Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why Are Historic House Tours So Boring?

Just a quick post to note that I will be posting a couple entries on this topic, based on an Idea Lounge session at AAM today. Please check back!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Leadership at a Crossroads

This is the first of a series of several entries about sessions at the American Association of Museums Annual Conference. I'm here in Denver: beautiful city, great restaurants, and interesting sessions. I find myself making all kinds of notes, so these entries represent my informal reporting and first thoughts stimulated by sessions I'm attending. The first session I attended was on leadership stories, moderated by Michael Spock, formerly director of the Boston Children's Museum. It's a rare thing to hear a director talk about his mistakes, and what he learned about them, and that's what he shared with us. Increasing deficits, board revolts, and staff who described him as the main problem. As he put it, "I was sending mixed signals and keeping everyone confused." After working with an outside consulting firm, and the hard work of board, staff and Michael himself, they managed to get some organizational clarity and turn the museum around. What made the difference?
  • Placing the director's motives and vision in the open
  • Distribute leadership
  • Creating a client-centered institution
  • Common values
  • Inventing tools that allowed for delegation
  • Leaders learning to be tough, nimble managers
  • Value experimentation and admit mistakes
I've been a director and know how hard those changes are to make in any institution. And in Spock's talk, along with the other presenters, it was clear that being a director means being able to look deeply at yourself, at your own skills (and lack thereof), motives, and areas to improve--and to embrace the challenge of making that change.

Maureen Robinson, a board specialist, talked about the "velocity of leadership." As she put it, directors need a lot of nurturing, but we're going through them like Kleenex. The patience of the Children's Museum board, while Michael Spock learned to be a leader, is rarely, if ever, shown to directors today. I became a director in my mid-twenties, right out of graduate school, and I still think of those board members at the Delaware County Historical Association, whose patience and wisdom gave me the time and space to learn.

The solution, from her perspective: learning to change behaviors of both directors and trustees. Tops on her list for directors: stop hiding from your board. Share information, work to create knowledge and understanding on your board, and don't just create a small cadre of board members you deal with. When I became a director of the first time, and my organization had never had a director before, I soon learned that it was wholly to my benefit to devote some time at each meeting to a discussion of museum-related issues. That board became my first audience, and when a board member, a local postmistress, asked a foundation director about intellectual control of a proposed exhibition--I knew I had the beginnings of success. But she also mentioned one of the hardest things to do--particularly in a small museum--which is distinguish between your self and your role.

Trustees--what can you change? Hire the best person for the job, work to make that person successful, pay competitive salary and benefits (perhaps the hardest), encourage learning, see the task of running the organization as a partnership and create an effective and engaged board culture. That will be different for every board, but boards seem to work best when board members both like and respect each other--and the director.

Tom Downey of the Denver Children's Museum is a devotee of Jim Collins' book, Good to Great (now on my reading list). A lawyer turned museum director, he described himself as unburdened by experience or skill," when he started the job. As a leader and manager, he views his role as, literally or figuratively, every day, asking his direct reports, "What can I do to help you do your job better?" He's the bottom of the pyramid rather than the top. He also recommended determining how to spend time on the hard decisions, and not the easy ones. Of the easy ones he says, "It is far better to make a wrong decision today a right decision six weeks from now."

I'm not necessarily big on leadership theory, but the frankness of these leaders, and their illustrations directly from their own careers took the session from theory into the realm of practical knowledge. It seems to me that the ability to have a conversation--to be able to speak clearly about your own motives, hopes and vision for the organization--and to listen with purpose to others--will go a long way towards making a good director.

Photo: Miners talking at Labor Day Celebration, Silverton, Colorado, 1940. Photograph by Russell Lee, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mall Walking

At the Upstate History Alliance/Museum Association of New York conference, James Chung and Susie Wilkenning of Reach Advisors led a great session through Colonie Center in Albany, where we met with various retailers and learned about how they brand and present their businesses, who their clients are, and even what music they choose to play. Read great observations from Susie, James, and Winterthur student Amanda Rosner at Reach Advisor's blog, Museum Audience Insight.

In addition to the branding discussions, I was also struck by the ways in which these businesses approach training and rewarding front line people. At American Eagle, the manager noted that they always interview job applicants in a group--and if you can't talk in a group, they are fairly sure that you won't be the kind of outgoing sales person they're looking for. They have quite definite ideas about that person--they must be able to attract, engage and outfit (AEO) their customers. How do they do it? An initial training, and then direct, ongoing coaching and modeling.

Other places make real commitments to their front line staff as well. You would hope that bookstore staff knew something about books--sure enough, all three employees who spoke with us each named a different, very current book they were reading. By using staff recommendations (why couldn't we use those in exhibits?) and hotlines to report best selling items, these businesses gave their front line staff a sense of power--however, it was still very clear that it was critical that front line staff embrace and understand the values of the organization. Different rewards were given to staff for their efforts--at Sephora, a bonus goes to every employee (the same amount, no matter your position) if sales goals are reached.

What does this have to do with museums? How many museums have you been to where the front line staff looked pained as you approach? or ones that told you, "we're closing at 4:00" when it's only just after three? or docents who told you about their family connection to the site, rather than about the larger meanings conveyed in a carefully crafted tour? I think it's about two areas where we, particularly small museums, could greatly improve on our practices.

First, values and mission. It was amazing to me that all of these businesses had a very clear idea of their values and their mission, and that employees directly understood it. It seems to me that all of us, as organizations whose values do not necessarily include profit, need to do a better job at making sure our values and mission are embued in everything we do. At a recent meeting, when I asked a director about the organizational mission, he said, "oh, it's on the brochure." That doesn't quite compare to the LL Bean staff member relating the story of LL Bean's original boots and the company's values that spring from that original story.

Second, recruiting and training. If American Eagle can take 18 year olds and turn them into enthusiastic salespeople for plaid shorts and flip flops, then why can't we take all our volunteers and turn them into enthusiastic salespeople for our museums? I wonder if it's not because we're scared of them, we wonder how we will get other volunteers if we don't let the ones we have do just what they want. What would happen if we made it cool to be a volunteer? Maybe we provide free stuff (okay, like Amanda, I was seduced by the water bottle and light up hat.) and give them a way, within an organizational structure, to share their input to help shape the experience but to make sure that the visitor experience remains one consistent with our values. Maybe then visitors will flock to our museums the same way they do the malls.

Two Women in Philadelphia

In the past couple months, I've seen two separate shows in Philadelphia that were retrospectives of individual women artists: Cecilia Beaux at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Frida Kahlo at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Until my drive home yesterday, I really hadn't thought about what the shows had in common, and what made them appealing to me as a visitor.

Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was Philadelphia born and trained (at the Academy) and her extensive body of portrait work reflects her own social sphere--which included a number of notable women making their way in academics and the arts. The exhibit was simply installed, and the labels for individual labels did a great job at setting the story of both Beaux's work and the way in which the life of the sitter fit within Beaux's own life. The museum was not very crowded, so it was a real chance to see and contemplate the work. The museum had also produced a very simple xeroxed family guide that encouraged family visitors to look for "clues" and meaning in individual paintings. I didn't see families using it, but I liked it enough to bring home to save as an example.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), of course, is an icon, and the show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art reflects that iconic status. It was expensive to see (enough that I became a member as I go to Philadelphia on a fairly regular basis) and it does seem to me that if you purchase a timed ticket than you shouldn't have to spend almost 45 minutes in line. The audio tour is free, and gallery attendants drape it around you--sort of a benediction as you enter. I loved the colors of the exhibit and it was wonderful to enter through the first several rooms that were photographic images of Kahlo, Diego Rivera and their lives together. It made her a real person--and served as the prologue for her work of creating herself as an iconic, complicated figure in her work.

I appreciated the way that the labels (I'm not much of an audio tour person--I find that when everyone uses the audio tours, conversation declines in exhibitions) really helped understand the circumstances under which she created the work, and the many symbols and cultural practices that she drew upon. Just a few things I didn't like--I always wish that, for a show like this, you didn't have to shuffle around, looking over shoulders to see both work and labels. At the Rijksmuseum, main labels are installed large and very high up, so you can see them, even when there is a crowd in the room. That would have been nice here. Individual object labels were well-written and interesting, but too small to see in a crowd. Importantly, materials were also available in Spanish. And why does a male British voice have to do the audio tour narration? Is that the voice of curatorial authority? (okay, I just checked and it is the voice of curatorial authority, one of the exhibit's curators, Michael Taylor--hear his podcast about the exhibition here)

Even though Beaux's work feels very cool, and Kahlo's very hot, they share the common denominators of concern with the human condition and the fierce, driving urge to create, to be an artist.

The Frida Kahlo show is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 18 and will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this summer. The Cecilia Beaux show has already ended.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Please Do Not Touch the Walrus

I'm just back from the Upstate History Alliance/Museum Association of New York conference in Albany, where there were several great thought-provoking sessions. Curator Erin Crissman led a discussion about museum objects--not about cataloging, or caring for, or even perhaps completely interpreting, but she posed the question, "what is keeping us from using the objects in our collection?" Among other things, she had found some great images of objects, many of them outdoor sculpture, that had been touched by viewers, resulting in shiny bronze feet, noses, or other appendages. It sent me off on a little random googling myself to see what kinds of Do Not Touch signs are out there. Of course, you won't find a picture of a do not touch sign on a museum's website, but you do on flickr and picasa. Here's a random example:

Erin talked about wanting to develop an alternative to the no touching rule--one that gives visitors that emotional connection while still preserving the object. Not surprisingly, the session was a lively discussion. One participant pointed out, that if you want to touch authentic objects, plenty of the same types of things can be found at any antique store. Another noted that, even with the most valuable objects, at an auction, they can be touched, sat in, and poked at--but then, when they're bought by a museum they become untouchable. One participant wondered if we would lose our reliability, our trustworthiness, if we allowed people to touch, our credibility as a place of preservation. (For a great post on museums and reliability, see Nina Simon's blog, Museum 2.0). Another reminded us of the importance of developing ways to engage all our senses, and of course several people touched on, from Erin at the the very start of her talk and others, that at historic sites, we allow visitors to touch perhaps our most precious objects--the building itself. During the discussion I also thought about the ways that historic but sacred objects continue to be in use by many groups, perhaps only being used on a once a year basis, but used none-the-less.

But why do people want to touch? Is it just because we can't--that visitors love the lure of the illicit? Or is it that touch is really a way to make an emotional connection? or a tool for learning? Do we want to be like those people whose objects we want to touch? or do we want to remind ourselves that our lives are different.

Without question, touching can provide an experience that lasts for a lifetime. One participant in the session, a well-seasoned professional, had a childhood filled with family vacations to presidential homes. The one he remembers best? When a docent let him go pick up and bring to share the bedwarmer at Woodrow Wilson's home. For me, when I was in elementary school, we took a family trip to New York and visited the Museum of Modern Art. There, in front of me was perhaps the first real work of art I really knew--Van Gogh's Starry Night. But it was so different in person than in the reproductions I'd seen--it not only had color, but it had dimension and texture. So what did I do--I snuck quickly snuck out a finger and touched the surface. Sorry MOMA, for those oils on my fingers and any potential damage, but thanks for the memory.

(and a thanks to all those of you at the conference who mentioned you read my blog!)

Friday, April 4, 2008

A Night at the Museum

Last Thursday night was a rare time--a chance to enjoy an exhibit opening with a great team. The new Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation opened at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA. The exhibit looks at both the process of innovation and the many Berkshire innovators--from Herman Melville to Claire Bosquet, who developed night skiing. This was an unusual project for me, in that I had the great luxury of being a team member whose primary responsibility was commenting and thinking. After the dinner with donors, the team of us assembled back down in the exhibit hall--and it made me think of the start of my museum career, when it seemed like the coolest thing was to be able to be in the museum after hours, with all the cool stuff. Sure enough, what did all of us do? Just enjoy the exhibit--we looked at panels, played with the interactives, and generally, took pleasure in the project.

Christopher Clarke, the primary team facilitator and I talked about what made this team a pleasure. Part of it was the inexplicable chemistry of the right group of people, but there were several other important factors as well. First, that the project had the time to bring people together on a regular basis. So in that little bright green classroom at the museum, the group of us meet regularly to talk, brainstorm, think and rethink. We went down some wrong pathways, but had the time to go back and rethink. Second, Stuart Chase, the Berkshire Museum's director, gave the team lots of freedom to explore ideas. Third, everyone in the group was open to other opinions. Fourth, the team combined staff and outsiders--but neither group was privileged over the other. Importantly, the staff, from Stuart on down, were very committed to the project, so when team meetings were held, it wasn't the kind of meeting where the director is constantly checking their cell phone. And fifth--we had fun in the process. I'll take these team lessons forward as I assemble and work on other teams. What makes a good team process from your perspective?

Above, exhibit designer Katherine McCusker and researcher Maureen Hennessey enjoy the dance interactive.
Below, images from the opening weekend. All images below copyright Geraldine Sweeney, 2008. All Rights reserved.

Changeable! That was our mantra and these innovator panels can "live" in different sections of the exhibit. So on one visit, you can learn about Herman Melville in the context of success, in another, in the context of obstacles.

A very cool interactive that somehow turns your movements into shapes--connected to the idea that for many innovators, like dancer Ted Shawn, founder of Jacob's Pillow, innovation is, in part, composed of trying--and trying again and again until you get it right, whatever that right might be defined to be.

Obstacles--puzzles and mazes, at several different ability levels, give visitors the chance to keep at problem solving. A beautiful use of an off-the-shelf product--the puzzles--to make an important point.

Problem solving--at this station visitors use different materials to design a solution to a common housework problem--from doing homework to cleaning your room. It demonstrates here, as it did in our prototyping, that a little direction and alot of materials make for an engaging experience for almost everyone.

This is what one visitor told me she'd never seen at another museum. Designed in the middle of space, and meant primarily as a school group meeting place, this comfortable space appears to have rapidly become a place for visitors to work alone or together. Maybe this is the exhibit's town square.