Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Innovation, Around the World Edition

This year, at the American Alliance of Museums conference, I heard a couple incredible presentations from international colleagues and followed up with a conversation with Dean Phelus and Greg Stevens of AAM about the ways in which all of us can learn from each other, by expanding the global perspectives presented at the meeting.  So here, international colleagues, is your chance to share your perspectives, your stories, your challenges and your innovations.  The online session proposal form for next year's conference, to be held in Seattle, Washington, is now open through August 26.  In this online format you can post ideas and look for feedback and co-presenters.

AAM describes this year's conference theme, The Innovation Edge:

Innovation is a defining quality of our time. Creating the new, reimagining the old, adapting the present to changing needs have become the goals of the best and the brightest among us. To go from the seed of an idea to universally adopted reality seems to take mere weeks—reading books on our phones, wearing a computer, printing three-dimensional objects in our own homes.
Innovation takes many different forms--and it's definitely not just about Googleglasses and 3-d printers.   It can be creative ways to engage your visitors in real time and in person,  or innovative ways to reach out to donors;  or create new understandings of complicated histories.   

At the 2013 meeting,  I did a brief fill-in presentation about my Ukrainian experiences just after Silvia Alderoqui of the Museum of the Schools in Buenos Aires, Argentina spoke about her museum's work.  I didn't necessarily expect to find echoes of my work in an Argentinian museum, but I did as she described a current challenge, the need "to be critical, participatory and poetic at the same time."   International participation at AAM  is important not just because it provides international participants with access to a big group of enthusiastic professionals, but more importantly, to me, because it provides Americans with new access to ideas, perspectives and ways of thinking.

International colleagues, I hope you'll consider submitting a proposal to share your innovative ideas in any area of museum operations.  If you'd like advice or guidance, please feel free to ask questions here, or to contact Dean Phelus, Senior Director, International Programs and Events at AAM,

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Diversity Conundrum: Which Came First—The Teacher or the Learner?

My mentee for the year, Alicia Akins, continues her thinking on diversity with this guest blog post. Don't miss her first post, and continue the conversation in the comments below.

While the furor over the need to diversify the arts continues, it remains unclear exactly who we need to target, and how we will know when we’ve gotten it right.  Even the question of how to go about it is shrouded in mystery and approached with apprehension. Is the golden ticket the mere presence of more people of color?  If we can just identify and recruit underrepresented people to join our institutions and charge them with the task of increasing diversity will we have begun to find our way?  Unfortunately, it takes more than a one-man diversity and inclusion department to build a culture of true openness.  It cannot be a contrivance to win funding or increase numbers, where “others” get brain space during work hours and then we return home to our monochromatic neighborhoods and friend circles. 
I recently came across the post “White, Low Affect, Respectful” and was shocked by the suggestion that perhaps if the symphony ran on CP time, it might attract more African-Americans.  I was also immediately put off by the "respect" label, because of the implications for non-white groups—our mores are not less respectful, simply different in a way that members of the majority may find disrespectful or uncomfortable. There are dangers to changing the essence of the cultural experience to draw a different demographic.  As a classically trained musician who loves attending the symphony, making them as Ms. Lee suggests would dampen the experience for me as well.  But at the same time, I never know when to applaud or cheer at street battles, in opera (which I've played in pit orchestras) its okay to have intermittent applause.  Education is critical. The education shouldn't merely be focused on cultural connoisseurship, as one of the comments on my previous post suggested, however. It should be based on early wide exposure and careful, unbiased explanation of the proper conduct for different occasions.  Language is critical here though so we don't end up raising cultural snobs who think elitism is ok (a point I will get back to). This is not simply about being politically correct either. In describing classical music concert requirements where one must come on time and not disturb others by talking, it sets up the alternatives already as lesser. Those are experiences, by contrast, where "lateness" (a negative) is ok as is “disruptive” (another negative) behavior.  But instead, if you are taught that at classical concerts its important to show up at the beginning to get the full experience, but at other kinds of events you can show up whenever you would like or that at classical concerts outside sound competes with the music whereas at a jazz show or a gospel concert participation enhances the experience and is not rude, but expected, then you honor the traditions of each.  I'm sure everyone has had that concert experience where a person (usually white in my experience) starts clapping between movements, or even worse before the end of the piece and it comes from unfamiliarity and lack of education (which **gasp** afflicts white people as well).  But the solution is not just to teach young people how to behave at the opera, but to present both the full range of behaviors acceptable at varying events and to present the full range of artistic complexity and expression found in many kinds of arts not just the elite Western ones.
Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play and if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.
                            Claude Debussy 
And how might something like that happen?  With great difficulty given that most music education and arts education programs require only one non-Western course requirement.  If students are required to go to concerts (as I was) or exhibits, they usually seek out what is familiar already, not something new and difficult to understand. If future teachers shy away from learning about arts of different cultures and classes then their students don't stand a chance. If teachers don't know about gamelan or about jazz or about funk—or mixing beats—then how will they teach it? Professional credit is given for attending courses and conferences for teachers, but are they encouraged or even required and given credit for learning about the full spectrum of arts represented within their communities?  Do most teachers feel that if there are no minorities in their classes they can skip doing the whole diversity thing since they don't have to worry about anyone feeling left out?  

This comes back to a point I made in my previous post: white people need their understanding of the arts to be diversified as much as minorities or other underrepresented groups.   White people (and even black people as well) feel cultured enough if they can parrot off a list of famous European artists or composers.  There is much greatness missing from that list, much of the human experience not found in their canon, and many important voices silenced. Greatness unobserved does not cease to be great.  The Traditionalist commented on the need to recognize and not dilute greatness and I couldn't agree more, but to imply that one must simply look to the high arts to find it is both arrogant and egregious in my opinion. High art in many cases is designated as such by those in a privileged position.  I agree fully with the second commenter that the arts are human which is why they cannot possibly be restricted to the European works (and others based on the European aesthetic) which a privileged minority have declared exceptional.  Greatness, in my opinion, lies in complexity and inspiration, and I've been fortunate enough to find it in street battles, black spirituals, and Bruckner. Education certainly is needed to those who would argue that the Golden Gate of Kiev is more inspiring than an individual’s search for eternity.  In my own experience, my appreciation for music from all times and places has not diminished my appreciation of classical music only strengthened my appreciation for music in general. And despite finding myself working in a museum now, I have spent considerable time thinking about how an interest in one might feed the other.

How might we go about making the changes, personal and institutional, needed to orient ourselves to changing demographics and the threat of irrelevance?
Learning a new language
In many ways, learning to diversify is like learning a new language. There’s dissonance, misunderstandings, and it's a process of minor continual improvements with the understanding that you won’t ever really get it perfect just better. You can express more and be better understood. Your words will always be yours, you’ll just be able to direct them toward more people.
Trial and error:  Everything is hard in the beginning. Not everything will come out right. But with each attempt, you hopefully improve.  For example, my roommate has been in Laos for half as long as I have but is far more comfortable speaking with people than I am.  She arrived and started using everything she knew, even if it wasn’t perfect.  I, on the other hand, refrained from speaking until I was certain that I had it right. She made far more mistakes than I did, but also learned far more quickly. Diversity is likely to be an issue we will stumble through, but one that my kids will have gotten a handle on and my grandkids will take for granted. Change takes time and happens in small steps.
Change of thinking: It would be nice if in any language all I had to do was learn the new words and plug them in to sentences in place of their English equivalents, but this isn’t true. Its not just about getting the vocabulary right, there’s a system that dictates what words go where and the correct timing and register of words.  These systems have deep roots that you may not understand, but can still adapt to.  In Japanese, it kills me to put off talking action until the end of a sentence, but Japanese grammar does not allow for anything else.  What dynamics are at play—particularly ones of power—that may work against the words you’re saying? Your message doesn’t exist in a vacuum, think about systems at work, too.
Improves with quality of relationships: People can tell when you’re being fake with them.  I remember when I was living in China, I had learned a few Chinese “oldies” that I could sing at karaoke with friends and also took lessons on a traditional Chinese instrument.  I had done both of those things simply out of genuine curiosity but the fact that I had taken the time to go beyond talking points in my knowledge of China earned me a lot of respect.  Learning new cultures and forms of expression is never easy.  But the same cultural dissonance you feel when you enter the worlds of people whose education, opportunities, and culture have led them to a set of interests different than your own is the same dissonance that you’re asking them to overcome. If the cultural distance seems uncomfortably far for you, chances are its uncomfortably far for them, too.
Immersion works best: When I learned Chinese, from the second day of class on instruction was in Chinese and as expected in the beginning I understood nothing.  But I learned far more quickly than those who tried to learn from the comfort of their own home environment. One of my best friends is one of the most diverse people I know which incidentally has made me more diverse.  When I talk to her about things from black culture, I’m often surprised that she knows even more about them than I do even though she’s Asian American.  She learned from having a diverse group of friends she met during a summer spent living with other minorities as part of a program for future diplomats.
Where does diversity come from?
Diversity isn’t icing on the cake, you can’t throw it on top of a finished product. It must be worked in early in the process.  You also don’t necessarily get a more diverse organization just by diversifying the kinds of people working there or visiting, but by having people with a diversity of experiences that can more easily tease out latent connections between people, ideas, and cultures. Both the personnel and the programming need to be intrinsically and inherently diverse.

What if museums looked to recruit staff who themselves were diverse and had broad exposure to different cultures and ideas rather than just those that would make their hallways a more colorful place but otherwise fit the same profile as the rest of the staff? Because of personal experience, I don’t assume that just because someone is a minority that they are diverse. I look at their friends. 
What does success look like?
I think the answer to how diverse is diverse enough depends in part on the organization. How will we know when we have got it right?  I offer a few suggestions on ways organizations may be able to gauge if they moving in the right direction.
  • Diversity should be organic. There should be less resistance and resentment over the need to be more inclusive coming from within the organization and there should be widespread buy-in. Initial changes should be internal, not just in the recruiting of underrepresented staff or adding new programming. Ideas should come from across the institution not just from diversity and inclusion departments.
  • When businesses want to be truly innovative they have policies that support that.  There should be increasing institutional support for diversity education for all staff.  Whether that means sending them to different kinds of conferences, giving all staff 10% of their work time to investigate a new culture outside the mainstream, or forming strategic partnerships where everyone must be involved, policies—not just staff and programming—should support the goal of being more diverse.
  • Do your research.  If you have an event or program where you’re reaching out to a certain group, be sure to talk to them about why they came, what they thought and what connections they made.  Have dedicated evaluators get rich feedback that can be used to improve future planning. Understanding the real barriers is key to overcoming them.
  • Think long term with partnerships. No high culture hit and runs. Follow up and realize that engagement is a two way street.
  • Build advocates not just audience.  Who is your target audience already listening to and influenced by how can you build a relationship with them?
  • Learn—not just about how to do the diversity thing to stay afloat, but about being diverse.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Shanghai Points of View

At the American Alliance for Museums meeting in May,  I served as an ambassador to three young  Ph.D students from Fudan University in Shanghai: Jolie Zhu, Cherry Li and Erica Fang. This was their first trip to the United States and they also found time to visits museums in New York City and Washington DC.  I was interested in their perspectives on US museums and the conference, so they were good enough to sit down with me on our last day in Baltimore.  And finally, a minute from me to get the post up!

Jolie’s research focus on is on museum education and particularly in lifelong learning.  Erica wanted to understand exhibition assessment and learn about the exhibition  awards and Cherry was interested in learning more about various museum assessment programs.  Overall, at the conference and in their museum visits, they were impressed by American museums commitment to informal learning—that they think about education, independently, as a way to attract visitors.  They found museums and museum colleagues here open-minded, and wanting to communicate in a casual way.

In Washington,  they made a tour of almost all the Smithsonian museums and enjoyed all the ways it was possible to interact in a museum—from the butterfly house at Natural History, where butterflies soared around them,  to Air and Space,  where audience members got the chance to simulate flying a plane.

Most memorable perhaps though, was the ceremony at American History where visitors of all ages participate in folding a reproduction of the Star Spangled Banner.  “So very many students and so very moving.”

And  one of the best parts about my new colleagues?  I’ll be in Shanghai in September and get to see them again!  I look forward to learning from them about their city's museums. I love being an ambassador at the conference and As AAM continues to expand an international presence at the conference, it's a great oppo
rtunity for US professionals to delve deeper into other approaches and points of view to our common work.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Really? Questioning Mission Again?

Guest Post  Jason Illari is Grants Administrator at the Fire Museum of Maryland.  But he's also active in local historical societies and the Small Museum Association.  In this guest post,  he takes on the issue of mission and historic houses.  We both look forward to hearing your thoughts on this evergreen, but always important, issue.  Comment away!
"If we did not have a house, would we still have a mission?"  I know I am not the first to bring up the subject of mission in historic house museums,  but I've puzzled over this query and a curious response to that question given to me during a historic house consultancy.   It's taken me some time to formulate my thoughts about the question and why it matters. 

A dear friend and colleague met me for lunch one day to discuss the future of the house in question.  To provide some context, the organization was facing some serious challenges and we were brainstorming about mission, future plans, interpretation, etc. The colleague commented on the last of preventative maintenance afford the structure and then sincerely, lightheartedly but tellingly remarked, "well, I guess if something serious were to happen to the house, we would just eventually fold the organization and move on." 

In other words, I understood my colleague's statement to mean that the organization's mission was so intricately tied to the structure that without the original house the organization would become obsolete.  I assure readers that this colleague had no ill will fir the organization--on the contrary--they were one of the home's chief proponents.  I hemmed and hawed over the comment like any good museum professional would.  Yet, dare I say that after years of contemplation, I have begun to understand why the comment was made.  At its core, my colleague's observation speaks volumes about how stewards of  historic house museums relate to mission and also how a community views an organization charged with caring for these structures.
If mission is an institution's metaphorical pulse or heartbeat,  then I believe it must be lovingly monitored, studied and occasionally revived within the body of an institution.  I think about what doctors and nurses do every time I step into their office. Like some dull mantra, the first thing I hear is, "Time to check your pulse Mr. Illari."   I have found that asking one simple question:  "If we did not have a house would we still have a mission?"  to community members, board members, staff and volunteers and visitors is an effective way to stimulate conversation about the meaning and importance of mission.  Another thought-provoking exercise, albeit an awkward one, is to read out loud the mission statement multiple times, interspersing it with similar mission statements to drive home a particular point, like redundancy or uniqueness.   Then sit in silence for a minutes, a few days or even a few weeks before talking about it.  Meditation is not a dirty word and a period of reflection may be really useful and drive thoughtful conversations forward.  Maybe someone will say,  "why didn't I think of that?"  and help create meaningful change.

In my opinion, the reason to monitor mission and ask these tough questions is not to abruptly change an instititon's course with every fad or whim, but to ensure that the overall vitality of an organization is maintained through sustainable relevancy.  If we are constantly questioning why an organization seems lifeless, decade after decade, maybe a thorough examination of mission is in order and a change is long overdue.  To me, sustainable relevancy means striving to cultivate a mission that is designed to foster long-term relvancy based on trends, future studies, community input and other social sciences while always keeping in mind the mandate to preserve, collect and interpret.  Yes, we are in the business of caring for things that matter!
Museum thinkers have been mulling over these ideas almost ad nauseum, but we should remind ourselves that it's OK and even essential to meditate on the effectiveness of our missions and question their relevancy.  What makes them timeless or transcendent?  What about them articulates a desire for positive action or lift up a neighborhood or community of interest?  Are we really using or leveraging our mission when we ask for support?  Are we trying to over-complicate our mission and be something we're not?  Maybe our one, true purpose is to tell the story of footstools, but maybe our mission might also articulate the desire to inspire genuine laughter to uplift weary hearts and minds while telling the footstool story.

Where we run into trouble I think, is by trying so hard to find the perfect answer to the historic house "riddle"  that we lose sight of the importance of asking more creative questions. I think this is especially true for many historic house museums that are desperately trying to find their place in a world that, quite frankly, is over-saturated by houses with run-of-the-mill missions, patina-ed with uniqueness, in the same way, that the house's unprovenanced furniture carries the same dull patina.

As historic house museums become increasingly involved with the American Alliance of Museums Continuum of Excellence and their call to examine core documents, including mission--I would like to offer that staff and boards can freely use the questions above to stimulate conversation about mission.  Jot down the answers and I'm willing to admit that new ideas about mission will emerge.  Oftentimes the answers we seek are hidden in the questions we ask.  So what questions have you asked lately?

Linda's written insightfully about mission here at the Uncataloged Museum over the years--and it's certainly worth revisiting them.

Abandoned building via Flickr user takomabibelot
Footstool and dog,  Library of Congress
Pulse taking from The Welcome Collection

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What's Next, Donetsk?


It seems hard to believe that spring was just arriving in In late April, when my Hungarian friend and colleague Gyorgyi Nemeth and I spent just over a week in Donetsk, Ukraine, under the auspices of a Cultural Manager Residency with Eko-Art, a local NGO.  Now, as full summer has arrived here in the Catskills, I've finally found some time to share our thoughts on the visit.

Our goal was to learn as much as we could about the industrial heritage of the city, to share some ideas about how it might be presented, and to meet with as many interested people as possible.  You can read more about our experiences in previous blog posts (here and here) but we wanted to share widely our observations about potential opportunities and next steps.  This post will focus on the more intangible aspects of heritage and possible presentations; a following post by Gyorgyi will focus on the built environment.
What's Happening Now
The industrial heritage of Donetsk is amazing—pure and simple.  It represents a substantial opportunity for a Ukrainian city to take on aspects of history that currently do not receive much focus in other cities.  There are a number of  individuals and organizations working to preserve and share the history and heritage of industrialization in different ways:
  • Izolyatsia is in a former insulation plant and has made a name for itself by working with both international and Ukrainian artists to create site-specific works.  Their 2011 exhibit by Cai Guo-Qiang was one of the most memorable experiences I’d had in a long time.  The creative staff has begun working to collect oral histories of the plant as time permits and the site and city continue to provide fertile ground for site-specific work.
  • The Regional Museum has a chronological exhibition, done in the 1980s,  of the history of the region, including the industrial history.  The industrial exhibition is a bit dated but contains some intriguing objects and archival materials.  The collections and education staff at the museum were very generous with their time and very interested in hearing about other industrial history projects, asking us to share our perspectives on the museum and future possibilities.  2013 marks the second year of the Night of Industrial History in Donetsk, an evening that brings a number of organizations together to create events focused on the history and the Regional Museum is a key participant. 
  • The Metallurgical Museum is located in a building just outside the gates of the metallurgy plant itself.  We understood from the director that there are plans for a new, expanded museum.  As currently composed, the Museum is a static, old-fashioned exhibition.
  • While we were in Donetsk, the city government announced that they would be restoring the John Hughes' (Welsh founder of the metallurgical plant and the city) house (currently in private hands) for use as a museum, but no details were announced as to what the museum would be about or what it would contain.
  • Journalist Yevgeny Yasenov is the primary author of  Here he encourages the sharing of photographs and memories,  wanders into and documents the current state of historic spaces.  Yevgeny was kind enough to sit down with us for a bit in the Park of Forged Figures for a wide-ranging conversation (and thanks go, as for our entire Donetsk experience, for interpretation by Anya Kuzina).  We covered lots of ground, but of particular importance was the fact that, as everywhere in the former Soviet Union, there is no history and little motivation for communities to work together to preserve their own history.  In that way,  this and other online efforts, including one by Daniel Lapin who showed us Hughes house,  represent a way to reclaim history from scientists and scholars, many of whom still embrace an older way of thinking. 
  • We found it challenging to find much scholarship about industrial history in Ukraine—artist Paul Chaney shared some information he’d found from UK historians and museums, focusing on John Hughes.
  • And of course, Eko-Art, our sponsor for the visit, now has an expanded interest in the ways that industrial heritage can build a sense of community.
Industrial History is Everyone's Story
When we began working with students at the Lyceum, several people doubted that those particular students, headed towards university, would have any direct connections to mining or metallurgy.  But they did—every one had a family member or neighbor who had worked in the mines.  This reinforced to us that industrial history is everyone’s history in Donetsk.   In the student projects, they shared photographs, memories, archival materials and objects that together, can help to create a nuanced, multi-faceted understanding of the community’s past and help to inspire conversation about the future.

So What’s Next?
The opportunities are limitless and we hope that organizations work together to increase an understanding.  Gyorgyi will talk in a later post about what can be done to preserve the built industrial heritage, but here are just a few suggestions to begin preserving and sharing the city’s history .
  • Involve young people in the process of collecting oral histories.  By training students to conduct oral histories, it expands the range of workers for inclusion and helps to build a broader understanding of the changing nature of industrial work in the city.  These individual stories help move the history from “the workers”  in a generic sense to a more complex, nuanced understanding that includes many voices and perspectives.  It shares the authority of telling that history, moving it from a single perspective to a broad, complex view.
  • Begin a process of collecting material culture related to industrial work over the last fifty years (generally, not much is represented from 1960 on in museums).  Collect workers’ clothing, documents,  material from social clubs, and more.
  • Develop outdoor exhibits and signage that draws attention to the history.  Students suggested posters on trams to attract an older generation (because they go so much slower than marshrutkas they are less crowded and people have time to read).   Interpretive panels could be on bus stops or pop-up exhibits in the city’s many well-kept parks.
  • Building on the current web presence, expand the work of museums and local avocational historians on the web, in Russian, Ukrainian and English .
  • Develop walking tours (either guided or with downloadable audio guides) that highlight the city’s industrial heritage.
  • As Izolyatsia is already doing, continue to embrace ways in which contemporary art can lead to deeper explorations of the region's history.
  • Work with the local tourism agency to establish industrial heritage as an asset.  Consider establishing an industrial history working group to share ideas and approaches within the city.
  • Continue to expand international connections such as those already developed by Izolyatsia and the Regional Museum.   Consider partnering with Donetsk's sister cities including Pittsburgh, PA and Sheffield, England.  There’s no question that industrial historians and enthusiasts worldwide view Donetsk’s history as something of enormous interest.
And finally, citizens of Donetsk, embrace your industrial history the same way you embrace your football team!