Monday, December 30, 2013

Vincent and Me: What a Great Docent Does

Over the holidays, I visited the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and as always in museums, found myself lurking around galleries,  watching how people interact with each other and with the art.  It was a weekday, and there were lots of school groups.  I came into one gallery and saw Van Gogh's Irises at the end of the room.  I watched one docent with a school group.  Okay, I thought, but not great.  That group moved on, and another docent, who you see at the top of the post,  shepherded her group in, sat them down,  and began a conversation.   What I heard and saw integrated so many things that museum educators and interpreters strive for,  that I'll try to recreate it here (based on some rapidly scribbled notes on my museum map).

First, the docent had the group look closely at the painting.  What did they see?  "Flowers"  "How many different kinds of flowers?"  "What color are the flowers?"  "Oh, there's a white one over there that's different."     And with each question, she reinforced the answer and asked another question to go deeper.  The kids had nametags on, and she used every child's name when she called on them or they answered.  "You're a group with great imaginations!"

But after discussing the flowers she made a switch I didn't understand at first--telling the students (who were 8 years old or so) about the difference between a portrait and a landscape.   A portrait a picture of a person;  a landscape with trees or sky or flowers.  And, she continued, "some people think this is a portrait, a self-portrait, by the artist Vincent Van Gogh, and some people think it's a landscape.   The artist was lonely--so if it's a portrait,  where is he?"   One of the students quickly guesses that Van Gogh is the white iris, "because he stands out, because he's alone."     But maybe, says another, "You don't have to be alone.  Maybe another flower will come along and pick him."  In just a few moments, the conversation had gone from merely spotting colors to empathy,  to the idea that paintings can be about feelings, that they can be metaphors for other things, and to a bit of understanding about how an artist expresses himself.

And then she expanded the idea of portraits further.  "I want you to pretend that you are someone who wants your portrait painted,  What would you be?"   Hands went up,  and one by one,  she called students up to pose for their portrait.  "I would be a butterfly,"  starts one shyly.  By the docent's own active movements,  she encouraged deeper thinking,  "Would you have your wings spread like this?  or be resting on a flower like this? What colors would you be?"  and so on,  always asking questions that required imaginative answers and getting them,  getting the students to use both their minds and their bodies.

She noticed that only girls were volunteering. How about a boy?  After some giggling and shoving in the back, it was clear that no boys were going to volunteer.  Okay, she said, moving around to where the boys were.  "Let's imagine that we have a boy.  What shall he be?"  "A prince, said one student, and the conversation continued about a portrait of a boy.   After this, she wraps up, and says, "Time to move on, but before we leave this room, I'm going to just stop for a minute and show you my favorite painting, one with a secret."

I was sitting on a bench with a couple mothers and asked the age of the students.  Unqueried,  the mom next to me said, nodding at the docent, "She's great, isn't she?  I've watched some of the others and they're not as exciting!"   I totally agree and here's my quick list of great things she did right.
  • Ask great questions.  Start with easy ones and build to more challenging ones.
  • Accept differing interpretations (from art historians and students)
  • Understand that emotions, even difficult ones, are a part of every child's life and that art can make a strong emotional connection.
  • Use several different kinds of multiple intelligences.  There was something here for visual learners, for mathematical learners (counting the kinds of flowers),  for interpersonal and intrapersonal learners and for kinesthetic learners.
  • Be adaptable.  I don't know if boys are reluctant to participate in every school group, but in this one, she didn't force them,  but physically moved back near them and made sure they were included in the experience.
  • Be excited.  She loved art and you could tell.  She also loved kids and you could tell that too.
Thanks, unknown docent, for ending my museum-visiting year with such inspiration!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Our History Museums will Include the Events of These Days"

As long-time readers of the Uncataloged Museum may know,  I have a special interest in Ukraine, starting from my time as a Fulbright Scholar and continued through ongoing visits and projects.  Not surprisingly, I've been following the events in Kyiv (more often misspelled in the US press as Kiev, the Russian spelling).  Several weeks ago, as protests began I wrote a post where I was so bold as to suggest what museums in the capital might be doing as the protests, now called EuroMaidan (for European integration and held on Maidan,  the main square) became more powerful, stronger and expanded out from the idea of integration with Europe. It became hundreds of thousands of people working towards a more civil society, turning away from the corruption that characterizes Ukraine's current leadership.  (If you want to keep up, the Kyiv Post, in English, is the best place to find information).

I first met Ihor Poshyvailo (pictured above with his wife Tania on Maidan in a photo by his son, Boghdan Poshyvailo) my first week in Ukraine and since then I've been privileged to consider him both colleague and friend.  He is deputy director of the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv, the National Center of Folk Culture.  This week I asked if he'd answer some questions about what his museum and others are doing in this revolutionary time, and what he sees for the future.  Many, many thanks to Ihor.  This is a bit of a long post, but please take the time.

Your museum has made a statement in support of the protestors on EuroMaidan.  Can you tell me what the statement says, why the museum made it, and how the decision was made to issue it?
The first statement on our museum FaceBook page was made spontaneously on December 1st, and it said that the Honchar Museum supports the protest rallies which took place all over the country and that we will join the next day public meeting in Kyiv. And it ended with a call in caps: LET'S PROTECT OUR UKRAINE! The next statement was much more conscious  on December 10th we had a staff meeting and agreed unanimously to support the protests and blame the riot police for crimes. Next morning - December 11th at 1 am - there was another riot police attack on Maidan and we created a text of an official statement and published it on the museum Facebook page at 4 am.  In the evening - after agreement with our director,  Petro Honchar - we posted it on our website.
It said that we officially support the civilization choice of the Ukrainian people - Eurointegration; that we blame the government for failing to sign the agreement and the police attacks and beating of peaceful students and protesters. That as a cultural and educational institution we recognize the importance of human rights for civil society and an independent state. As a center of folk culture we  glorify the eternal traditional virtues of our ancestors - freedom, faith, honor, democracy and humanism. We appealed to the government and president to guarantee freedom of speech and etc. and we join offiical statements of other museums in Kyiv and Lviv as well as Ukraine ICOM Committee and Council of Directors of Lviv Museums.

I know other museums have also done similar efforts--can you tell us about them?  Is there any coordination of museum responses or just individual museums?

I know that mostly museums in Kyiv and Lviv responded. In Lviv (quite understandably - their local government support the protests) the Council of Directors of Lviv Museums coordinated protest statements of a number of Lviv museums. In Kyiv it was individually. Among the first was 'oppositional' Pavlo Tychyna Memorial Museum, which opened its doors to protesters and proposed to them tea and rest. Also Museum of Kyiv History (quite unexpectedly as it is run by the City Hall and personally mayor of Kyiv whose headquarters were taken by the protesters) and about a dozen of its branches in Kyiv including your favorite museum of Bulgakov, museum of Pushkin and a number of others.
Because virtually all museums in Ukraine are government run and funded,  do you worry about repercussions?      

Of course, there was and still is such a worry of  repercussions in this or that way - in the same way that it is known that a driver of the metro car was fired just for telling people in subway cars how to get to Maidan when the central three stations close to Independence Square were closed to try and keep protestors away.   Also there are stories when commanders of the riot policemen from Kirovohrad and Poltava who rejected the command to go to Kyiv and were fired for this. And a bus of pro-Maidan activists who regularly took people and sound equipment to Maidan were fired this night in Kharkiv. Of course, in case Maidan fails there are lots of ways of repercussions and museum directors are well aware of this possibility: that's why not many museums even in Kyiv declare their attitudes to the events.  Another fact - director of the famous here Museum "Territory of Terror" in Lviv was summoned for questioning by the investigation department of the prosecutor's office in Lviv region as "a witness" to events on EuroMaidan in Lviv.

I've seen, thanks to Facebook, two different efforts of the Honchar Museum on Maidan itself.  Can you tell me about the installation of the Didukh?  What does it symbolize and why did you decide to do it?  What was the reaction of people?

On two days our museum,  together with the studio Ethnotoloka organized a flash mob, installing a Didukh (see top photo) on Maidan at the foot of the Independence Monument. Didukh is a very important traditional symbol for Ukrainians which was the same symbol of Christmas and New Year as a New Year's Tree now. It's a Christmas decoration, symbol of sacrificing the best harvest. "Didukh" literally means "the spirit of ancestors" and was made out of the first or the last wheat harvest. It symbolizes the household's wish for an abundance of nature and a bountiful harvest for the upcoming year. Traditionally it was placed in every Ukrainian home before Christmas.
As we virtually shifted all our public educational and performance programs to the Maidan, so we decided to install Didukh there as a beginning of the traditional Christmas celebration in Kyiv and a symbol of Ukraine. Many people liked it, they made pictures before Didukh (as it's very big), asking what does it mean, where it's possible to buy it for their homes etc. Before that we had a celebration of folk holiday Kateryna on the main stage of Maidan and today we had there a celebration of Andriya - reproducing the folk holiday, and organizing folk dancing on the Maidan.

We organise dancing every evening on the Independence Square, so our presence is constant there. We made the decision to shift our programs to Maidan from the very beginning in order to reach new and wider audiences, to join and support the protesters and because some people at the beginning of the protests wrote to us on Facebook when we announced our December program questioning whether it's ethical to celebrate in the museum when all attention of the country is focused on Maidan.
I see now that you're collecting examples of posters and other items from Maidan--really contemporary Ukrainian folk art.  Are you documenting in photographs or actually collecting the work?  Why did you decide to undertake this?  

We are documenting in photographs. It's not easy to collect the work as what's interesting for our collection is still working and hangs on that Maidan "New Year's Revolutionary Tree."  The  Lviv Museum of History asked people to bring everything connected to EuroMaidan there for future exhibitions.

We decided to do it for two reasons - first - because you sparked me with this idea and second - a lot of materials - oral stories, songs, creativeness (even in making barricades or ways of warming and  ways of laying firewood), some art expressions are in fact urban contemporary folklore, which is quite new for us but very important. And of course they will become a part of Honchar collection.
And one blue sky question:  imagine Ukraine ten years from now.  What do you hope it will be? 

I don't just hope but believe that in ten years we will be a part of the EU, our government will be less corrupt and much more controlled by the strong civil society; our history museums will include in their exhibits the events of these days, and we will remember with great appreciation students who firstly sparked this revolution which helped us first to change ourselves, to feel us as one strong nation, and secondly change the country with this historical civilization choice. Nowadays, there are fears that Ukraine will be split in two parts or become another Belarus according to Putin and Kremlin strategies, but I do believe in the  better future of my nation and this confidence goes not from my idealistic inner self, but from hundreds of thousand twinkling eyes, hot hearts and real deeds of the Maidan protesters I witness and feel personally during these three weeks of the Revolution.     
Top photo by Boghdan Poshyvailo for the Ivan Honchar Museum
Additional photos from the ЄвроМайдан – EuroMaydan Facebook page:
Maidan on December 14 by Alexander Dvoretskyi and others, uncredited, but if you know who deserves credit, please let me know!

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Most Pleasant Surprise: On Mentorship

I'm pleased to share this guest post from my mentee, Alicia Akins.  It seems hard to believe that just a year ago she was just an email in my in-box rather than a year's worth of great conversation. I had asked her to write her final post for me about her experience over the year and, as you see below,  she's given a great road map for mentees--and a call for more mentors.  One of my goals in 2014?  To actually have one of our conversations not just on the same continent, but in the same room!  (and, by the way, her project is coming to an end in Laos in the spring, so she's job hunting. If she's a fit for your organization, be in touch.)
I hadn’t really expected much to come of my application for a mentor.  At a seven-months into my first museum job at a small museum in a tiny country in Southeast Asia, I thought the chances of my being chosen were slim.  It was a pleasant surprise to be wrong and it’s been even pleasanter to experience the unfolding of one of the most supportive and encouraging professional experiences I’ve ever had. 
If you’re reading this and you’re considering applying, stop considering and do it.  The worst that can happen is that you’re not selected, the best is an opportunity to receive:
·      Introductions to relevant people in the field
·      An impartial third party to bounce ideas off of
·      An extra proofreader of fellowship essays, resumes, and personal branding materials
·      The wisdom of someone who’s been at it much longer than you
·      A platform for sharing your thoughts on topics you’re passionate about with a wider audience
We were both new to this: Linda, to mentoring and I to being mentored and we both learned a lot along the way. Here are several things I learned about the process:
1)   Know what you want to get out of the mentorship.  Like, exactly what you want.   How do you hope to grow in the next year as a result of your time together? Are there conferences you know you want to attend in the next year and you think you’ll need help putting a session proposal together? Will you be looking for a new job soon and will need to have your resume and cover letter reviewed?  Want to become more active on social media or thinking of starting a blog? About to implement a new initiative at work and want help thinking through logistics?
2)   Be realistic. There are a million things you could do, but you just have a year. Use that limitation to focus your time. I wish I had actually been more focused during the year.
3)   Be both honest and prepared for honesty. It was actually kind of refreshing.  If Linda didn’t like an idea she told me.  If she thought it was insightful, she told me. If she thought it was half-baked, she told me.  As I have not held back in sharing my challenges and aspirations, she has encouraged me at times to be more ambitious, and at times to be less ambitious (something mothers and peers rarely do!).
4)   Don’t be afraid to reach out. For a while in the beginning, I hadn’t wanted to intrude on Linda’s time.  I had thought of our mentorship strictly in terms of the hour a month we Skyped.  But eventually, after I emailed her in between those calls and she wrote back, I realized that Linda was available and willing to help with things as they came up even if it deviated from our planned times. After I got on Twitter, we’d sometimes connect over that.
5)   Relax. Linda is about as easygoing and personable as they come.  I was imagining a much more intimidating experience, at first. Despite being new to the field, Linda took my ideas seriously.  Though I’ve never met Linda in person, our conversations were surprisingly not awkward. 
Mentorship opportunities like this are few and far between.  As I’m planning for 2014 and looking for a new mentor, I haven’t found anyone else putting out advertisements for a mentee. The field would be a better if there were more opportunities like this. If you do apply and aren’t selected, it’s worth taking the time to reach out to others in the field and make the request.  Now that I’ve had a mentor, I don’t want to think about going back to the time when I didn’t.
To those who aren’t considering applying: consider accepting.   I think Linda’s experiment has proven that there’s a definitely a demand.  You don’t have to be writing a book and successful blog and have decades of experience to help someone. If you have those things, though, even better. 
Lastly, if you can’t find a mentor, get a group. Linda has Take 5, her career posse, that she’s written about before.
I’ve grown in confidence since starting out on this process and am looking forward to continuing my own mentorship journey. I hope that after reading this, you’re looking forward to embarking on your own, too.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Where are You Headed? Need a Mentor?

Wondering what's next for you?  In 2014,  I'm again offering the opportunity work with me as a mentor. My career path continues to evolve in unexpected ways. This past month I had the chance to speak at my own graduate program about it which served as a reminder that we all start somewhere and the path is often surprising. Everyone's path will be different, but hopefully I can be of some help along the way.

This past year's mentorship was an experiment.  A year ago, I put out a call for anyone seeking a mentor and had dozens of terrific sounding applicants.  I selected two,  and one of those, Alicia Akins, working in Laos, has gone through the full year with me,  meeting once a month via Skype and exchanging emails and tweets.  When I asked Alicia if she thought it was worth doing again, from her perspective, here's what she said,
I think you should absolutely do it again!  It was a really rewarding and encouraging experience for me and I'm sure it would be for anyone else. It was particularly meaningful for me as an emerging professional interested in international work quite isolated all the way over here in Laos.  The opportunities to guest post, be introduced to people, have an unbiased third party take my questions seriously, and to realize that in the midst of learning I could also be learned from have bolstered my confidence and helped me think more proactively about the future.  So yes, absolutely do it again!
And from my perspective, what did I gain?  Through the application process, I met a wide variety of new colleagues and had a chance to meet some of you in person.  I enhanced my sense of what the field is about right now for colleagues at different stages in their careers.  Alicia wrote a couple great blog posts (and another one coming up) and in our conversations, we covered topics ranging from diversity in the field, to project management, to working internationally. Each new person is an opportunity for me to expand my own world view--and Alicia definitely did that!

Here's the deal for 2014. 
 We'll schedule monthly Skype conversations at times convenient for us both, and you can apply no matter where you live or work or what stage of your career you're in.  From you, I'll expect three blog posts on deadlines we mutually set and of course, active participation and questioning.  In addition to the monthly conversations, I'll also provide feedback, introductions as I can, and loads and loads of opinions!

If you're interested, by December 21, send me an email (linda [at] that includes your resume plus the following:
  • One thing you're particularly curious about
  • One thing you're passionate about
  • Questions you'd like to discuss with me during the year
  • A description of your first creative act 
  • A time your reach exceeded your grasp
  • When you work, do you love the process or the result?  Why?
A nod to Twyla Tharp's creative inventory for the last three questions. I'll make a decision no later than January 10, 2014.  Questions, ask away!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

If I Ran a Museum in Kyiv, Right Now

A couple weeks ago, an American friend wrote to say she was moving to Kyiv for a year, and it gave me a funny bit of homesickness.  I thought of my very first cold January, including a chilly day at an outdoor museum, Pyrohiv with Irina and Bas;  of wanting to photograph some of the women on the subway, beautiful and bundled up so just their face showed;  of trying to puzzle out post-Soviet Ukraine with the help of my students at Kyiv-Mohyla;  of spring slowly coming with babushkas selling berries on street corners and chestnut blossoms everywhere.  But most of all, of course, I thought of colleagues and friends there.

Last week, Ukraine's president, under pressure from Russia, announced he would not move forward on a path towards membership in the European Union.  Since then,  the streets of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities have filled with growing numbers of citizens protesting--not just that decision.  It seems citizens of all ages are fed up with the cronyism and corruption that characterize so many aspects of Ukrainian life.

But what can a museum do in such a situation?  Here's what I would do if I ran a museum in Kyiv right now (and, I should say, I know some museums are already undertaking a few of these efforts--and if you know of more, please share in the comments).    My thoughts fall into three museum spheres:  representing community values and ethics;  serving the community, and of course, collecting.

Values and Ethics
A number of museums, including the Ivan Honchar Museum and museums in L'viv, have already made public statements in support of the protestors.   Corruption and a wide variety of shady practices have weakened Ukraine's museums, as they have so many other civic institutions.  If I were a director I would make a public statement, but I would also take a look at the ethical practices and transparency of my own museum.  I would permit--and even encourage--the staff at my museum to take part in the protests if they so desired. (I've already seen photos on my Facebook feed of both directors and staff out at the protests).

Serving the Community
It's cold in Kyiv.  If I were director of a museum I would throw open my doors and invite the public in for free.  I would keep the museum open early and late.  If St. Michael's Monastery can be a place of sanctuary and support, why can't museums?  I would have cups of hot tea ready,  find all the battery phone chargers I could,  and provide a warm place for reflection and contemplation.  I might find a space in the gallery for people to write or draw about their hopes and fears;  and if especially motivated, I might install art in a gallery that encourages participants to think about Ukraine as a nation,  about beauty, truth and complicated histories.  If I ran one of the many literary museums, I might host readings that help us understand how Shevchenko's or Bulgakov's work has importance here.
Ukrainians know far better than I about the perils of erasing the past.  Ivan Honchar, who founded the museum that bears his name, wrote repeatedly about the efforts of the Soviets to destroy Ukrainian culture through the destruction of artifacts and of course, many scholars over recent decades have brought to light  long-hidden and difficult parts of Ukraine's history for greater understanding.

If I were director of the Kyiv History Museum or the National History Museum,  here's just a few of the items I would be out collecting right now.
  • EU flags and Ukrainian flags
  • Tweets and Facebook postings
  • Large metal barriers,  face-masked helmets and police uniforms
  • Oral histories with everyone from Vitali Klitschko to Ruslana, from a protestor to a policeman
  • Makeshift Red Cross shirts worn by those treating the injured
  • Handwritten lists of people trying to locate other people
  • Photographs, of course
  • Home-made antidotes for tear gas
  • And a vast array of banners and hand-made signs
One of the few remnants of the 2004 Orange Revolution is a single pillar covered with graffiti, shielded by Plexiglass, just outside the main post office.  When I first came to Ukraine in 2009 I heard about a proposed museum for the Orange Revolution and a large archives somewhere, but I never actually saw it, and the museum never materialized.  Only the lonely pillar on the same square where thousands now gather,  told that story. What story will be told of 2013 ten years from now?  or one hundred years?

The progress of Ukrainian museums over the last five years, despite many challenges,  has been quite amazing to me. I look forward to seeing them fully take their place in a newly energized civil society.

Update 12.3.13:  The Literary Memorial Museum of Paul Ticino in Kyiv has announced that they will be open for free for all who need warmth, coffee, tea and sandwiches and will continue this effort as long as needed.

Image Credits:  Top photo from the Kyiv Post;  center photos from EuroMaidan on Facebook and bottom photo via Nadia Parfan by Taras Khimchak.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hey, Cranky Guy in the Back: This One's for You

This post is particularly for the unknown guy who sat in the back of the session I did with David Rau of the Florence Griswold Museum and my three colleagues from Harriet Beecher Stowe Center,  Shannon Burke, Beth Burgess and Brian Cofrancesco.  We each presented but then shifted to a more interactive mode and asked the audience to break into small groups and consider how different emotions might be presented at their site.  This guy turned to someone next to him and said, “I hate this part.  I’m out of here.”   
Sometimes I leave conferences discouraged about the field, worrying about new ideas and change, tired of whining.  But for some reason,  I left the NEMA conference a few weeks ago encouraged and really feeling that the answers to many of the tough questions that plague our field are actually within our grasp, if we dare to dream a bit,  have some courage, don't take ourselves too seriously,  understand that we are humans like our visitors, and importantly, including you cranky guy in the back, learn to work together.
What do I mean?  I heard all kinds of great creative ideas come out of these quick brainstorming sessions.  In our session we heard about how the emotion of optimism is expressed at a Shaker site, how a quarantine exhibit induced fear in Troy, NY;  and how one group could imagine that an exhibit of fine Newport furniture could really be an exhibit about resentment.  One participant whose group had joy, shared a great historic house object, telling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's and his wife's etched window glass.

In Anne Ackerson's and Joan Baldwin's session on leadership, based on their forthcoming new book,  Leadership Matters, Bob Burns of the Mattatuck Museum choked up (and choked many of us up) as he described the final burial of an enslaved African-American,  Fortune, whose bones had been preserved at the museum.  I was struck by the particular humanness of Bob's description of this final end to a long project.  It wasn't a just a story of curatorial practices or media relations, it was a story of being human, of treating others as we'd like to be treated.

At session tables and over lunch I heard conversations about so many different things.  Could pre-schoolers give tours at the Kennedy Library?  Could a botanical garden connect twenty-somethings to the landscapes used by the people who make our clothes around the world?  How could museums more effectively use the Power of 10 to make ourselves into real community places?

All these ideas--and so many more-- often require little or no money.  But they do require a a bit of small bravery, passionate commitment to place, to community, and to, yes, cranky guy in the back, working together to create something different. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Join the Conversation: Museums, Politics and Power

This week, amidst plans for both Thanksgiving turkey and IMLS grant applications, I'm very pleased to announce the launch of a new project I'm involved in:  the blog, Museums, Politics and Power.  Katrin Hieke and Kristiane Janeke from Germany and Irina Chuvilova from Russia,  and I have initiated this blog with support of the ICOM committees in Russia, the U.S. and Germany as a run-up to the tri-national conference, Museums & Power in St. Petersburg, Russia in September, 2014.

Our plan is to use it together with you, our colleagues around the world, for networking and conversation about issues that concern all of us. We imagine and hope that the blog will be useful both to conference participants and to those whose attendance at the meeting is not possible for any reason, still want to creatively participate, spur ideas forward, and use the virtual networking opportunities.   Guest bloggers on any related topic are enthusiastically invited, and you can submit a blog post in English, German or Russian.   Have an idea for a session proposal?  (some travel funding may be available) --the blog can be a place to share your initial thoughts for feedback from colleagues?  Can't attend the conference but have an issue in your museum or nation that you want to discuss in this forum?  Please do.

You will also find us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #museumspolitics. We're looking forward to the conversation!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Risk, Reward and Rainey: What I've Learned about Collaboration

What would you do if someone you barely knew emailed to ask if you wanted to write a book together?  A risk, right?  And imagine the risk that the person who wrote that email took? Last week Rainey Tisdale and I are celebrated the publication of our book, Creativity in Museum Practice.  At the same time, I've just finished facilitating a series of workshops for museums and libraries that, among other things,  looked at successful collaborations.  So I thought it might be just the time to share a bit about our work together and the ongoing lessons I take away from it. 

I first met Rainey virtually, in 2010, when we were both Fulbright Scholars—I was in Ukraine, she was in Finland, but we were both thinking deeply about museums.  We shared some emails and began reading each other’s blogs on a regular basis.  We had an interest in creativity and I remember Rainey sitting in the back of a crowded NEMA session two years ago asking a question about creativity.  We found time for a drink at that same  conference to really begin our conversations and continued to email tidbits back and forth, follow each other on Twitter and began to have that sort of virtual relationship that develops with many colleagues.  But at one point,  I emailed Rainey something and said, “You know, I think there’s a great book to be written about creativity in museums—you should do it!”  No risk on my part right?  She should do it.

But then Rainey took a big risk—she emailed back to say she thought we should do it together, and did I want to talk about it.   It took a high tolerance for risk for Rainey to email me,  and a slightly lower tolerance for me to say sure, let’s talk about it.  And thus began our regular, almost weekly Skype calls.

We moved pretty quickly from a theoretical collaboration to a concrete one,  wanting to meet with publishers at an upcoming AAM meeting.  We shared back and forth some initial notes about ideas on the book and came up with a brief proposal.  We then decided on a publisher—Left Coast Press—and negotiated a contract.  In the contract process, we learned a great deal—about ourselves, each other,  the emerging world of e-publishing and more.  We also went ahead and signed a joint collaboration agreement between the two of us, wanting to make sure that each of us had a clear understanding of responsibilities and benefits (we weren’t particularly worried about movie rights, but you never know).
  • Lesson #1 For all you potential collaborators out there, take the risk,  but work to make sure that all of you have the same understandings.  We did both and are thankful for both. 
  • And #1A:  look for collaborators that have different skills and approaches than you do.  We hadn’t, until this point, in summer 2012, talked much about the actual writing process.  We just began from our chapter outline, which proved, relatively quickly, wrong. Just wrong—not compelling, not the approach, not what we were hoping for. 
  • Lesson #2:  Admit failure, embrace it, and move on.  When it became clear that our initial approach wasn’t working, we didn’t insist on keeping at it, we abandoned it, learned our lesson, and moved forward. It was both our ideas and both our writing, so there was no blame to be assigned.  We were really partners.

Our writing and thinking processes are very different:  Rainey is organized and thoughtful, diving deep into ideas and pursuing threads to weave those ideas into a whole.  I can be described, perhaps, as a hunter-gatherer (or perhaps just a squirrel), out there picking up bits and pieces that I then bring home and try to assemble into a whole.   As it turned out, these were really complementary work approaches that led to the complete reframing of the book, including some theory, Try This, and Your Creative Stories. 

  • Lesson #3:  Trust the other person; trust yourself. We each had times when we felt discouraged or stuck. When the ideas weren’t coming or they didn’t hold together or we didn’t have something to say.  It’s an amazing process to have a great partner along the way, whose bad days don’t coincide with yours.  So those weekly Skype calls helped us cheerlead each other all the time.  Good ideas, crazy ideas, family stories, we shared them all (and that's why there are creativity temporary tattoos to be had.)
  • Lesson #4:  Admit what you’re not good at –-but make sure you pull your weight.
  • I am not good at detail work.  (I feel like I should be Bart Simpson writing that 100 times on the blackboard).   When it came time to those final details—getting it ready for the copy editor and the dreaded indexing,  Rainey firmly but gently said, “You know, I’m better  [and as I learned, in fact really, really, good] at this.  Let me do it—because I know you’ll do other parts.”    Rainey’s gift of that particular statement made me realize that pulling your weight doesn't mean doing everything equally, it means understanding how skills and temperament can divide the work.
It was thrilling last week to hold the book in our hands.  We got a different kind of chill down our spines when we discovered a problem and had to scramble a creative solution to our scheduled booksigning.  But amidst that scrambling, Rainey turns to me and says, "I can't tell you how glad I am that we're in this together."
Many thanks Rainey! 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Go the Wrong Way: My Travel Advice

This year, I've been lucky enough to visit 13 different countries in North America, Europe and Asia,  mostly, though not exclusively, through my work with Context Travel.  I've learned alot about myself, and about being a traveler, and thought I'd share a few of those thoughts (not necessarily new or original to travelers) with all of you.

Go the Wrong Way
This is true in so many ways.  Going to the Vatican Museum?  Explore, as Martina and I did,  some amazing and uncrowded Egyptian and Etruscan collections.  Going to Venice?  Take the turn away from St. Mark's Square to, very easily, find yourself walking along an uncrowded street, along a tiny canal and into a square with local kids kicking around a soccer ball.   The world has become a well-traveled place, but even in those most-traveled places,  there are still secrets and delights to be found.

Use the Train
Or the bus, or the tram,  or whatever form of public transport the locals take.  Overnight train rides in Ukraine have provided me with more than one indelible memory.  I've now done rush hour metro rides in cities like Beijing, Tokyo and Rome.  Take your time, ask for help, and just do it.   You'll feel a part of city life in a different way and keep down your environmental footprint.
Stay Somewhere Different
A ryokan in Kyoto,  a neighborhood apartment in Florence. a tiny Paris hotel with a cat-themed lobby, and a friend's apartment in the Pigneto neighborhood of Rome.   Each one led me into a different neighborhood and unique experiences, different than any hotel chain could ever provide.  When you stay somewhere like this, also make sure you check out the neighborhood and make a place your own.  Go to the same place for coffee every morning;  visit the same little wine shop or greengrocer.  Even for only a week, you'll feel a tiny bit like a local.

Be Nice
It seems like this should go without saying but as I watch my fellow travelers I can see it's not always the case.  I really don't speak any other language, other than a few phrases, and I'm amazed at how nice and helpful people can be.  In Beijing,  I was on a subway train headed, I thought, to the airport.  But I wasn't--and I only learned that because a young couple spotting my suitcase and my probably confused expressed, came back on the train to lead me off and direct me to the right platform.  Same thing happened in Berlin coming from the airport.   Niceness and a smile, sappy as it sounds, repay exponentially.
Be Curious
It's a big world out there, and often people are thrilled to share their knowledge with you. Ask questions.  Ask about the food you're eating,  the objects you're seeing,  the neighborhood you're in.  You'll be surprised at how many people take the time to connect with you, in whatever language the two of you can figure out, to share their pride in their community.
Eat Locally
Restaurants are just like hotels.  Big chains provide food like everywhere.  Boring.  Try and seek out what and where local people are doing.  I'm not always successful in this,  but English language bloggers almost everywhere love food, so check out recommendations in places you're headed to.  Order what's in season and try some of those foods outside your comfort zone.  Along with eating locally, seek out local festivals.  Above, my Context colleagues Martina and Carolyn enjoy a street festival in a Roman neighborhood.

Access Local Knowledge
There's lots to learn no matter where you go.  I've been tremendously lucky to be able to go on Context walks--but you can do that too.  Read about where you're headed before you go. I'm a big fan of reading fiction or non-fiction about the place you're in.  Shanghai appears entirely different while reading Death and Life in Shanghai by Nien Cheng and Venice acquires a mysterious fog while reading Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti mysteries.
Make Connections
There are museums everywhere.  I've become braver about getting in touch with unknown colleagues if I'm headed their way.  The results this year:  an amazing snowy and museum-filled day in Berlin with Katrin Hieke (resulting in a new collaboration we'll be announcing soon);  a chance to speak to staff at the National Ethnographic Museum in Beijing, and thanks to Elizabeth Merritt at the Center for the Future of Museums,  an inspiring,  lively, fast-paced conversation with the director, James Bradburne and other staff members at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence whose innovative projects are setting a great standard.  And the follow-on advice:  stay in touch and always, always, say thank you!

Take Risks
I don't mean bungee-jumping or getting drunk on a park bench, but I have clambered aboard a moving train in Ukraine and hopped aboard a tea shop owner's scooter in Shanghai for a trip to the ATM.  It's been my experience, repeated over and over again around the world, that people are basically good and that your willingness to try something new, something you might not do,  can result in indelible memories and often a shift in your thinking, a reconsideration of the world.  Be open.

And what else?  pack lightly,  buy the thing you love when you see it,  and pay for the data plan on your phone.  Google maps public transport option has often gotten me from place to place!

What's your travel advice?  What else do you want to know?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Surprised in Rome: Bravo Palazzo Massimo!

I'm discovering that traveling is not conducive to blogging, as I'm always trying to fit writing posts in along the way.  So hopefully a few more catch-up posts will be coming on what I've been seeing and thinking on this trip.  But first, Rome.  I often find Italian museums incredibly frustrating.  There is amazing art and culture, barely interpreted, and honestly, overseen by, at best, lackluster gallery staff.   I can understand the incredible resources that caring for this nation's cultural heritage must take, but at the same time, I often wish for a bit of imagination and care for the visitor.  But a week or so ago in Rome, I found it at the National Roman Museum, known more familiarly to most as the Palazzo Massimo.  It's just a stone's throw from Termini, the main train station, so easy to reach--and what I found there was an uncrowded museum,  incredible artifacts, and best of all,  a real sense of interpretation that helped me understand what I was seeing (and, even better, with generally very well written English language labels.)
In some of the galleries you got to understand a bit of what it must have been like to uncover these pieces in Rome.  In one gallery, there was not only this incredible bronze,  but an interpretive panel showing it in situ, as it was discovered by archaeologists. 
The intent of the new installation of sculptures is clearly stated at the opening.  "The Masterpieces of Ancient Sculpture shine now a new light in a new space which helps to understand their historical and their emotional value."   I love that the goal is not only an understanding of historical value, but of emotional value as well.   And this emotional impact is carried forward by not only a simple but beautiful installation with beautiful reflected lighting,  but by also by the use of quotes from Roman writers and poets such as Euripedes--"When upsoareth the sound of the melody fountain,  of the hallowed ringing of flutes far-flinging."
One room dealt with the looting and eventual return of a group of ivory sculptures, including the head at the top of the post.  It made the long process of recovery real through both the objects and interpretive text that explained the complex path from looters to this museum.  Almost everywhere in the museum, the interpretive panels helped you understand that these objects had been uncovered not far from where I was standing by combining historic and contemporary maps.
Upstairs,  the fresco fragments from the Villa Farnese had been installed as they had been found, so when you walked through,  you got a sense of not only the frescoes, but the way they were used in rooms and the way each of the rooms related to each other.  Simple but effective.  And finally--a first for me in an Italian museum.  Free wifi!
None of these interpretive techniques were ground-breaking.  But the museum displays a deft curatorial hand combined with a sincere interest in visitors, their interests and their knowledge.   I've come to think of Rome as a warm place,  where strangers help you make your way off a crowded tram car and waiters thoughtfully discuss (dare I say curate) your dinner.   But this is the first time I've seen a museum have that same warmth and depth.  It's a reminder that no matter how great your collection,  good interpretation can make it better for all of us. Bravo Palazzo Massimo!

Monday, October 7, 2013

What I've Learned from Working with a For-Profit Company

Tomorrow, I head off for another trip to Rome working with Context Travel, a company that's been a client for the past year.  It seems like a great time to share what I've learned from working with them.  Context is based in Philadelphia and they "provide an in-depth alternative to traditional tours. We are a network of architects, historians, art historians, and other specialists who organize walks in 21 cities around the world—and counting."  Actually, I think the number is at 25 or so by now,  all of which except the newest, Amsterdam, I've visited in the past year.  (and by the way, if you're traveling, check out their walks!)

My consulting with them has been framed around ways to develop and share tools for better walks for both docent managers and docents (the scholars who give the walks).   But as you might expect, although the work--professional development--has many similarities to the work I do with museums,  I think the way the company operates provides some useful lessons for all of us in the non-profit world.  Here, in no particular order,  a few things I've learned from the owners, Paul Bennett and Lani Bevacqua, and their tremendous staff working in Philadelphia,  London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Istanbul and Shanghai.
Storytelling matters in every aspect of work that engages the public.  Like museums, Context walks are, at their best,  magnetic experiences.  That means it's not just a litany of facts, but a clear, compelling story.  But it's not just the walks that are stories--it's every part of the work. Everyone on staff is asked to be a storyteller, in all sorts of ways--from tweet-sized storytelling to longer blog posts.  What would happen if we asked everyone in our museums to think the same way?

Everybody can pitch in but everybody can solve problems.  From the rotating 24 hour emergency phone to too many other tasks to mention,  staff feel free to ask, across the globe, for help when they need it.  But everyone also knows that they are empowered to solve problems as they arise.

Make a decision and move forward.  My first real work was at the staff retreat last year and at dinner the first night, Lani asked what I thought of it.  I ventured some suggestions that I thought would help focus the work.  The next day those were tried out.  Not the next month, not after a committee studied them,  not the next fiscal year.  The next day.  It's been great to work with a client who listens to an idea (some considerably more complicated than meeting management) and says, "okay.  let's do it."

Always be scanning for the newest, free technologies that can make your life easier. When I began with the company, we Skyped;  now it's Google Hangout.  Why the change?  I suspect it's because it's easier to put in the calendar and click right through.  Still free.  But if a new tool doesn't work for you, move on.  Don't continue to invest time and money (remember, the tool is free--don't make it costly).

Focus on what really matters.  The company pays attention to lots of metrics,  but the one that impresses me the most is client happiness.  I'd love to see more museums think about not just what our visitors and our communities might be learning,  but how happy--not just satisfied, but how happy-- we make them.
And finally, as befits the company's Roman roots,  I've learned that any meeting is made better by beginning with espresso or ending with an aperitivo.  Thanks Paul, Lani, Carolyn, Whitney, Sara, Liz, Petulia, Lily, Courtney, Genevieve, Sophie, Ceylan, Ramona, Natalie, Jessica and Martina for a great year of learning around the globe!