Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why is Ballet-Watching More Participatory than Museum-Going?

This weekend, my daughter and I went to see a ballet, Don Quixote, at the magnificent Kyiv Opera House. Like many public buildings here, it’s an imposing place on both the outside and the inside. But to my surprise, I found a very different atmosphere here than in Ukrainian museums. In museums here, silence prevails. The watching babushkas shh your conversation and the approved method of museum going too often seems to be a sort of stunned silence. You don’t often see families in museums, and you almost never see kids having a good time.

At the ballet—completely different! Many families with both boys and girls; teenage boys in hoodies; older couples in coat, tie, and elaborate dress; dates in blue jeans. And the experience of watching ballet was far from passive: “bravas” were regularly shouted out, the entire audience clapped along to various musical passages and enthusiasts came onstage at curtain calls to present flowers to their favorites. At the intermissions, food and drink were available for purchase, but we saw one couple pull out a flask and chocolate to share, and others snacked in their boxes.

Why so different? Ukrainians, in general, are widely versed in classical literature, dance and the arts, far more than Americans. So perhaps ballet isn’t seen as “high” culture, but merely a part of culture and life in general (and it sure didn’t hurt that our 5th row seats, the most expensive, were less than $10). Museums here, I think, are often seen as the preserve of the intelligentsia and so perhaps not considered as accessible, even though they are affordable as well. Is music just more fun? Perhaps.

So I don’t have answers, but it was a great reminder to me that participation and interaction can mean being part of a group, enjoying an event, and showing that appreciation. Having had this experience also makes me more convinced than ever that change can come to Ukrainian museums and the ways they deal with audiences. That enthusiastic, relaxed sense I found at the Opera House, of all places, can perhaps be cultivated in museums.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

What Am I Doing in Ukraine?

I've had lots of people ask me what I'll be doing on my return to Ukraine--and so I thought I'd share a bit more of what I hope to do,  with the understanding that surprises are many.  Last year, I got involved in projects I never imagined before exhibit on Chernobyl and  a papermaking workshop, to name just two.

So this time...what am I up to?
  • Collaboration is a big issue here.  It's virtually unknown.  When American organizations speak about things being in silos, they really haven't seen silos until you've seen Ukrainian organizations.  Silos exist within and between organizations and there are big philosophical walls about working together between museums.  I hope to be able to share some examples of collaborations, small and large, and participate in getting at least one collaborative effort off the ground.
  • Strategic planning is a rare endeavor here, in part, because of the Soviet legacy of five year plans and the cynicism that accompanied them.  One young historic site director though, is interested in undertaking the process to manage the growth and development of his site--and I'll hopefully be of some help in the process.
  • Since I returned to the US, I've had some fascinating conversations with staff at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience  about their work with organizations around the world.   I hope to make some connections between Ukrainian sites and colleagues who are working to make historic sites places of conscience, and designing effective ways to engage communities in those larger issues.
  • I'm working to bring the exhibit Passing on the Comfort to Ukraine.  It's a Dutch/North American story with a Ukrainian component, and it would be wonderful to share with audiences here as a model for an exhibit that tells a compelling story, rather than just presenting artifacts.
  • Several colleagues have ideas and plans here that I might be helpful in thinking about.  What would a children's activity space look like in a museum of folk culture?   How can programs be developed for teenagers?  and many more ideas.  My particular thanks go out to museum colleagues in the US who shared wonderful examples of educational and promotional materials.
  • I'll also be presenting some workshops on different topics, in different locations, and hope to visit many more parts of Ukraine than I did last year.   I want to understand more about the growing role of independent non-museums in cultural development (a growing trend, I think), and I think it's important to continue to pay attention to Ukraine's efforts to understand and present its complex history.  The recent presidential elections mean new ministers, and there's some concern that a growing openness could be reversed.
I think the most important roles I can play here are ones that are a part of my everyday work at home.  I like to connect people with other people;  I'm always enthusiastic about projects and want to figure out ways to make them happen.  Today, my colleague Anya reminded me that when we talked about the hard work of change when I left last year, that I suggested to her that she think about not moving the giant rock of change, but chipping away one pebble at a time.   I can see those small pebbles starting to move in and outside many institutions.  And I can imagine that there will be many surprises for me along these next four months. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

New Look, New Location

It's sunny and warm today--the sense that spring has come and with spring, some changes. First, my new look. That's my new header, above, designed by Nina Goffi, an illustration major at the University of the Arts. She was incredibly patient and thoughtful through the long process of me trying to decide what The Uncataloged Museum was really about and how to represent it visually. And it's living evidence of how you never know what inspires a visitor. The beetles came from her visit to the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow this past January.  So I'm very pleased to have her curious, engaged visitors represent me!

And a new location.  I leave tomorrow for another four months as a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine.   I'll be based in Kyiv, but will have the opportunity, once again, to travel throughout the country, learning about museums and heritage and working with different organizations.  Many plans and ideas are percolating with my colleagues there, so look forward to many more blog posts about life and work in a complicated, fascinating place.  Want to contact me directly?   I'm never far from email to talk about ideas and projects no matter where you are.

A return to Ukraine also means many more posts on The Pickle Project.  So don't forget to check it out to learn more about Ukrainian foodways,  sustainable economies and traditions, and of course, pickles!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Too Many Museums?

A few weeks ago, at the Small Museum Association conference, when asked about grants for basic inventory work, I suggested that perhaps museums shouldn't be museums unless they could support core functions (like taking care of your collection) without outside grant support. There was almost an audible gasp and one blogger shared my comment with a colleague who asked why? At the same time, Anne Ackerson of the Museum Association of New York has provoked a lively discussion on both the Upstate History Alliance list-serve and MANY's Facebook page by asking what should be included on a checklist for anyone thinking of starting a new museum.

After some consideration I thought I should clarify my thoughts. I'm not anti-museum, and I'm particularly not anti-small museum, where I have spent much of my career. But here's what I'm against (and then keep reading to find out what I'm for):

Unsustainable and Unrealistic Missions
Here's an example of a provisional charter granted by the New York State Board of Regents:
The board of trustees has petitioned the Board of Regents to form a corporation to collect, encourage, promote and disseminate a greater knowledge among the public of the history of the State of New York and particularly the Town of X and surrounding area; to collect, own, hold, maintain, preserve, and make available to the public a collection of items related to the historical record of the Town of X; to arrange, create, maintain and promote appropriate historical exhibits and displays; to establish and maintain an historical research collection and archives; to bring together those people interested in history, promote and support historical research and scholarship, sponsor and organize historical and cultural activities, programs and events for the public, and issue publications in any format; to encourage the suitable marking of places of historic interest; to acquire by purchase, gift, devise, or otherwise the title to or the custody and control of historic sites and structures, and preserve and maintain such sites and structures; to cooperate with the Nearby Historical Society in projects and activities of mutual interest; to cooperate with the County historian, state officials and historical organizations to collect and preserve materials of countywide and statewide significance.
Big mission, right? I can't speak to the resources of the organization but I can see that the total population of this entire community is only about 1000 people. I can see that it will be a stretch for an organization in this size community to take on such a large mission. Would the organization have a better chance of success if their mission read "bring together those people interested in history and promote and support historic research and scholarship, sponsor and organize historical and cultural activities?"

And as a subset of this, I'm against the New York State Regents policy of granting provisional charters to almost anyone.

Vanity Museums
I know many great museums have started from the ambitious aims of collectors: the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Henry Ford--but I also see new museums now that reflect very narrow interests and do not yet demonstate their ability to fully engage the public in the topic at hand.

Undocumented, Uncared for Collections
Because your predecessors didn't pay attention to a collections policy, or didn't have one, or believed, as one person told me at the SMA conference, "that we should take everything!" your museum is sinking in stuff. But it's stuff that doesn't necessarily tell you much of anything: dozens of white petticoats, photo albums of unidentified people, scrapbooks of undated newsclippings about national issues.

We will Build It and They Will Come
Tbis mania affects big and small museums alike. In nearby Oneonta, the Soccer Hall of Fame, long touted as an economic engine, has closed its doors. The City Museum of Washington lasted less than a year after a multi-million dollar renovation.

And another subset: I’m against consultants who tell your museum that you’ll have many, many visitors without a clear understanding of your community or your museum and government officials who leap on board poorly developed plans.

And What am I For?
  • Museums that use their limited resources wisely.
  • Museums that start small, dream big and plan to get there
  • Museum staff and volunteers who commit to ongoing learning and professional development
  • Museums that collect only in targeted, strategic ways, within a clearly articulated collecting plan
  • Museums that collaborate
  • Museums that matter
What are you for?

Photo:  Installation at the Dean Gallery,  Edinburgh, Scotland, on a snowy day.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What does Meaning-Making Mean? Two Stories

Thanks to the work of people like George Hein, John Falk and Lynn Dierking, the idea of meaning-making has become a regular part of interpretive planning discussions in museums.   We know instinctively, and tons of research demonstrates, that each and every visitor comes with their own perspectives and makes their own sense of what we present.

This week though, two friends separately happened to share examples of meaning-making from their own lives, outside the museum setting, but both dealing with family history and a much larger context.  I was moved by the examples and wanted to share them--and share the meaning I made from their stories.

Here's one story that came in an email from a friend here in Upstate New York: 
Interesting story in the Times today...[about Ukrainian partisan Stephan Bandera] 
I am belatedly considering this element of WWII history, the conflict between Russian and Nazi supporters and the folks who got in the way of both. We've just learned that my mother's uncle and his son were murdered along with 40 or 50 others in their Slovenian village in 1944, but stories conflict about who conducted the massacre. There is a monument with their names on it in the local cemetery. Not sure if they are buried there in a mass grave or what. I'm thinking a pilgrimage to my mother's homeland is in order for 2011.
The writer cautions that her understanding may not be completely correct,  given both distance and language, but she's definitely motivated to learn more.

And here's the second story:
Elizabeth DeLuca is a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine researching Crimean Tatar language education.   The Tatars have a long, rich history but important to this particular story is the fact that the the Soviets forcibly departed all Crimean Tatars en masse,  as collective punishment, on 18 May 1944 from their homeland to distant Central Asian republics of the USSR.   Today,  after the end of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's independence, more than 250,000 Tatars have returned to Crimea.    Elizabeth's Crimean Tatar teacher took her to visit her family in a small village.  On her thoughtful blog, she writes,
After dinner, the teacher showed me her collection of family heirlooms- Korans, weavings and traditional embroidery.  They were so beautiful and precious, and it is still difficult to think about the long life of these items - she told me that they had belonged to her grandmother and possibly her great-grandmother.  While I didn't ask her, I imagine that these were among the few things her family took with them on the day they were deported in 1944.  Almost half of the population did not survive the deportation, but these items travelled to Central Asia and back again. ...
After the visit, I sent some of these pictures to a few friends and family members, along with some thoughts I had that day.  It was quite moving to see such family heirlooms, and I doubted if anything of the sort had survived in my family.   My grandfather (DeLuca) responded:

As to the handcraft you show in the pictures, they reminded me of my mother. When I was a kid we would sit in the darken living room and listen the radio. My mother would knit and crochet doilies, bed spreads, sweaters, socks. I recall asking her why and how did she manage to do them in the dark, only with an occasional turning on of the light?
She told me when she was a young girl back in  Italy on the farm, at night, only with the light of the fireplace, she, her sisters and her mother would all knit or crochet by the fireplace.  
I had noticed in some of your earlier photos, the lace work and scarfs. Brought back memories of my youth.

And what meaning did I make from these stories?
  • Of course, we're most likely to notice the things we have personal connections with.  I read Elizabeth's blog because of my interest in Ukraine; and my friend sent me the article about Bandera because she knew I was interested in Ukraine.  Both things might not have happened if people hadn't known of my interest.   How can we, as museums, determine those interests of our visitors?
  • People like to see how they fit in a bigger picture.  I sometimes think of genealogy as just names and dates work, but real family history helps us understand how and where we fit in the world.  My first correspondent will use her own  family story as a starting point to gain a deeper understanding of a major 20th century story.
  • Stories about specific ethnic or cultural groups are not just of interest to that particular group.  Elizabeth's grandfather quickly made the leap from a tiny Tatar village to his own Italian family history.   Both stories, with Ukrainian connections, came to me not from Ukrainians or the Ukrainian diaspora, but from others who found a starting point.  Exhibits should be created to encourage those leaps--those things that we have in common.
  • Objects do matter.  The most whiz-bang computer interactive in the world couldn't replace those Tatar embroideries and the embroideries in the follow-up photo sent to Elizabeth by her grandfather.  I think sometimes we've become scared of allowing objects to be powerful unto themselves (but of course, only a well-written label would help us understand why these objects matter).
  • Multiple perspectives matter.   Bandera--hero or villain?  He'll be debated for generations to come, I suspect.  One step that I'm just beginning to see in Ukrainian museums is a willingness to embrace multiple perspectives, rather than the old Soviet-style of one single "truth."   As museums, we have a unique opportunity to serve as places for discussion and debate about different ways of viewing the world.
  • It's a big world out there.  Those early generations of embroiderers--in any country--could scarcely have imagined a world when photos of their work fly back and forth.   We have increasing opportunities--even at local history museums--for projects that put our community's history into a global context.

Photos:  Top and center from Elizabeth DeLuca's blog, Clicking Again.  
Top:  Tatar embroidery;  Center:  Embroidery from the DeLuca familyBottom:  Tatar embroidery from the International Committee for Crimea set on Flickr.