Monday, March 20, 2017

A Small Piece of the Big Picture: IMLS and Local Communities


The new administration's budget which proposes the total elimination of funds for NEA, NEH and IMLS (the Institute of Museum and Library Services) got me thinking about my role as a Museum Assessment Program (known as MAP and administered by the American Alliance of Museums) reviewer. This post is about the ways that my individual experience--like so many other of my colleagues' experiences--pushes back against the false narrative that funding for these agencies only supports elite institutions in big cities or that they are a frill, unnecessary in struggling parts of the country.

I have been a MAP reviewer for museums and history organizations from Eastern Washington State to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  In every case, the museum itself decides that its progress could be assisted by an outside reviewer.  It's an entirely voluntary process and the museum pays only a token amount. Reviewers like me, essentially volunteers, receive a small stipend for conducting the site visit and writing a report. That stipend and the travel expenses are covered by federal funds.

What have I found?  Every place is different, with different challenges, but all of my visits were characterized by an openness and willingness to learn.  In every case, the organizations were interested in thinking in new ways, particularly about broadening their audiences. Some had further to go than others in that thinking, but at every place, I found myself in thoughtful, questioning discussions.

What were these places like for those of you who might think that IMLS is only for the big guys? What difference does it make? Let's see.


Seven years ago I went to the tiny Hayden Heritage Center in Northern Colorado, where my overnight host, a member of the board, told me she knew I'd arrive soon because she heard the plane overhead in a big, starry sky; the same place where everyone on the board wore cowboy boots and I had a great lunch on Taco Thursday at the local bar.  The museum's collection was wide-ranging:  I recall a giant ball of string, some terrific historic photos, and objects that helped explore the story of this region's settlement including the vital role of women. I recontacted the Heritage Center to see if they'd made use of the report.  Here's the response from curator Laurel Watson, who joined the museum after my visit, when I wrote her to ask about the utility of MAP:
They are key resources to give us tools that enable us to assess our weaknesses and strengths and determine what we need to do in order to better serve our communities and continue to protect and preserve our local history and heritage. 

All the way on the East Coast, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the Queen Anne's Historical Society (above, a photo from a July 4th celebration) wanted to expand their community-based work. I remember a thoughtful community focus group, with deep, honest conversation about how the historical society could begin to reach out to the long-standing African-American community whose history had been largely absent in the telling.


In the middle of the country, a larger organization, Indiana Landmarks, was struggling to rethink its historic house. The Morris-Butler House had been the place where the organization was founded and helped jumpstart a preservation movement by forcing the re-routing of an Interstate (above). The house was now sadly outdated in its interpretation, consuming resources and not attracting visitors. Gwendolen Nystrom, now Director, Indianapolis Volunteers and Heritage Experiences at Indiana Landmarks wrote when I recently asked about the value:
The MAP review acted as the catalyst for fundamentally changing the operation of Indiana Landmarks’ beloved historic site, Morris-Butler House. The report provocatively asked the parent organization to consider “whether or not it is appropriate [for Morris-Butler House] to continue as a historic house museum” and prompted the organization to strategically reinvent the house. 
Through her recommendations and the subsequent planning input of other industry experts, we were able to successfully transition the house away from a traditional historic house museum to a smaller, more intimate venue that highlights its symbolic importance to the organization and demonstrates through adaptive reuse our historic preservation mission, all while retaining the historic fabric of the site. Our visibility and visitation has increased since these changes were implemented. This would not have been possible without the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) grant we received from IMLS and the American Alliance of Museums.
Back to the west again, for both a MAP review and then a later re-visit to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane (a mural from there is at the head of this post).  This museum is an unusual hybrid of state agency and non-profit organization, with history, art, and natural history collections--as well as a world-class collection of Native American materials from the region and the Americas.  It had been through some troubled times, and these were visits with lots and lots of listening.  They have a new director on board this month, and longtime curator Marsha Rooney just reflected on my visits,
Your Spokane MAP visits have been most useful to us, not only for the professional administrative guidance and recommendations found in your reports, but also for the enthusiasm, creative ideas, concrete examples, and internal teambuilding and communication skills that you modeled while on site.
It's been great to check back in this week with these museums and hear about my impact--but it's not about me.  These MAP visits are community investments.  The tiny (say not much more than the cost of a few golf balls) investment almost always lead to additional community investments of both time and money.  Said Laurel Watson from Hayden:
I have used the assessment report for grants for various topics that were brought up in the MAP. It has been a great tool for helping me and my Board (which is consists of entirely new people since the Assessment) determine strategies and goals for the Museum.
This is what the Trump administration has proposed:  the dismantling of support for nothing less than our nation's history. Again, from Watson:
Small museums may be a small piece of the big picture of our national history but without each small piece the big picture begins to crumble and fade.
Call your Congresspeople and your Senators to express support for IMLS, NEA and NEH.  If you've already done so, do it again.  Invite them to visit your museum or historical society to see for themselves.  We can push back and save this resource that contributes to community building coast-to-coast.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Stuck on an Object


All of us who work in museums see lots of objects--so many sometimes, that they seem to run together. But sometimes there's an object whose physicality or story sticks with us, for reasons we can't seem to explain.  My new job is just a block or so from the Morgan Library and last week I made a quick lunchtime trip--my first visit.  There is a major exhibit on Emily Dickinson there, all of which I enjoyed, but I found myself drawn to this tiny, house-shaped poem. In her tiny, unique handwriting, there it was:

The way Hope builds his House
It is not with a sill –
Nor Rafter – has that Edifice
But only Pinnacle –

Abode in as supreme
This superficies
As if it were of Ledges smit
Or mortised with the Laws –

I've thought about this piece of paper many times since that visit. But I still find myself puzzling over why. Is it that a house and a reclusive poet just seem to go together?  Is it the sense of hand, of personality in the writing?  Is it the combination of shape and poem?  It might be all of the above.

It was a gentle reminder of the many, many ways that each visitor approaches an exhibit and how many different ways there are to find meaning in the object. A generous exhibit design allows each of us to find our way.

What's a memorable object you've seen recently?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Building a Learning Culture: Food Included


A few weeks ago, I spent two days working with board and staff at the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis, MN.  Since that visit,  I've been deep in learning about my own new job, but I find myself thinking about those days and about how collaborative learning cultures are built. I first visited ASI this summer, when I keynoted the Association of Midwest Museums conference. I was unexpectedly impressed (truth be told) with a place I pictured as a sleepy place with folk dancing and woodworking.  But I found a museum that was humming with invention. At a reception there, an ASI board member spoke about how the museum had shifted its mission as the community around it changed: now the museum was not just about the Swedish experience, but about the immigrant experience (particularly the Somali and Hmong communities) for many, past and present; through the lens of Sweden and the other Nordic countries.  As a result, I was thrilled when Bruce Karstadt, President & CEO, asked me back to talk creative practice in the context of strategic and interpretive planning.


What made ASI a learning organization?

Some of a culture of learning comes in an organization's DNA. It's hard to identify exactly where it comes from and hard to see from the outside (that's ASI on a gray January day, above).  For the board meeting, I shared a reading list before coming. It wasn't focused on strategic planning as a task, but readings that touched on the values of ASI: stewardship, hospitality, learning, innovation and sustainability and the museum's key themes of culture, migration, the environment and the arts. We know that our creativity is enhanced when we take in a broad range of information.  On the list were articles, Ted talks and podcasts, ranging from Theaster Gates' Ted Talk How to Revive a Neighborhood with Imagination, Beauty and Art," the New York Times series on welcoming Syrian immigrants to Canada, Dr. Fari Nzinga's “Public Trust and Art Museums,” on The Incluseum Blog and a tech article on why Sweden is a great place for innovation. It was a broad list and I was surprised that everyone at the meeting had done the readings and were anxious to dive into conversation about the relevance to the museum.  Boards bring a wealth of experiences to their board service and finding time for them to think big picture is one of the most important things a leader can do.  Bruce Karstadt encouraged that conversation which I'm sure will bear fruit as the planning continues.  


Lesson 1:  Good ideas come from everywhere. Cast a wide net in your information sources and share.

The next day, the staff convened for a day and a half of thinking and planning. ASI is large enough that not all the staff know each other well, so the chance to learn more about each other was an important part of this process. Everyone, including senior staff, put aside time to participate in the process.

Lesson 2:  Make time to think together.  Every time there's a conversation about community engagement, people ask where they should start. My answer is always the same.  Get out there:  go to different, new places in your community.  Meet people, talk, listen, learn, repeat.  We divided up into groups and headed over to Midtown Global Market, walking distance away, with food, crafts and more from vendors serving food from their home countries, hipster foodies, and more.  The groups' assignment was simple:  observe everything you could about how a market experience could help shape a new interpretive experience in the museum's historic Turnblad Mansion.  And of course, we all needed to eat--so we each went armed with $10 to get a great lunch.


Lesson 3: Get out there and listen. What did we learn at the Market? One, the way different stall owners introduced new information to us about food. They were interpreters, in the museum sense of the word, but so friendly and always starting where we were, not where they thought we should be. We found one restaurant that gave you a discount if you did a Bollywood move or two--and even provided the instructions. We realized that the audience for the museum and the users of the market had very little intersection. How could that be changed?  The museum already has some collaborations underway with different communities--but this visit gave the team ideas about new collaborations and how to deepen other partnerships.


Lesson 4: Lead by doing. That's Bruce Karstadt, ASI President and CEO, at left, with other staff members in the photo above. Leaders who don't participate send the message that others don't need to either. Bruce, Peggy Korsmo-Kennan and other senior staff were enthusiastic participants for all the time I was there. It makes an enormous difference when your staff knows that your leadership believes in what's happening--and wants to hear from all of you.

Lesson 5: Have fun. After our market visits, the groups were tasked with coming up with new interpretive experiences in the house. Those were serious experiences, but we had a great time planning and sharing them.


Lesson 6:  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  The time spent together built new understandings of the staff dynamics. At the end of the visit, the entire team dedicated some time to talking about how to streamline communication (those long email chains?  everyone everywhere hates them) and how to design ways for creative ideas to thrive throughout the whole museum.  

The museum also had 2 elements already established that you might consider adopting at your organization:  first, the annual Elsie Pederson (I think I have her name right) Day, named after a dedicated, tidy volunteer. The day is devoted, once a year, to cleaning up and refreshing staff offices. It's that time to get rid of those old brochures, the flip chart notes, the whatever.  The second is a regularly scheduled staff fika, drawing on the Swedish tradition of a coffee break, with baked goods, to take time out of a busy day and connect.


One brief side note:  I was moved by their current exhibit, "Where the Children Sleep - Photographs by Magnus Wennman,"  memories of which returned to me when I watched the Oscar-nominated short documentary, 4.1 Miles, about a Greek coast guard captain  going out, every day, to save thousands of refugees at sea.  Look at the photos; watch the documentary.



Sunday, February 5, 2017

Learning Together: The 2017 Mentees


Once again, my annual call for participants in my small mentor program resulted in the chance to get acquainted with a number of you who made the effort to reach out and submit an application.  My thanks to all of you who shared your questions, your work, your ideas and more.  I'm pleased to announce this year's two mentees.


Tania Said is Director of Education at the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University in Muncie, IN.  She's had a varied career bringing her to this point--at the Smithsonian, in positions from an internship to Community Services Manager, at the Smithsonian's Center for Education and Museum Studies.  She worked at AAM and as Director of the Bead Museum in DC, but has now returned to where she did her undergraduate work.  Tania's questions revolve around ways to increase community engagement and ways to be an advocate for a more diverse workforce.

I loved her description when I asked an exhibit she had found interesting in the last year:
“What Lies Beneath” is a conservation exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I found it especially interesting because of my 12-year-old son and his friend’s reaction to it. They immediately dove into the answering the question of who painted the work of art in question, donning lab jackets, exploring the available tools, reading the docket, and writing their responses. While they skipped the introductory video, they clearly thrilled in finding out about the underlying painting by using and learning about x-ray and infrared scanning tools. The children’s reactions contrasted with the more typical response of watching me enjoy an exhibition and enduring any conversation I may want to have about it; instead, they were self-motivated. I believe this was not just how the exhibition was organized, but the diversity of information providers, and the excellent design presenting all of the opportunities for interaction. Adults visiting the small exhibition (less than 400 sq. ft.) seemed equally curious and willing to explore by not just reading and seeing works of art, but discussing it as well. 

The second mentee is Hannah Hethmon, currently familiar to many of you in the history museum field as Membership Marketing Coordinator at the American Association for State and Local History. Hannah came to the museum field from gaining a Master's degree in Viking and Icelandic Studies at the University of Reykjavík, Iceland, and previous experience as a marketing coordinator for Granite Grannies, Inc and a freelance copywriter.

Hannah wrote, "At the moment, I'm really interested in the ability of new technology, particularly social media, to democratize the museum invitation and become a powerful tool for letting more diverse (racially, economically, socially) audiences know that museums are for them as well."  That interest extends to her key questions for the year:
How can I help AASLH's emerging professionals create meaningful connections within the field without requiring physical attendance at costly conferences? And how can small museums use technology to become a valued part of their community member's lives before those people ever step foot in the building?

Secondly, I am trying to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to learn new aspects of the museum trade, participate in projects (or discussions, like the NCPH 2017 working group on "Community Engagement in a Digital World" I've joined), and make meaningful connections to others in the field from whom I can learn and with whom I can discuss ideas and strategies.
Again, thanks to all who applied.  And to Tania and Hannah, I look forward to a great year of conversation as I know I'll learn as much, or more, than I share.

Top Image:  women shipyard workers, Beaumont, TX,  by John Vachon, 1943, Library of Congress collection

Monday, January 9, 2017

10 x 10: My Favorite Posts from the Last 10 Years


This week is the tenth anniversary of this blog. I couldn't have guessed ten years ago, that I would still be writing on a pretty consistent basis, nor could I have imagined all the places I would go, the experiences I would have, or the lessons I would learn (some easily, some definitely the hard way). To celebrate, I've gone back and chosen a favorite post from each year. These posts weren't necessarily the most-read, but the ones that speak to me still.

2007
My own lifelong learning and the chance to support learning through Donors Choose. On re-reading, an appreciation of my parents and of the chance to pay it forward.
Learning for a Lifetime

2008
This post, about a project for the Montgomery County Historical Society, is really about the power of listening to visitors and communities.  I still share this experience on a regular basis as it continues to resonate, particularly in these times.
The Story of La Guerra Civil or Why I Work in Museums

2009
I went to Ukraine for the first time this year, initially for four months as a Fulbright Scholar.  I blogged a lot this year--124 total posts.  Most posts were me trying to make sense of my time in Ukraine. In retrospect, I can see myself learning on the fly, even in some ways I didn't quite imagine. This year is also when my readership began to rise, as I was the museum person writing in English about museums in Ukraine and the post-Soviet world. This post, about a visit to Chernobyl, another experience that remains deeply with me.

2010
Upon re-reading this post, I was struck by the continuing importance of deep personal connections. One of the stories is about Crimea, more meaningful and poignant now.

2011
Not much extra comment needed.  Not much has changed since this post except more sustained attention to the issue of gender in museums.
Want to Be a Museum Director? Evidently, Be a Man

2012
I'm lucky enough that my work takes me to all kinds of museums and I enjoy reporting back on work that surprises, intrigues and stimulates me.  Here, a Parisian museum totally took me by surprise, in the best way.
When Was the Last Time You Were Surprised at a Museum?

2013
An interview, as history was being made, with my dear friend and colleague, Ihor Poshyvailo, about museums and Maidan. It's fitting that he's now director of the new Revolution of Dignity Museum in Ukraine.
"Our History Museums will Include the Events of These Days"

2014
Over the last several years I've written often about the process of re-interpretation at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. In this one, we're encouraged to give up chronology in the service of more interesting interpretation.
Surrender the Chronology!

2015
Connected to #museumsrespondtoFerguson, this post reflects on the ways I view my own responsibility to work for change after attending an AAM meeting.
We Are Not Separate from Politics: AAM and Beyond

2016
Back to reporting on surprising museums--and tremendous labels.
Brilliant Labels in Dublin: Sweets, Nudes and U2

Here's hoping for another ten years of museum visiting, drinking coffee, meeting all of you, traveling, blogging and learning.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

2017: New Challenges, New Changes


Regular blog readers will know two things: one, that I've been pondering, post-election, the ways I might be able to make more of a contribution in the world; and two, that my career has taken all sorts of unexpected paths.  2017 will be a big year of change and challenge for me as both those items come into play. I'm incredibly pleased to announce that on February 1, I begin a full-time position as Global Networks Program Director for the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

If you're not familiar with the Sites of Conscience, it's a vital and important organization with a great team. As a network of more than 200 sites and organizations in 55 countries, it has the mission of "activating the power of places of memory to engage the public in connecting past and present in order to envision and shape a more just and humane future."  I've used the Coalition's resources in a variety of ways to help shape dialogue-based conversations in Ukraine and with other clients;  it's an honor to take this step of full involvement in their work.

The Coalition’s regional programmatic efforts are focused in seven regional networks: Asia, Africa, Russia, Latin America, Europe, North America, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  My team's work will be focused on developing opportunities for learning in all kinds of ways, including peer-to-peer. We'll encourage effective advocacy, and develop other creative, mission-based ways for sites to work and learn together.  Together we will facilitate plans for regional and cross-regional collaborations and work on expanded ways to share ideas and information.

There's much for me to learn. I look forward to sharing my learning process with all of you in blog entries in the coming year. To end this new beginnings post, I wanted to share a dialogue question from a participant in a Ukrainian workshop a few years ago. In this times, it's a good thing to keep those dreams for a peaceful, just world fully in our sights.