Sunday, November 29, 2009

Three Things to Like in Local History Museums

Much of my time in local history museums is spent thinking about how to do things differently--how to create new exhibits, develop new plans, or reach new audiences.   It was a pleasure this week to visit the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village on Sanibel Island in Florida while on vacation.    I didn't have to plan, or write reports, or gently make suggestions--I just got to be a visitor.  It's an all-volunteer organization, and three things about my visit stood out.

Friendly volunteers
In several (admittedly non-scientific) surveys I've done recently with local organizations, friendly staff and volunteers rank incredibly high on a list of community desires for museums.   I arrived at the museum at 3:30,  half an hour before they closed.   I've visited museums where volunteers or staff have said, oh,  it's too close to closing time, and discouraged entrance.  Here, a volunteer said, "oh, it's only half an hour til closing, so we won't charge you, but I'll take you on a quick tour."   And she enthusiastically did.

Sharing stories
I'm always interested in people's own stories about how they came to be in a place, and so asked when my guide had first started coming to Sanibel.   She told me her story, and then, when we came to a photo showing the unpaved sand roads, said, "This is just what it looked like when we first came,"  making the photo real in time for me.

Seeing places in a new way
We've been coming to Sanibel for more than a decade.  As the guide and I visited the buildings on the site, we entered the one-room schoolhouse.  The guide said it had been the school for white children only--but that the schoolhouse for African-American children still stood--but greatly changed and told me the location.  Sure enough, it was now a jewelry store, and one I had gone by repeatedly, without ever thinking about the island's diverse history.   Now I won't go by it again, without remembering my visit and my glimpse back into the region's past.

These elements are something that every museum, no matter it's size, can do.   But it does, I think, require a shift from an object-centered museum to one centered around the visitor.

 And one more thing--I even got a free prize--a key lime from the museum's tree!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Two Reasons To Like Big Art Museums

I often find that, if I have free time in a city, I don't seek out a history museum, the kind of place where I spend most of my time, but look for the biggest art museum I can find. As I was wandering the National Gallery in Washington last week, I wondered why that was and realized has to do the ways I like to design my own visitor experience. So what are those two reasons?

First, a big art museum provides a chance to really just wander and surrender yourself in the permanent collections. In history or science exhibits, it's about the path of the exhibit and the material presented in interesting ways. At art museums, I feel freer to wander, just stopping at what interests me. I'd never thought much about Lucas Cranach (the Older, I think) but the portrait above stopped me in my tracks--so beautiful--that vibrant green that doesn't quite reproduce here, the red of her belt and hair, the shadows and the black, and her pale, intense face. Art museums are places of transcendence, and I particularly like them best on weekdays, when the crowds are smaller. I like the chance to surrender to works that interest me, and often, aren't interested in learning much more than having the visual experience.

Second, I'm always happy to discover those small exhibitions that represent a curator's passion. So I do like to learn a little after all. Also at the National Gallery, The Darker Side of Light: The Arts of Privacy 1850-1900, about 19th century print-making, showed works illustrating 8 themes: possession, nature, the city, creatures, reverie, obsession, abjection, violence, and death. In dark purple rooms, these small black and white etchings and engravings were transporting in a different kind of way, and the exhibit's organization and the works themselves led me to read long labels as I immersed myself in what felt like a secret world. I think of this kind of exhibit as pulling back the curtain on the works in a museum (and the work we do in museums as well).

What does this mean for the exhibits I work on? It makes more convinced that ever that the editing part of our work is as important as anything we do. We don't need to use five historic photos when one great one would do. Spaces, even at community history museums, can provide repose. And every museum should provide a little surprise to the visitor--but understand, that to each visitor, the surprise may be different. I might have been the only visitor that day to really stop and look at the Cranach, but it's an experience I'll remember a long time. And lastly, I wonder if those of us who work mostly in history spend too much time thinking about parts of the exhibit process that don't matter that much to visitors and not enough about how to provide those quiet "aha" moments.

What Really Makes the Most Interactive Museum in DC?

This week I visited the Newseum, on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. It bills itself, on the website and as you enter, as "Washington, DC's most interactive museum." Did I think so after I visited: not so much--and I really had to spend some time thinking about why--particularly after at least one museum colleague told me he had really enjoyed it.

So let's start at the beginning--their mission statement which says:
The Newseum educates the public about the value of a free press in a free society and tells the stories of the world's important events in unique and engaging ways.
On some level, I think this mission statement is too broad--tells the stories of the world's important events? Basically, license to do exhibits on anything--and the definition of important news, these days, ranges from celebrities to economics. So it feels a bit disjointed to be in a museum that puts Sports Illustrated photos, the Berlin Wall, and the vest Bob Woodward was wearing when he was injured in Iraq in relatively the same frame. And although their programming appears to go much deeper, I longed for some deeper exhibit discussion on numerous issues--how about how the world sees us? How about corporate control of media? (perhaps a little hard to do with all those corporate sponsors)

And about those interactives. There is a ton (no other word really) of video in the museum. Good news, it was all working. Bad news--it felt a bit overwhelming (and found a good deal of sound bleed from one to another). I found the interactions to be primarily one way ones. And often, it came with a cost. You could vote for the Top White House Dog (news?) by putting money in a slot, and the big row of stand-up TV stations is fronted by a very large label inviting you to buy your photo or video.

The interactives were primarily screen-based ones (see the top photo). They were often designed in ways that didn't encourage group conversation or discussion, but rather for a single person to sit down at a station. I think of journalism--of the work of news gathering--as a collective effort in every way. It's collaborative through the whole process--the collective work of gathering the news through working with editors and others to create a single product, be it newscast or newspaper. There was almost no sense of a collective effort except for school group visitors. I wanted places for conversation, for debate, for connections, not just for button-pushing.

Consider the difference of asking, at an Express Yourself kiosk, whether you receive your news via a cell phone to the experience at the Holocaust Museum, in their exhibit From Memory to Action, where you actually sit down and write with a pen (that not only writes but shows your handwriting on a larger wall) your own personal thoughts on how you can take action to end genocide. You then drop your own thoughts in a transparent box, as you, in effect, join a community of people committed to ending genocide. So what if I get my news via cell phone?

And then, why, amidst all the high-tech glitz, is there this lonely little comment book in the exhibit on 9/11? Could they have made the text inviting you to comment any smaller? Not surprisingly, many of the comments are pretty mundane. The 9/11 exhibit did have the one thing I was really moved by at the museum--a 12 minute or so video with the recollections of local news crews and their efforts to cover the story. These were just regular New York City news guys--the traffic guy in the helicopter, the woman who covers City Hall, who found themselves thrust into a story they never imagined. Incredibly moving, and a real look at how journalists work. It was the one place where I really found myself wondering, "what would I have done?" and gaining a deeper understanding of the instincts of news people.

And why is the section on the Digital News Revolution just a text and graphics panel? No Twitter feed, no Flickr of current events? I actually found the graphic design of many of the areas interesting and well done. The use of bold graphics and headlines, based on journalism drew you into spaces and worked well in the museum's big spaces.

But one choice absolutely baffled me. I think of ethics as something that's transparent, that imbues every part of an organization's work. I could not figure out why the exhibit designers chose to put Ethics in a non-transparent cube, set off from the rest of the news. Bring ethics out into the open!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Brooklyn Interactives

I've long admired the Brooklyn Children's Museum so I was thrilled to have a couple extra hours in Brooklyn over the weekend so I could see their re-newed and re-opened building and exhibits. My visit happened to coincide with my new book club's reading of Paul Tough's book about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America. The book's a good non-academic read, but it takes a look at a number of studies that examine the possible reasons for gaps in achievement between rich (or even middle-class) and poor students in America. And one of the biggest reasons, say many educators, is the lack of resources, time and knowledge for low-income parents to stimulate their children in terms of language. Talking about things, learning the names of things, learning to say and recognize different words, being read to--all of them really seem to matter.

So within that frame, I was really intrigued by many of the interactives in the new exhibit World Brooklyn. The exhibit is a series of places within Brooklyn, based on real stores and businesses, that highlight the borough's diversity. The exhibit uses stories of real people and their lives, contextualized into a broader life in Brooklyn. The interactives engaged many different learning styles and at the same time, promoted both language and math skills, and went far beyond the simple approach sometimes found at children's museums.

Some examples:

An interactive for those kinesthetic learners. Along with a large dragon puppet at the opening of the exhibit, this cleverly mounted and engineered interactive lets the visitor become a participant, costume and all, in Brooklyn's annual West Indian parade.

Yes, your average grocery store space--but made deeper, with more use of vocabulary and a sense of community differences and similarities by the bottom installation--where you pick up a shopping list for a specific family celebration--from Shabbos to Kwanzaa and fill your basket with the appropriate items. I'd love to know if this encouraged picky eaters to be a little more adventurous as well!

Two activities in a bakery. They use simple language but also some simple math skills. I also loved the feel of the fabric pan de muerto pieces. Much nicer, and more like dough, than any sort of plastic.

Looking from the outside in to the window of a Chinese bookstore. The hook at the bottom are just laminated sheets that identify the objects in the window by name. And in the bookstore--of course, books to read.

I liked the video installations. They were relatively inobstrusive--and were installed in ways that I felt they were directed more towards adults than children. This exhibit wasn't about having kids watch videos or interact with screens. Role play (see the photo at the top of the post) is always one of the greatest things to watch kids to. Again, nice fabric "ingredients" and a place that felt like the real deal, inspired the imagination.

Two things I didn't love: I found a number of interactives missing supplies (see below) and I wished for more floor staff to engage visitors. But overall, incredible examples of creating a meaningful exhibit filled with meaningful interactives. No whiz-bang holograms, no giant media installations, and very little that couldn't be maintained by staff with a few simple tools.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I was struck by how generous I find the museum community when I read this article in the New York Times, about teachers selling their lesson plans online to other teachers--and in fact one site selling such materials, ranging from word puzzles to lesson plans, has generated more than $600,000 in income.

As I read the article I realized that I couldn't remember a time, if ever, that I called or emailed a fellow museum professional and they didn't generously offer their time, help, knowledge and perspectives, whether it be lesson plans, policies, or whatever. In the article, several of the teachers felt they were underpaid, and this was just fair pay for the work they did, but it troubled me, on so many levels. I know teachers work hard, and I know they're underpaid, but this seems to me exactly the kind of behavior I wouldn't want to encourage in students. Nina Simon posted a thoughtful response to one of my blog entries a couple months ago about providing "spreadable" content--and it seems to be that "spreadability" should be our goal--not the individual hoarding of resources and knowledge. And for a great example of a sharing teacher, check out my friend Anne Gohorel's art teacher blog.

Spreadable museum sites are too numerous to mention--some links at left, and many, many others. Thanks, my fellow museum professionals, for all the generosity of spirit!

Top: Hello Beautiful from josh.liba's photostream on Flickr

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Different Kind of To-Do List

I like lists--I make a to-do one every week, and I like to read or watch things where people share various lists. If you think about, work on, work around, or even visit exhibits, here's two great lists. They aren't about exhibits to see, or steps in a process, but about larger ideas. For me, they stand as a different kind of to-do list--ones that remind me to think in bigger, more contemplative ways about my work.

The first is Kathleen McLean's "Manifesto for the (r)Evolution of Museum Exhibitions" which was posted online on her website. I've admired her work for a long time, and her 1993 book, Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions is a vital part of my bookshelf. She gives us 18 ways to think differently about the work we do (thanks to Paul Orselli for highlighting the talk in his report on the ASTC conference).

Thanks to Design Observer I came across designer Dieter Rams' 10 design principles. He's an industrial designer, but I think his principles hold equally true for exhibitions. Can you apply these to your work?
  • Good design is innovative
  • Good design makes a product useful
  • Good design is aesthetic
  • Good design helps us to understand a product
  • Good design is unobtrusive
  • Good design is honest
  • Good design is durable
  • Good design is consequent to the last detail
  • Good design is concerned with the environment
  • Good design is as little design as possible.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Opening Up

When I was director of the Upstate History Alliance, I spent time in many extended conversations about small organizations--and particularly about how to encourage small organizations to strive for best practices. And not surprisingly, my conclusion about organizations is the same conclusion that every good teacher probably comes to in a classroom--that if you're not ready to learn, you won't. For small museums and historical societies to move forward, there has to be not only a spark, but a willingness to fan that spark into a full-fledged flame of change.

Professional development should provide the spark. I think it's important to learn skills, but I think it's critical for staff and volunteers to understand the "so what" of what we do--and to understand what Stephen Weil called the shift in museums from being about something to being for somebody. Although I don't think about professional development in quite the same way now that I'm working as a consultant, it's still an important part of my work. Some days I spend with organizations where I can see they are just not quite ready to make change. They applied for a planning grant because someone told them they needed to; they think writing a plan will automatically help them get money; they have a crisis and want to fix the immediate crisis but not the larger problem; they have a million reasons why change can't happen. Those sessions are always a bit discouraging.

This fall, though, I've had a couple days with organizations where I can almost see the wheels in people's brains begin to spin as they contemplate new ideas. Last week, I did a MAP Institutional Assessment at a small museum in northern Colorado. Over a great pot-luck dinner, the board lit up with enthusiasm as they thought about the ways in which they could consider a step forward, moving from an organization whose job was to collect and catalog, to one who shared the stories that those objects represented with the community--and to find ways to invite the community into that sharing process.

Earlier this fall, at a session at Woodchuck Lodge, the home of literary naturalist John Burroughs, the board benchmarked the homes of other writers -- but then our conversation moved to ways of interpreting the house. One board member had found the novel, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England (now on my own reading list) with a great quote about the meaning of a writer's things vs. a writer's words. That led us to a discussion about how to include Burroughs' words in more concrete ways--so yes, the guide could read his words; then yes, visitors could be asked to read words; then yes, we could give a card with the quotes read to each visitor to take home.

Of course, it's easy to have enthusiasm in a meeting--and the challenge then comes into putting those great conversations into practice. But that excitement of discovering new ideas is a first step that will take an organization down that creative path. And as each museum considers new board or staff members, finding ones that exhibit that spark can be a critical next step as well.

And by the way, that spark of learning holds true for me as well--so on my Colorado visit I learned a bit about elk hunting, sheep wagons with solar panels, ditches with boards of directors, saddle-making, ranching, and that Thursday is Burrito Day at the Hi-Way Bar (pretty good ones, as it happens!)