Friday, March 25, 2011

Click: Natural History Museum, Kyiv

This week I wandered into the Natural History Museum in Kyiv--it's a place I'd been by many times, but had never gotten around to entering.  And inside,  I found both a time capsule of natural history presentation, but also the most lively museum-goers I've seen in Ukraine.   What was in the time capsule?
Cases, lots of cases.
Dioramas,  lots of dioramas,  including my favorite,  of this scene of trolley buses crossing the Dnieper River here in Kyiv.
Specimens and taxidermied animals, lots of specimens and taxidermied animals.  But what I was most struck by were the beautiful illustrations and graphics, showing a hand-done style that is almost gone from museums now that we use computers for illustration.  In the dioramas and in graphics throughout the cases,  there were many illustrations, all hand-done,  in numerous different styles, from these black and white stylized graphics to more formal botanical illustrations.
And it wouldn't be an old-school museum here in Ukraine without at least one really long label and portraits of distinguished scientists.
And of course, the natural habitat of the museum guard.
But, and this is the part that fascinated me,  people were really engaged in this museum.  Kids shared things with other kids;  parents and grandparents talked with children--more than anywhere I've seen here.  So--why?  Is it that the natural world is inherently more interesting than art or history for children?   Is it the contextual material--ie,  do dioramas really help us imagine worlds we don't know?  Or is there another reason entirely?   Your thoughts, readers?  For any reason, it was a pleasure to spend an hour or two watching museum-goers enjoy themselves.
 These two boys were my favorites--they looked at and talked about everything!

Monday, March 21, 2011

From Conference to Change

Last week I had the honor of being the plenary speaker at a conference, The Reform of Museum Management and Marketing, in Kyiv, Ukraine, sponsored by the Anti-Crisis Humanitarian Program of the International Renaissance Foundation, the Ukrainian Center for Museum Development of the Ukraine 3000 Foundation, and the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation for the Development of Ukraine (who generously sponsored my appearance here).   I joined a group of distinguished speakers from Russia, Poland, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and of course, Ukraine itself, to consider how museums can change and adapt to the 21st century.   Attending the conference were more than 120 museum professionals from all over Ukraine.  The conference's sponsors made particular efforts to reach out to museums in the regions, rather than just in Kyiv.  It was great to see old friends and colleagues--and to meet new ones as well.

But the conference raised the same issues for me that much training in the US does.  How do we encourage museums to really embrace what they've learned, to make change and reflection a part of daily work?  Since I began coming to Ukraine two years ago,  I do see signs of change--but I also see a willingness to attend workshops (and for organizations and embassies to present workshops)  but not so much readiness to make real change in an institution.   I'm pleased that this conference opened up some conversations about creating real change in organizations.

I'm far from having any real answers to this,  but a few thoughts (and by the way, I think the same issues exist for many American museums).
Marketing is not the first step
I often think that museums think that if they just produce the latest four-color brochure or have more money to allocate for advertising,  then people will flock to their museum.  It's much harder to get the point across that your product (a word I know that will meet some resistance here in Ukraine) needs to be better--your exhibits more interesting,  your programs more engaging,  your lobby staff friendlier--BEFORE new marketing commences.

Practice, not theory
I have pretty clear ideas about the process of exhibit development--but I also know that talking about it doesn't generate the best understanding.  Museum colleagues here can see my slides of interactive, hands-on exhibits, but until people have the opportunity to actually work on a project that involves, for instance, thinking about a big idea for an exhibition, writing engaging exhibit labels, and developing a creative installation,  those theoretical new ideas just stay theory.

I think some of the next steps in Ukraine are about beginning to integrate real practice into training to follow upon theoretical experiences--and I'd love the opportunity to work with colleagues here on the practical applications.  Some of my best memories here come from the start of those practical discussions in some organizations and a real hands-on project at the National Museum of Books and Printing in 2009 where I taught staff simple paper and book-making activities that are now offered on a weekly basis.

Interested in what audiences think?  The same thing holds true.  We need to find ways to move the discussion from talking about talking to audiences to actually talking TO audiences.   Recently, in the US I did some community conversations with an organization who had been a little resistant about doing them--but afterwards, said a staff member, "I'm a convert--these were great!"  There's the old saying,
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
We need to move from giving the fish of pure information to actually providing museums with a rod, a hook and a worm,  and sitting on the bank with them as they learn to fish.  Then, I think, real learning will occur.   And the museum with its own efforts,  will sustain its community--and its community, in return, will help sustain the museum.
Change comes from the top and from the bottom
As Ludmyla Gubianuri,  director of the Bulgakov Museum here in Kyiv, said during her presentation, "if you want to have a great museum,  give people creative freedom."  Many directors everywhere guard their prerogatives closely and resist change.  For real change, systematic change, to happen in an organization, the director (and board of directors, or department heads if appropriate) need to believe in the idea of change--and learn to not be threatened by it.  I told the conference audience that I come from a family of enthusiastic learners (not scholars, perhaps, but learners) and that for us, lifelong learning in our careers and in the rest of our lives is something that gives us all great joy--I hope all directors could consider it the same.   And Ludmyla also reminded all of us that the public doesn't really care about your problems, they care about their experience at the museum.

So not matter where you are in the hierarchy,  you can think differently, in large or small ways.

Creating Knowledge Networks
One of the best results of the Dutch-funded MATRA museum training project here in Ukraine was the development of an informal network of colleagues who learned together and continue to share ideas and information.  I have always found the museum field in the US (and now, increasingly, all over the world) incredibly generous with information, ideas and support.  I think an important next step here is building these knowledge networks to share information and ideas in inexpensive ways (I'm not necessarily a fan of expensive publications in this context).

From Contest to Competency
AAM, for instance, and AASLH's Award of Merit program.  But both those programs recognize multiple winners and make the submissions and winners available to the entire field.   I wonder whether resources might be better allocated towards small improvement grants rather than prizes and at the very least, a system developed to clearly share the winning efforts and highlights best practices so others can be inspired.   And that gets back to the whole idea of sharing skills and knowledge, as above.

More posts to come about other lively discussions at the conference--but the best part for me--was, I think,  that most Ukrainian museum professionals now understand that my commitment to them and their work is a increasingly deeper one.   Who would have thought that two years ago!

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined House Tour

Mrs Patrick
Last week, I spent a great deal of time on the road, a not unusual occurence,  and in the early morning, I'm always happy to hear Garrison Keillor come through my car radio with the Writers' Almanac.
On March 2 it was Dr. Suess's birthday--but it was also Tom Wolfe's birthday and Keillor shared a bit of Wolfe's essay on journalism, in which he suggested that reporters needed to employ four technical devices more commonly used in fiction to get at the emotional core of any story.   As the story continued, I realized that Wolfe's four rules were exactly in line with what makes a great guided tour (something I've been pondering lately for a couple different organizations, including the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, NY).
So, what did Wolfe, the author of both fiction and non-fiction classics such as Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby think journalists (and by my extension, historic site tour developers) do to engage their audiences?  It's pretty simple.
  1. Construct scenes
  2. Dialogue, lots of it
  3. Carefully noting social status details everything from dress and furniture to the infinite status clues of one's speech.
  4. Point of view in the Henry James' sense of putting the reader inside the mind of someone other than the writer (or tour developer).
Those, said Wolfe, are the devices that give fiction its absorbing, gripping quality, making the reader feel present in the scene described or even inside the skin of a particular character.   I suspect that Wolfe, when he wants a writer to note details such as dress and furniture doesn't mean to imply that those details are the most important part of the narrative, but rather that those details support the larger emotional connection.
On the platform, reading
Think about the last tour you took and compare it to the last novel you read.  A novel requires a significantly greater investment of time but we stick with it, because the rewards, those emotional connections, may be far greater.  I'd love to hear from readers about tours that made those strong emotional connections--where have you been?

Photos from Flickr
Top by Lachlan Hardy; bottom by Mo Riza