Saturday, January 6, 2018

2017's Baker's Dozen of Memorable Museum Experiences

Like 2016, 2017 brought me many memorable museum experiences--that's memorable in a good way. Of course, there were a couple that were memorable in the "oh, no" kind of way, but in a spirit of generosity, here's what I saw, experienced and felt last year that I find myself sharing with friends and colleagues. As I went through selecting photos, I realized there were many more places I could have included on this list. It's encouraging to see how many museums and historic sites are working hard to push boundaries, to think more deeply.

American-Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, MN
Last January, I spent a few days at the American Swedish Institute, helping them jumpstart an interpretive planning process.  This wasn't necessarily memorable because of exhibits I saw, but rather because of the commitment of board, staff leadership and staff.  They embraced new ideas, did all their advance reading (!) and took a memorable field trip off to a local global market to see what they could learn. They're a great example of building a learning culture inside a museum, for staff, not just for visitors.

Torbay History House, Torbay, Newfoundland, Canada
A tiny museum-to-be in Newfoundland, Canada reminded me of the vital place museums can play in communities. I conducted focus groups last winter with students, scouts, parents at the library and the community at large. Everyone had ideas for exhibits, programs, and ways to use a new building for the museum. When the plans had their public meeting this fall, it was one of the liveliest, in the very best way, discussions.  "Could we do this?"  "Oh, I like that," "What will happen here?"  A case study for how opening up a planning process from the start can lead to greater buy-in.

Museum of European Cultures, Berlin, Germany
German colleague and friend Katrin Hieke met me in Berlin for a whirlwind weekend of museum-going. I envisioned the Museum of European Cultures as a dusty place, but far from it.  We took a Tandem (two languages, but actually closer to four) tour with a curator and a refugee artist of the exhibit da Heim: Glances into Fugitive Lives. Read my full post to understand why it was so meaningful, important, and deeply emotional.  It was the kind of exhibit and community collaboration I wish we could all strive for.

Creativity Workshop with local museums, Lutsk, Ukraine
This spring, Rainey Tisdale and I made a week-long, fast-paced trip to several Ukrainian cities to celebrate the Ukrainian publication of Creativity in Museum Practice.  As always, it was great to see friends and colleagues, but the time I particularly remember is at a museum in Lutsk, in western Ukraine, where museum workers and students jammed into a too-small room as enthusiastic workshop participants to learn how to build their own creative practice.  Their team efforts on developing exhibits on some social aspect of Soviet life, for an audience of teenagers, were judged by university students.  The combination of laughter and nostalgia combined with remembered fears and uncertainty was quite astonishing (and surprising to our Ukrainian colleagues as well). My relationship with Ukraine now goes back 8  years, and I continue to appreciate colleagues' progress in still-challenging times. A reminder that change is always possible.

Kigali and Murambi Genocide Memorials, Rwanda
I think about the day of these visits often. Rwanda is a spectacularly beautiful country and so the 1994 genocide seems almost unimaginable.  They tell a recent, still unresolved story, and in both cases, also serve as the final resting place of thousands of Rwandans killed by their neighbors. It challenged my ability to do my work (how can I make a real difference?) but at the same time, reinforced the importance of the work of Coalition members, and that a starting point for real change is empathy.

This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal exhibit at Morgan Library, New York, NY
In this exhibit, words, rightly so, took center stage.  Thoreau's words felt fully contemporary.  The thoughtful design and curation really made the objects, including those journals, matter.  I found deep resonance in his words with my work at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience this year.

Tea Plantation Workers Museum, Kandy, Sri Lanka
This museum is up a long, long way into the Sri Lankan highlands, deep into the tea plantations. One of the great gifts of my travel, particularly this year, is to learn about histories I knew nothing about. The Tea Workers story is one of colonialism, of identity, of nationalism, of persistence, and of family--and I found it all in this tiny museum.  The lesson from here?  Seek out tiny museums to learn about the people and places you're in--go beyond being just a tourist visiting the hot spots.

Casa Azul, the Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City
A number of years ago, I heard someone from this museum speak at an AAM meeting, and I've been interested in going ever since I got the chance. It was worth the wait and lived up to my expectations. First, it's a really beautiful and spectacular place, full of amazing objects that provide deep sense of Kahlo and her work; second, we visited on Day of the Dead weekend, so it was even  more thrilling with a huge altar installation; third, the way the house integrates inside and outside felt calm, even on a crowded day.  And lastly, the visit also included a fascinating exhibition on Kahlo's clothes tocusing on how she used clothing to both hide and step forward.

Museum of Popular Art, Mexico City
I actually didn't get to see very much of this museum, as we were only at a reception there. But there was a spectacular addition to the reception:  illuminated walking hand-made giant creatures making their way through the park to the museum. I had done a session on getting out of your comfort zone at the CAMOC conference, inspired by Annemarie de Wildt's ever-active Facebook page; and she demonstrated the value of that notion immediately, as she waded into great conversations in bits of English, Spanish and French, with the makers.  Creativity and curiosity flourished together in a memorable evening.  How can you inspire the same in your visitors to get them outside their comfort zones?

Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (Municipal Museum), the Hague, the Netherlands
I approach technology in museums with some skepticism.  I know, that's a blanket statement, but I want to technology to be a tool, not the means, and that doesn't happen often enough.  My dear friend Irina Leonenko, her son Nikolai, and I bicycled off to this museum and I found a total surprise. In the museum's Wonderkammer you receive an iPad to explore a whole series of rooms, answering clues and collecting objects.

Several things I really liked: the tablet was just the activator and each room encouraged different kinds of learning and participation.  We danced in time to a Mondrian painting, learned about glass making and identified tools, listened to tales of dragons and digitally put ourselves in historic costume.  But then, in a way hard to explain, we found ourselves in the large center gallery space, with tiny objects, and we used the objects we'd collected to design our own exhibition and digitally, our tiny selves entered the gallery, cut a ribbon and enjoyed the space.  I can imagine going back again and again, as every time the experience would be different.

We Have a Dream exhibition, Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
It was pouring rain in Amsterdam, and as I crossed a street, I saw giant images of Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King.  Curious (and wet), I ducked into the Nieuwe Kirk, a spectacular space, to find an exhibit that looked at three giant figures of the 20th century.  The exhibit had few objects (although I appreciated Gandhi's bicycle in this cycling city) but the graphics, including text, were eye-catching and direct. The exhibit encouraged us to think about these men as not just historical figures, but as people who continue to inspire, even including contemporary heirs, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Terezín Memorial, Terezín, Czech Republic
Terezín is one of the founding members of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and was the site of our 2017 European members meeting so the site and the chance to meet our members are inextricably linked.  The entire site represents layers and layers of history--from an 18th century fort to a "model" detention camp for the Nazis to a museum and almost uninhabited town today.  The education staff at Memorial have created a number of programs for young people, for whom Nazism is distant history, to help them understand that those lessons carry forward to today.  We all felt warmly welcomed by all the staff, despite the site's cold and chilling history. It didn't require much imagination to see where those railroad tracks led; but at the same time, the creative spirit of those in the camp was very much in evidence.  The lesson for me here?  Embrace the complications.

Loja das Conservas, Lisbon, Portugal My last one is not actually a museum, but provided the best kind of museum-like experience.  Loja das Conservas is a store created by the canned fish association of Portugal and selling only canned  fish (conservas). If you're like me, white tuna in water is your idea of canned fish, you're in for a surprise.  But what made it like a museum?  Great graphics, and interpretive labels explaining each producer's work and history. We had a chance to sit down with a glass of wine and sample different products (as part of a great Context travel walk), with a very helpful staff member who explained the different types, and even got our non-fish eater to try a bit! I felt welcomed, had a great time,  learned something, and brought souvenirs home.  Just like a museum, right?

That was my year!  A shout-out to ICOM because my membership card provided free admission to many of these places.  I'm looking forward to another year full of big challenges, thoughtful museums, and incredible colleagues.  Stay tuned.


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