Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Whoa, what is this about?" An Arsenal of Ideas

Last week I had a chance to see Armed and Dangerous:  Art of the Arsenal at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA.  It's been a while since I've seen an exhibit here in the US where so many types of visitors seemed to be having a great time. According to director Stuart Chase, the museum broke records for attendance during school vacation week.  What did I see?

There were many sociable objects.  Visitors of all ages pointed, discussed, and read the labels about all kinds of objects from natural history to contemporary art.

Hands-on elements were engaging enough for everyone.  Even adults wanted to put on the big helmets.

A very simple but compelling and consistent graphic design made it easy to gain information both in a general and specific sense.  I tended to read the top of the label, while a colleague I was with read the red type in the center of the text--and for each of us, there was something to gain and it was easy to read more.

Massing of objects made something that might be just okay look much more interesting.   One set of horns is ho hum, a large group, theatrically lit, is exciting.

And much of the exhibit is drawn from the museum's own collections--which means visitors get a chance to see new and exciting things--and understand that those fascinating things live in their own community.

Combining those objects from the basement (literally and figuratively here) with work by contemporary artists means that people with interests in both take a look at objects in new ways.  Interested in weaponry and looking at contemporary art--great!  Interested in contemporary art and looking at taxidermy?  Equally great.  These two boys literally looked at the piece above and one said, "Whoa, what is this about?" launching them into a discussion of how it was made and what it meant.

Importantly,  none of these exhibit techniques are costly.  No computer interactives,  no extra-special lighting, re-used pedestals and platforms.   As my friend Anne says, "ideas don't cost money."  Wise words in this times.   For more about how the exhibit was developed,  listen to this interview with director Stuart Chase and director of interpretation Maria Mingalone on WAMC. 

Monday, February 22, 2010

When Should You Close Down Your Historic House?

Everybody in the museum field knows a historic house that's struggling--one where the attendance has dropped, the maintenance and restoration costs are rising, and there's an increasing sense that it may no longer be sustainable.  It's a rare thing when you see an organization take the difficult step of deciding to go out of the museum business.  The Landmark Society of Western New York, in Rochester, has announced:
On February 8, 2010, The Landmark Society Board of Trustees approved a motion to cease museum operations at the Campbell-Whittlesey house on July 1, 2010, and to begin active marketing of the property in August.  The decision to close the house museum at Campbell-Whittlesey is the end result of over five years of strategic planning and in-depth studies of opportunities for the property’s use.

We’re holding a public meeting to welcome ideas for adaptive re-use of the site.  It’s important to note that we all remain committed to the exploration of viable options that support the proper stewardship and the maintenance of the integrity of this historic treasure.
Cindy Boyer, Director of Museums and Education at the Landmark Society wrote in a message to her colleagues on the Upstate History Alliance list-serv:
As my colleagues can imagine, this is a time of very mixed feelings  for me.  I am committed to seeing this through in a professional manner, and all involved are supportive of following the legal, ethical and professional guidelines.  It is an unequivocal sign of our changing times, and sad to see a museum that has been in operation since the late 1930’s close its museum services. But I also see opportunity to strengthen our mission and our service to the community.
What's critical in both the official statement and Cindy's comment?  It's a clear understanding of the important of mission.  The mission of the Landmark Society is to "protect the unique architectural heritage of our region and promote preservation and planning practices that foster healthy, livable, and sustainable communities."   Does that mean operating a museum?  Not necessarily--and not really.  

I read Cindy's email as I'm returning from the Small Museum Association conference--and the collision is stunning.   There are more and more new museums, small ones, all volunteer ones and big ones.  Many do great work...but at our session on grant-writing, we answered questions about finding grants to do basic inventory and cataloging, to care for your collection, to pay operating expenses--to do, in fact, the basic work of museums. For some, there seemed to be a lack of understanding that core museum functions are yours, as an organization, to support.

When an organization as large and well-respected as the Landmark Society (Campbell-Whittlesey House has been a museum since the 1930s) can't sustain a museum operation, it should make every history organization that operates a historic house think twice--in a good way.   Some questions you might ask your organization:
  • Are there other historic houses nearby?  Are they really that different?  (I mean really different, not just kind of different, owned by a different white industrialist in your community)
  • What sort of historic documentation exists for your house?
  • Could you ever, even if you had the documentation, afford to acquire the furnishings to furnish the house appropriately?  And what would those authentic furnishings gain you?
  • Who will come to this historic house?  Why?
  • Are there other, better, more engaging ways to share history with your community?
  • And most important, I think,  is the big SO WHAT?  If there's not a compelling story to tell and audience to connect with--if  in fact your goal is preserving an old house, consider some other way to do it, as the Landmark Society is doing.
It appears that the board and staff at Landmark Society have made hard choices in a thoughtful process, driven by mission.   They should be applauded.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

We Have a Winner!

Mari Shopsis, Director of Education at the Rensselaer County Historical Society
has won our Museums in Conversation contest with this tale of a conversation that took place in front of a painting when she was a docent at the Smart Museum in Chicago.   Congratulations Mari, and thanks to all who entered.   Keep listening to those conversations--and if you hear a great one, please share it with me.
I take a group of inner-city 5th graders over to look at a Mark Rothko painting – a reddish square suspended over a reddish rectangle – that I really didn’t understand and didn’t appreciate myself.

[You can see the painting here]

My opening question: What’s going on in this artwork?

RayShaun, a boy who has previously been rather sullen and non-participatory shoots his hand up, much to my surprise: I know! I know!

Me, surprised: Yes, RayShaun?

RayShaun: It’s a tv and a vcr.  But he’s mad because he can’t watch tv.

Me: What elements of art do you see in the painting that told you that?

RayShaun: The shapes! And the color. ‘Cause it’s red and mad.

I love this story because it shows how much we bring to our encounters with museum objects – and how people can surprise us. 
Top:  in front of a Rothko painting, Christing O's Photostream on Flickr

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Being a Busybody

I just came across an interview with Maira Kalman (conducted, via phone, while she was at a museum), whose history-oriented work for the NY Times has enchanted me on those mornings when it appears.  So how does she find inspiration?
As an illustrator and a writer, I’m in a sense a journalist. And my work is about reporting to you what I see and what I’m thinking and what other people are thinking.

So being curious is a completely natural part of it, and being a busybody, and wanting to know what people are doing, and why, and how it works. And why are you wearing those shoes? And what’s that hole puncher for? The nature of curiosity is both about how people live their lives and about the bigger picture of how the world works.
Isn't that what we, in our best times as museum people do? Encourage that curiosity about how people live their lives and the bigger picture of how the world works?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Making Space Inside Your Head

My last post, about why few people entered the Museums in Conversation conference generated some thoughtful comments both on this blog and emailed to me directly.  At the same time, a colleague and I had a conversation about how to stay up-to-date in a field that sometimes seems to change like molasses, but other times seems to be changing every minute.  Long gone are those days when Museum News or History News would arrive, leisurely,  once a month in the mail and you felt, if you read them, you were reasonably up-to-date.  No more.

Some of the comments I got were about a pure lack of time, particularly at institutions facing desperate financial crises.  I've run a small organization, in a region that has been poor since long before the economic crisis, so I know the challenges that many organizations are facing--and I fully remember those days when the day-to-day details seemed to take precedence over anything else.

But my leap into a free-lance life has given me a slightly difference perspective.  It's not easier to be an independent museum professional--although I can work many days in my pajamas,  I only get paid when I produce.  But I've now learned that it's incredibly important to spend some time in what probably has some fancy name--but to me, it's a sort of free-associating.  Sometimes it comes when I surf the web, read Twitter, the news online or other blogs--other times it comes in conversations with colleagues--not necessarily about projects, but about the field in general.  It also comes from the time in my car (and that is more time than you'd imagine!) and yet other times it comes from museum visits--and still yet other times it just comes from a random enjoyment of life.

I've been in the museum field longer than I want to admit--but if there was one gift, based on my experience--I could give my colleagues currently working in institutions it would be a few moments in every week to consider the bigger picture of what you do--the place  you and your organization hold in the world.   So take a minute and explore--don't forget that sense of wonder and discovery that led many of us to this field in the first place. 

Next post--some of the places I go for information and inspiration.


Photos by Drew Harty.  Top:   Kelvingrove Museum, Bottom:  Necropolis, Glasgow

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Few Conversations in Museums? Really? How Come?

If you read this blog, are friends with me on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter, you know that I've been running a contest to win a free registration (worth to non-members $205) to the 2010 Museums in Conversation conference,  in Albany, NY, in April,  a joint effort of the Museum Association of New York and the Upstate History Alliance.  I invited you to submit a 150 word or LESS description of any kind of museum conversation--betweeen visitors, staff, board, volunteers--a real or imagined--conversation about anything.

Like many of you, I spend lots of time in museums--and as those who know me in person know I love to spend lots of time talking--but I also love to spend time listening, so I thought this was a great way for museum colleagues to reflect on their work in a way that really was about engaging with others, not just saying, "I love museums because...."

Imagine my astonishment when I only received a small number of entries.  I know many people knew about the opportunity--thanks to UHA and MANY,  who regularly promoted on their Facebook pages and lists,  and to those--including Bob Beatty at AASLH who retweeted it.  I know more than 500 New Yorkers took a look at my blog during the time the contest was running.

A special thanks to those who took the time to enter--stay tuned and we'll announce a winner soon.

So,  what's the deal?  I want to hear from you, my readers about why so few entries.  Tell me why you didn't enter, or if you're from somewhere else,  I'd love to hear your speculations about why so I can learn.  Nina Simon has written thoughtfully about framing the right questions for visitor participation--and perhaps my question just wasn't framed in the right way.

Here's some possibilities:
  • Question framed in the wrong way?  How could it be better?
  • Too hard a question requiring thought?
  • Too long to write?
  • Too busy?
  • Have enough money and don't need funding to attend conferences? Really--we'd all love to meet you!
  • Not interested in professional development?
  • Never listen to museum conversations?
Tell me why!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Spread by Hand

A number of people have written about spreadable content--content that's easily and enthusiastically shared on the web--and how museums might participate in that effort.  And I came across something the other day that suggested ways in which museums--particularly local history museums--might use low-tech ways to make their content spreadable around their community.

Nina Goffi is a talented illustration major at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  On her blog, she posted an entry about The Lumberjack Handbook, saying a limited run of copies would be available in coffee shops around the Philadelphia area.   The little zine is a bit of a surprise gift--and it would be great to come across it over a cup of coffee, and I loved mine when it came in the mail upon request.

Why did she choose this method to share her artwork?  
As for my zines, I thought my target audience or people who would actually pick up my zine, would be coffee shop dwellers. I usually always take a gander at fliers and postcards near coffee counters before I go out the door, and thought I might catch someone similar to my habits to do the same. There are also a lot of bearded men at coffee shops who I thought would get a kick out it.
At first, not much response, but then Nina reported several emails asking for copies--people who had either read it on her blog, or come across them in person.  The project reminded me of a long-ago workshop my daughter Anna did at Word Thursdays/Bright Hill  Press, a literary organization here in our tiny Catskills village.   The students studied poems by particular writers and then wrote their own poems in a similar style.   But then--and this is the fun part--the poems were laminated and tied on trees and lightposts around town.

Why can't local museums do this?  I would love to pick up a simple book with one or two letters home from the Civil War, or diary entries, or photos of winter.   I would stop and ponder a photo tied to a light post, and then, perhaps, go home and explore further on the web.  

I think Nina identified a few important principles in reaching her target audience of bearded, flannel-wearing guys (perhaps harder in Center City, Philadelphia).
  • It wasn't an expensive effort.  She did a limited run, in black and white. 
  • She thought about what she liked to do in a coffee place--and expanded that out to a larger audience.
  • She was observant about where those audiences were and what they were doing.
  • She spread her content both by hand and on the web.
Think about it.  Could you reach many more people this way than doing yet another exhibit that, as one focus group participant recently said, "the same 100 people come to over and over again"?

More to come soon from Nina on this blog--and thanks Nina, for sharing.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What makes a Great Podcast?

Last week, I sat down with a group of docents at the Hyde Collection, an art museum and historic house with a tremendous collection in Glens Falls, NY.    We were working together, supported by an IMLS grant for new interpretive efforts to make plans for each of them to create a short, two minute or less podcast about a single work of art in the museum.  These are passionate docents, both committed to the museum and with an enthusiastic interest in art.  But podcasts were new to most of them.

We began by listing the things that would make, we thought, a good podcast.  It boiled down to what we called ended up calling The Four Cs:
  • Conversational:  the podcast narrator was easy and fun to listen to--not jargon filled.
  • Content and Context:  you actually learned some information and were able to put the work of art in a larger context.
  • Connection:  the podcast narrator found a way to connect directly with you, the listener/viewer.
  • Concise:  goes without saying, that the podcast needed to be direct and brief.

Then, as a group, we listened to several podcasts and rated them using a rubric based on the Four Cs, rating each area from 1-5.   We had one hands-down winner that got received 5s in every category from almost every listener.   The winner:  the Frick Collection's description of a Rembrandt self-portrait by the director of the Frick, Anne L. Poulet.   Why?  Take a listen and see what you think... Ms. Poulet drew the docents into the painting by her description that helped you look deeper and make connections to their own lives (and grumpy grandpas, perhaps).  The listeners finished feeling that not only did you understand the painting, but also the painter.  And an unexpected result:  several docents said they'd make a special effort to see the painting on their next visit to New York.

We listened to another podcast that stirred some lively discussion.  It was a podcast from the Museum of London, about an alderwood club.    According to their website, this and other podcasts were specifically designed for visitors with visual impairments, but are suitable for all visitors.   These podcasts were developed as part of the museum's social inclusion program:
Podcasts from the Past worked one day a week for 8 weeks with a small group of adults who are currently long-term unemployed, to create a series of podcasts for visually impaired visitors. The participants are a range of ages, with a rich variety of backgrounds and life stories, but came together to work as a team to realize their abilities and gain news skills and experience they can use in their futures.
The Hyde docents liked the informal tone of the speaker, and some loved the sound effects and others really disliked them--but all agreed, that if you were a young visitor, the sound effects (listen for that thwack at the end) would be memorable!

I hope this meeting had several take-aways for the docents, but I know it did for me.  I gained a handy tool to think about audio tours (and perhaps those Four Cs would serve any label-writer well).  It also reinforced for me a process of working with docents, encouraging them to become active learners themselves in critiquing and understanding the many ways museums connect with visitors.

Photos top to bottom:
Listening to our audio tour, from nicolelikestarts photostream on Flickr
Self Portrait, Rembrandt van Rijn,  from the Frick Collection
Museum of London podcast recording session