Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why Can't Museums be More Like City Markets?

I love all kinds of food markets: outdoor farmers markets and particularly, big city indoor markets--Toronto's St. Lawrence Market, Pike Place Market in Seattle, fish vendors under the bridge in Venice. That means one of the nicest parts of picking up my daughter from college is a visit to the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. As I shopped yesterday, I realized that this kind of market has much to teach museums. What do they do well?

It's friendly--everyone can go
City markets like this one are not just the province of the educated and well-to-do, or the old but not the young, or whatever. It really does represent a cross-section of a community, I think.

Knowledge is freely shared
At the cheese-mongers, long detailed labels explain each cheese's provenance and taste--but that's not all. When I ask about different cheeses, the guy behind the counter takes thoughtful time to share his knowledge--and a taste of each. Sort of like a "curator of cheese" who loves working on the museum floor.

It embraces diversity
I'm sure the stands at the market are somewhat different than fifty years ago. Falafel and sushi now reside among the booths run by Amish and Mennonite farmers from rural Pennsylvania. All kinds of people working together (as opposed, I must say, to a recent major museum visit where I observed that all the professional staff I saw, wearing name tags, were white, and all the guards working on the floor were people of color). There probably is stratification at the market and I suspect change may have come slowly, but change has happened.

Tradition matters
At the butcher's I went to, most of the butchers were over 60; and a couple were, I'd guess, over 70. But at the same time, a young guy was learning the ropes about cutting meat and working with customers. The informal passing of knowledge from one generation to another is a hallmark of those who work there.

A market engages all your senses
It does matter what it looks like. The booths don't rely on their reputations to attract customers. Meat, produce, cheeses, and more are all displayed beautifully. You taste, smell, touch and hear--in addition to the colorful and creative visual displays.

It encourages conversation, connections and independent learning
A butcher teased me about my lack of meat-cooking knowledge--and then came out from behind the counter to give me a hug as he jokingly apologized for teasing me. I overheard other customers discussing what to make for Christmas dinner, or any of a number of other topics. (and by the way, absolutely encourages return visitation, made more meaningful by those conversations). I didn't have to take a guided tour of that meat counter, but it was my choice to learn how to cook that leg of lamb and why a leg is a better choice for me than a crown roast. Free-choice learning at its best.

And, by the way, it's free!

From top to bottom:
Reading Terminal Market sign
Center food area, Reading Terminal Market, December 20, 2008
Cheese case, by camera_obscura, via Flickr
Two of the meat guys, December 20, 2008
Tri-color cabbages at the market, by rockamandy, via Flickr

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cataloged (or catalogued)

In some random flickr browsing, found these great behind-the-scenes photos of the Booth Museum in Brighton, UK. Thanks, maskingtape for these!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Story of La Guerra Civil or Why I Work in Museums

Nina Simon wrote a fascinating thoughtful post on her Museum 2.0 blog on why she works in museums and encouraged other museum bloggers to do the same. So I'd been thinking about what I would say when an experience this past week brought it into clearer focus for me.

At the beginning--like a number of museum professionals I know--I came into the field as a teenager. I didn't work wearing a costume, but I began volunteering at my local historical society when I was fourteen. I started with my mother's encouragement, mostly as a way to get me out of the house (my older sister was a candy-striper at the hospital which was not so interesting to me). I was lucky enough that summer to work for a young graduate of a museum studies program , who was very encouraging and gave me a varied selection of tasks to do. That year, or one of the ones right after, I did an inventory of the costume collection--and so at first glance, it was the cool stuff that attracted me to the field. I still remember a magenta evening dress from that summer.

But now, as I think about it more, I think the real answer might lie somewhere else--and the illustration for this isn't me in the attic inventorying costumes, but rather me, creaking my bedroom door open so I could read, late after bedtime, by the light of the hallway that streamed in. I loved reading, and I particularly loved a whole range of old-fashioned stories--Anne of Green Gables, the Railway Children, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Those stories and the details in them--the apple tree outside Anne's window or the Turkish delight found through the wardrobe door. These compelling stories, filled with detail and texture, fill my memories. As my career in museums has progressed, it's that love of stories, that opportunity to understand other lives, that has formed the main frame for my work. I found I wanted to tell stories, to hear stories, and to connect stories to other lives, past and present.

What reinforced it this week? For a project at the Montgomery County Historical Society in Rockville, MD, evaluator Catherine Harris conducted a series of focus groups for us about different topics. Montgomery County is tremendously diverse (at some high schools, 94 different languages spoken). This project will be done tri-lingually, in English, Spanish and Chinese, the three most prevalent languages in the county. The Spanish-speaking group, all mothers meeting at a high school, provided me with a memorable connection. We asked participants about their interest in several different topics in local history. One topic was the Civil War, with a question framed around the idea of battles fought in your own backyard. I have to admit, sometimes I think of the Civil War as the province of re-enactors, or academic historians.

But to these women, most from Central America, the idea of the Civil War here was a fascinating, important one. Why? To paraphrase one participant, it was because they knew civil war at home, where brothers and fathers were taken or killed, and it was amazing to think that, not much more than a hundred years later, that a place where the American Civil War was fought could now be this--the land of highways, rolling fields, housing developments and shopping malls--and of freedom and safety.

After this morning discussion, I wanted not only to find better and more meaningful ways to tell the story of the Civil War, but also to learn the stories of these particular women and find ways to share them with their community. Relevance comes in surprising forms--but only if you take the time to listen to your audience. Those human stories connect us in many more ways than we might perhaps imagine.

Top and Bottom: Participants in the Spanish language focus group, Gaithersburg, MD
Center: Boys read story books in the shade, Caldwell, Idaho, July, 1941. Photograph by Russell Lee, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Looking Backward at Planning

This week I had a rare opportunity--a chance to look back at a planning process, ten years old, where I was a participant. It was a great chance to ponder what makes a planning process work, what might slow it down, and what outcomes, other than those intended, it might have.

Ten years ago, I served as a parent participant in a process called a search conference for my local rural school district. I knew at the time, but had forgotten, that the facilitator of the conference was writing her dissertation on the process. Coincidentally, I came into contact with her and she shared a copy of the dissertation with me.

A search conference is a formal process that brings together a large number of community participants to envision a future for an organization and begin steps to achieving that future. There were sixty or so of us, that cold weekend in February, 1999. We met for 2 1/2 days at the school, many of us not well-known to each other and attempted to craft a vision for the school district my daughter attended.

What did I learn looking backwards?

How difficult it always is to bring all the right people to the table
By right people I mean everyone who has a stake in the outcome of the plan. In this case, the team lacked teachers from higher grade levels and parents and community members that represented different economic levels. I see that now in my own work as organizations struggle to put together focus groups or seek out new board members different than themselves. It tells me, more than ever, that we need to make renewed efforts to represent our communities.

The use of silence
One activity that weekend was for everyone, in silence, to group activities underneath a common set of goals. Everyone began with ten or so strips with a single activity listed on it; all at once, and in silence, we placed them where they thought they belonged, but could continue to move ours, and others, until we felt all were in the right place. I'm a talker, so silence isn't my first option, but I remember this as an intensely focused and thoughtful silence, with all participating. Interesting to learn that this was an add-on to the process, as facilitators felt a different approach was needed.

The importance of leadership
At the time, the school district had an energetic new superintendent who soon departed for a different district. Not surprisingly, the follow-up process lost steam under an interim superintendent and a fast approaching financial crisis. Even when a new superintendent arrived, the process had irretrievably faltered and was never returned to. Could a dynamic leader have made a difference? Perhaps.

Change scares people
Much of my work is about encouraging organizations to think about new ways of working, of reaching people, of interpreting their collections or engaging their communities. Reading this was a bracing reminder that for many people, change is scary, not exciting and that I need to find new ways to articulate the meaning and importance of change.

Consensus doesn't mean success
A central idea in the dissertation was that a planning process like this, which is focused on reaching consensus, may not result in real change because it doesn't provide the real time and space to work out critical issues. In other words, that consensus is reached because people don't want to disagree publicly, but those disagreements still simmer and in the long run, make the plan's success impossible.

I'm not for planning meetings as shouting matches, but perhaps a little more work to bring those disagreements to the fore, encouraging planning participants to fully articulate those concerns. I've been in some meetings recently where disagreements were plentiful and although it's an exhausting time, it's been clear in all the cases that these disagreements are long-standing among board members, but never discussed. So, let's discuss.

Lifelong learning
Perhaps most importantly, reading the dissertation gave me a look back at ten years of learning: my personal life as a parent, PTA president and general school activist, and my professional life working with organizations to encourage new learning. At the same time, I realize how much I learn from each of my consultancies and how much there still is to be learned. I eagerly anticipate a continuation of the long and winding path of my own learning.

Top: snow footprints by gamezero Below: path in Dover by tethairwen
Both via morguefile

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Attracting School Groups

School visits are declining at many museums and historic sites. The cost of busing and field trips in a tight economy and the emphasis on testing has left little room at many schools for the traditional field trip. This means museum educators are becoming more and more inventive about ways to make their resources useful to classrooms. I'm beginning to see an emphasis on online learning, but recently I spoke with Shirley Brown Alleyne, director of education at the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum in Brooklyn--where their school tours for the school year sell out in September. I wanted to know how they did it and her answers provide useful guidelines for any museum looking to make visiting your site both easy and engaging.

A key element of the site's success is marketing...but it's not marketing that costs a million dollars. Here's how Shirley described her plans:

1. Brochures
I created a new brochure detailing our new on-site programs and pricing. On the back of the brochure, is a chart marrying each program and hands-on activity with the appropriate New York City Social Studies, English/Language Arts and Applied Learning standards. After, I created a marketing plan, using the brochure, to attract teachers for the 2008 – 2009 school year. (Note: Programs have always sold out at the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum. However, my marketing plan expanded our audience to include schools from our neighborhood who never visited the site.)

2008 – 2009 Marketing Plan

Plan A: Identified all teachers brought their classes during the 2007 – 2008 school year. Then, composed a letter discussing the new programs and prices; these teachers were offered a $30.00 discount if they made a reservation by August 15th. These letters and brochures were sent to teachers during the third week of June (one week before school ended). I received ten reservations. On August 15th, I developed a postcard detailing an extension for the $30.00 discount; returning teachers now had until September 15th to make their reservations.

Plan B: Using the New York City Department of Education and New York Archdiocese websites, I identified schools within five zip codes close to the museum. I composed a letter similar to the one I wrote for returning teachers. The letter detailed who we are, our programs and prices. I offered the $30.00 discount to these schools, as well as an additional time for visitation. Schools nearby could come at 12:30 pm and leave by 2:30 pm, walk back to school and dismiss their students. So far, five classes have chosen to come in the afternoon.

Plan C: I chose four zip codes and instituted a Good Neighbor Policy. Any schools within the four zip codes automatically received the $30.00 discount throughout the school year.

Results of the marketing plan: By September 20, 2008, we were completely booked with one class a day, through May 31, 2009; through June 12, 2009 (the last day for public schools to take field trips) by September 30th. Because of this, I was able to hire per diem staff. Currently, I am training staff members, and am now able to accommodate one class at 10 am and another at 11 am. Groups on our waitlist have been accommodated due to the 11 am time slot.

Our Website Searches
I changed the wording of our programs on the website by adding key words such as “New Amsterdam”, “early New York”, “Standards” and others, so as teachers search for field trips relating to New Amsterdam, our site will pop up.

But of course marketing doesn't matter unless your programs deliver. Programs at the Wyckoff House are specifically designed for different grades and learning styles. Pre-school through first grade students learn about colonial life. Using objects, images, storytelling and hands-on activities, students learn about the everyday lives of a Colonial family. Students in Grades 2-7 learn about the farmhouse itself--and the farm that helped to grow food for New Amsterdam. Grades 4-7 learn about an immigrant, Pieter Claesen and explore the reasons why a teenage boy would leave his home to migrate to the New World.

An evaluation form for teachers is accessed via the site's website along with numerous other materials. What do teachers think? Here's a comment from one teacher

The experience was memorable and full of information. My students were literally buzzing with information and questions. The hands-on portions and the experience of being IN an artifact has a really intense impact on my students and I know we will refer to that trip throughout our study.”

The program's success is connected directly to the site's willingness to understand classroom needs, combined with a real flexibility and passionate commitment to work with students. In tough economic times, none of those things cost substantial amounts of money.

Images, top to bottom: Butter churning, Exterior view, and candlelight tour, all images courtesy of the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Perfect Exhibit

Here's an exhibit that just seems perfect in so many ways. Thanks to Design Observer, I found Bye, Bye Blackboard, a 2005 exhibit at the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford. What makes it perfect?

It takes one of the museum's most treasured artifacts--a blackboard written on by Albert Einstein and makes it the center of an engaging exhibit. What makes it engaging?

A bit of metaphor--blackboards, like ideas, and many exhibits, are ephemeral, so we appreciate them while they last. An exhibit framed around one of the most transitory methods of writing makes for a surprising experience.

Some thinking outside the box--the museum asked others to write on blackboards the same size as the one Einstein wrote on. Chefs, authors, musicians, cartoonists, politicians--all shared their blackboard view. A little dash of celebrity certainly didn't hurt.

Fun programming to accompany the exhibit--a talk and chalk series with scientists (and a temporary end to power points!), and a Family Fun Day, "Understanding Einstein," which including a contest for best blackboard explanation of Einstein. And those winners are posted online.

Connecting to a bigger cause--A chance to have your blackboard on display for a week in the exhibit was offered in the Oxford Promise benefit auction, with proceeds to benefit charities working with homeless people in Oxford.

Looking great--sometimes simple is better. These blackboards all looked wonderful and in some ways, far more interesting than the ever-present computer screens in all of our lives.

Top to Botton:
Einstein's blackboard
Blackboard by cartoonist Chris Heath
Winners in the Understanding Einstein blackboard competition

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Winds of History

What a week it was...and the word history certainly appeared everywhere. At the end of such a historic week I thought a bit about both the ways in which history was used this week and about what this election might mean for those of us who work in local history organizations in the future.

Tuesday night ended with both candidates using history to make their point. McCain, evidently a practitioner of the Great Man approach to history, used Theodore Roosevelt's White House invitation to Booker T. Washington to make a point about the importance of the election. Barack Obama took the same bottom up approach he used as a community organizer--a social historian's approach-- and used the story of a single person to make a larger point. For him, 106 year-old Ann Nixon Cooper was a lens for understanding a century of change.

This week, I've spoken to so many people who were a bit stunned, in a way, to find themselves participants in history. My daughter, voting in her first election, described Philadelphia on election night as a "joyful riot." Another friend told my husband that it was one of the high points of his life; still another friend, who grew up attending segregated schools in Oklahoma, called from the road on Tuesday night in happy tears at Obama's election. Whether you voted for Obama or not, the chance to participate in a historical moment that was about joy and progress, not sorrow, was an amazing opportunity.

But what does the future hold? Can the election of an African-American president really change the work we do in historical organizations? Maybe, but only if we make a real effort to do so. It would thrill me if this election meant that boards started looking to represent their entire community in their membership; that all sorts of stories and audiences were welcomed in institutions. One thing this election tells me is that individual stories matter--but equally, individual commitment to a collective idea matters as well. Change in the way that we present and promote history that will only come if all of us who do this work make a deeper, stronger commitment to have organizations that really do represent our communities.

Specifically, what could organizations do?
  • Boards could spend some time looking at the demographics of their community (found easily online at and thinking about how well their community is represented on the board. Seek out new board members that really represent your community--and develop a strategic plan that gives the entire community a compelling reason to participate.
  • Spend time in a board/staff session considering your core values. What does the organization really value? Does every part of your work exemplify those values?
  • Program developers could consider different times for programs--and even for opening times. If, like so many communities, a majority of your audience is composed of families with two working parents, why not have early evening hours? Don't just do it the same old way.
  • Survey! ask your audience (including those people who don't visit your museum) what they're interested in. Try using Survey Monkey. And then, of course, evaluate.
  • Get out there--become a presence in your community. Instead of presenting a lecture series that draws the same audience over and over again, get out to community events. Develop a small table-top exhibit or great selection of hands-on activities and invite yourself to fairs, festivals and the like.
  • It's a tough financial time for many--consider free admission.
  • Don't just pay lip service. Connecting with new audiences is hard, sustained work. As a board, understand that this takes time and money; as a staff, don't get discouraged, but keep trying to connect--and always, keep listening.

One thing is for sure, however. One hundred years from now, there will be an entire generation of curators sighing deeply as they open yet another box with yet another copy of a newspaper from November 5, 2008; joining all those man landing on the moon magazine covers. To my colleagues in the future--good luck with that!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What Is a Museum?

This past week, several news pieces brought my attention to several museums that are, to put it gently, are out of the mainstream--but still very much worth thinking about.

Above, the director's "office" at the Homeless Museum of Art," an installation set up by artist Filip Noterdaeme. What did he do? The New York Times describes his museum,

In the course of an afternoon, bankers, artists, teenagers, poets and homeless men and women sat on the chair he provided, talking to him during what he called one-on-one “encounters” and “confessionals.” Many spoke about their experiences inside the contemporary art museum, as well as its proximity to the Bowery Mission, which has provided shelter, food and spiritual guidance to the needy since 1879.

“It’s a performance,” Mr. Noterdaeme said of his project, explaining that through it “we are made more aware of who we are and why we are there. I am the strange character opening minds and eyes to these complete separate realities.”

Mr. Noterdaeme’s sidewalk museum, which he dismantled over the weekend, was open every Sunday for five weeks. He spent the time talking to passers-by and handing out signed copies of his tongue-in-cheek “official” letters on the nature and purpose of art, addressed to, among others, a neighborhood resident; Jesus Christ; and Amy Mackie, 34, an associate curator at the New Museum.

In Munich, according to Canadian news sources, a museum opened in a former public toilet, drawing more than 800 visitors its first night. It featured mostly graffiti work, and from reading the article, perhaps more a gallery than a museum--but what made Mathias Koehler, the originator of the project, call it a museum? Did it give it a more serious tone?

More compelling is the newly redone Mind's Museum in Rome (as described in the New York Times) The renewed exhibits were done by an artists' studio that specializes in high tech and immersive environments. “The idea was to make it extremely participatory, a museum that can register and note the impressions of the visitor,” said Paolo Rosa, one of the artists. The museum is now targeted towards students and includes experiences such as one where visitors put their hands over their ears and hear voices; another where visitors sit for a photograph that is then projected next to images and stories of former residents of the former pyschiatric hospital turned museum.

One visitor shared her perspective, "The point the museum makes is that mental illness is a disease," she said. "It doesn't give a moral or a political judgment." But I can imagine the many, many conversations that take place at this museum. It reminds me of a long ago conversation with my daughter and two friends--they were probably ten or twelve, and engaged in a long, thoughtful, exploratory conversation about what made something normal. I think young people long for these kinds of conversations and love the idea of a museum that encourages them.

What all three of these museums say to me is that the idea of a museum still holds real power. But perhaps the power is beginning to shift away from the power of authority to a different kind of power--the power of being a convener, a place for discussion, a place for exploration.

Read more about both the Homeless Museum and the Mind's Museum in the New York Times.

Top: A visitor listening at the interactive sound table of the Mind's Museum in Rome. (Fabio Cirifino/Studio Azzurro Produzioni) Center: Filip Noterdaeme at the Homeless Museum, Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Monday, November 3, 2008

Deep Listening

Studs Terkel's death last week made me think about the oral history interviews I've done--far fewer, of course, than his, but as I thought about them I realized that for me, they've been an incredibly strong part of shaping how I approach my work. The first oral histories I did were in college, when as part of a volunteer project at a local historical society, I interviewed people about childhood games. An interesting project, and one that involved interviewing both senior citizens and people my own age.

While at the Delaware County Historical Association, I was lucky enough to work with a couple amazing folklorists, Doug DeNatale and Joyce Ice, whose interviewing skills and passionate commitment to their work made each project they worked on a place where everyday people had a voice in each exhibit we developed.

Since then, I've conducted many different oral histories--about vacationing in the Finger Lakes, about factory work, about farm work, and much more. There are several informants whose words still stick with me to this day: the Japanese-American scientist, who only at the end of the interview, tells me about his time in an internment camp during World War II, when he was forced to drop out of college; the Italian-American woman who remembers, decades later, the sting of an employer telling her, because her family was Italian, that she couldn't put American in the space for nationality on her job application; the African-American migrant worker who began coming up on the season in 6th grade--and in his fifties, it's all the work he'd ever known; the woman who shares her stories of starting a union at her work place; and the many, many stories of work on factory and farm--those stories of dangerous, hard work that were almost always equally balanced by affectionate stories of family and community.

Why do I remember these people? Because each one of them gave me a glimpse into a life very different than my own. But at the same time, each and every one also showed me that we are all human, and that what connects us is considerably more than what divides us. So in my work today, my goals are often pretty simple--to find those threads that connect us, past and present, no matter who we are.

Top: Apple picking in western New York, photo by Drew Harty
Bottom: Women workers at Belle Mills, Sayre, PA

Monday, October 27, 2008

Another View of Historic Houses

On this cold gray afternoon, I thought I'd share a fiction writer's view of historic houses. In The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith (best known for his #1 Ladies Detective Agency series), his heroine, Isabel Dalhousie visits Barnhill, where George Orwell wrote 1984. They tour the house,

"They peered into the small room above the kitchen, with its typewriter set neatly on the table and beyond the clear glass of the window, the day, now sparkling under a sky that had miraculously cleared."

Isabel mused, as others moved on,

"She thought about the seeing of what others had seen; this was the view that Orwell had while he wrote that dark novel, with its all seeing eye, Big Brother... She remembered being in Freud's house in Vienna and looking out of the window in his consulting room, seeing the small mirror hanging on the shutter the only item remaining in the stripped bare room, and thinking he had looked at that, the great doctor himself; he had looked out onto that particular stretch of sky, that courtyard. And then she remembered seeing James VI's cradle in the bedroom at Traquair and the thoughts that it triggered; and the bed at Falkland Palace in which James V had died, turning his face to the wall, bemoaning what he saw as the imminent end of a Scottish dynasty... And finally, as she tore herself away from the view, and the room, the thought crossed her mind that a bed was really a very strange thing--a human nest really, where our human fragility made its nightly demands for comfort and cosseting."

For some reason, reading this passage made me think of paintings of interiors--and sure enough, the Victoria and Albert Museum had several in their collections database online. There was a bit of a discussion early today on a list serve about whether people would come to a museum if their collections were shown on their website. On this topic, I'm a firm believer in sharing everything. I've been to the V & A Museum, and I wouldn't hesitate to go again. If I went again and saw these three images, I'd be thrilled, and think of them as old friends; if they weren't on exhibit, I'd still be pleased that I found a representation of them to quench my idle interest today.

And as for the fictional Isabel's visit? Just a reminder that we can hardly imagine what our visitors might be imagining.

Top to bottom:
The Kitchen at Elmswell Hall, York, Watercolor by Mary Ellen Best, 1834
The Stray Shuttlecock, Oil on canvas by Frank Dillon, 1878
Interior of the Parsonage, Horningsham, Wiltshire, Oil on millboard by John Sergeant, 1840

All from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Road to Ukraine

The road to Ukraine--it's finally starting to become real for me. From January-April, 2009 I'll be a Fulbright Scholar, teaching museum studies and working with museums in Ukraine. It's an amazing opportunity and I'm very much looking forward to meeting and working with students and colleagues there. My work will focus primarily on issues exhibits and interpretation.

One request for my blog readers. Resources for books and other teaching materials are extremely scarce in Ukraine. I'll be shipping all kinds of materials to help establish a useful library for the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, my host institution. If you have samples of items such as exhibition designs, gallery guides, school programs, educational kits or other materials and want to share, please contact me.

My other observation is about how, for me, this has become, already, a piece of personal meaning-making. I applied for the Fulbright because of the chance to work with museums and Ukraine was a country I only knew a slight bit about. However, as I think about it, I realize that I've come across Ukraine--and Ukrainian Americans-- in a number of different projects. Years ago, a project on ethnic resorts in the Catskills helped me learn about vibrant Ukrainian resorts and communities in the Catskills. The picture above--that's not from Ukraine, but of the beautiful wood church that's St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Jewett. Many communities here in the Northeast have Ukrainian communities--most recently I've had the chance to learn about that community in Sayre, PA as part of a project for the Sayre Historical Society. A part of the Dutch and American exhibit project Passing on the Comfort that I've worked on this year for the Mennonite Central Committee and the International Menno Simon Center is about Ukrainian Mennonites. And, as I've told friends and colleagues about the Fulbright, I'm amazed at how many say, "oh, my family came from Ukraine!" So I'm beginning to stitch together my own picture of Ukraine, and can't wait for the opportunity to really immerse myself in this vibrant, complicated culture.

I'll plan to blog regularly in this space about my time there--so check back. If you're reading this and wondering if I'm available for projects next year...yes! Whether I'm in Kyiv or upstate New York, I can still be in touch and will be back by the end of April.

From top to bottom: Ukraine Road, Jewett, NY
St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church, Jewett, NY
Members of Sayre's Ukrainian community on a picnic, circa 1910.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Beautiful Game

I'm not a huge sports fan, but a recent New York Times article about a new soccer museum in Sao Paulo, Brazil caught my attention. According to the article, it's a shrine with all the jerseys, balls and paraphernalia you might imagine, but it's also a museum that uses sport to explain a country; how "the national pastime has come to represent and inspire the multi-racial, samba-loving soul of the people" and how Brazil transformed an English schoolboy sport into "the beautiful game" of passing and dribbling that is Brazilian soccer today.

I was particularly struck by how the governor of Sao Paulo, Jose Serra, described his dream for the museum, "I imagined a museum fundamentally made up of ideas, memories and not so much of relics. I thought of something that would express the memory of our soccer, the great performances as well as our sufferings."

So I'll probably never see a World Cup game in person nor can I tell you about any of Pele's 1,282 goals, but, based on Jose Serra's dream, I'd love to see this museum of ideas and memories.
Above: Pele doing a bicycle kick

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Do Cookies Make Ideas Better?

Lately I've been spending time facilitating strategic planning with a number of small organizations. I'm just wrapping up my process with the Historical Society of Woodstock and on my beautiful drives down and back through the Catskills I reflected on what made this project such a pleasure. Woodstock is a unique place--where else does local history include knowing where Bob Dylan composed? It combines a long Catskill agricultural and industrial history with a twentieth century history that intertwines the local community, visual and performing artists, and popular culture. But it is not, as the town spends a good deal of time explaining, the place where the Festival took place.

The society was founded in the 1930s--and when I first met with the board last December, they had just come out of a very difficult time. The society had been run as a closed organization for decades and as a result, had no meaning for Woodstock's residents or visitors. On relatively short notice, they had had to move the entire collection to another building so improvements could be made on their own structure (owned by the town). It was a small board and I sensed some anxiety about the process moving forward.

Over the past months, that small group has really developed. At last week's meeting, announced one board member, "now we're a team!" They brought several important qualities to the planning process that, from my perspective, helped create an energetic and meaningful plan.

1. Openness and Creativity
They were open to all sorts of things: to advice from me, to what community focus groups had to say, to advice from other consultants and to new ideas from everywhere. It was a group of creative thinkers who felt free to share ideas with each other.

2. Not too Big, Not too Small
Many organizations dream big--but lack the resources to complete those dreams (see recent press about the Mark Twain House and the Mount for just two examples). The Historical Society of Woodstock's new plan is both ambitious, and I think, achievable, by a targeted use of volunteer and other resources.

3. Make it Fun!
I didn't go to any meeting where they didn't seem happy to see each other; to report back good buzz about the historical society in the community, a new object acquired, and to share a meal, or at the very least, home-baked ginger cookies and lemonade. That feeling of a welcoming place is beginning to spread to the community.

4. Listen to the Community
We held two community conversations about the future of the organization. One was parents and the other was long-time (ie twenty years or more) community members. Poets, musicians, highway workers, farmers, retirees and more. It's clear that a passion for this particular place and the values it represents motivates both new and long-time residents. History plays an integral role in that, as one focus group participant said, "Even the kid from Minnesota playing guitar on the green; he comes for the history of the place." All agreed that the mountains made the place special, they create, as one person remarked, “one big hug.”

The historical society's new plan focuses around the idea of conversations--in part, because, in listening to those focus groups, that's something that matters deeply to this community and that the historical society can do well for many different audiences.

Sometimes focus groups feel tacked on, not substantially a part of a planning process. Here, our sessions about vision, mission and goals really were strongly influenced by those lively community conversations, with lemonade and cookies, on sunny summer evenings in those beautiful mountains.

My Day as a Volunteer

Yesterday I spent the afternoon door-to-door canvassing for Barack Obama in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. If you're not an Obama supporter, don't worry--you can keep reading too. I chose to volunteer because I believe it's important, but today's post is about volunteering--about the lessons and reminders I took away from my participation. So, here's my top ten of things to remember as you work with volunteers based on my experience with the Obama campaign.

1. Make it easy. I signed up online and then got, via email, a useful, printable pdf file that contained all the information I needed: when to go, where to go, what to wear, what I might be doing, what I could bring (cell phone). When I got there, they had everything we needed to go out--clipboards, flyers, print out maps locating each house, lists of people to contact.

2. Be welcoming. That useful pdf suggested that you arrive before 10 AM. I couldn't, and appeared in the office around noon. No one said, "oh, I'm sorry, you should have been here at 10; we already trained people." Instead, I was enthusiastically welcomed, signed in, and given a task. (and, offered food and drink as well).

3. Make a personal connection. Around the room were construction paper squares with individuals sharing about why they supported Obama. In the training, the volunteer talked about her own beliefs and connections. It all connected me, the volunteer, with bigger issues--and then, to connected me to the people whose doors I was going to knock on.

4. Make it clear. The Obama campaign operates at a high level of detail (supporting Obama, leaning towards Obama, undecided, leaning towards McCain, other--loads of check boxes on forms). For all of us who learn in different ways, the information was provided verbally, and then also in a useful, easy to read cheat sheet as we went out into the field.

5. Train. A very different approach than many of us use. As each group of canvassers came in, another volunteer would sit and do a small group training. So just as we finished, a pair of fathers, with kids in tow, came in and were getting trained. And importantly, the trainer directed her comments both to the dads and to the kids, who were very excited about helping. Which leads me to:

6. Involve families. These were young kids, but I've found that, almost without fail, those who are active volunteers in any organization were introduced to it by their parents. As a kid, I spent my time at church rummage sales, fundraisers and other activities; my own daughter did the same at many PTA and historical society events. We might want to find more ways to involve parents and kids together as volunteers.

7. Trust. It's amazing if you think about it. This is a group that's never met me before, gives me 15 minutes of training, and then sends me out to convey their message to the community. And, I think my volunteer partner (who'd I'd never met before and was a first time canvasser as well) and I did a pretty good job. That's because they trusted us to do so.

8. Make people feel they're part of an important, collective effort. Obviously, the presidential campaign is important. Perhaps it's a bit harder to talk about the importance of cataloging a photograph collection or giving a tour to school kids. But let's face it, if we can't figure out ways to convey passion, to convey the importance of what we're doing, then we can't find volunteers and we can't keep them.

9. Give up those preconceptions. Every door you knock on is different. People have different life stories, different beliefs, and different histories. You never know who will surprise you.

10. Listen! I think this might be the most important. Recently, I've worked with a couple organizations who struggled to recruit audiences for focus groups and perhaps, haven't quite seen the value of seeking out community input. As we went door-to-door, I learned alot about what this particular community thinks. I learned the not-so-serious--that people really like Halloween decorations--and the serious--that veterans really are concerned about veterans' issues, that the economy trumps almost all concerns, that not all middle-class women think Sarah Palin is a good idea. Imagine if we all, at museums and historical organizations, spent more time listening to our communities hopes and concerns. What kind of exhibits, programs and historic houses could we do then?

And a day later, one more thing.

Follow-Up I received a phone call from a real person on Monday night asking how I liked canvassing, did I want to come back, and could I interest others in coming.

Top to bottom:
My Obama sticker after a day's work
I like Barack Obama because wall at Wilkes-Barre office
Campaign posters in garage window, just before the primary. Waco, Texas, 1938
Dorothea Lange, photographer, FSA/OWI collection, Library of Congress

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Every local historical society has them. There they sit, the wrong size to fit in a box or on a shelf, sometimes filled with crumbling pages of obituaries. Luckily, Jessica Helfand has written a new book and has a new blog, both called the Daily Scrapbook that encourages new ways of thinking about these oft-ignored parts of our collection. A graphic designer and scrapbook collector, she's produced an amazing look at history. As the website describes it:

Combining pictures, words, and a wealth of personal ephemera, scrapbook makers preserve on the pages of their books a moment, a day, or a lifetime. Highly subjective, rich in emotional meaning, the scrapbook is a unique and often quirky form of expression in which a person gathers and arranges meaningful materials to create a personal narrative. This richly illustrated book is the first to focus close attention on the history of American scrapbooks — their origins, their makers, their diverse forms, the reasons for their popularity, and their place in American culture.

I think the idea of narrative is what's really important here. In museum terms, these scrapbooks are ways of personal meaning-making, the ways in which we assemble our experiences into something greater than the parts.

So let's go back and look at some of those scrapbooks. I remember some beautiful and memorable ones that I've come across: a little book full of tatting patterns and instructions; a travel scrapbook evocative of a type of travel now long gone; a small volume with tenderly pressed plants from places visited on the Grand Tour. The not-as-beautiful but still memorable are those that have carefully pasted- down materials about the larger issues of a particular place and time: the scrapbook full of clippings about the destruction of communities in the building of New York City's reservoirs or the one about the unionization of carpet mills in Amsterdam, NY with its clippings and mimeographed meeting notices. And then of course, there are just those photo albums/scrapbook hybrids that just sort of perfectly capture a summer.

What should we museums do about all our scrapbooks? Sure, maybe an exhibit on them, but maybe we should look at them as tools to learn about constructing a narrative and telling a story. Perhaps we can learn about flow, about words and images together, about humor, and about a compelling connection with people.

Top to bottom:
Family album, Sayre Historical Society

Friday, September 26, 2008

Why Collaborate? It's No Picnic!

At our AASLH session, Nancy Parsons, educator at the Ontario County Historical Society in Canandaigua, NY, shared her perceptive thoughts about what the Summer in the Finger Lakes collaboration meant to her organization. She discussed how the positives: the chance to network with new people, fresh ideas, differing approaches and numerous strengths on the team. The challenges: the longevity of the process, the number of participating organizations and the many staff changes at all except one (Nancy is from the one museum that didn't have staff changes), the sometimes endless seeming discussions and revisions. Overall, however, like all the project participants, she believed that the positives outweighed the negatives. As she ended her presentation, she provided all of us with a mindful piece of math as a way to think about collaboration:

"Six times six times six," she said. Six museums meant "more of everything--ideas, energy, time, discussions, revisions, geographic challenges."

I'm guessing that the current econmic climate might cause more and more organizations to consider collaborations. As you do, consider both the positive and the negative. It's not just more work or more success, as Nancy noted, it's more of everything. Be prepared!

Above: Picnic in the Finger Lakes, circa 1900, from the Summer in the Finger Lakes project

Saturday, September 20, 2008

It's Never Too Late to Evaluate!

I facilitated a session at the AASLH conference called, Six Museums, Six Years, Six Exhibits, about a collaborative project of six Finger Lakes organizations to develop six exhibitions about summer in the Finger Lakes (you can learn more about the exhibits here). Museum educator Mari Shopsis gave a terrific overview of the evaluation she developed for the project. I wanted to recap her talk here as a great example of how small museums can undertake an evaluation process.

We came to evaluation fairly late in the process, after some extensive planning and then a hiatus while more funds were generated. Mari reminded me that her first questions about the project were variations of, "are you serious? Are you prepared to listen to what people have to say? Is there still any room to make changes based on the evaluation? Yes, I assured her, with some trepidation as I thought about the schedule. After some discussion, our goals were to:
  • Determine whether visitors understand exhibit titles & themes in the same way that exhibit team intended them
  • Provide a picture of potential visitor concerns, interests, and associations with exhibit themes.
  • Provide visitor feedback for exhibit team, allowing team to refine concepts and presentation strategies before finalization and fabrication
We ended up with three types of evaluations that fell somewhere between front-end and formative:
  • One-on-one survey & assessment of visitor interest, administered in three cultural/museum sites across the Finger Lakes
  • Prototype interactive components with family and youth groups
  • Use likely visitor focus group to assess success of “tweaked” titles and concepts
All of these methods were useful and all revealed different types of information. The one-on-one survey--which was done at locations different than the six museums--really gave us information about what people thought the exhibits would be about, based on our descriptions, and how interested they would be. We used that information to re-shape several titles and interestingly, found that the exhibits of greatest interest to the project team were the least interesting to the public (a cautionary tale for all of us). In practical terms, it meant we had to work a bit harder to make those particular topics--issues of public access and the use of Native American imagery to promote the region--more interesting and accessible.

After that initial work Mari then met with a small group to discuss the tweaked titles and concepts. From that discussion we framed all six titles, and all were a From ...To.... construction, such as From Steamboat Landing to State Park, to give a clear sense that these were historical exhibits with a contemporary connection. And yes, they all also had colons, which we had hoped to omit.

I've written about the interactive prototyping in an earlier post. The format Mari developed was incredibly helpful in refining both language and activities. As a result, our final simple interactives connected more strongly with family audiences.

Mari ended her presentation with three conclusions that provide great reasons for evaluation in projects. The process doesn't have to be elaborate and complex, but I continue to be amazed at how few museums choose to interact with their visitors and potential visitors in this way. It's not that hard, but does require a commitment to the process and a willingness to listen--and act upon--feedback.

So remember:
  • It’s never too late to evaluate!
  • Evaluation can help to identify themes that resonate for visitors & concepts or wording that confuse or mislead them
  • In large collaborative projects, an outside insight into the visitor’s perspective can provide objective information to resolve conflicts or help make difficult decisions
Above: Labor Day sack race at a cottage community on Seneca Lake, 2006, Photo by Drew Harty

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Well, he never married"

Ken Turino of Historic New England led a fascinating session at the recent AASLH conference about the expanding interpretation (or not) of gays in historic houses. Using examples from both Historic New England sites and others, he explored the ways various sites have grappled with the topic. The title of this blog evidently represents one comment some historic houses have used to deflect questions about their owners' sexual orientation. At Historic New England's Beauport, the summer home of interior designer Henry Davis Sleeper, the full life of the owner has been integrated into the story. At Hull House, in Chicago, the staff undertook the alternative labeling project, where visitors (and web visitors) could voice their own perspectives about labels for a portrait of Mary Rozet Smith, Jane Addams longtime companion. Check out for the weblog to see impassioned discussions, pro and con!

Ken's comments clearly discussed the difficulty of finding what was known, at some sites, and perhaps only surmised at others and the challenge of creating new interpretations. But to me, his most important point was that this work is not about classifying people but helping visitors to understand the whole person at that historic house. That seems to me what we want at almost all historic houses--we want to understand the people who lived there. We may or may not care about that chair they bought in 1853, but surely, most of us want to understand the emotions, the human-ness that connects us to those people who once inhabited those historic places.

Above: China Trade Room, Beauport, Historic New England photo

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hmm...What Do We Value?

While in Rochester, I attended a reception at the Strong National Museum of Play. I hadn't visited the museum in a very long time and I was curious to see the changes. I came away a little perturbed at what I saw in, what admittedly, was a fairly quick viewing, and one done without any kids there.

What bothered me? It really made me think about values. From what I can see, the Strong Museum values plastic and brand names. It felt like a giant temple to consumerism. When you looked at cases, you couldn't tell if they were exhibition or gift shop cases...they were all filled with brand name merchandise. I wanted some acknowledgement that, in American life, there are many, many, people who make do without giant piles of plastic toys to entertain their children. The corrugated cardboard box was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at the Strong, but that sort of inventiveness and sense of unstructured play did not seem much on display here. I also wanted a greater recognition that there's an incredibly diverse America whose play traditions could be represented.

And that there some way to do this differently, so we could teach kids a bit about recycling, or reusing, or saving...not just purchasing?

I'd love to hear from others about what they--and their kids--think of the Strong. I did hear from several people that their kids, when younger, loved it.

The Strong, to their credit, also values reading--books are everywhere, and cleanliness...the place is spotless. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, all these different values, the Strong Museum has done what few museums actually pull off. They said they were going to change the mission, change the way the museum does business, and change the audience--and that people would come. That's a familiar song, but this museum actually made it happen...but did they sell out to do so?

Above: No images from the Strong Museum, just images from the Norris family archive, of play, with little or no plastic or brand names.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I'm at the American Association for State and Local History conference this week in Rochester, and will try to blog a bit about what I'm hearing and seeing. To start, I just heard the end of keynote Bernice Johnson Reagon's talk...but she was telling a story about how, during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, at one point, she wanted to present gospel music. Too loud, too intense, said people. She said, how about inside? We never do things inside? We could, she replied. I thought it was a great encapsulation of what's wrong with many institutions. There are all these obstacles we put up about why we can't do something new. And they're not really obstacles...they're excuses. Many places are trapped in the, but we have always done it that way syndrome... And, if we really care about change, about making meaningful museums and historic places, then we need to work to overcome those obstacles...and to work to not be one those people who are the excuse-makers.

A great reminder...and wow, I wish I could sing like that when I was doing a presentation. Amazing.

Above: Jubilee Singers sheet music, Library of Congress collection