Sunday, December 30, 2007

Aspects of Comfort

Nina Simon, at Museum 2.0 has been writing about aspects of comfort in museums. She describes a program she attended, saying, “It was the kind of experience I wish I had at lots of museum programs—the staff and the content pulled me out of my comfort zone, engaged me in something unusual, and made me feel great. 

 How can educational programs at museums push the boundaries of comfort to support these special experiences?”

She then, provides readers with some suggestions. I thought I’d try to apply those suggestions to projects I’ve worked on, attended, or heard about—both good and bad.

“By sending people on missions.”
The mission might be simple—a new tour at the Van Alen Site of the Columbia County Historical Society takes visitors (and five fascinating characters) on a day in June, 1754. There’s no real mission to solve, but the journey is what matters here. And, most historic house tours—the least mission-like of anything—perhaps a forced march is the better description. The this is a that and that is a this tour is guaranteed to make anyone want to bail out of a mission!

“By giving people roles.”
An easy one for historic sites. Sites are about people and have stories embedded in them. Again at Van Alen, on a school tour, students are asked to take on one of five characters who intersect in time and place. It’s amazing to watch a fourth grader, playing an 70 year old Dutch farmer in 18th century America, reflect back on his life. He said, looking out the window, “It’s been good and bad. Good, I built this house and have a family; bad, I’m getting older and can’t see what’s happening outside.” This role playing wasn’t complicated: no computers, no fancy costumes, no audio installations, just a strong desire to connect the past with young visitors. I think museums have a critical role to play in developing empathy among our visitors, a quality sometimes all too lacking in our culture.

And by the way, we might look to various performing arts groups to better understand how meaningful this can be. Several years ago, the high point of my teenage daughter's trip to London--for her and her friends--was a performance at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Why? Not because she'd read it in school, or saw a movie--it was because Anna and Sophie had, for several summers, performed in an annual summer Shakespeare workshop for young people. Thanks, West Kortright Centre for making Shakespeare live for so many young people in our part of the Catskills!

“By making it a social experience.”
I think about this in terms of my work at the Upstate History Alliance where I developed professional training activities for museum staff. Particularly memorable were several sessions of the Museum Institute at Sagamore, an intensive four day retreat. Museum professionals sometimes forget that our work should be fun. At Sagamore, one year, Bill Adair of the Rosenbach Museum and Library challenged participants to create a theatrical performance based on items in the Rosenbach’s collections. It was an amazing group of materials—Marianne Moore poems and Joseph Cornell boxes, a list of slaves written by Thomas Jefferson, and more.

As Nina writes, “ There is strength in numbers.” So all of us, including presenters and participants, armed with tape, paper, markers, and our own energy, stood up on a small stage and shared our perspectives. From a talk show that used narratives of whites captured by Native Americans, to a powerful visualization of the slave list, the efforts were amazing—and they were that way, in part, because we made it fun. (And by the way, although I haven't attended any, all of the Rosenbach's programming sounds like fun--check out their annual Dracula parade).

“By training staff and lecturers as listeners.”
Again, back to historic house tours. At one site that will remain nameless, the staff assured me that their evaluations showed that their visitors loved the very long tour. Except one, they said. What did that one evaluation say? It said, “Please God, make him stop!” Not a listener. I often work with small museum boards and start by asking each of them to describe a memorable museum experience. Nine times out of ten, it’s not about the object, or the house, it’s about the person they interacted with. “So interesting,” they say, but what they really mean, I think, is “so interested in me” and able to connect a visitor’s interests with the story of the place.

"By couching the experience within a comfortable environment. "
Nina Simon has written about several science museums that now provide engaging science programs on a regular basis in bars. Why not? Why do we have to sit on uncomfortable folding chairs in a room that’s too cold or too hot? Why are programs scheduled at times that are, in these busy times, challenging to make? I remember hearing about the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs several years ago—they found that although Saratoga has a huge influx of people in the summer, they weren’t getting attendance at their local history programs. However, the race track—the draw in Saratoga—doesn’t open until afternoon. The historical society changed their program time to the morning—and attracted people who were looking for something to do before going to the races. Comfort isn’t just a chair, it’s place and time, and of course, it’s how welcoming we are to our visitors. How often have you been to a small museum where your appearance feels like a burden? Where they seem surprised to see you? And then, of course, if you happen to arrive within an hour of closing time, the front desk person is grumpy. Be nice!

Top: Puck, in a 1980s version of a Midsummer Night's Dream at the West Kortright Centre, 2007.
Above: Interior of the Luykas VanAlen House, Courtesy of the Columbia County Historical Society.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Year End Review

So it's almost the end of this year, and the end of a year's worth of sporadic blogging and time for some random museum thoughts, based on experiences during the past year:

Best combination of place and art: visiting Arles and then the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Amazing both individually and even more so collectively.

Most entertaining and challenging teamwork: working with a talented team of staff and consultants at the Berkshire Museum on a new exhibition about innovation in the Berkshires. Very thoughtful work and a team that all respected the work of others. Biggest luxury in a work setting: getting to be a team member with opinions on this project, not a project manager.

Best volunteer organization: The Sayre Historical Society, who after long years of work, opened a part of their new museum to the public on December 16. As a board, their commitment to professionalism in building restoration, collections care and exhibit development was exemplary, and as well, they represent one of the friendliest, most enthusiastic communities where Riverhill has worked.

Blogs I'm currently reading on a regular basis and always find interesting: Museum 2.0 is written by Nina Simon and is about the ways in which "the philosophies of Web 2.0 can be applied in museums to make them more engaging, community-based vital elements of society." Thoughtful, funny reading and a great sweep of posts on influences from other places.

and CultureGrrl by arts journalist Lee Rosenbaum, who's passionate and outspoken about many issues relating to the arts and museums. She writes about art museums, somewhat out of my sphere, but it's always enlightening, and her continued push about deaccessioning in museums should be reading for all of us.

Museum I'll remember a long time--the Jewish Historical Museum of the Netherlands. Museum that was sort of forgettable: the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, despite a topic that is one that we all should be considering these days.

Topics I want to think more about in 2008: how to take interactives to a next step in terms of development and how to meet the challenge of interpretive difficult community issues in both historic houses and museums.

Exhibits or museums I wish I'd seen this year:
The Eldredge Street Synagogue, Mythic Creatures at the American Museum of Natural History, the Kara Walker retrospective at the Whitney Museum (highly recommended by a colleague), and far too many more to list!

Above from top:
Set design by Peggy Clark for a production of Philip Barry's holiday. The main character, Linda Seton, is in a playroom, awaiting the start of a New Year's Eve Party
Music Division, Library of Congress
The Sayre Historical Society's board of directors
A young museum goer and her mother at the Sayre Historical Society Museum
(last two photographs courtesy Ken Bracken)

Monday, December 10, 2007


Prototyping--it sounds very serious like we might work at General Motors and we're prototyping some big gas-guzzling, laden with fins, new car. But...this year I've worked on three projects where I've prototyped interactive stations for exhibitions. And in every one, I've been stunned at how revealing and helpful the process has been.

Why prototype?

It helps identify those great ideas that are perhaps only great to exhibit developers. I loved the idea of boondoggle for an interactive on summer camp (that's the upstate New York term for making lanyards out of that plastic stuff). In testing, we discovered that directions are amazingly to hard to write for this. Without a sample, all were lost. The solution: one set of strands attached to a hook to try and take-home packets with instructions. The unexpected consequence: despite its difficulty, it brought forth wonderful memories from parents.

It helps refine language to make it accessible for many. In testing an I Spy sort of interactive about the AC transformer we found that few people knew or understood what an AC transformer was (me too, really), but even more surprising, that the idea of unintended outcomes was a little fuzzy as well. A rewritten and re-tested label (below)meant that it became more understandable--and more fun--for visitors.

It saves museums from expensive design and fabrication costs for things that don't quite work. For instance, in a prototype activity about matching dolls from around the world with a map, the name of the country with the doll was in upper and lower case; the name of the country on the map was in all upper case letters. In prototyping, we discovered that early readers were having a really tough time puzzling out the country names because of the type itself--a very easy fix.

You learn how to extend the experience from the visitors themselves. For a pretend picnic interactive, we noticed that, in the prototyping, young visitors not only packed their picnic basket, but then took it over to a corner in the room and sat and had a picnic--our revised label copy encouraged others to do the same.

And, I think, most importantly, it strengthens the connection between a museum and its visitors. Participants inevitably are pleased to be asked to participate, and as one parent wrote, "Thanks for the opportunity. We can't wait to try the real thing!"

Photos: Top and center, from prototyping at the Berkshire Museum for the new Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, December, 2007. Bottom: Interactive label for Summer in the Finger Lakes exhibitions, June, 2007.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Why Does It Matter?

Doing some random browsing on the web in an effort to keep up-to-date, I came across the Art Gallery of Ontario's collectionx website. I'd visited the AGO late last December, and was very intrigued by some of their work in connecting with audiences. On one blog entry, they posit some questions that they as a staff have been pondering as they undertake major re-installation in their new building:

What is art?
Why does it matter?
How do we connect with each other creatively?
How can we discover new relationships together?
How can we create meaning?
How can we raise issues?

The connect part of the website talks about their exhibitions--and explores the answers to a whole range of questions about art, elitism and community. But for community based museums, the site also, perhaps unintentionally, provides a raft of ideas for exhibitions that might help them connect better to their own communities. I saw In Your Face, their exhibit of community (including nationally and internationally) portraits and self-portraits last year--and watched visitors of all ages, classes, and ethnicities spend substantial amounts of time looking at the work done by thousands of people who mailed their postcard size portraits to the museum. But then there's community and personal mapping, Carbon Copy, where students created a forest out of paper waste, numbers of outdoor art installations exploring a community's past (and in several cases, using boarded up or empty lack of those in upstate New York)....

And I very much like the part of the website that encourages people to share either their own artwork or artwork that interests them. You can find Misfortune Cookies, a series of vapour trail images shot in the skies around Toronto, and The Shooting Gallery, a project of the Thunder Bay Arts Gallery in Northern Canada, that features work by First Nations' young people.

Above: Portraits from the In Your Face project at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Same and Different

In the past couple months, I've visited three museums that reflect their ambitions, tastes, and desires of their early 20th century collectors: the Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia, the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY and the new Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, NY. Taken together, they're a fascinating look at collectors and the museums they found--and how those museums move forward into the 21st century. The Barnes is the most familiar, I suppose, and certainly the subject of the most controversy because of its planned move to downtown Philadelphia. I'd read about it for years, of course, and the subject of the move was a part of my museum controversies class at Hartwick. I understand the need to move, but at the same time, the experience will be greatly changed. Like the other two places, it's a tremendous place to see crowds, small intimate spaces, and the chance to connect directly with work--and much of the work was art I hadn't seen before. I had read about Barnes' interest in juxtaposing American decorative arts--ironwork, Pennsylvania painted chests and the like--but it was really stunning to see. After a room or two, it really begins to make sense...Barnes was about color and shape, and the works play beautifully off each other. I'm glad I had a chance to see the collection in its original location...but if I worked there, I would probably be lobbying for the move.

A friend and I took a little field trip to the new Arkell Museum in Canajoharie. Most people have probably never been to Canajoharie, but if you drive the New York State Thruway, the Beech Nut sign marks the spot--and is the source of the Arkell money. It's a fine collection of American art--and then that large reproduction of Rembrandt's Night Watch. It really is a community place, connected directly to the community library. I was surprised, a bit, at how conservative the installation and interpretation were. I enjoy places like the Brooklyn Museum, who experiment with how to engage visitors with art and was disappointed that the presentation was so staid. That said, beautiful work and a chance to look carefully and closely. Most intriguing--the Rufus Grider paintings (but I wanted to know much more!) and the exhibit that explores the ways in which Arkell used his art collection in promotional materials for Beechnut--creating this idea of a bucolic, romantic American part.

Not so far from the Arkell, the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls. I was there for work, rather than for pleasure, so in some ways, a very different experience. The Hyde has just undergone a major restoration of the house itself, where a highly eclectic collection of art is installed. Here's the place where you can imagine living with the art--along with the candlewick bedspreads and ball fringe curtains of the 1950s!

All three places were wonderful places to see art...small and intimate, not crowded, and allowing you to look closely at works.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Why I do what I do

Today's New York Times has an article by Edward Rothstein about the opening of the new Uris Center for Education at the Metropolitan Museum. In the museum field, there's been a great deal of thought--and some very interesting writing--devoted to meaning making. In his article, he says,

"But art education is a strange and surprising enterprise. It makes memories as important as celebration, traditions as crucial as innovation." He goes on to describe his family's participation in programs in the old education center, which began with the "scruffy informality" of the center and then, "a train of adults and children would follow an instructor up the stairs into the American Wing or the African galleries or the 19th-century European-painting rooms, and press close to two or three works as the instructor teased the underage aesthetes into learning how to see a painting, or into thinking about what can be learned from looking and even sketching."

And then, Rothstein recounts, "And then the train would return to the Uris, where some aspect of the gallery experience would inspire a craft project using cups of pencils and crayons, sketchbook paper or scraps of construction paper for pasting.

There were programs about portraits, about families, about countries, about particular artists. And they were so refreshing because, given the nature of the audience, there was no way even the most accomplished adult could veer into intellectual abstractions or indulge in the lingo of the art theory industry."

For Rothstein and his family (including a daughter, now an art history major, who started her love of art at the Met), these experiences created indelible memories, and a chance to make their own meaning of the museum's incredible collection. In addition to talk about meaning making, there's also a great deal of talk about outcome-based evaluation. So a post workshop evaluation might have shown that the Rothstein family learned about a particular artist--but it wouldn't show us how those workshops shaped a family.

Why did I title this post this way? Because the chance to create those lasting memories--about things that matter--whether it's at a community history museum or the Met--are worth doing and worth doing in the very best way we can.

(and by the way, 20,000 educational events a year at the Met! I'm tired even thinking about it but wish they could offer even more--and most family programs are free with admission)

Thursday, October 4, 2007


A comment below noted my fairly regular thoughts and comments about museums as places that tell stories and wondered if storytelling, as such, should be taught in museum studies programs. Hmm...I don't know if storytelling needs to be taught, but perhaps courses in screenwriting or playwriting would generate new thinking. In both those disciplines, writers use all the tools at hand, not just words, but other elements to create a visual experience. They tell the story through stage or film sets and locations, costumes, props, and of course, their actors and the words they speak. But of course, the best writers do that just with words. I'm reminded of a session my colleague Christopher Clarke facilitated several years ago at the Museum Institute at Sagamore, a program of the Upstate History Alliance. In advance, Christopher asked half the group to read one non-fiction book, and half another. The books he choose were The Sudden Sea, about the great hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti and Close to Shore, about the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks. The group, with his skillful help, examined how these authors chose to tell a story and how their storytelling as non-fiction authors, relates to our own work as exhibit developers or other museum people. The books (both great, entertaining reads, whether you're interested in sharks or hurricanes or not) use detail--but selectively; they have characters that you care about; and each book has a careful, compelling story arc.

Museums have both more and fewer tools at our disposal. To me, books are a type of experience that's fully immersive, and I'm not distracted by other people, by whether or not my feet hurt, by whether my parking is too expensive, or any of the other million things that occupy museum goers' minds. But, we have the ability, within our resources, to create immersive enviroments that stimulate the imagination, and, of course, we have the real deal. We have (just to name a few things I've seen that stick with me) Darwin's notebook in which he first posits the theory of evolution, Vermeer paintings, or even the well-worn overalls of a worker in the Lehigh Valley Railroad shops in Sayre, PA. Each one of those items connects me to a story--and for me, as a visitor at least, I care about the people embedded in those stories.

So should museum programs teach storytelling? Couldn't hurt (and might even help make those historic house tours better!)

Above: Can't figure out how to get people into your museum? Consider the methods of this sideshow barker in Donaldsville, LA, in 1939. Photo by Russell Lee, FSA/OWI Collection Library of Congress.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


I'm often struck, when I'm at a local history museum, how many fascinating stories, of all types, linger there, unknown and unappreciated, because no one has the time to consider them fully. Recently, at the Walter Elwood Museum in Amsterdam, I came across two boxes related to glovemaking (although not as important as in nearby Gloversville, it was an important city despite Amsterdam being known as Rug City, for all its carpet manufacturing).

In the boxes were beautiful drawings of possible gloves, detailing stitching and cutting, several little journals accounting various ways to make gloves, dozens of patterns for cutting, time sheets, order forms and other materials.

Those two boxes represented a life to me...and what does that have to do with matchmaking? I just wish there was a way to match all those budding historians in graduate school with the great materials in local history collections, so that more of these stories can be fleshed out, and their creators given space in our collective memories (or at least in history journals or other publications.)

Above: glove pattern from

Sunday, September 9, 2007

History Museums--Big and Little

Today's New York Times has an article about what it calls "shiny new history museums," that are attracting hordes of visitors. Mentioned among them are the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Mount Vernon, the Lincoln Museum and the International Spy Museum. Several parts of the story raise some interesting thoughts. Gone, says author Kathryn Shattuck, "are shelves of crusty artifacts, yellowed text panels stuffed with dates and names and the 'excitement' of a stale soda cracker behind glass that some historical figure may have sampled."

Okay, so I'm happy to have those shelves of dusty artifacts and those jam-packed text panels making an exit, but I'm perhaps a little less happy to see that those equivalents of stale soda crackers disappear. We are, as museums, about the the chance to see real objects, connected to real people--and all kinds of real people, not just Washington and Lincoln, are what make us unique as a place.

I do agree though, with the emphasis on storytelling as one of our most important functions, particularly as it helps us as visitors make those direct connections to our own lives. (as an aside, I'm intrigued that a number of these new museums are about war and the military--what does that mean for us today?)
Equally important though is to consider what this trend means for the small history museum in your community, wherever you may be. If you go on vacation and try out the spy phones at the Spy Museum, or test your marksmanship at the Marine Corps Museum, what does it mean when you come home? Does it make you less likely to visit, volunteer at, or support your community museum because it doesn't offer a big bang experience? Small museums can't offer that big bang, but what they can offer is that direct connection to your own life. You can learn about where you live--what happened down the street--both good and bad. Community museums may not be able to compete in the big media department, but we can, with some intelligence, care and imagination, compete very well in the storytelling department.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What Makes a Good Story?

In today's (8/21/07) New York Times, Regional Editor Jodi Rudoren answers readers' questions. In addition to the several question about why and how she and her husband (also a writer) combined their two names into one (take that, you genealogists!) she also answered a question about what makes a good story, something she had spoken about in a writing class. I thought her answer was fascinating in how it related to the work of developing museum exhibitions. She said,

"I think I probably pointed out that stories, even the truest of them, even the hard-news boring-but-important ones, need to have: plot (an arc of stuff happening), characters (people you care about and can relate to), conflict/tension, scenes (that you witness and describe in vivid detail) and a beginning, middle and end (though not necessarily presented in that order).

I probably also posed the question, "What is a story?" and offered the ridiculously simple formula:

1. Something people care about.
2. Something people fight about.
3. Something people wonder about.

And I might have said something about making people laugh or cry -- or both.

"Tenets of Good Newspaper Writing" is an intimidating title; I'm afraid that whatever I would say, I'd be leaving much more out. I'd start any such list with something about good, deep, vivid, person-center reporting being at the heart of good writing. The lead paragraph, and as much of the story as possible, should be stuff you couldn't have written before you went to the place or made your phone calls, something you couldn't have written when getting the assignment. The quotes should be carefully chosen and sharply edited so that each quoted sentence is a fresh, original thought expressed as only the quoted person can, not something that could be more simply stated in paraphrase. Oh, but now I haven't said anything about organization and big-thought nut paragraphs....anyhow, it's a start."

So think about it--when was the last time you used the frame of what people care about, fight about or wonder about in developing an exhibit? Her observations on newspaper writing are people-centered in a way we often forget. Caring, fighting, wondering--those are things we all do. And "good, deep, vivid, person-center reporting"--that's what our research should be as well, leading us away from this 'this is a this and that is a that" approach so often seen at community museums.

It's funny that I came across this just as I randomly watched "All the Presidents Men" on television last night. Although I am glad to see that Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman have aged, just like me, and that it was a great period piece for the 1970s. It was most importantly an empassioned reminder of two writers' commitment to the story. Although community history may not have the stories that bring down a president, every place has stories that make people care, fight or wonder about.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Learning for a Lifetime

Much of the talk in museum work today is framed around the idea of free-choice and life-long learning--the idea that we choose to visit museums, rather than the not-so-free choice learning of the classroom--and that, if we can get people started early enough, they'll be interested in learning for their entire lives. In sorting a big collection of family slides from my growing up, I realized that, as a kid, how much of your free choice learning is shaped by your parents (not so free choice, perhaps). I (and my four siblings) were lucky to have parents who provided us with all sorts of experiences, many of them museum ones. In those slides, here we are in Boston, on the Freedom Trail, at Plimouth Plantation, in Washington, and in two of the craziest looking places, the New York World's Fair in 1965 and Expo '67 in Montreal. But we also explored close to home as well. Here we are taking a hike in one of the state parks near Ithaca, and riding on the Arcade & Attica Railroad, a steam railroad in western New York.

What did we learn from all that? I developed a love of history and museums--but am the only one who's made that a career. But for all of us, and now for my own daughter and her cousins, I think we gained a sense of a world of possibilities, a sense of the many places we might fit in the world. For many, a museum visit is not about the knowledge learned, but about the experience with family or friends, and the knowledge that exploration (even when you're that glum teenager forced to travel with your family) can be a life-long pursuit. Thanks Mom and Dad!

I realize that not every family has the resources to travel or to visit museums--even the ones in their home towns. For that reason, museums' commitment to our younger audiences is so critical. Whether it's through school programs or after school programs, or free family visits, we can provide these opportunities for students to dream, to see things in a different way, to realize that it's a big exciting world out there. I think though, it's the responsibility of all of us to reach out to all kinds of kids, in our work and in the rest of their lives, to help create those memorable experiences.

Earlier this year I donated funds to a project through and got my reward, of sorts, just the other day. At Donorschoose, teachers request funds for materials and experiences for their students, all over the United States--and you choose which to support. There are lots of request for equipment--but I really wanted to support a project that was about experiences. So what did I support? A project that brought second graders in Chicago together. Two classes, from different parts of Chicago have been penpals this year, and their teachers wanted them to meet each other--and experience a different culture by meeting in a Chinese restaurant--in Chinatown-- to celebrate Chinese New Year. The teacher noted that many of the students had never left their own neighborhood.

What was my reward? Part of the great concept of DonorsChoose is that you receive thank you letters from students and teachers. The teacher noted that it was an experience that students would remember for a lifetime. And the students--what did they say? "My penpal helped me with my chopsticks," "We ate chicken and rice and alot more," "My penpal was very nice and I was nice back to her," "I tried new food. My friend Cookie said now it's time to try something new and I did."

These days, so much talk about curriculum-based learning--but really, the learning that lasts is the kind like this...the kind that opens our minds and hearts to new people and new experiences. Thank you Ms. Renie and students at Harte Elementary School for such a great reminder. It was my pleasure!

Top: James, Holly, Linda and Mary at the New York Worlds Fair
Center: Chinese restaurant, by Kevin Rooseel, from

A Dutch Surprise

After my trip to Holland, I'd written about the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, and had told numerous people, including some clients, about their innovative exhibitions. Imagine my surprise when I opened my mail one day to find a package from them--what could it be? Inside, a note that said, "We read your blog!" and several catalogs from their museum. A great surprise from a great museum. Thanks, staff at the Jewish Historical Museum!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Metrics of Success

What makes a museum a winner?

A recent issue of NEMA News, the newsletter of the New England Museum Association, featured an abridged version of a piece written by Maxwell Anderson for the Getty Leadership Institute, "Metrics of Success in Art Museums" (full article here). Published in 2004, he proposes that three indicators: exhibitions, attendance and membership, are currently used by many to measure success in art museums. He proposed an alternative framework of 11 new metrics--and as I read it, I wondered how those metrics might apply to the small museums and historical agencies that are at the core of my work. In order to be adopted, Anderson comments, these new metrics must be "directly connected with the core values and mission of the art museum; be reliable indicators of long-term organizational and financial health, and be easily verified and reported."

So let's see:

1. Quality of Experience--as Anderson says, the most important factor in any museum is the quality of a visitor's experience. In art museums, the artwork itself is sometimes the most important factor. But in local history museums, that rocker from Great Aunt So and So just doesn't cut it. The one area where local history museums sometimes do well here is that visitors enjoy personal attention--for those who like a one on one tour, a local history museum is often the place. But confusing hours, badly written labels, and just big rooms of "stuff" do not an engaging experience make. As well, Anderson importantly notes that looking at the demographics of a community compared to the demographics of museum visitors is important. If all your visitors are over 75 years old, you might not be reaching all of your community. Big points to those small museums who work hard to engage their visitors.

2. Fulfillment of Educational Mandate--In New York State, museums are chartered as educational organizations by the New York State Board of Regents--so in this state, at least theoretically, museums should be thinking in this direction--not just in taking care of (or storing) objects. As my colleague Laura Roberts was noted (and I believe she was quoting someone else)--do we want to be in the warehouse business? Just because you're chartered as an educational organization doesn't mean you're meeting this mandate. How many school groups come? Are your school materials connected to school curriculums? Have you thought about life-long learners? How about life-long learners who learn differently than just hearing a monthly lecture? How do you reach new residents in your community? Or people who have been left out of the historical record?

3. Institutional Reputation--both local and larger. Some thoughts on local reputation--if I stopped on the street in your town, could someone tell me where your museum was? Even if I was only two blocks away? I've certainly had people unable to do that, which perhaps suggest that you're not connecting much with your community. How many volunteers do you have? How consistent are they in their commitment to you? Interestingly, Anderson also suggests asking visitors directly to articulate the museum's core mission. I'd love to see those percentages at any institution!

From local to larger--safe to say, few local history museums have national reputations. However, I do believe that attracting funding (state and federal) to your institution is a way of broadening your institution. Even the smallest historical societies can be successful here--and it's a way of measuring yourself against the big guys--and nice for your community to know that their local place can do that!

4. Management Priorities and Achievements--do you have a plan? Do you use the plan? And what percentage of those goals and objectives are you actually achieving? Do you do an annual budget? I can't tell you the number of all volunteer organizations I see who don't do a budget, just rely on the money in and money out theory. This theory guarantees that you won't move forward as an organization.

5. Caliber and Diversity of Staff--For Anderson, "the caliber of a museum's staff begins with the number of curators and educators on the payroll as a percentage of total staff size." In a small museum, the director perhaps, has to wear all these hats. Perhaps it should measure the amount devoted to exhibitions and education, as compared to the keeping the doors open (lawn-mowing, snow removal) kind of functions. I think for small museums this also means that board members have to educate themselves about what makes a well-qualified staff, consider what appropriate pay is, and commit themselves to finding support for the position or positions. In another direction, I see an increasing number of small museums who are also looking for directors of development. If you have a staff of three or less, you don't need a development director--this is appropriately the work of the board and of the director, working together. Diversity--still a critical, oft-un-addressed issue in the museum field and organizations should seek employees to represent the diversity of their community.

6. Standards of Governance--Anderson suggests an assessment where trustees are asked to article the museum's core purpose and how it has been advanced over the past year. Great idea, and useful to any size organization. He also suggests that trustees be asked annually to differentiate the division of responsibilities between board and director, and to give an example of how that worked in the last year. I see uncounted numbers of organizations with director/trustee issues. They're not impossible to resolve, and I think often of several board mentors early in my career as a director that supported and challenged me, giving me great models to learn from.

In governance, don't forget the make-up of your board. Anderson suggests how many trustees donated works of art or a sum equal to or greater than the museum's operating budget over the last five years? Those tests may not work for small organizations, but how about--
how many board members contribute to the annual appeal (that's above and beyond the membership)? How many attend some sort of program during the year? How many are able and willing to speak about the museum to other community groups? More questions from Anderson: How many board members are members of minority groups? How many are members of other art museums? or, any kind of museum? Do board members visit other museums of any type? Have they sought out or taken advantage of board training opportunities?

7. Scope and Quality of Collection--One measure Anderson proposes here is the number of artworks on display. For small museums, a reversal somewhat might be in order. Do you display everything you own? If you do, probably not that interesting? Have you developed a collecting plan or do you just take everything that comes in the door?

8. Contribution to Scholarship--Do staff or volunteers publish in any fashion? It could be regular columns about history or the collections in a newsletter or in your local newspaper. Is this kind of article more than just a recitation of facts or genealogy, but an article that provides an integrated approach to the topic? Do scholars use your library/archives? Do staff speak at conferences--either about a topic, such as the New York History Conference, or about museum issues, such as the Upstate History Alliance/Museum Association of New York conference?

9. Contributions to Art Conservation--Not a critical focus for many small museums, so perhaps this metric is better framed around the ideas of basic collections care. What is the storage like? Do staff and volunteers understand professional standards and strive towards them? Do they seek out training?

10. Quality of Exhibitions--This metric comes back around to the first one about the visitor experience. He suggests judging exhibitions by the degree to which they contributed something--and I would suggest that this might be measured, in a survey sort of way, by measuring if exhibitions presented caused visitors to see or understand their community in new ways. That understanding can be developed by careful attention to both content and design--with of course, the Big Idea of an exhibition always at the forefront of each project.

11. Facilities Contribution to Core Mission--"Architectural conceits" and vast halls mentioned by Anderson are rarely seen in small museums. But adequate space to house your collection, create engaging exhibitions and provide educational programs is vital for small museums. But this might not mean more space--more organizations should be encouraged to work collaboratively in communities, sharing space, time, people and resources.

Want some other ways to think about your museum's success?

Look at AAM's standards for accreditation at

New York State's Standards for Museums and Historical Organizations, found at the Museum Association of New York's site

and to assess exhibitions, Beverly Serrell and others worked on the Framework for Assessing Exhibitions, which can be downloaded at here, or found in her book, Judging Exhibitions, A Framework for Assessing Excellence.

Photo: Winner at the Delta County Fair, Colorado, by Russell Lee, 1940, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress.

Food Museums Part II

Well, perhaps better described as an empty calorie museum. Just in the last week or so, the New York Times had a review of the new Coca Cola museum, known as the World of Coke. I have to say, there's something about any museum that has a place known as the Happiness Factory, that scares me a little bit. Very Willie Wonka sounding. Pretty expensive--with an admission price of $15, that means each visitor is paying that amount to be sold advertising--because, enjoyable though it may be, that's what this sort of corporate museum is.

I found it interesting that I couldn't find any pictures of exhibits, even on their own website. Their own website just has exhibit concept drawings, and I suspect, like many museums of all types, they don't allow photography in the galleries. That's a pet peeve of mine--I understand no flashes, of course, but I know feel like all those no photographs rules feel really corporate and big-brotherish--when all I want to do is take a photo of a really inventive label or interesting installation. So I might go see the Coke Museum (and I could certainly persuade my daughter to see the Andy Warhol exhibit there) but I can't imagine putting it high on my list.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Food Museums

A recent article in Saveur magazine noted different food museums worth visiting, including Upstate New York's own Jell-O Museum. Long ago, I worked on a project for the New York State Museum of Cheese, and of course, I love to eat--and learn about all kinds of food. So I thought I'd check out what kinds of food museums I can find on the web. Conveniently, Food History News has a museum directory of food and beverage museums.

There appear to be a huge number of food-related museums in Europe--including the Museum of Bread Culture in Ulm, Germany and DeLocht, the National Museum of National Asparagus and Mushrooms in the Netherlands.

In the Americans, there are the National Apple Museum, in Biglerville, PA and the Prince Edward Island Potato Museum. But what do all these museums mean--what are they really about? In perusing the entire list, the food museums seem to fall into several distinct categories:

  • food museums that are really about local history--if your biggest industry is agriculture, then a community museum quite naturally focuses on raising corn or peaches, or whatever. If you're on the sea and your history is about fishing for sardines or whales, then that's your food museum.
  • collectors museums--people collect everything, and some people collect vinegars, or mustard, or ketchup, or whatever--and then decide to share their collection with the public
  • industrial history museums--museums about how food is processing--grist mills seem foremost above them.
  • corporate or industry sponsored museums--these, to me, seem a bit problematic. Why? Maybe it's because I suspect that corporate museums only present one point of view. Interestingly, there was a Kelloggs Cereal City USA museum, but it has apparently closed. Although, I have to say, the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota has a great website and looks like a really fun place. Is Spam good for you? Probably not, but the museum seems not to take itself too seriously, and to have developed exhibits that really engage the visitor.
Most memorable food exhibit I ever saw: in 1992, at a museum in Hungary--I can't remember which one. It was a great, thoughtful exhibit (helped along greatly by a colleague who translated labels for me) that explored the role of bread--and all kinds of baked goods--in Hungarian traditional culture. I saw that exhibit at a time, just after the end of Communism in Hungary, that Hungarians were figuring out how to reclaim and reinvigorate their traditional culture that had, in many ways, fallen into decline. And every Christmas, when I bring out my carefully preserved (and now solely decorative) traditionally decorated cookie bought at a train station that same day, I remember that exhibit, and the ongoing importance of maintaining a connection to our past.

(photo above by Drew Harty, of peaches at a Finger Lakes Farmers' Market)

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Conversations about museum leadership seem to be happening everywhere. Several colleagues and I have recently had discussions about whether museum leaders can be trained, whether working with boards is an impossible task, whether a new generation of museum leaders will be willing to commit without adequate pay, and many, many more issues.

A recent discussion made me go back to two presentations at the American Association of Museums meeting in Chicago this year. My notes are a bit sketchy, but two museum leaders provided great food for thought--and perhaps models for us to consider.

Lou Casagrande of the Boston Children's Museum shared his five principles of creating an effective and creative organizational culture (and amazingly, I can't remember what else was in the session). He talked about creating a culture of light, not shadows, in an institution.

His five principles: (and I take full responsibility for any mistatements)

1. Manage with vision and values. Make sure everyone in the institution knows the big idea.
You can't be creative unless you know why.

2. Fight hierarchy, bosses and boundaries. His job, he thought, was to "create strategic chaos." Of course, he said, you also have to get things done, but this point, rare from a director, was about thinking outside the box within your organization.

3. Build around individuals, but plan for turnover. The individual makes things happen, but don't build your whole culture around individuals.

4. Open all your doors (metaphorically speaking, I guess) People, ideas, and innovations should be coming through all your doors.

5. Fund projects big and little. The Children's Museum has a program where staff can submit low-cost ideas that are reviewed by a staff peer group and funded. So great ideas can come from the maintenance staff, the gift shop clerks, or anywhere!

In another session, Emlyn Koster of the Liberty Science Center talked about threshold conditions for a culture of appreciative inquiry (learn more about that term and what it means here) Why have a culture of inquiry--several other speakers in the session talked about this culture as a prerequisite to change. If you ask questions, change begins to happen--and, at the same time, connections within and outside of the institution begin to happen.

His threshold conditions:

1. A mission that externally matters. Be explicity about the areas of intended useful outcome and link service/content and audience need.

2. Transformation of consciousness. Value the common good over self-interest and undertake such an effort wholeheartedly, not piecemeal.

3. Mission-driven, activist leadership. According to Koster, Aristotle defined leadership as "the pursuit of positive consequences in the world." A leader's job is clarifying and communicating the value of the organization.

4. A mission-aligned vision, values and strategy. He advocates for core and aspirational values that anchor the museum's core beliefs. Develop impact strategies that spur progress.

How often have any of us been in meetings where long, horribly boring discussions happen around tiny, tiny details--with no time left to discuss the things that really matter. So the last word goes to Emlyn Koster,

"Make sure that our conversations aren't analogous to how you shift the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Sunday, July 1, 2007

It's Summer!

As of early July, all six exhibits that are a part of Summer in the Finger Lakes open! It's been a long time collaboration between Riverhill and six local history organizations in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. Five years ago, John Marks at the Geneva Historical Society and I were talking about vacations in the region--and how we thought there were some interesting things that might be worth exploring. So five years, many grants, loads of meeting, multiple staff changes, more than a few new babies (with two more joining us in the next month) and tons of work later, we're done! The exhibits explore six topics related to summer vacations in this region of upstate New York. They are (with their current locations):

From Steamboat Landing to State Park:
Public Access in the Finger Lakes

Geneva Historical Society, Geneva
From Lake Trout to Grape Pie:
Summer Food in the Finger Lakes

Yates County Genealogical & Historical Society, Penn Yan
From Steamboat Captain to Winery Host:
Summer Work in the Finger Lakes

The History Center of Tompkins County, Ithaca
From Toddler to Teenager:
Growing Up in the Finger Lakes

Chemung Valley Museum, Elmira
From Sacred to Stereotype and Back Again:
Native American Images in the Finger Lakes

Cayuga Museum of History and Art, Auburn

Several aspects made this project unique. After a number of false starts and not-so-great ideas, we decided to use screen doors (it's summer, right?) as the frames for the exhibit panels. Now, the doors stay at an institution, while the panel inserts are easily removed and packed for shipping or delivery. This means each organization gets to use all six exhibits over time--with very little effort. This view shows the installation at the Cayuga Museum.

Although the Riverhill team developed and designed all the panels and interactives, each museum also fleshed out the exhibit with objects and images from its own collection, other collections in the partnership, and their own community. This encouraged lending among the local museums, led staff to reconceptualize some of their own collections, and helped others to reach out into their community to borrow objects.

The team also worked to develop a family friendly take-away piece, around the idea of those car games we used to play. We also developed a website where, we hope, people will share their memories of vacationing in the region. Don't know the Finger Lakes? It's a beautiful region--still, in many ways, very unspoiled, but under fairly substantial threat in terms of growing development. The great contemporary photos in all the exhibitions, taken by Drew Harty, really connect the past to present and demonstrate what might be lost should we not pay attention to change.

To learn more, visit the project website at

Catch Up Blog--Remembering

Hard to believe it's been a full month since I posted anything. So back to Amsterdam. I visited four different museums that looked at different parts of 20th century Dutch history. And in every case, I was impressed at how thoughtfully--and how unflinchingly--the museums told part of a whole story. First, of course, the Anne Frank Museum. I can't remember when I first read her diary--probably junior high, I guess, like so many others. It was a beautiful sunny day, and of course, a long line to get in, so you sort of shuffle through the place. But I was struck, in particular, by two things. I had somehow thought that the site would be furnished, but the rooms are totally empty, as was Otto Frank's wish. However, you can purchase postcards of the spaces furnished, which were just done temporarily. To my daughter, it seemed less interesting unfurnished--but to me, the rooms, even though full of people, echoed with their past.

And, as always, the real is compelling--seeing her real diary--brought that little dark-haired girl and all her hopes and imagination to life.

The Jewish Historical Museum was an unexpectedly interesting place--with exhibits done to an incredibly high standard. I don't know why I chose it as a place to go, but was incredibly glad I had. It's in three former synagogues in Amsterdam and the main exhibition areas are two in former sanctuaries, and a children's museum on several floors. The exhibit on religion places the objects in appropriate settings within the synagogue and smaller objects, images and media are placed in pew-like settings. It covers a wide time period, but I sat in quiet silence and watched a home movie of a Jewish wedding in Amsterdam in 1942--top hats, tails, very fancy dresses, and every single person, from the youngest to the oldest wearing a yellow star on their chest. It was stunning to realize that, perhaps, in just two or three years, every single person in the movie might have died. And by the way, something I noticed in all of the museums. They never used the word died or killed by the Nazis, they rightly used the word murdered.

Another space looked at the history of the Jews in the Netherlands from 1900 to the present-day. Again, a beautiful, unusual installation. Objects were displayed chronologically around a square in the center of the room, and located, several on each site, were monitors on which you could select an object and learn more. And then, outside that square, was another set of small, two person benches, with an object or image and a video screen. You could sit down and learn in greater detail about the object that you were sitting right next to. It really encouraged learning and personal reflection and I'll long remember a mother and young daughter intently looking and listening to the history of a object.

The children's museum part of the museum had an entirely different feel. It was about understanding what being Jewish is, and encouraging questioning, thoughtful behavior. On the top floor was the amazing bed--a place to encourage dreams--and to acknowledge nightmares... An opening label in the Children’s Museum says, “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone! Learning can be fun! Certainly if you do it together. In this house, children can ask anything they want. Sometimes questions are more important than answers: What is written there? Why? And what does it mean for me?”

Unexpectedly, the Rijksmuseum had an exhibit about this time period as well. It is collecting documentation of the Nazi occupation of Holland and this was a room of photos taken by Germans stationed here. What was so stunning was the banality of the images--just like everyone else's souvenir photo album, with Germans posing in front of flower gardens, eating in outdoor cafes and the like. Chilling.

And finally, the Dutch Resistance Museum--the Verzetsmuseum--an in-depth exploration of the resistance during the Nazi occcupation. Done on, I suspect, a smaller budget than the other museums, it brought you deeply into the time. In a design sense, several elements contributed to the feeling of secrecy--words were projected on the floor--collaborate or resist? for instance.

You walked through a fairly complicated exhibit floor plan, without much sense of what was ahead of you, and the individual stories were shown in small boxes that you looked into. In all these museums, the compelling questions that arose were about our own behaviors. What we would do in this situation? How would we react? What makes a person resist? Why do we take a stand on an issue--even if it might mean our own death? In these uncertain times, questions for all of us to consider.

In addition, the Anne Frank Museum and the Resistance Museum had collaborated on a walking tour that took the visitor from one museum to the other--noting places of significant Nazi actions and resistance along the way. It's a very different thing to take a walking tour that's not about pilasters and architectural style--this one made the past come alive. As I walked along Amsterdam's canals and passed older residents--I very much wanted to talk to them about their memories of World War II.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

van Gogh: Arles and Amsterdam

For me, van Gogh is one of the artists whose work I first remember really liking (along with Monet and the guy who designed that Endless Summer movie poster that hung in my room so long ago). So a trip that combined, almost by happenstance, Arles and the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was really wonderful. The first van Gogh I remember seeing was Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art in New York--I was in junior high, I think. I was so drawn in by the intensity of the painting that I remember reaching out and actually touching it. For me, one of those experiences that reinforces, in retrospect, the power of museums--nothing beats the real thing.

To be in Arles and Provence, in that landscape, was pretty amazing. Arles is a nice walking town and in several places we stumbled across "easels" outdoor signs that reproduce a van Gogh painting in front of the actual setting.

So the garden in the hospital where he stayed and his painting of the garden play back and forth in your imagination. However, not an original painting of his is in Arles--but a fascinating substitute is the Foundation van Gogh. It's a place that might have been incredibly hokey, but was lively and thought-provoking. Contemporary artists of all types were asked to create a work inspired by van Gogh. Some artists were inspired by his life; others by his work--his sense of color and line, his commitment to experimentation. So to see work by David Hockney, Christo, Jasper Johns and others--all in homage to VanGogh, was great.

Two days later the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam filled in other parts of his life--with the largest collection of his work anywhere. It was really crowded--a reminder that one of the initial attractions of museum work was the chance to be with the stuff by yourself--not a chance here. To understand his life--the failed jobs and then this unwavering belief that he had something to say as an artist--as you see the growing power of his work--all that was evident even as you shuffled, shoulder to shoulder, through the museum. My mental images of Provence--olive groves, street scenes in Arles--combined with his work and it'll be impossible to think of Provence without thinking of his work.

And an exhibit design note--both here and in the Phillips wing at the Rijksmuseum, main exhibit labels were installed very high up and very large. It meant that everyone in the room could read that and then explore--a great technique for crowded museums.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Museums: Amsterdam and Provence

The next few entries, I hope, will be a chance for me to reflect on museums I saw while in Provence and the Netherlands for ten days. From the Rijksmuseum to a tiny little local history museum in a tiny village in Provence, lots to think about. Perhaps most interesting were the many ways in which the past and present connected so directly. One small example--we were in Arles on May 1, which was the 495th celebration of the Fete des Gardians--Gardians are the sort of cowboys of the nearby Camarague. The day starts with a parade of local residents in traditional clothing--men, women, young, old--but I noticed lots of people had a really distinctive nose....and when, a couple days later, I visited the Museum Arlatan, many of the 18th and 19th century portraits of Arlesiennes had the same look--and then even found a Van Gogh painting (now at the Met in New York) with the same outfit and face. Even though we, and lots of other tourists were observing this event, in some ways it felt very community focused--a chance for local residents to see neighbors and celebrate a shared heritage. And, in the way that past meets present, as this group left the square, the Socialists and Communists assembled for their May Day parade.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Peep Show

A somewhat belated post about a Hartwick College tradition...the Peep Show. Every spring, the college holds an open show of art created from peeps--yes, those sugary chicks that appear on grocery store shelves every spring. Students, faculty and staff participate in the event and I see that a number of the entries were museum related. They included peep shards, an archaelogical entry; and several dioramas including Peep Evolution by Assistant Professor Lisle Dalton and Saturday Peep Fever, by Kevin Gray '01 and Sarah Loveland (both at left).

What's the connection to museums? Well, creativity and a sense of humor are a wonderful thing. This week, Leslie Bedford of the Bank Street Museum Studies Program spoke at the Upstate History Alliance/Museum Association of New York Annual Conference. I was unable to attend her presentation, but a colleague emailed me about her talk--and shared this quote from Leslie, " How can we expect visitors to use their imagination if we don't use ours?" On that note, enjoy more imaginative peeps at Hartwick!

Monday, April 9, 2007

Museums and Beer School

I spent some time talking today with a friend and colleague, Joann Lindstrom, currently in graduate school for public administration, about start-ups. She's been reading a book called Beer School, about the founding of the Brooklyn Brewery. She was impressed by the founders dedication and willingness to stick through some tough times and obstacles along the way. She raised the connection of how and why a for-profit look at start-ups is relevant to non-profits. We're always talking about the big idea, and mission, and vision--but sometimes organizations also need a dose of reality. If you're starting a history organization in a community of 1200 people--maybe you're not going to be able to raise a million dollars. At the same time, we both have seen organizations where passion really makes a difference. If you're the whiny type, it's guaranteed you'll never raise a million dollars. So our recommendation from our diner lunch--without the passion and vision, there's not a chance of succeeding--but those dreams should be tempered with the reality, perhaps.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Big Idea, Election Style

I've been in lots of meetings lately where we talk about the Big Idea in exhibits--what's the big idea about innovation, about a particular community's history, about the story of vacations. It's the way in which all of us try to make sense of telling any complicated history in an exhibit format. So I was interested, last week, to hear a piece on NPR's All Things Considered on the big idea in this year's presidential campaign. As Robert Siegel said, sometimes candidates say only that "I'm better, stronger, older, younger or something...." than the other candidate. But sometimes candidates are about bigger ideas and political contributors EJ Dionne and David Brooks, using candidates own speeches, talked about who's got a big idea and who doesn't. John McCain was, they thought, a big idea guy stuck with a big idea called Iraq; Barack Obama's: building a better America; Hilary Clinton: sort of a version of it takes a village and John Edwards, a "factory floor populism."

What does that mean for exhibit goers and makers? Perhaps we too often fall prey to the same, "I'm better, stronger," syndrome in which we expect visitors, because we're the only museum in town, or because we're a famous big name museum--that the experience should be enough. Time will tell in electoral politics whether a big idea wins, but every day, our communities vote with their feet--and their contributions--about our big ideas.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

No Looking, No Learning

No looking, no learning….

Hard as that is to believe, that’s what one of my students heard a harried mom say as she marched her son towards the exit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The comment provided the funny end to a long day of museum looking, accompanied by students from my museum exhibitions class. We saw one surprisingly good exhibit we didn’t have on our schedule, one old favorite for unknown reasons, one not worth the hype, one worth the effort, and one that raises questions about what museums are.

At the American Museum of Natural History:
Surprisingly good—the new Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. Beautifully designed and installed, this exhibit explores evolution—and our future. We saw it at the end of the day, but it still was, for all of us, the memorable one. Media installations—but not too many, and easy to watch; clever exhibit design that, as one of my students said, “allowed you to get it without reading” but plenty of deeper text for those who were interested; and perhaps most importantly, evidence of a passionate commitment to knowledge and understanding. That last characteristic importantly connects it with last year’s Darwin exhibit at AMNH. (My apologies--my photos didn't convey the exhibit well, but loved this one of visitors looking at models of their ancestors).

An old favorite—hard to say why, but there’s something about the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians that draws me there every time I visit AMNH. The objects are incredibly beautiful and meaningful far beyond the simple labels, but the installation, no surprise for something based on research by Franz Boas, is old-fashioned. It’s a reverent sort of feeling place though, and I’d hate to see them change it.

Not worth the hype: Gold. The exhibit raised lots of questions for us. We’ve been talking about the big idea in class. What’s the big idea here? Gold is cool? One student interested in geology was very interested in that section, and another liked seeing the Oscar statue at the end. The exhibit was crowded—and why, when you put objects in freestanding cased with waist-level labels, couldn’t you put those labels on all four sides so more people could see it? I didn’t watch the video, but my students who did thought that was the best part. Very ho-hum, despite some beautiful objects.

And, at the New-York Historical Society:

Sojourner Truth, Library of Congress

Worth the effort, but not perfect: New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War. The second of the historical society’s exhibits on slavery and New York had some of the same strengths and weaknesses as the first. Strength—a very clever opening video that makes the point of the exhibition very clear. Commerce or conscience—which would govern New York’s approach to slavery? The introductory label—written as an invitation from its president, Louise Mirrer, exemplifies the historical society’s commitment to the project. Loads and loads of text—not made easier by the fact that many of the objects themselves are books, pamphlets, or other textual materials. When asked, just after finishing the exhibit, about memorable objects—students named a small drawing, or a coin, or the orphan asylum book—small objects that spoke volumes.

This exhibit though, suffered from the same overuse of media as the first one. So much so, that the sound bleed from place to place made it difficult to concentrate. One large video about a dance hall seemed a waste, while a second about minstrel shows really drew me in to watch. An exhibit worth doing—and worth seeing. If you’re there, also don’t miss the exhibit A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls. It’s beautiful, and an amazing look at Driscoll and the women she worked with.

And I wonder….

We also visited the Children's Museum of Manhattan. Admittedly, none of us were children, nor did we have children with us. The place was packed, and families seemed to be having a great time. But if we think museums are about objects, those objects—of any sort—were in short supply here. I particularly loved though, the places where I saw parents and children working together. In a downstairs room, small groups of families worked enthusiastically on building block projects (at left) ; upstairs, a mother and son drove the fire engine.

I didn't see many people reading them, but I really liked the labels that helped parents think about how to play with their kids in ways that enhance learning.

But is it a museum?

Sunday, March 4, 2007

What Stories Should We Tell?

I’m involved in two projects right now that focus, in part, on difficult stories in small communities. In one community, a history of labor strikes resonates down the years—so much so that the companies themselves are gone from the community. The bitter memories remain though, so much so that a 95 year old woman almost spit out the names of those who were scabs in the 1940s. On another project, a historic house, owned by slaveholders, is beginning the process of thinking about how to interpret that difficult history—another history that resonates down to the present day for both European Americans and African Americans. There is some sense—among several groups of people-- that the history might be too painful still to address.

Over lunch with a colleague (guess these kinds of lunches serve as non-virtual blogs) we talked about how much we, as historians and as museum people, want to understand these issues and how much we believe that museums and historical societies can be places to do it. We talked about not-very-serious titles for an exhibit on difficult issues—It’s About Time, or Let’s Talk About It. Larger museums—particularly those museums involved in the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience have done it but it seems a much more difficult thing for small museums to do.

Maybe it’s because we're reluctant to discuss those issues with our neighbors we see everyday. But maybe that’s exactly the place that we should discuss them—and understand that change can happen right in our own backyard. Community museums could, with a good deal of listening and good will, create exhibits and interpretive plans that bring diverse elements of our community together. As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Monday, February 26, 2007

What we think about buildings

Recently, the American Institute of Architects released the results of a poll of America's favorite structures. The Empire State Building comes in at number one, and others in the top twenty include the Golden Gate Bridge, Grand Central Terminal in New York, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. As I read the list, I thought both about my favorite buildings and about a recent concert I attended. The poll evidently was taken by showing images to respondents--but arguably, that's not how most of us experience architecture. Architecture is something that you experience with your entire self--not just your eyes. I became a student at Cornell the fall after the Johnson Museum (designed by IM Pei) opened--and, as a freshman, at first, I hated it. After walking past it, up Libe slope for two semesters, I came to love it. Ithaca has changeable weather, to say the least, and somehow the Johnson changed in every weather. Some days it loomed up out of the fog or snow, other days it was surrounded by fall leaves. The building became a part of me and my life at Cornell.

A few weeks ago I attended a concert at the Walton Theater. Walton's a small town near me, and the building, listed on the National Register, has served as performance space and movie house for generations of Waltonians. Last spring, I toured the building with two of the dedicated volunteers working to restore it--but just a few weeks later, the building, and much of Walton, were devastated by floods.

This concert, by Irish American musician Cathy Ryan, was the first since that flood. Volunteers, many of whom had damage to their own homes or businesses, had pulled together and cleaned out mud, replaced floors and theater seats, and brought the building back. It was a joyful occasion for the community. Cathy Ryan talked about how musicians can feel a sense of previous performers when they walk into a space. I think this sense of lives past--whether it's our own experiences or others--is what makes a favorite building.

Buildings' lives are created by those occupants and others who experience it inside and out. As I thought about the lively feel of this old but now new performance space, I wondered about why it's so hard for so many historic houses to convey this same spirit. Do we not chose to save the right places, just taking the house that someone is willing to give us? Or have somehow do we squeeze that feeling out of it in our eagerness to care for and interpret the place meeting professional standards? The best historic sites, to me, are the ones that somehow recapture that feeling--the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, or Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin for instance. Now that so many places are the same--will all our communities be saving all those Wal-Marts in future decades?--it's perhaps even more important that we pay attention to that spirit of place in all of our communities.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Is Interpretation Dead?

A colleague--and fellow free-lancer--called yesterday to talk about the word interpretation. It's one of those inside baseball words--words that we use in the profession but we constantly need to explain to others. And when you do interpretation as a consultant, it's often the very first part of your conversation with a client. She'd had several people tell her that in the field, interpretation was dead--it was no longer used in museums. We jointly decided to disagree with that, but then wondered if there were a better word. I often use the metaphor of a bridge (borrowed, I think from Falk and Dierking somewhere) with the visitor on one side and the information about your site or exhibit on the other. If you don't have something to help them across they'll never get it. I have to admit, other than Freeman Tilden, I don't know when the word came into existence and assume it exists because interpretation from one language to another is a living, person to person communication--rather than translation, which implies something on a page. In either case though, I think those images still work. When we think of powerful interpretation, we're not thinking of something that's word for word, or in our cases, fact for fact. If you think that straight-forward approach works, try any of those free translation sites. Word for word doesn't get you to the essential meaning of even simple concepts, muchthe less complicated stories. So what word should we use? I'm still thinking--and very open to suggestions.