Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Where Do New Ideas Come From? How Do They Happen?

I hear from many emerging museum professionals that they have a hard time getting their ideas heard at their museums (if they can find jobs at them) and wanted to highlight a great example of both working from within and working collaboratively, in a setting many of us would find pretty challenging.

In spring, 2010,  in L'viv, Ukraine, Eugene Chervony (above), a young scientist,  attended one of my workshops about creating a visitor-friendly museum.  He then followed up with an invitation to visit his museum, the Natural History Museum in L'viv and talk about projects, so of course I did.  At that point,  his museum has been closed for renovation for twenty (that's right, twenty) years.  Amidst bits of construction debris, seemingly almost finished spaces and taxidermied animals stuffed into storage areas we walked, talking about some of his  ideas for the future.  But how could it happen?  No space,  an organization with no real plan for the future, no money...there was a long list of seemingly unsurmountable nos.
But last month, I was back in L'viv and saw Eugene's new exhibit, The Story of One River at the History Museum (not at the still-closed Natural History Museum).   The exhibit looks at the history of a river in L'viv in terms of not just science, but in terms of the river's impact on humans and our impact on the river (now wholly underground and essentially, a part of the city's waste disposal system).  And, quite unusually still, his exhibit incorporated English language text for international visitors.  How did this exhibit happen?
Eugene was good enough to share some of his thoughts on this project with me.  In Ukraine, scientists (and museum curators) are really specialists so a broad-based exhibit like this is unusual.  I asked,
How did you come up with the idea? He replied,
From MATRA partners [Note:  a Dutch program supporting various efforts in Ukraine] we got a task [note:  and supporting funding] to make an exhibition about co-existence of humans and nature and their influence an each other. So we thought about what we should to do. In my opinion we should present exhibition one story. The best example is a story about our river.   As I am biologist all nature belong to sphere of my work. And design and project management is what I like to do because it is a process of creation and every time it is something new, some new tasks,  some new ideas and problems. You can't be bored.  
And how/why did you decide to connect it to the present day?  
It is not a finished story and we are still part of this story. Children who are the target group should  understand that every action have consequences and you need to think to do or not.
Collaboration is not usual in Ukraine, so I asked, "How did you convince the history museum to partner with you?--and your own museum to participate?  He also mentioned that the agreement to participate took longer than he had hoped--like almost any partnership.
They were interested to participate  because it was supposed to be new kind of exhibition in the collaboration of Natural History museum and History museum. And also we promised new approach in exhibition design.   Our museum has partners  from Netherlands and also we are specializing on ecology and environmental problems.
What's interesting here is that Eugene promised a new approach to design, despite the fact that his experience was really pretty limited.  But his imagination, his willingness to engage current museum colleagues and to expand his network were not.  I asked how he found the skills he needed:
Everything was made by museum workers. The artist I found from my friends. I did research on who doing  art projects in L'viv and outside what dedicated to river and get whole network of connections. Some of them disappointed me and but some I enjoyed to work with them. With translations my American and Canadian friends helped me and I need to say big THANK YOU.
But the hardest thing to accomplish was to convince his colleagues of the art object (see above) and of its relevance to the exhibition.  Although people were interested in new ways of exhibit design, the reality is sometimes a bit harder--and really required, Eugene said, "a big fight" to install the art.

He would try and do a couple things differently (and what exhibit developer has ever done an exhibit that isn't the same?).  Those included these three:
Probably I would change little bit of way of presentation of information about river.
I would start full evaluation from the beginning but I didn't have the time and or experience for it.
I would not present so many animals without any background but ....
The exhibit ends with a space for visitor feedback on Post-It notes and I was curious about the comments.  Eugene wrote this about visitor response:
Children like to write feedback very much.
A 5th grade pupil wrote:  I did not think that in Ukraine can be like in the USA. (about exhibition)
Government should open this problem (talk about it more)
But most of them are thanks and best wishes.
 What are the takeaways from Eugene's exhibit project?  To me, they are:
  • Look inside and outside your own organization for skills, partners, and inspiration.
  • Work collaboratively and persistently, believing that both new and long-term colleagues can be valuable  members of a team.
  • Don't be afraid to think that you can learn something new--and just try those new things (as the Little Engine that Could would say, "I think I can, I think I can.")
  • Think about audiences--that should go without saying, but it's a bit of a new concept in Ukraine and too often, a new concept other places.  Eugene had a message he wanted to convey to children, and evaluation shows they're getting it.
Over the course of several days and a long car trip into the Carpathians this year, Eugene and I had a great talk about new exhibit ideas and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next!  And I'm sure that new, enthusiastic audiences are also looking forward to it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Charting A Course

This past week, five colleagues, all independent museum professionals, sat down to talk about our futures.  We had discovered that despite doing a significant amount of planning with organizations, none of us had a strategic plan, or even any sort of plan.  And, we discovered, all of us wanted to think about, for various reasons, some shift in what we do or how we do it.   So we all came together at my house, to eat fresh peaches and tomatoes,  taste freshly-infused vodka,  laugh, ask hard questions and consider the future.

The process was exceptionally informal and designed collaboratively before we all came together.  Like every process, we tweaked it a bit as we went along.   We began by devoting a half hour each to a career review.   How each of us designed that review was up to us--and the results were fascinating.  We had a mind map,  a statistical analysis of income vs. satisfaction,  graphs analyzing sources of project funding, a pie chart of activities,  and for all of us, narratives about how we got to where we are (not a single straight line in the bunch!).   We asked each other questions, delving deeper into the ways in which our businesses operated (made easier by the agreement that the details of our conversations would stay within the group).

Just like the career paths, the business models were widely different.  One limited liability corporation, two bloggers and tweeters,  two relatively avoidant of social media,  one with project subcontractors,  one with employees.   One with a foot outside of the museum world currently;  another with former foot outside in the hospitality industry.   But we all agreed that our business models were pretty accidental as well.

The next day we re-convened and did a SWOT analysis for each of us, again devoting a half hour or so to each person.  It probably worked best after we'd had part of a day and a long talky dinner together.  Although we all knew each other before gathering, it was in different ways, to different degrees.  I think a level of trust was really important in this conversation.  It's hard to hear people talk honestly about you--and I will say I think we were all harder on our individual weaknesses than anyone else.

Lunch break and then we split up, spending about an hour creating, in whatever fashion, some sort of a plan.  Big sheets of paper, on the computer, sketched out as a map--everyone designed it in their own fashion.  Then of course, back together to share the plans for comment and final thoughts.  And among those final thoughts?  Some plans to work together in several different ways--an unexpected but not surprising outcome of our time together.

What made this process work?

Anne Ackerson, who blogs over at Leading by Design, mentioned the idea of abundant organizations to us:   that by sharing our time and talents, we create something that has more than enough--more energy, more creativity,  more enthusiasm, more deep thinking.   The sum was definitely greater than the parts.

Familiar, not too familiar
We all knew each other, but all of us didn't know each other intimately.  We didn't know the inside details of each other's business, nor in any great way, of our personal lives.  This meant that we could approach something like a SWOT analysis with a degree of thoughtful distance.   We had about a ten- year age range between us,  and I think the fact that we all thought of ourselves as mid-career meant that we related to each other's issues.

Commitment to Change
We had all experienced strategic planning processes where the organization board and staff were only doing it because they felt pressured in some way.   Those planning processes usually fail to produce real change.  For all of us,  we really wanted to think more deeply about our time and we wanted to make changes,  to have control over rapidly changing, complicated work lives with cultural organizations.

A Sense of Humor
Enough said.  The people you choose to work with really matter.

What's next?  It's up to each of us to decide what form our plan will take and I hope to get mine into shape over the next few weeks.  We've decided to meet a few times a year, to share ideas and continue providing encouragement and feedback.  We're contemplating some ways we might work together, and how we might share both this process and our hard-won knowledge with emerging museum professionals.  So many thanks to Anne, Gwen, Marianne and Christopher for a great time--and stay tuned!

Image:  pie chart from Audrey Lapierre, via Flickr

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Trickling Down My Way

An article last week in the New York Times discussed the effect that state arts funding is having on organizations all over the country.  Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington was quoted as saying, 
When any form of government funding is cut, the organizations that tend to get hit the most are rural, organizations of color, avant-garde institutions — those that have a harder time raising individual and corporate money.
Although I live just a few hours outside of New York City, I live in one of those poor (classified as Appalachia) counties.   This weekend I went to two different events that made real the trickle-down power of arts funding.  On Friday night, we drove just a few miles to Franklin, NY (population 1735)  to see the Mettawee River Theater Company perform outdoors, underneath a clear sky and moon ("not quite a half-moon" said the little girl sitting next to me). The event was sponsored by the Franklin Stage Company, an organization founded on the principle that, "great theater should always be accessible to all."   As the sun set and the sky darkened, the hillside was filled with all kinds of people--long-time locals,  newcomers, kids, adults, seniors, teenagers--who were all swept into the traditional northern Japanese folk tales, told through masks, puppets, song and spoken word.

The next night, in the rain, we headed a bit further afield, down to New Kingston, NY (population 354) for the New Kingston Film Festival. where, despite the drizzle and some recalcitrant technology,  we watched shorts and documentaries from around the world on a big blow-up screen, parked in our cars in a modern day drive-in movie. From a coming-of-age story in Spain to windpower battles in the next town over,  the filmmakers brought many ideas of place and community to this very small place.
Both events are labors of love--and both were, wonderfully, free! It's easy to think about the arts in New York State as the Metropolitan Opera and the Museum of Modern Art.  For decades, the New York State Council on the Arts has supported projects like these through its Decentralization Grant program.   Maybe these events would have been possible without the small amount of grant funding they received,  but maybe they wouldn't;  very possibly the grant funding helped leverage other funding and the support, granted by a panel of  county residents, (and administered by the Roxbury Arts Group)  made sure that my neighbors and I, living in the beautiful Catskill mountains,  have chances to look beyond our own front doors and our everyday lives. 

Thanks to the passionate organizers of this weekend's events,  to NYSCA for its funding, and for New York's taxpayers, who make NYSCA possible.   Remember the field full of cars, watching a story of Spain, or a child's excited gasp as the dragon puppet emerges from the lake, when you hear that the arts don't matter, that we can't afford them.  We can and we should.