Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Life-Long Learning and Chinese Food

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 Donorschoose.org 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 morguefile.com

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Complex Ways of Seeing

Thanks to Design Observer, I came across this great site, Visual Complexity, which shows many, many, different and beautiful ways to map complex networks. As I looked at the social network ones, primarily based on different web-based networking sites, I began to see how many beautiful, fascinating graphics we could create about the history we know--and as a result, engage many more visitors. Particularly in historic houses, as I work to create new stories, we're always working to create those connections--who lived in the house, who worked in the house, who visited the house, who came to the house for business, who people in the house knew in the community, where their goods came from, where they sold whatever they might have farmed or made....how great would that look!

It might also help address a bit of the self-sufficiency myth that seems to still pervade many historic houses. You still hear tours where guides talk about a family that made everything...while at the same time talking about the general store in the same village which sold oranges and needles and cloth and coffee, among thousands of other items. I don't quite know why the self-sufficiency myth still holds sway, but here's one vote for more complexity! Imagine how much more interesting a visual representation would be rather than one of those long labels.

Some examples:
At the top of the post, DIY Store Receipts, Author: Graham J. Wills
A set of 10 million (no kidding!) receipts from a do-it-yourself store were processed, linking together items that often appeared on the same receipt.

Trace Encounters, Authors: W. Bradford Paley, Jeff Han
A social networking and tracking project--the brighter links mean more encounters.

Travel Time Maps, Authors: Chris Lightfoot and Tom Steinberg
A series of maps that use colors and contour lines to show how long it takes to go from one place to another.

Graphic Visualization of Text Similarities, Authors: Magnus Rebold and Jurgen Spaeth
A graphic piece that shows us, visually, the interactions between a group of essays in a single book on, no surprise, interaction.

Descriptions are taken from visualcomplexity.com.  More details on these, and other fascinating projects, are available there.  The materials shown are copyrighted by the authors and/or their respective institutions.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Hmmm...it's everywhere these days...
sustainability...what does that really mean for museums? A number of museums are exploring ways to make their buildings sustainable--green building is becoming a more important part of many museum's thinking (for more on green building, see Sarah Brophy's website). Equally important, though, and also addressed by Sarah on her site, are the issues of organizational sustainability. I recently co-presented an introductory workshop for small museums about grantwriting. I was stunned, in a way, to discover how many museum people--staff members, volunteers, board members, couldn't articulate a real purpose for their museum--couldn't go, to paraphase Laura Roberts, from being only in the storage and warehouse business.

I thought about this today as I had a conversation about storage units and filled basements--a colleague couldn't quite bring herself to sort out family belongings after her parents had passed away. Some days, on my trips to small museums, that's what it feels like. All too often small museum staff and volunteers feel that because someone gave it to them, someone local, someone they knew, it must have meaning and importance, even though no documentation came with it. And there you are, with yet another wedding dress, or wood plane, or stiff-necked man in a daguerrotype--that must be cataloged and cared for. A 1989 article by Gail Dexter Lord (thanks, Joann, for sending this along) found that collections care, directly and indirectly, made up an overage of 66% of museum budgets.

Interestingly, the UK Museums Association has taken a bold step. According to their website
they are "urging museums to make their collections more dynamic and to include disposal as a routine part of collections development. To this end, a Disposal Toolkit is now available to download… Mark Taylor, the MA's director, said: "Museums typically collect a thousand times as many things as they get rid of. Wonderful collections can become a burden unless they are cleared of unused objects." The Museum Association provides a free downloadable Disposal Toolkit to help museums think about the process.

So will deaccessioning our collections help us become more sustainable? Maybe, maybe not. Not if the museum deaccessions, but still maintains the same mindset. Maybe yes, if museums use the deaccession funds to properly care for their collections, and find additional time and funds to do more work in engaging communities. The only way we'll be sustainable is if people see a need and a purpose, if we really do connect with our communities in ways that matter to them.

Above: Mrs. Norris (no relation), Pie Town, New Mexico, from my favorite source, the FSA/OWI collection at the Library of Congress