Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Does It Change You if You Never see the Sun and other Philosophical Questions

As part of my cultural residency here in Donetsk, Ukraine, I'm spending some time with high school students at the local lyceum, talking about industrial history.  We had our first meeting yesterday and the students, all with incredibly fluent English,  and I talked about industrial workers.  These are high-achieving kids, headed towards college and university.  Despite the fact that Donetsk is a highly industrialized city, with coal mines and metallurgy plants in the city centre,  only one or two of them had ever visited a factory.  I asked them to make a list of questions they would like to ask industrial workers about their lives and their work.  And the first question was something like, "does it change you if you never see the sun?"   It was followed by a broad swath of questions that got at both the work and its impact on individuals and families including:
  • What did your family think of your work?
  • Did you ever organize for better salaries for conditions?
  • Why did you stay in the job?
  • Were you ever afraid?
We've now asked the students to work in small groups to find workers to interview--and that again evoked great conversations in the groups about who to ask.  Should it be the next door neighbor woman who worked in the mines during World War II?  What about a grandfather who worked at the metallurgy plant?  And one student said, "you know, many people think miners are not smart, but I think they must be smart to do the jobs they do, to survive under there."   In this small conversation, these students took steps to understanding lives far different than their own--and an understanding that museums here (and in many other places) do not convey.

And how would we share what we learned?  For now, just in presentations, but the students' suggestions included posters on trams for older people (only pensioners take the trams because they are slow) and pop-up exhibits outside McDonald's to reach people their own age.

Again and again, no matter where I work, I'm reminded of the immense value of plain old conversation.  Stay tuned for their reports!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Donetsk Dispatch

I'm in Donetsk, Ukraine for the next week or so, as part of a Cultural Manager Residency with Eko-Arts, supported by the Center for Cultural Management in L'viv, and joined by my dear friend and industrial historian Gyorgi Nemeth from Hungary.   Over the week we will learn about the work of cultural organizations working with industrial history including the Metallurgical Museum, the Regional Museum, and Isolyatsia, whose amazing work combining an industrial site and contemporary art we learned about on today's visit.
But most importantly, we will be working with high school students to explore innovative ways in which they might share the city’s history.  We’ll share other projects—where student have written poems about photographs,  conducted oral history interviews,  created websites and even developed pop-up exhibits.  It’s an chance to learn more about a city and share our own interests in the creative presentations of history, involving a city’s own citizens in shaping the story that’s told—a new way of thinking for many history museums here.
Check back for updates on our progress!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Is the Pen Mightier? Can Words Reshape a Historic House?

I've just begun working with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT and spent two days there last week talking with staff about the re-interpretation of Stowe House.  I've known of the organization for a long time and had been impressed with their powerful mission and the wide array of programs they do around a range of social justice issues--expanding out from Stowe's fame as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.   So I'm thrilled to be undertaking this project.  On the first day,  we tried to put some of Rainey Tisdale and my brainstorming research into play as about 15 or so of us spent a day puzzling out the connections between audiences and Stowe.  We did audience profiles, thought about multiple intelligences and John Falk's classification of identities in museum visitors.    One element we tried was putting some inspirational quotes by Stowe up on the walls to encourage our own creative thinking.
"The past, the present and the future are really one: they are today."
"There is more done with pens than swords” 
"When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you until it seems that you cannot hold on for a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time when the tide will turn."
But what's interesting is that, despite Stowe's fame as a writer,  an initial impulse was to continue focusing more the objects in the house and a domestic story that, in fact, could be told anywhere.  But we kept working--and on the second day, a smaller group took the multitude of ideas generated on the first day and went into each room of the house.  We sat on the floor and talked, we wondered about making spaces more accessible and doing away with some period rooms.  We imagined visitors seeing challenging objects and making themselves at home in the parlor.  We talked about different kinds of tours and different kinds of learners.  But we kept coming back to one idea--that this is a site with a story that is about the power of words--that in fact,  Harriet Beecher Stowe's words changed the world and yours could too.

It brought back to mind the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum in Kyiv, Ukraine, where a thoughtful and interpretive effort combines his life story and his novel, The White Guard, into a single tour.   It remains one of the most surprising historic house experiences I've ever had.  And all too few houses create a

How can we create a historic house experience where words are the thing--where we do more with pens than with swords?  And we don't mean a tour that's just talking--but somehow a place where ideas, expressed in words, emerge, swirl, confront,  confuse, clarify, and most importantly, empower visitors to leave the house and do something to make a difference.  Ways to do this are busily emerging and I'll be spending some time this summer in Hartford testing out some of those ideas with both visitors and community members who don't yet connect with the Stowe Center.   In our increasing visual culture--can we make words matter?   Suggestions welcomed!

Monday, April 1, 2013

What I Learned on My Trip--and What Community Museums Might Learn Too

It's hard to believe, but since February 25 I've visited 13 European cities, with one more to go this week. I've drunk cappuccino,  espresso, herbal tea, raki,  prosecco,  spritzers, French wine, Italian wine, Spanish wine, Turkish wine, German beer, Czech beer;  I've traveled by plane, train, boat, car, tram, metro, horse and buggy, foot and funicular;  but most of all I've had an amazing time working with Context Travel staff and docents around Europe (and even touched in Asia yesterday afternoon along the Bosphorus).

I definitely didn't write as many blog posts along the way as I had hoped, but I did visit some museums, so some posts to come, but overall the experience has been a way for me to think about what community-based museums do and how we might do it better.   Here's some things I think community museums--from big cities to villages--could do more of.
Get Walking  Context Travel is all about scholar-led walks in great cities.  But their commitment to sustainability and deep knowledge in the service of getting people out into the community is something every museum could embrace.   Why can't museums in small cities and towns offer tours that people sign up for on a regular basis?  Why do we always expect that people are going to come to our museum, rather than getting out in to the community to understand it in a physical way, rather than just visiting our museum? 

Facilitate More Conversations  On this trip I've had the chance to sit with people who grew up in West Berlin and East Berlin to talk about their childhood experiences;  to talk with ex-pats about what made them fall in love with a city and make the leap to live there;  to hear from a young woman running a spice store in Istanbul's spice market about her work (and her graduate training in upstate New York);  to get a tour of the Forum from a Roman whose family arrived there more than 500 years ago;  and to chat with lively Saudi women during a ferry crossing.  All too often in our lives, we stick to the people we know, and museums could--and should--take a leading role in bringing communities together in conversation.  Could you install conversation starters on public transportation or hung from signposts?  Like the Big Read projects, could you design a local history project designed to encourage sharing and conversation?
Go Outside Your Comfort Zone--and Help Others to Do the Same In the same way we tend to stick to the people we know,  we tend to stick the places we know.  If a place we're familiar with changes, we tend to stay away; and say, "oh,  it's just not the same when I was young."  We're nervous, even when there's no need to be.  This was particularly brought home to me this past week when Context's city manager, Ceylan Zere, walked four of us through a conservative Istanbul neighborhood.  It's definitely not on the beaten tourist path but was absolutely worth doing--a brief look at a much different world.  As community museum people, we too often live in the past, rather in the ever-changing present.   Take a walk to a neighborhood you don't normally go to;  visit a mosque or temple;  shop in a neighborhood store--and then see what ideas that brings you for your museum's exhibits or programs.
Be Nice  I learned this over and over again this trip.  Context puts a high priority on customer service and so I watched staff members bend over backwards to create amazing experiences for me and their clients. Honestly, I've never worked with a museum that cared as much about their visitors.  But that niceness extends the other way.  I had a number of dinners in Rome with Context staffer Liz Roller, who grew up in the restaurant business in Philadelphia and loves food.  Her passionate enthusiasm (way beyond just nice!) led to charming explanations from waiters and a chef or two appearing at our table to explain the dish.   Liz's passion led those waiters and chefs to be friendly and passionate as well.   Those waiters' listened to her passionate interest and responded in kind--does your museum do the same?  Do you even listen for it?

Keep Learning  I came to work with Context because they were committed to lifelong learning for not just their clients, but also for their staff and docents (for Context, docents are the scholars who lead tours).  In 40 or so workshops,  I was continually reminded of the importance of our own lifelong learning.  I gained new perspectives,  worked to sharpen my own approach as a trainer,  and all along the way, tried to keep learning.  Museums need to invest in ways for all their staff to learn more--and staff need to be more focused on their own learning.  This was top-of-mind for me as Rainey Tisdale and I have just finished a draft of our book on museums and creative practice--and that desire for learning is one key component of great creative people, creative teams, and creative museums.

Where will I go next?   Who knows--but I plan to continue learning no matter where it is.