Thursday, June 28, 2012

Experiment in Progress!

What do you think?  About this? or this?  Do you agree?  Do you wonder about?  In developing exhibitions I'm continually challenging museums to get out there to talk to their communities (more to come on a couple projects I'm working on).  And this week in St. John's, Newfoundland,  I saw a great example of the process at the Rooms,  Newfoundland's provincial museum (and art gallery, and archives, all in one place, with a commanding spot atop a hill overlooking the harbor in this small city).

All museum professionals seem to agree that this big overview history exhibits of a place, whatever that place is, are really challenging to develop.   Some people want timelines;  others want lots of text, others want objects that really matter to them, or to see the place where they grew up.  Newfoundland and Labrador (all one province for those of you not from here) is a huge place with a great many stories, so the challenge is a big one.

At the Rooms,  there's a temporary exhibit called Working on History.  It's a bare bones design to share current interpretive thinking on the topic,  put forth already collected visitor feedback,  and along the way, explain a bit about what museums do when we do exhibits and interpret history.   There was something for virtually every kind of learner to respond to in a way they enjoyed.  So here's some of what I saw (and by the way,  thanks The Rooms for letting me take pictures here!)
First, the introductory label sets forth clear expectations in a really brief text.  Exhibit, opening, two key questions, we need your help and feedback. And the informality makes it clear it's not the usual set-in-stone experience. Done!

Six key stories already identified to explore further.  But the text asks for your "words, feelings and ideas,"  not just the open-ended, "what do you think?"   Here's some of the six stories and responses.
Don't like to write?  Here's another alternative:
The middle image is a great reminder to any of us who might be tempted to romanticize childhood stories;  the bottom image depicts St. John's houses, instantly recognizable to residents and visitors.
Don't like to write or draw, but like to have things organized?  How about a timeline?
But those key topics haven't disappeared.  Here's another way of looking at them (words, no images), based on what previous audience work revealed.
But what about those visitors who like the sound of things?  Not an audio installation,  but a chance to share your thoughts, via a paper quiz that you could submit,  testing your knowledge of distinctly Newfoundland words (for instance, one I learned this week, "scrunchions.")
Objects were installed around the outside of the room grouped by the big topic sections.  So visitors got a chance to share feedback there too.  I think the labels do a nice job of modeling possible response, so visitors aren't just facing a blank page.
The museum is experimenting with digital labels so there was a digital label to experiment with--I'll be really interested to see what visitors make of this and how it's eventually used in the exhibit.  It was funny how much less lively this seemed than the rest of the space.
In addition to all the feedback mechanisms,  there were also labels and sections where the museum explained a bit about the process.  A conservation lab was set up and a staff member (not a conservator the day I was there) was on hand to answer questions and a visitor had engaged him in a very lively discussion about fishing issues.  Additional labels talked about storytelling and about using artifacts.  I'd love to see a next steps in this where they talked about and asked visitor feedback on design as well as content.
A colleague and I had an interesting discussion about the limits of visitor feedback in this exhibition that raised more questions than it answered.  What happens to posts that are visitor-generated but fall outside of accepted historical narrative or are more complex politically than a governmental organization is willing to take on?  In crowd-sourcing,  does the crowd produce the most interesting ideas?  How can those outlying but sometimes important ideas be incorporated into the final exhibition?  And how can that final exhibition be lively in the same way as this temporary version?

Much to consider, and a number of ideas I'll be putting to work elsewhere.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Networks and New Ideas in Moscow

Another guest post from around the world.  Katrin Hieke from Germany shares her impressions of Intermuseum 2012 in Moscow.

It´s been quite a coincidence that I was able to travel to Eastern Europe again just a few weeks after my trip to Minsk in Belarus . Again, I would like to share some of my experiences and impressions from a region not well known in the museum world. Thank you, Linda, that I may do this again on your blog!

This time, I accepted  an invitation from ICOM Russia to join the big event “Intermuseum 2012” in Moscow early June 2012.  Each year since 1999, the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation funds and organizes, jointly with some other institutions, this huge event where museums of all kinds and types throughout this huge country and the former CIS countries are invited to join in; plus archives, libraries, companies in relevant fields, educational institutions, regional ministries of culture, universities and professional museum organizations. About 1.500 participants take part, not counting all the visitors – that is students and professionals at museums and from many adjacent fields.
Intermuseum, also referred to as International Museum Festival, consists of several concurrent parts: the "Technomuseum", an exhibition/ fair of museum technologies and equipment; an exhibition of more than 150 museums, their collections, projects and programs; a continuous cultural program - and a conference with several sections. This business program particularly aims at establishing contacts with the international museum community and in developing effective dialogue platforms. Those are organized by ICOM Russia and for this year they chose the topic of museum and cultural tourism. The – as it seems quite generous - funding by the government allows ICOM Russia to invite many international participants and even support additional projects in the running year. So it was that colleagues from Australia, Portugal, Netherlands, Finland, Norway, UK, Austria and Germany came together at the conference and reported on cultural tourism projects in their respective countries, while in other sections, seminars and round tables current and future projects in Russia where discussed. All of this took place in the “Central House of Artists” on the banks of the Moskva river, just opposite the famous Gorki Park and also home to the impressive New Tretyakov Gallery.

In all discussions, conversations and inquiries during the conference, one question came up again and again: whom do collections and more generally museums and their ground belong, and thus who can make decisions concerning exhibitions or new offers, let alone building or welcome centers? As in Belarus, there are lot of people actively engaged, eager to learn, to share ideas and willing to make a difference. Also, they seem to be much more open to cooperations with organisations, institutions and companies outside the museum world (as, for instance, in Germany). But there is still a lot of control by the government too, but this appears to be somewhat easier to handle than in Belarus with a little more leeway here and there.
The brand new and unique book "ICOM Russia Network" tells of more than 3.000 museums (and about 72.000 museum workers) in the Russian Federation, and this count doesn´t include the vast amount of the popular school museums and company museums. A national museum association does exist, but ICOM Russia very actively takes on tasks and projects for the Russian museum scene, which makes it one of the most – nationally and internationally – engaging national committees of ICOM I have encountered.  Key areas of work are primarily in the areas of education and cooperation in different areas (among museums and with other partners) and they even made a bid for hosting the ICOM general conference in 2016 which, unfortunately, this time has not (yet) worked out.

During the conference, I was particularly pleased to meet staff from museums in Belarus who were participants of my seminar on museum marketing in Minsk just a few weeks before. I was happy to hear how things were going and that their initial ideas they developed after the seminar were already put into practice.
Being a guest in Russia has proven to be one of the greatest experiences in my life so far. The whole board of ICOM Russia and especially Afanasy Gnedovsky and Ksenia Novokhatko took care of us international guests so brilliantly. Most of us stayed in Moscow for several days and we enjoyed a fabulous program: We got to see the city on a special tour and of course some of the most famous museums; we attended the gala evening on occasion of the centennial of the Pushkin State Museum and of course enjoyed dinners with quite an amount of vodka and many international toasts!

So, see you all in Rio de Janeiro on the occasion of the ICOM General Conference in 2013 - or the following year, when ICOM Russia, jointly with ICOM Germany and ICOM USA, will host an international conference on the topic of “Museums and Politics," which perfectly fits to one of the primary topics of concern for Russian museums.

До свидания!
Photos, top to bottom, by Katrin Hieke unless noted:  Afanasy and Ksenia presenting the latest publications of ICOM Russia; The Techno-museum; Museum presentations at Intermuseum;
The board of ICOM Russia and the international guests of the Intermuseum 2012 celebrating the international museum community. Foto by Jose Gameiro

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What Tells Your Community Story?

If you're on a board of directors, you probably spend more time than you would like in meetings talking about things that aren't so fun...about the roof leaking,  or the need to raise more money,  or how to get more volunteers. In those conversations,  it seems that we often forget the why of our voluntary involvement.

I've been experimenting with a really simple way to get boards (and staff and volunteers) involved in community history to begin thinking about the why of what they do.  But it doesn't start with why,  it starts with a what, a question about what single object represents their history.   Last weekend I was down on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, working with such a group. I began the board meeting by asking each person to describe a single object that represented the county's history to them. I've tried this before and the answers are always both thoughtful and surprising.  This time was no exception.

The group of 12 or so named not a single object that could be classified as a museum collection object--but taken together, they really did represent a history of this place.   Here's some of the responses:
  • The courthouse.  I love to sit in the square in front and think.
  • The marshes, the backroads and the rhythm of nature
  • My great grandfather
  • My neighbor intense, colorful local history learned from him
  • The Bay Bridge..."I'm almost there"  when I cross it
Not a one of those can be numbered and placed on a shelf.  But each one could make an incredible exhibit, program,  community collaboration,  website or more.  It's also a lesson about differing perspectives.  That courthouse represents one history to the white citizens;  I might be willing to guess that it could mean something very different to members of the centuries-old African American community here.  But in this list of meaningful "objects"  we can see a way forward;  ways to explore different perspectives,  to make contemporary connections,  and to forge a meaningful place for local history in our communities.  Let's see your undocumented,  broken spinning wheel do that!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Where Can You Find a Creative Museum?

Hop on over to our Museums & Creative Practice site for the latest update on your responses to our survey.  We asked you about creative museums and an amazing list from around the world emerged.  Check out what survey-takers thought about history, art, and science museums;  whether small museums can be more creative, and why risk-taking might be a hallmark of the creative museums.