, I wondered how future audiences would come to perceive the election material of yesterday and today. Would they too say, “Doesn’t look like anything to me.”? 

As a bit of background, during the presidential election season, I noticed different museums highlighting and asserting the value of the continued collection of election material (particularly that of more traditional campaign memorabilia including buttons and signs) in the digital age.

To put it simply, election material not only publicly declares one’s partisan inclinations and preferred candidate but also (and perhaps more importantly) suggests a heightened level of pride in expressing those convictions.

To put it mildly, the 2016 presidential election – regardless of one’s political orientation – has been inarguably characterized by extreme levels of division and emotion. This has been widely commented on.

So, how might museums move forward with exhibition content in 2017? One answer is to acknowledge emotion (which can fall in the category of traumatic and dangerously crippling) and to mobilize it into larger social engagement with the important issues facing the country today – thereby transforming our publics from spectators to agential stakeholders.

Especially, in light of a noted increase in hate crimes and discriminatory rhetoric (some of which have targeted museums such as the San Diego Museum and Manhattan’s Tenement Museum), museums have a clear responsibility (and opportunity) to employ the facts of the past (and present) in projecting visions of the future – which include thoughtful, more inclusive conversations about ever-changing demographics.

The irony of this post was that I didn’t anticipate the emotion that I would have while writing, but here it is. To my chagrin, 2016 did very much look like something to me.

“Hooray for Politics!” Exhibit, National Museum of American History, Photo taken Fall 2016

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Why Aren't You a Mentor?

Who me?  Yes, you, that experienced professional, emerging professional, or even grad student. You!

As regular blog readers now, every year I put out a call for mentees, and each year work with one or two of you. That call will be coming next week, but I wanted to push more of you to consider becoming a mentor yourself.  I've heard from many people that they would like mentors, but don't know how to find them and that the need for mentors outstrips the supply.

I emailed all my mentees (hi, you guys!) and asked some questions about my own program. I was struck by how many of them said some version of the same thing: "What struck a chord with me is this idea of former mentees paying it forward and magnifying our efforts."  Said another,

I would love to be a mentor someday but when I was doing it with you I would not have had the time to do it in exchange. But, for example, you could write up a little guide on your blog about mentoring museum professionals that would encourage and inspire others do to it.

So here goes: my five tips for being a good mentor, interspersed with some quotes from my mentees.

1.  Be honest.  Be honest about the time you spend, and more importantly, be honest with the mentee. You are not their boss, their significant other, or even a work colleague. They need you to be honest. I have found that sometimes I needed to be what felt like brutally frank about where people are in the field and where they might head.

I think for me, the mentoring process came in phases. Our conversations built my confidence and I began to change my thinking. After I believed in my abilities I needed to create a plan to succeed, but I soon realized that I had limited resources and I needed to create a network.

2.  Don't be afraid of what you don't know.  Being a mentor is not being Wikipedia. Sometimes a question would send me looking for more information and ideas, and along the way, I learned as well.

This is also why I enjoyed the informal nature of the mentorship; each mentee had the opportunity to shape the conversations, and while I did appreciate the tangible task of writing the blog posts, I did also welcome the openness regarding how many posts we could write, and allowing the topics to emerge out of our conversations.

3.  Be generous.  You need to commit time, but I found the generosity that might be most important is generosity about your own experiences, including those failures along the way.

I have valued the ability to speak freely about what has driven my interest in museum research and what has stood out to me in today's exhibition content. On the flip side, I have enjoyed learning about what you do (as well as what that entails on a practical note) and the many different museum audiences that we can get at with our work (of particular interest being the U.S. v. Europe case study).
4.  Be committed.  I spend one hour a month Skyping with each mentee.  It's up to the mentees to chose the topic, and we try and schedule the next month as we finish.

For me it was a real connection and we took the time to really meet and talk. It had the value of obliging me to pause, discuss and reflex on my work, aspiration and challenges as a professional but in an other dimension then my day to day work.

5.  Be a lifelong learner.  

I have had the experience previously of moving from mentee and mentor; it is a powerful experience to be empowered to build on what you have been taught and to share your experiences.

I think it's particularly important as we work to make museums more diverse, inclusive spaces, that we look to mentor all kinds of people.  If you're in graduate school, can you mentor a high school or undergraduate student, to introduce them to the work of museums?  If you're an emerging professional who went to graduate school, consider looking for a mentee who is entering the field from another direction?

But, I can hear you thinking, where am I going to find a mentee?  Aren't they supposed to find me? I know some people seek out mentors, and several of my mentees have sought out next-step mentors, based on their experiences with me.  You can make it known that you're committed to the future of the field.  Talk to colleagues at other organizations and ask them to suggest potential mentees.  Go to Drinking About Museums in your city, meet people, and be open. Put a post on your LinkedIn profile.  If you appear open and enthusiastic, people will find you. Your mentee might be someone older than you;  or someone younger.  It honestly doesn't matter.  What does matter is that you pay it forward in some way, and that together, we make our field a meaningful place for everyone.  My little experiment in mentorship over the last four years has repaid me in more ways than I can count.

What questions do you have about being a mentor?

And stay tuned, for this year's mentor announcement.