Sunday, October 31, 2010

How Can You Use a Culture of Thinking?

It's a great thing to attend a conference session that inspires you and gives you so many ideas to put to work.  A session at last week's Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference—presented by Heidi Hinish, Head of Teacher, School, and Family Programs; Elizabeth Diament, Museum Educator; and Christine Stinson, School Docent Candidate from the National Gallery of Art presented on the ways that a culture of thinking had been integrated into their docent training.   Before I get to what they talked about, I wanted to talk about how they talked about what they talked about.  The session was brisk and enthusiastic;   the Powerpoints were to the point;  the presenters stood up and walked around, rather than just sitting down; and there were several times for audience discussion, feedback and questions.   I love when a conference session is full of the buzz of ideas and this one was.

And now, a culture of thinking.

Although the education staff had done a great deal of thinking and reading  in revamping their docent training, this session focused on the ways they integrated the work of Ron Ritchard, who focuses on how to developing, nurturing and sustaining thoughtful learning environments.  His work is part of a larger initiative on Visible Thinking at Harvard’s Project Zero.

What’s a culture of thinking?
According to Ritchard, cultures of thinking are “places where a group’s collective thinking is valued, visible and actively promoted as part of the ongoing experience of all group members.”

Ritchard has identified 8 cultural forces that shape cultures of thinking.
  • Modeling of the group leader
  • The way time is allocated
  • The way language and conversation is used
  • The interactions and relationships that unfold
  • The expectations that are communicated
  • The opportunities that are created
  • The routines and structures that are put into place
  • The way the environment is set-up and utilized
For the docent training,  the NGA’s throughline is “As a learner, how can I understand a work of art?  As a teacher how can I help students understand a work of art?’   which neatly frames a key statement from Ritchard:

“It is who we are as thinkers and learners and what we do, that helps create a culture of thinking.”

I’ll come back, I hope, in a later post to the ways that these ideas are used in docent training (and hope to implement them in some of my projects) but I was particularly struck by how relevant these ideas are to us as staff and board members.  Think about that list above in terms of a board, committee or task force meeting.  For instance:
  • Modeling of the group leader:  disorganized and chokes off discussion or encourages feedback and runs a well organized meeting.
  • The way time is allocated:  a board meeting that spends half an hour talking about the price of tickets for the benefit;  or a board that spends time talking about how to reach the goals in a strategic plan.
  • The way language and conversation is used:  every discussion starts with a negative;  or an open receptive, what do you think?  kind of meeting
  • The interactions and relationships that unfold:  committee members who make little effort to forge personal connections or, as one committee I worked with last year, always made time to share a meal together.
  • The expectations that are communicated:  "don't worry, we won't ask you to do anything on the board,"  vs. a job description for board members.
  • The opportunities that are created:  a board with no term limits or a board that has an active recruitment, training and board rotation program.
  • The routines and structures that are put into place:  unintelligible financial reports handed out at the meeting;  or boards that set expectations for both committee and director reporting
  • The way the environment is set-up and utilized:  is your board meeting space comfortable?  does everyone feel at ease?  are there "cliques" who sit together?
As I start new projects, I'll try to use this framework to ensure that in everything I do, I do at least my part to ensure a culture of learning.  Thanks NGA education staff!
Illustrations for this post are from the NGA's collections and have no real connection to the topic.  Just art to look at and think about!
Top to Bottom:
Edouard Vuillard
Four Ladies with Fancy Hats, 1892/1893
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Eyerly, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur G. Altschul, Malcolm Wiener, and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation
Auguste Raffet
An Elderly Jew and a Muslim Tartar in the Crimea, 1837
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
William Henry Fox Talbot
Leaf Study, 1839/1840
Gift of Mary and David Robinson

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why Are We Conference Sheep?

I've been at several conferences this fall and have at least one more to go--and I'm a bit discouraged by my conference-going.  What's discouraging?  That the least interesting method of presentation is still the most prevalent.   We know that museum-goers don't want to sit and have people lecture at them--but why do we still think that's the best conference presentation format?  

It often feels as if the speaker part of a session is a sort of holding room until we can get to the part that we really want to do, which is talk--whether it's about the meaning of memorials, the concept of radical trust, the way collaborations work--whatever it is.

My least favorite sessions are those where the presenters talk about their project, not about what was learned in doing their project.  We don't need to know all about those gardens and the history of the house, I, at least, want to know about how you, just for instance, involved young people in those gardens.  As an exhibit developer and interpretive planner I find it sometimes challenging to get people deeply immersed in their subject matter to step back and think about the big picture and about how to relate their work to an audience that's not as steeped in the subject matter.

What would make me a happier session attender?
  • The easiest one but the one I find often not put in use.  Have a timekeeper and be really, really, firm with presenters that go over time.
  • If you're presenting a specific project from an organization or collaborative effort, ask an outsider to serve on the panel to critically comment and reflect.
  • Think about your session as you might an exhibit.  Make sure it has a big idea (as per Beverly Serrell's invaluable chapter in her book Exhibit Labels).  That means your session should have a subject, verb and consequence!
  • Reconsider using that Powerpoint.  But if you do, put it online afterwards.
  • Think about speaking about failure.   One of my favorite training moments ever was when my colleague Christopher Clarke, as an add-on at a session for new directors, shared his 5 things he did right as a new director and 5 things he did wrong.  Failure is far more interesting to discuss than a session of mutual congratulations.
  • Of course, without saying, make room for discussion.  But consider ways to have conversation throughout the session, not just jammed at the end (and a big shout-out to the presenters from the National Gallery of Art at MAAM this week who presented one of the best sessions ever--they not only talked the talk about learning they walked the walk).
And lastly, have fun!  It's serious work we do, but there's no reason we can't have fun doing it.  Museum sheep of the world, unite and rise up!  Imagine a new world of interactive conference-going.  What would you change?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Past We Remember: The Modern Village

This past week I led a team to conduct an overall assessment of Pyrohiv, the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life just outside Kyiv, Ukraine.   Most of Pyrohiv is dedicated to Ukrainian folk architecture from the 17th-early 20th centuries including houses, farm buildings, windmills and wooden churches.  I had visited Pyrohiv several times before but had never visited the part of the museum known as the Modern Village, and my colleagues and I came away entranced by a glimpse into a time period not yet interpreted in most museums, particularly outdoor museums.
The Modern Village was formed in the 1970s.  Ethnographers visited villages around Ukraine and selected a "typical" Soviet village house and inhabitants.    They then fully documented the house and contents;  returned to Pyrohiv and recreated an exact twin of the house, down to the exact furnishings.  So what the Modern Village now presents is a snapshot of an officially approved, in the Soviet era, picture of what the state envisioned village life to be.
It's a very curious place.  The houses' exteriors reflect some regional differences, but the interiors seem much the same.  "Well, they were exactly the same!"  laughed one of our interpreters.   The rugs behind the bed, the polka dot cookware, and something I had heard about but never seen, the then-ubiquitous Soviet radio:  one station only, no volume control, no off button.
At one house, the attendant pointed out a portrait of the original home's owner (above) and mentioned that he still comes, occasionally, to visit his reproduction house.   Right now, the houses are minimally interpreted.  It's fascinating to think about the role of nostalgia, of oral histories, of the ways that change could be reflected in these homes. The opportunity to expand on that interpretation, to really gain an understanding of 1970s Soviet life in Ukraine, while the generation who lived it is still active, is an incredible opportunity for the museum, one that could make it unique in the world.  

Irina, my young translator said, "This is the village I remember, houses like this, like my grandparents!"  And that's something for all of us to think about as we attempt to connect the far-receding past to new generations no matter where we live.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lovely Signs of Change

I've been lucky enough to make 3 visits to Ukraine starting in January 2009.  As a result, I have the chance to see changes happening in Ukrainian museums. Change is slow--the financial crisis has been extremely challenging for Ukraine as a whole--but the crisis has also brought some opportunities.  Some observations from my most recent visit last week.
The Bulgakov Museum continues to be one of my favorite places in Kyiv.  I attended a fall celebration and fundraising event last week framed around the idea of the much-loved grape vines that frame the house's veranda.  What's new there?  First, the idea of a fundraising event!   The event attracted far more participants than the staff had anticipated and the audience was a great mix of all ages of people.  You could also purchase mission-related souvenirs, so I now have my very own Bulgakov Museum magnets.  Each of these efforts raised important funds for special projects.
At Saint Sophia's Cathedral, a World Heritage Site, an art installation featured well-designed and produced graphic labels, in both English and Ukrainian, introducing the artist and explaining her approach to the project.
And at the Metropolitan's House at St. Sophia's, each room had a text label in English and Ukrainian and an audio installation as well.   The information was fairly straightforward, but included music and provided a way to understand more about the furnishings and the house.
I know there are more developments at other museums that I didn't have a chance to see--and would love to hear about them from Ukrainian colleagues.  But I think the most important thing about all these developments is that they allow a visitor to control his or her own experience.  All are distinctive moves away from the one-way delivery of controlled information that was the only practice in Soviet-era museums.   Equally important is the fact that at both these institutions, the director and staff are not bemoaning a lack of funds, but are stepping forward to raise funds, to work with foundations, and to become more meaningful institutions.  Now that's a lesson for all museums no matter where we are.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

This is How Change Happens

For the past week, I've been in Ukraine conducting an overall program audit of the largest outdoor museum here.   Not surprisingly, there have been lots of discussions about change, how it happens, how it can happen here in Ukraine,  whether it will happen, and how.   But today I went to an event that only reinforced a sense of hopefulness about change in general. is an organization dedicated to climate change around the world and today volunteers held events all over the world to work, to contact political leaders and to draw attention to issues related to climate change.  There were a number of events in Kyiv, but we went to one at St.Michael's Square that was attended by all kinds of people, including a number of children.   It's been my experience that volunteers come from families who volunteer, in whatever capacity (my childhood included church suppers, PTA events and the like) and that of course, research shows that your museum visits as a child have a huge influence on your interest in museum-going later in life.

Ukraine is just now building its own traditions of civic engagement.  So when I looked at this young girl and all the other young people standing in the square,  I realized that the future of Ukraine will be different.  It won't be people saying, "oh the government needs to...."  it will be these young people who understand protest and citizen involvement as a regular, important part of their lives.  This is how change happens.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Click: Newark Museum

On the way to the airport to head to Ukraine, I had a bit of extra time so I was able to stop in at the Newark Museum, a place I'd never been.   It was a pleasure to see so many thoughtful labels and some very nice design elements combined with thoughtful interpretation.

First, the Ballantine House.  The picture at the top of the post is of an site specific installation by Yinka Shonibare.  I loved the way it integrated contemporary art with this high Victorian house.   Every room of the Ballantine House had three ways to access information.  The first was a story, an illustrated narrative about the house's inhabitants;  the second,  a panel that provided context on how the space was used; and the third, a series of flip pages that provided additional information on objects.  It was a great deal of information and perhaps looked a bit busy in the space, but I loved that you could pursue your interests as desired.

Some rooms of the house were used as gallery spaces and the labels in those spaces were also great.  Here's one about etiquette:

There was a small but quite beautiful exhibition for families about the relationships between artists and nature that encouraged close looking and an examination of the ways artists transform what they see into works of art.  This wooden puzzle-like installation allowed you to play with the scene,  while another installation let you touch rocks and compare them with painted images;  and yet another label provided beautiful context.

Interestingly, my least favorite exhibition was their most recent.  A new exhibit on Stickley contained beautiful furniture, textiles and other materials, but I found it a little staid and really wondered why main labels were both long and justified,  creating a visual that was very difficult to read.

But all in all, a lovely pre-flight afternoon, well worth a visit!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Back to the Other Side

This weekend, I'm headed back to Ukraine for 10 days with a small team of museum colleagues to conduct an assessment of Pyrohiv, the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life outside Kyiv.  It was the very first museum I visited on a very cold, very snowy Christmas Day in January, 2009, just a day or two after arriving in Ukraine for the first time.  I'm very pleased to be returning and particularly pleased to have the opportunity to delve deeper into the many complexities of this museum.

But the conversation around my recent posts has been fascinating-- there's much more to write about on both sides of the ocean!  Stay tuned.