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?