Friday, December 31, 2010

More and More: My New Year's Resolutions

I thought about a year-end review, or a top-ten list but decided instead, to share my professional resolutions for the coming year.  The past year has been an incredible one, full of adventures and a year that this blog seemed to find its footing with first, a big thank-you to all of you who read, commented and shared with others.  In 2011, I hope to:

Risk More
There's always a temptation to play it safe: to tell the interpretive story that is the non-controversial one,  to not say something when you really should speak out, and to just stay in your comfort zone.  When I applied to be a Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine, one of my goals was to go outside, way outside, my comfort zone.   The professional and personal rewards of that risk have been immense for me--allowing me to see things in new ways and develop new networks and connections.  I want to keep taking more risks in my professional life--saying yes to risky projects, trying something new, and encouraging others to do the same.  I'll try to ban the words, "Yes, but...." from my vocabulary this year.   My post about local historical societies as dinosaurs generated huge readership and many comments--and the best way to avoid that dinosaur fate might just to be, for each museum, to resolve to do at least one risky, visitor-centered thing this year.   I'm always on the lookout for great, innovative projects to share here--and for guest bloggers so if you undertake that risky new thing,  be sure and let me know.

Read More
I feel like every day brings more and more I should be reading.  Tweets send me to fascinating articles, bloggers old and new continue to draw me in with their thoughtful perspectives on our work,  and every morning, online newspapers beckon with their random assortment of  news (and all that's ignoring whatever Stumble Upon brings).   But at the same time, I have a growing pile of books that sit unread--and those are the focus of this resolution. 

My goal is to set aside time to fully dive into books--and perhaps I'll start by joining Nina Simon's newest book club effort and read Sustaining Innovation with all of you.    For a new exhibition project, the small project team and I have decided to divide up the secondary source reading and share our thoughts on the ongoing project blog (by the way, it's about greed in the early settlement of Western NY, a potentially risky topic) as a way of expanding our knowledge and, we hope, involving our audience.   My book club continues to inspire me to read books I wouldn't otherwise have read;  over a Florida vacation, my nephews encouraged me to join Goodreads.  It appears that reading is for me, becoming a community, a collaborative effort--a long way from those days reading books underneath my covers with a flashlight.

Write More
Thanks to the patience of editors Gretchen Jennings and Bob Beatty,  the Exhibitionist and History News each published articles about my experiences in Ukraine.  They proved an unexpected workout as I shifted from the informal, short-form blog entry to a longer, more sustained series of thoughts.  Blog posts will continue, of course, but I'm also contemplating whether there's a book in my future.  The writing process made me ponder whether the future of more academically-oriented journals about the museum field when so much good, reflective work is being produced all the time, on-line.   First up for me though:  some entries for the revised Encyclopedia of Local History.  What do you think should be included in the entry on exhibits?
Connect More
The best thing about blogging and tweeting is the connections to people.  For a long time this felt like a bit of a one way street, but this year it seemed to have changed, for reasons I'm not quite sure of. It's been great to have more comments, to meet some of you at conferences, and to read my fellow bloggers work (of course, Museum 2.0 but also Jasper Visser and many others).   I've been contemplating attending some sort of international conference or workshop this year as I'm continually interested in what's happening other places--suggestions?

I suspect I'm at the far end of the age range for museum bloggers, and one vital aspect of my work is the chance to make connections with people coming up in the field, with new ideas, perspectives and skills.  It's made me a bit impatient with my peers who grouse about those newcomers, or who harumph about social media.  I mean, who wants to connect with a harumpher! So I'm not quite sure about how I'll connect more, or who those connections will be with,  but I feel sure there will be new people to meet, talk, and share ideas with.

(Above, one of my favorite places, an abandoned building turned bar,  I had great conversations and re-connections this year, in Budapest, with my longtime friend Gyorgyi Nemeth).

Give More
At the end of 2010,  my colleague Sarah Crow and I launched the Pickle Project on Kickstarter.  We're at 25% of our goal, with just a month left to reach it.  I've been touched by the generosity of friends, colleagues and even perfect strangers in supporting our project (and of course, you can join them!)  It's made me resolve to be a better giver myself.   I'll be supporting one project a month on Kickstarter and will try to increase my local giving as well, particularly to museums and history organizations that are those risk-takers.

To all of you, a happy, risk-filled New Year!

Monday, December 27, 2010

It's a Girly, Girly World: Barbie and Avedon

I saw the Barbie exhibit at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis several weeks ago and just saw the Richard Avedon fashion retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and combined, they provided much food for thought.  Although I might guess that the cross-over audience isn't necessarily much larger than me.   The Barbie exhibit had raised so many issues for me and then, combined with the Avedon exhibit made me think about the ways in which museum exhibits, intentionally or not, convey messages about our culture.  And as a visitor, sometimes you can only guess what those messages are intended to be.
Eerily, both exhibits had very similar opening images--giant, hot pink, close-ups of a woman.  It's been a long time since I saw an exhibit I felt as conflicted about as I did about Barbie.  What did I like about the exhibit?  It did appeal to all kinds of people.  I liked the share your Barbie memory story--and in fact, as I've told other women about the exhibit, we've shared our own Barbie stories as well.
The exhibit used real objects in addition to interactive elements.   I don't remember noting whether these were museum collections or objects acquired for the exhibit.  So you get some sense of Barbie's change over time.
The interactive were great.   This simple draping one, on a kid-sized mannequin, worked so beautifully.  I saw several girls deep in thought as they tried it.
Several of the interactives made me a bit sad,  because they were museum-based versions of the kinds of things we did on a regular basis at home growing up.    A round table with supplies to create Barbie clothes?  That was the regular playroom table of my childhood, but I think fewer and fewer families have fabric scraps around the house (my mom sewed many of our clothes) and fewer and fewer families put the focus on hands-on creative work.   Good news for museums though, as the hands-on, direct tactile, meaningful creative experience  is something we can do very well.
The exhibit appealed not only to girls (though it was hard to get past all that pink!).  Here's a young boy intent on tracing a fashion drawing.
But--and this is a big BUT for me.   I left the exhibit thinking, "But what happened to feminism?  Did we not accomplish anything in the last fifty years?"   Nothing about how Barbie's body image sets up an impossible ideal for young girls.  Just a passing glance at Barbie's many careers over time but nothing about how she performs all of them in those tiny high heels.  I didn't notice anywhere where visitors were invited to rethink Barbie;  or to consider alternatives to the way Barbie presents women.   Not the stuff of a children's museum exhibit you say?  Perhaps, but at the same museum,  a meaningful exhibit The Power of Children:  Making a Difference takes on big, complex issues through the stories of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White.   To its substantial credit, it's not as if this museum is afraid of challenging content for their visitors.
And then just last week I saw Avedon Fashion 1944-2000 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (the show was organized by the International Center for Photography).   There's some similarities to the Barbie show--it's about women, and fashion, and certainly both shows are about consumerism, about material goods.  But I left this show feeling that I experienced entirely different perspectives on women in the second half of the 20th century.   Barbie is somebody's idea of perfection--and although Richard Avedon's images of women are breathtakingly gorgeous,  they are not perfect.   And certainly Avedon's job was to sell us clothes,  or the idea of a life women could have if they had the clothes.
But why so different?  The audience for the show?  Families, particularly those with young girls, in one case and art/fashion lovers in the other?  The fact that perhaps a show about a commercial product needs permission?  (for some non-permissioned art shows, check out Altered Barbie).   The idea that one thing is art and the other is product?  Art show vs. children's museum?  (there's possibly an entire book about corporate sponsorship and children's museums that could be written).   Corporate design vs. an individual artistic vision?  or just what I brought to each exhibition?

But I hope that each exhibit team would be happy that after seeing the Avedon show, the three of us sat down over coffee to talk about the two shows and what they meant.   Two former Barbie owners,  two photographers, one exhibit developer, and all three museum-goers:  we all brought our respective personal histories and viewpoints into the conversation.  And that would make each, in its own way, a successful show.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Will the Crowd Fund Our Project? A Kickstarter Story

Crowdsourcing--that's outsourcing your tasks to a large, unknown group of people presents a range of opportunities for museums--citizen science, mapping, identifying photo collections. But in a way, crowdsourcing of fundraising is one thing that I think small museums in particular may find very useful.  My colleague Sarah Crow and I have begun a project on Kickstarter and I'll use a series of entries on this blog to reflect on what we're learning in the hopes that it may be useful to others.

What's Kickstarter? 
It is "a new way to fund creative ideas and ambitious endeavors."  And it's framed around two core beliefs:  
• A good idea, communicated well, can spread fast and wide.
• A large group of people can be a tremendous source of money and encouragement.
What's Our Project?
We're the Pickle Project and you can find us here on Kickstarter and the Pickle Project blog here.   It's a project that sprang from our separate experiences in Ukraine as Fulbright Scholars.  We both love food and bring complementary interests in food--mine around food as cultural expression;  Sarah around issues of sustainability, and both of us in terms of how it shapes communities.   Our long term goal is to create innovative traveling exhibitions in Ukraine and here in the US that encourage community conversations about food, culture and sustainability. 

Why Kickstarter?
The great thing about Kickstarter is that you don't need to be a non-profit to seek funding.  For us, that's perfect.  We're in the earlyish stages of the project and although we will seek a non-profit partner, at this phase, it made great sense to venture out on our own.
How Do You Get People to Pledge?
Kickstarter is all or nothing so we need to raise our goal by February 1 in order to receive any of the money.  Kickstarter is all about your ability to get the word out.  Kickstarter doesn't do that for you, you need to.  How are we getting the word out?  We blog, we tweet, we email friends and encourage them to share it, we have a Facebook fan page, we use our groups on LinkedIn,  we're pursuing traditional media coverage--anything and everything we can think of.

How Could This Work for Small Museums?
There's only been a few museum projects on Kickstarter.  One of the most successful was the Neversink Valley Museum in Narrowsburg, NY and Seth Goldman, their director, was incredibly generous in sharing his lessons learned during the process of successfully raising funds for architectural drawings and other work for a new building.  The World of Witches Museum in Salem raised almost $5000 for exhibits and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art also raised exhibit funds.  Unsuccessful?  A Teachers Museum and the Museum of Hawaiian Shirts. 

Local history museums already have networks--your members and others in your community.  You also have those people who grew up in your community and moved away and those enthusiastic genealogist who email you seeking information.   And don't say that older people don't use the Internet:  an updated Pew Charitable Trust study shows that email is almost ubiquitous, even with those over age 74.   So your audience or network is out there!
What Have We Learned So Far?
Some simple lessons for us and we're only four days into our project.
  • Research:  look at other similar and different Kickstarter projects;  find someone who's done Kickstarter before to talk to and share their perspectives;  read Kickstarter's materials and other blogs about what works and what doesn't.
  • Ask Before Leaping:  We sent our initial narrative off to about a dozen or so friends and colleagues to read, long before we posted.  (You know who you are--thanks!).  Their thoughtful feedback told us one thing--that we needed to more clearly connect the story of food in Ukraine with people here, today, in the United States.  So we did.
  • Make That Video Work:  Neither of us were video experts (even though I have one in the house) but we knew we needed a video to draw visitors into the story.  Thanks to our work and the generosity of friends who have also spent time in Ukraine, we put together a simple slide show with great photos using iMovie.  Looks simple, but took far more time than I expected.  We didn't need it to be perfect--but we did need it to be compelling--take a look and see what you think.
  • Cool Premiums:  We also looked at what other successsful projects has offered for premiums and tried to balance the cost and effort of the premium with the amount pledged.  And so, if you, generous reader, pledge $1000 Sarah or I will bring a Ukrainian dinner to your house!
  • All or Nothing Means no Messing Around:  Kickstarter is all or nothing.  You set the amount, you set the time frame (up to 90 days) and then, boom!  you launch the project.  You only get the money if you raise the full amount.  We know how much money we have to raise every single day between now and February 1 and that means no coasting, that every single day we'll be out there tweeting, facebooking or otherwise connecting with our networks.  So far, we're on target.
And finally, Don't be Shy!
As any fundraising professional knows, you don't get support if you don't ask.  So here's my ask.
Head on over to Kickstarter and support the Pickle Project because:
  • You love food
  • You're interested in cross-cultural understanding
  • You want to see how it works
  • You wish we understood more in this country about how to grow, cook and eat sustainably
  • You're interested in Ukraine
  • You've had a great time reading this blog this year
  • You want to support a passionate project in its emerging state
  • and of course, if you love pickles!
Thanks to all those who have already stepped up to the plate (the dinner plate perhaps) and supported us.  I'll continue to post our lessons learned--if you have specific questions, please comment away.  You can track our progress on the widget to the right and of course, we look forward to seeing you as a supporter!

Photos, top to bottom:
Market vendor, Opishne
At a Crimean Tatar feast.  photo by Barb Weiser
Milking in the Carpathian Mountains, photo by Christie Nold
Strawberry picking,  photo by Grace Eickmeyer
Women at the pottery festival, Opishne
Riding home from school in Crimea, photo by Grace Eickmeyer

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Click! It's in the Details

At the Children's Museum of Indianapolis I was struck numerous times at how thoughtful so many parts of the museum were.  There wasn't necessarily a single graphic identity and there were not a great many staff out on the floor, but effective signage and design really provided a sense that this was a museum that cared about its visitors.  Above, both the simple step and the tunnels underneath (with some objects installed down there) mean that small visitors really get to appreciate the model train layout.  Some other examples:
Next to a very big locomotive,  a label with the kinds of questions that visitors really have, not the questions that we as museum people might have.
An area for stroller parking near the carousel.  Many of these family-friendly amenities are probably a part of any big children's museum but I was reminded today of my experience at a very well-visited museum where the staff member, with a shrug, suggested to my sister-in-law that she just leave the stroller on a busy city street.
I liked that interactive stations had these stools that could be easily moved around by almost any age visitor.  Easy for parents to take a break and for kids to work together.
In the elevator a sign that is both about visitor services and about safety.  I appreciated knowing what sort of staff id to look for--and the elevator was a useful place to convey that information.  And below, two public examples of a museum that relies on, and appreciates its volunteers.

As you can see, design that's all over the block in terms of typography, color, and more, but that seemed very much in line with the museum--it's a place with so much to think about and explore that a more highly managed approach to design and signage might seem out of place.  And a final image:  in the special winter/holiday exhibit,  everyone having a great time with all kinds of kitchen, family, cooking and more roleplay.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Click! Dinos in Indianapolis

This past week I was in Indianapolis for a few days and took the chance to visit the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, a place I'd been interested in seeing for a long time.   I found a busy museum that had thought about so many ways to connect with visitors.  So here, the first of several posts, this one focusing on the dinosaur exhibit;  others to come about Barbie and more.  The thoughtfulness begins with the entrance to the exhibit:  it's a spectacular walk down a ramp, with the biggest introductory label I've ever seen.
But that big label also expresses the exhibit's big idea very clearly.  Up close, it says,
Right!  A big idea with a subject, a very, and a consequence (that's the we learn part).   And then the exhibit provided so many different ways to learn and explore.  Active questioning really provided ways for kids old enough to read--and any parent or caregiver--to delve deeper.
There were touch screens, but they were placed at kid height.   Other interactives were placed at varied heights, so everyone could enjoy them.  Although the space was theatrically lit, and the big fake rocks and bigger dinosaurs must have been important elements--and were for several of the kids I saw while visiting,  the whiz-bang of that had less interest for me--and perhaps for kids--than the things scaled to their size, that they could engage with.
I didn't get a picture of a great section about dinosaur babies that toddlers loved, diving in and out of big nests.  There was a lab, where scientists were at work (or were sometimes at work, not today) In the lab, there were various games, puzzles and other items--but each label said, "Today in the lab."  Those labels might say that day after day, but it made this space feel a bit special.  This struck me as such an easy thing to do in all kinds of exhibits.  You could have just a few items to change out on a regular basis.
And this exhibit had a rare thing:  a sense of humor shown best in a series of miniature dioramas--really miniature period rooms for dinosaurs,  as it were.
Why of course, they take the baby for a walk!   I don't have any huge interest in dinosaurs, but every element in this exhibit felt thoughtful, without being precious or controlling.  Lovely.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Really Happens Out on Those Guided Tours?

Many historic sites spend a great deal of time thinking about, planning, moaning about the guided tours at their site.  Although there’s definitely mixed opinions about guided tours (see Susie Wilkening’s post here),  there’s no doubt that they’re still the primary way that many visitors experience historic homes.

I’m working with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site on a new interpretation of their historic house, thanks to the support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.   As a part of the project I created an assessment form and staff and a small group of board members have headed off to visit  variety of historic homes and museums.

Because not everyone on the planning team could make all the site visits, the visitors have written visit reports for all of us, and as a group, they present a great picture of what’s right and what’s wrong with guided tours.  I won’t name the sites here, but as you read these excerpts, remember that these visitors are people who are already inclined to be historic house goers—they are college-educated, have a passion for art, history, or architecture, and already spend a substantial chunk of their professional or volunteer time involved with a historic house.  Their thoughtful reports made me want to visit some places;  put some places on my don’t bother list, and most of all, reminded me that what we think is happening is only sometimes happening in our visitor experiences.   And a caveat as well, these were visitors without families,  so there certainly is an entire other layer of experiences that are had by visitors.
A few of their thoughts:
Again and again, the guide would urge the visitors to imagine what [a president, the house resident] might have been feeling or thinking  as he walked up the very stairs we were walking up, or moving throughout the very same rooms we were moving through. The house served almost as a minimalist stage for the drama of [the president], the experience being very much  like participating in a one-man show, something along the lines of a somber  version of  “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.” The guide was theatrical and captivating, excited about his subject and eager to connect to his audience.
I came away feeling that the goal, president or not, is conveying the importance of the individual’s ideas and achievements in the most powerful way possible.
One of the most interesting aspects of our visit to [historic site] was that each of us came away with very different experiences. This was one of my favorite visits for it had originality and took a very bold risk in its approach to presenting and interpreting the site. 
The risk was this: the onus of the quality of a visitor’s experience rested entirely on the virtuosity of the tour guide. Ours was a young post-grad type who I found totally resistable, perhaps due to his cornball jokes starting out. But once we were underway, his animation, knowledge and sheer passion for his subject took over and captivated his audience, at least me.
Our  guide was an affable man who couldn’t hide his pride and admiration for the project but warned us that he tended to ramble on and ramble on he did…. Though our guide did a decent job of discussing life at [historic house] and the restoration process, his lack of discipline in presentation made me wonder if I had reacted too harshly to the swiss watch precision of the other tours. The second floor was supposedly self-guided with some miscellaneous displays about the building but our eager guide followed us upstairs and kept talking.
This was the least satisfying of any of the tours I took on our junket, so it serves an important purpose of establishing an example of what to avoid. The guide seemed to be a staff person pressed into service perhaps due to a shortage of docents. She was not unpleasant but had a perfunctory, somewhat unsure and occasionally apologetic tone in her delivery. She did make it clear that they were undergoing some rethinking and re-organizing of their interpretive plan, but meanwhile “this is what we have” seemed to by the M.O.
The lesson learned here was clearly about the importance of defining your purpose to yourself before presenting it to others. What story is most important about your place? What story do you want the public to take away with them? What contribution does the existence of your place make to the greater understanding of our culture, our world, our history? None of these questions were even approached, much less answered  by this muddled and directionless tour. We couldn’t wait to leave.
Our guide was the dream docent that any museum would covet. A local woman of a certain age, she had been with the house for twelve years, since its opening to the public. She had such a wonderful comfort level with her material that I felt immediately well taken care of. She just had it in her bones. And yet there was not a trace of smugness – just a warm, chatty style ,no sense of memorizing a script, always ready to field any question at any time, and then expound upon it.
The team shared several take-away lessons about the work of interpretive planning.  They included:
  • The lesson learned for me here was clear: go big or go home
  • The entire experience draws the visitor into a very defined and vivid world with a very specific point of view. Lesson: a strong clear mission that is presented with consistency, both physically and thematically, is very powerful.
And there’s another important take-away for me—I often hear complaints about boards not understanding the work that museum professionals do.   These site visits deepened a group of board members' understandings not only about their own site, but about the work of interpretation.  Try taking your board members on a field trip—even to a nearby museum or historic site.   Anne Ackerson, in her blog, Leading by Design recently wrote a great post about fostering good ideas on a board—it’s exactly this kind of experience that can help lead to those new ideas and discoveries about the work your organization does.  How do you encourage your board to learn?

Friday, November 26, 2010

From Cotton to Culture: Changing the Face and Future of European Cities

Guest Blog Post by Irina-Leonenko-Wels
My friend and colleague Irina Leonenko-Wels has been living in Prague for just over a year.  From her perch there, she has explored a wide variety of museums throughout Europe.   I'm very pleased she's agreed to share some impressions of industrial history museums there, a particular interest of hers because of her home region in Ukraine.   Irina and her husband are moving to Moscow early next year--so I'm hoping The Uncataloged Museum will have reports--including great photos like those here-- from there!

Coming from a very industrial (and quite economically depressed) region in Ukraine called Donbass, I have always been fascinated with industrial cities looked like in other European countries, especially in the West, in Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, and France. They looked different to me first of all because they were not sad and scary to drive through, to stop in or even to live in. In fact, on the contrary, they have now become popular places for living, for having office space in, and what’s more important they have become attractive for tourist and cultural events. In Europe there are many success stories of industrial cities’ revitalization.  For instance, some examples from my travels:
  • RUHR.2010– a whole industrial region in Germany, this year’s European Cultural Capital -
  • Zollverein - the old mining complex in Essen is now the most prominent example of revitalization in the whole region.
  • The Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei – from “Cotton to Culture”, in the 20th century the largest spinning mill on the continent, with 240,000 spindles and 208 combing machines, now a cultural cluster with contemporary art centers, galleries, design shops and publishing houses.

European cities are very active and united when it comes to sharing experience about development and promotion of their industrial heritage. Several special networks have been created for this purpose, as, for example, ERIH, the European Route of Industrial Heritage. Currently it presents more than 850 industrial sites in 32 European countries.

Last month I flew from Prague to Barcelona to take part in the ERIH network’s annual conference. The event was held in co-operation with the TICCIH Tourism Section ( and at the invitation of the Catalan Museum of Science and Technology in Terrassa. The main theme of the conference was Industrial Heritage Tourism. Speakers from 12 European countries highlighted their successes but also difficulties they faced in their work of industrial heritage preservation and promotion. You can find some of the presentations here. I particularly liked the Cromford cotton spinning mills in Derbyshire, England which showed how a plan,  focusing on  improved interpretation and special events helped to reach new markets and audiences.   Another example was from Frankfurt in Germany, where Open Days of Industrial Culture Rhein-Main are held. The idea of Open Days is to change people’s perception of industrial heritage in the region, to offer audiences unique leisure and entertainment facilities, to help them experience region with all of the senses and understand how how industry functions. Open Days attract more than 11,000 visitors around 180 events at 104 locations.  Every year Open Days have a special theme. As next year,  2011, the UN has proclaimed the International Year of Chemistry, Open Days’ team plans to concentrate its activities around chemical industries in their region and show its benefits to the public.

Industrial heritage in Spain

Going to Barcelona, city usually associated with sun and beaches, I couldn’t have imagined how rich the industrial heritage of the region was. Old mines, textile mills, industrial colonies, warehouses, old factories, cellars have now been converted into museums. And the information is easily findable--here's a downloadable tourism brochure showing all the industrial museums in the region. /en/turismeindustrial
As part of the conference we visited many industrial sites in the region.  However, one I will never forget – is a visit to CERC Mining Museum high up in the Pyrenees mountains. The mines in that area were long the source of the coal that moved the steam engines and drove the whole Catalan industry. The Museum of CERC mine was small but had all the ‘ingredients’ for a great experience exploring 150 years of industrial history: cinema hall with films about the mine, a mining train that takes visitors inside the galleries of Sant Roma, open-air exhibition of mining machinery, nice museum shop, real miner’s house, audio guides in several languages plus 2 small hotels at the premises, big event hall and a great restaurant with traditional Catalan dishes (which we really enjoyed at the end of our tour).

During our visit to CERC Mine I never stopped wondering when visitors and citizens of my region in Ukraine would get to experience something like that. With more than 200 coal mines in our region (more than anywhere in Europe) Donbass is drastically lacking places that would interpret our region’s industrial history and allow people to have some fun.

If you wish to see more photos from the conference on Industrial Heritage Tourism you are welcome to visit my Picasa page.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Would Young People March to Save Your Historic Site? A Story from Western Ukraine

Who cares about your historic site?  Would young people come to a march to save it?  Although change in Ukrainian museums sometimes seems slow, I'm continually impressed by the passionate commitment of some young Ukrainians.  When I was in Ukraine, I spent some time working with the State Historical and Cultural Preserve of Tustan, an mountaintop archaeological fortess site in the Carpathians, in western Ukraine.

Today, I read on a Ukrainian museum news website (via Google Translate) about new protests about the illegal development of the site.  In brief, the site is a protected preserve but this past summer a local businessman, with permission from the village council,  began to build on the property.  Appeals to the prosecutor general halted the construction, but just recently, it has begun again, altering the course of the river on the preserve.

Rather than wait for someone else to take action, a group of young people, led by the site's director, Vasyl Rozkho, organized a protest in the center of L'viv.  A flash mob,  photographs documenting the construction,  costumed re-enactors, artists, artisans and others joined together to march and present a letter of protest to the city administration.

There are two take-aways for me as I read this article.  First, it draws attention to the important, and sometimes threatened, growth of civil society in Ukraine.  Vasyl and others are using the full array of tools--public assembly, official protest to officials, the media, the internet--to get their message out and fight corruption as they see it.

But equally important is what this says for historic sites everywhere.  It feels like almost every day I have a conversation about a historical society or historic site where "no one cares" and "we can't get any young people involved."  I'm not quite sure of the reasons that young people care about this particular site--but I'll speculate a bit.

First, the site represents a period in Ukrainian history that many are proud of and that was suppressed during the Soviet era.   Second,  this is a site that had a tradition of involving young people.  Vasyl's father conducted the archaeological expeditions, bringing students into the mountains to work so the involvement of young people has been an important part of the site for decades--and that involvement of young people continues today.   Third, a September festival (as shown in photos in this post) attracts thousands of visitors and offers a highly participatory experience at odds with many Ukrainian museums.  This means a large number of people know and care about the site.  For whatever reason, perhaps the very small staff, the organization is not a hide-bound bureaucracy.  Vasyl also came to the job with training as an architect, rather than as a historian or scientist, so perhaps his perspective is different.

But as I read this article, I thought back to several days spent with Vasyl and others this past spring--and the thing that makes a difference here--passion.  This is not just a job,  but a passionate commitment to sharing a part of a Ukrainian past.   So think about your museum or historic site?  Would young people in your community come out to save it?  And if the answer is less than a resounding yes, perhaps its time to consider what you could do to make that difference.