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.


Elaine R. said...

Nice recap! And I hope to read more about your trip.

I do have a question related to the first point, and it's something I've been wondering about Context Travel. Let me back up and explain that in Zagreb, you must be a licensed guide to lead any sort of walking tour through the city. I imagine there are similar regulations elsewhere, but maybe not.

I love the idea of museum-organized walking tours, but unfortunately, not anyone could lead them here. Technically, the museums would have to partner with licensed city tour guides (who, by the way, have to be Croatian citizens, which would eliminate interested expat scholars).

Do Context Travel docents have any issues with this? Are they all licensed guides?

Linda Norris said...

Elaine, thanks for participating. Context operates in a number of cities around the world—23 currently. Each location has a different set of rules. I spoke with the organization's founder, Paul Bennett, and he explained for example that in Paris the rule mostly applies only in museums, whereas in Rome most museums are exempt. On top of this, he tells me that there's been an ongoing battle I. The EU to liberalize the profession so that each country's laws are in accord with the other. Madrid, for example, recently abolished their restrictions on guiding. So, a rapidly shifting landscape worldwide. Where there are restrictions on guiding Context adheres to them.

As you can see, everywhere is different and perhaps there are opportunities to puzzle out an approach in Croatia--you never know!