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!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Take 5 x 2 Years = ?

Just over two years ago,  a question from my Pickle Project co-founder Sarah Crow caused me to say "hmmm...." and pick up the phone to call Anne Ackerson (above, left to right:  me, Anne, Marianne Bez, Gwen Spicer and Christopher Clarke).  Sarah had asked if I had a personal strategic plan.  I had to admit no,  despite the fact that I do a fair amount of advising on plans;  turns out Anne, who also consults on planning,  didn't have one either.  From that first conversation,  we decided to gather a small group of freelance colleagues to begin a conversation about our work.  You can read about that first gathering in a blog post from that summer;  but two years on, I thought I might update readers on our progress.  We met, as we always do, over a meal, this time at Gwen's, to talk, chat, plan, ask for advice, and, in this case, admire the household chickens.

We've shared our process in numerous places over the last few years:  at conferences including AAM,  NEMA, and MANY;  and in countless conversations with many of you who wondered whether putting together a career posse might be right for you.  Just a year ago, we started Take 5, our collaborative monthly newsletter that provides a quick and intriguing 5 minute read every month.  We've been gratified by the response from colleagues near and far,  and pleased with the newsletter's increasing readership.  (don't receive it yet?  Signing up is easy).    Stay tuned for some additional ways in which we'll be sharing that process.

But what about our own careers? In one chapter of our new book, Rainey Tisdale and I reference a great blog post by Seth Godin.  Here's how he describes what he looks for in a co-worker or colleague:
Open to new ideas, leaning forward, exploring the edges, impatient with the status quo... In a hurry to make something worth making.
Generous when given the opportunity (or restless to find the opportunity when not). Focused on giving people dignity, respect and the chance to speak up. Aware that the single most effective way to move forward is to help others move forward as well.
and connected. Part of the community, not apart from it. Hooked into the realities and dreams of the tribe. Able and interested in not only cheering people on, but shining a light on how they can accomplish their goals.
And that's exactly how I think of my Gang of 5.  But I also asked them to reflect on what our get-togethers had meant for them.  One laughingly admitted to being pushed towards the use of technology and social media;  another successfully made the transition from one job to another;  another managed to re-frame the presentation of her work in order to generate more of the kind of work she loved.  All of us agreed that the regular meetings let us articulate our personal goals and make them actionable--and accountable in the nicest kind of way.  And all of us agreed that we'd made surprising progress on our plans.

Want to consider starting your own group?  Here's some of our advice:
  • approach it with a spirit of abundance
  • put together a group who know each other, but not too well
  • the group should be diverse, but also have some commonalities
  • always have good food, drink and time to talk about things other than work
  • meet often enough, and start an online group,  to keep the momentum growing
  • don't be afraid to ask hard questions
  • make sure the group has (and the same people may be in these roles at different times) both doers and reflectors
  • have fun!
If you've been at one of our sessions or read earlier blog entries and started your own group or thought differently about your career, we'd love to hear from you.  Tell us how you're doing in the comments below.