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