Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"New forms work, winds of change"

In a post just after I finished a series of workshops in Ukraine this fall, I wrote about what the four of us had learned as presenters, and promised a follow-up post on what our enthusiastic participants from dozens of museums had learned. The workshops focused in incorporating visitor voices into all aspects of museum work, with a particular emphasis on visitor voices as a way of developing and enhancing civil society. Many thanks to Eugene Chervony for his translation of survey responses.

In a pre-workshop survey, we asked people to describe personally, what they thouight “visitor voices in exhibitions” meant. Answers included:
  • Visitor’s voices is important quality index of museum activity
  • Active participants of different event, who are not standing outside, but engaged to conversation.
  • This is evaluation of museum staff activity
  • I have not enough information about this theme.
Almost all the answers were brief, with only a broad sense of what it might mean. But when we asked after the workshop, here's some of the responses we received:
  • Visitor voices is stable form of feedback between museum and its visitor for better understanding of work perspectives and for analysus of what has been done. This is changing from organization of didactical education to dialog place, where you can share your thoughts and wishes
  • Visitor voices are unique, because every audience is unique. There is no recipe for success for museum. WE need to hear visitor. For me visitor voice on exhibits - it is a new vision and understanding of people with different character, sex or age. New ideas for museum development. Visitors are important, we have hear them.
  • VV – it’s collaboration between visitor and museum, visitor and its exhibition. This collaboration has a various forms: feedbacks, reaction, gifts, personal story.
  • Taking to the consider visitor’s voices in development of exhibition and excursion planning is one of important museum tasks, for it makes museum more open and are in demand.
  • As to me, without VV it is not possible to become successful museum for we are working for public, thought social environment corrects visitors’ expectation of museum service.
  • For me it got the possibility more clearly understand the visitors’ thoughts, for our visitor our consumer in one way or another. In other words, people like candy much more then vegetable salad thought it’s more healthy, so they need to be fed both – sweet and healthy – in turns
Theory is great, but what specific tools did they learn?
  • I found out simple and available methods of visitor surveys and its necessity.
  • I understood that every museum should to find own way to rapport with visitor. 
  • There are many various ways and techniques for VV collecting, but may I realize them without money… 
  • For me the analysis of visitors’ profile was a valuable. I realized my mistakes)))
  • New forms work, wind of change.
I find in developing training--no matter where it is--that simple, low-cost methods always need to be a part of the equation.  That's particularly true in Ukraine these days.  It was exciting to see these more complex views on the topic—but as always, the proof is in the pudding. Would our museum colleagues return to their museums and do anything different? Could those winds of change really happen?  Here’s some of their plans:
  • Children and adults involvement in teamwork. Conducting evenings of memory or honor to particular theme. During these events visitors express their thoughts, excitement, joy. With these evenings you can hear the voices of visitors, the museum changed for the better.
  • Using an individual approach to visitors, by introducing the questionnaire, questionnaire creation in social networks to study the thoughts of the audience.
  • I plan to open one of the rooms in a creative workshop. So in any day any person could come, sit and work. As Christmas is soon, start with Christmas gifts
  • Step small but efficient and does not entail financial costs: board with stickers, which contained, thoughts and wishes.
  • Since our museum expositions do not have any labels, I will actively encourage visitors to ask provocative questions. 
  • Learn the experience of other museums, and from that to choose what suits us.
For me, one of the most important take-aways is the sense that visitors' voices went from an abstraction, to a more personal, deeply felt idea; a sense of empathy with and for museum visitors--and the larger community.  Equally important was the sense of creative confidence I see in the responses and the understanding that one size doesn't fit all. We provided not a single solution, but a toolkit for change.

Did anything really happen?  That's always the question--and last week I got a lovely answer via Ihor Poshyvailo, one of my co-presenters, who sent along an image from the Repin Museum, whose staff attended our workshop in Kharkiv.  They invited 6th grade visitors to write their wishes for the future on a New Year's tree made of hands, now at the museum.  My best wishes to all of you for a 2015 filled with creativity!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

#MuseumsrespondtoFerguson Update

I just wanted to update readers on the many thoughtful responses on the issue of whether museums have a choice and a responsibility to take action on social justice issues, most particularly those of race, occasioned by the recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and sadly, other locations throughout the United States.  If you haven't yet, be sure to read the joint statement from museum bloggers.

As a follow-up, The Incluseum has a non-exhaustive list of thoughtful questions we need to ask ourselves, including, "What 'right now' actions can museums take to show solidarity?" and "Are museums focused on “community” to justify the acquisition of cultural objects or are museums truly invested in their community members?"  They also offer a similarly non-exhaustive list of next steps your museum might take.

The list of resources for teaching and talking about Ferguson and related events continues to grow at Art Museum Teaching.  Check it out and add new resources as you find them.

On December 17, Adrienne Russell and Aleia Brown facilitated a Twitter chat about the subject. You can find the full conversation storified.  Most astonishing to me were the comments from several participants working at museums whose leadership had forbidden engaging with visitors on the topic. Given the response and the importance of the issue, they'll be hosting a regular monthly Twitter chat, every third Wednesday, 2:00-3:00 PM EST.  Be sure to check it out.

Jeanne Vergeront, in Museum Notes, calls for all of us, as organizations, to move from nice to necessary, something that won't be done without substantial pushing from within and outside museums.  She writes of the idea of a museum in service to its community:  
Regardless of its size and prestige, a museum exists to serve its audience and community. It must maintain a perpetual, alert, and respectful outlook on its community and the ways in which it can be a valued resource for it. In dynamic environments, external conditions change and will absolutely change the way in which a museum can and should serve its community. Furthermore, valuing service to its community must be actively owned across the museum, be integrated in the museum’s culture, and persist through changes in leadership and times of scarcer resources.
And Jeanne also includes a wrap-up of statements from museum organizations (is yours represented?) and links to the work of museums directly addressing the issue.

Gretchen Jennings, of Museum Commons, who did the work of bringing a disparate group of bloggers together to begin these online conversations, shares a guest post from Melanie Adams, Managing Director of Community Education and Events at the Missouri History Museum and President of the Association of Midwest Museums.  Writes Melanie,
Museums should not be reactionary, but instead find ways to regularly engage the community. Exhibits and programs with a community focus should not happen only after a tragic community event, but take place throughout the year. By providing a space for difficult conversations on issues of race, class, gender identity, and immigration, museums establish themselves as a place where communities can come together to discuss conflict and begin to find resolution. Then when something does happen in your community, it would be natural for you to address the issue and you will not be seen as taking advantage of an already tense situation.
What should your resolution be for the New Year?  How about finding ways to have those conversations before a community crisis, not after.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Over the past year, the themes of courage and empathy have repeatedly come into my professional life, from watching Ukrainian museums and the Revolution to working with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center on ways to convey emotional, not physical, courage to museum visitors. Increasingly, I find that I am looking inside myself and at the field to see how we can be bolder, how we can invest in communities before a time of crisis when our communities need us.  Over the last week, Gretchen Jennings has virtually brought a diverse group of museum bloggers and colleagues together to think about our individual, organizational and field-wide responsibilities in terms of the events in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island.  Here's our statement. I hope you'll join all of us (see the full list at the bottom of this post) in this effort.

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and related events

The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve. 

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role--as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit--in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change. 

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook---that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by...

      Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media

      Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily

      Checking out Art Museum Teaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson:  Connecting with Resources

      Sharing additional resources in the comments
      Asking your professional organization to respond
      Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum.It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
      Looking at the website for International Coalition of  Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.
Participating Bloggers and Colleagues
Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons
Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum
Aleia Brown,
Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities
Porchia Moore, Cultural Heritage Informatics Librarian at the University of
South Carolina and Regular Contributor for Inclusuem

Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching
Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum
Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities
Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
Rainey Tisdale, CityStories
Jeanne Vergeront  Museum Notes
Image:  Author and activist Kevin Powell moderated a town hall meeting on issues concerning events in Ferguson, Missouri, at the Missouri History Museum on August 25.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What Do You See in This Picture from the Rijksmuseum?

This picture has been all over my social media feed for the last week.  It's a group of teenagers engrossed in their phones in front of Rembrandt's Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. And the more I read comments from my colleagues, the madder I got.  I didn't get mad at those teenagers, I got mad at my colleagues (and others) whose comments included "so sad,"  "sigh,"  "how have we let this happen?"

As it happened, I spent a day at the Rijksmuseum last winter including some time in that very room looking at the art and yes, taking photos.  Here's one I took.

The same absorption, but with a different tool.  Would this have caused the handwringing?  Probably not.  Instead, we'd celebrate this deep dive into a topic.  How about this?

Wow, a student reading to learn more (take a closer look to see what he's reading).  Just imagine, for a minute, what could those students at the top of the post might be doing on their phones:

We all know that photographs only capture a single moment. It's the viewers' perceptions that help define the image.  Students absorbed in cellphones is just one image--and can be defined in so many ways, positive or negative.  To expand the pool, here are some more images of what I observed teenagers doing at the Rijksmuseum:  looking, talking, engaging.

But why did the comments make me mad?  I'm mad because it revealed some serious failures to me: a failure of empathy, about understanding these students, their lives and their needs and a failure of imagination,  unwilling to imagine what else they might be doing on their phones.  I'm mad because despite the enormous potential (and the resources devoted to them) of these new tools, far too many museum people still think of them as useless or silly or sad.  Many commenters saw distractions; far fewer saw potential.

I think there's an enormous amount to be said for learning to just look at art. I saw teenagers at the Rijksmuseum and plenty of other places learning to do just that (and a big shout-out to the Rijksmuseum education team who I saw engaging audiences of all ages and of course, to the abundant generosity of Rijksstudio projects)  I think balancing lives lived digitally and in the real world is a huge challenge for all of us.  But I also think the comments I saw pulled back the curtain on a not-so-attractive part of our field.  That's the part that still thinks we know best.  What did you see when you looked at that picture?

Update:  thanks to tweep Jason Alderman (@justsomeguy) for pointing me to the photographer; and very many thanks to Gijsbert van der Wal for taking and sharing the image.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Abe, You and Me: Mentorship Round 3

“The best way to predict your future is to create it”
                                                  Abraham Lincoln

As regular readers of the blog know, for the past two years I've had my own informal mentor program. I started it, honestly, because of a certain dissatisfaction with the field. I wanted to make a contribution to the future on my own terms (after a round of a number of session proposal rejections) and because I don't work in a museum, there weren't opportunities to mentor colleagues on an organizational basis. I'm continually reminded that our field is facing big, thorny, complicated issues that will take all of our energy to solve.  Taking Lincoln's advice, this project is my small shot at creating that brighter future for museums. It's been an experiment all along the way--but worth continuing. So it's on to Round 3!

What do I bring to mentoring?  I'm a great questioner, wanting you to go deeper in your thinking.  I love connecting ideas and people.  I'm honest with my feedback.  And I care passionately about the museum field and the communities we live and work in.

Who Can Apply

This is open to anyone, at any stage of their career, anywhere in the world.  Sadly my language skills mean you must be an English speaker.  I'm looking for passionate, curious people--because I'm also learning during the year and your curiosity and passion make great conversations happen for both of us.

The Shape of the Mentorship

We'll schedule hour-long monthly Skype or Google hangout conversations at times convenient for us both.  In addition to the monthly conversations, I'll happily provide feedback, introductions as I can, and loads and loads of opinions.  From you, I'll expect two or three blog posts on deadlines we mutually set and of course, active participation and questioning along the way.

But it's not my solely my perspective that matters in this process.  Here's what the three mentees from the last two years shared with me.  As you can see, they are each very different people, so the year's conversations were different for each of them (and me).
Catherine Charlebois: I got to meet someone new, expanding in the process my horizons and having the privilege to access her experiences and sharing thoughts on museum's inner works. 
Each month I was looking forward to our meetings but never (I have to be honest here), had the time to think deeply on what our conversation should be about. I felt bad, because since I was the one who had applied for the mentorship, I should at least prepare something or know what the theme should be... And each time I was just surprised that we didn't need that much directions afterward, it was just the real and authentic pleasure of sharing thoughts, desires and dreams of what museum are and should be that guided us through our conversations and each time these filled up my tank of energy.
Megan Wood: This year of mentorship was great as I transitioned into a new job. It has been valuable to have someone outside my daily life to talk to and get advice from. While many of us have informal mentors, the structure of this pushed me to think about progress from month to month.
Alicia Akins: The opportunities to guest post, be introduced to people, have an unbiased third party take my questions seriously, and to realize that in the midst of learning I could also be learned from have bolstered my confidence and helped me think more proactively about the future.
How to Apply

If you're interested, by December 21, send me an email that includes your resume plus responses to the following questions.  No word count specified.  Say what you have to say, short or long.
  • Tell me about one thing you're particularly curious about--in any part of your life
  • Describe an object in a museum that elicited an emotional response from you
  • What key questions would you like to discuss with me during the year?
  • Share a description of your first creative act 
  • What change would you like to see in the museum field?  

How do I decide?

This is far from a scientific process (the advantage of running my own small project).  I'm interested in mentees that stimulate my own thinking and that I believe will make a contribution to the field.  If your application is primarily about finding a job, I'll be unlikely to select you.  Previous mentees have been both emerging and mid-career professionals. I've seriously considered applications from career transitioners, recent graduate students and more.  Be interesting not dull; demonstrate an interest for the field rather than just your own career. I'll make a decision no later than January 5, 2015.

 Questions, ask away!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Abundant Thinking

Like many Americans, I spent yesterday, Thanksgiving Day,  surrounded by abundance:  of family, of food, of laughter and stories--all a reminder of how grateful and lucky I am.  But a conversation earlier in the week reminded me of how much more aware we could all be of abundance in our professional lives.   In talking with a colleague about what I'd learned at the NEMA conference,  she mentioned that she couldn't remember a workplace where there was space or time for those who attended conferences to share what they had learned.  But how easy would that be?  Rather than hoarding your knowledge, when you go in on Monday,  send out an invitation for a brown bag lunch conversation to share new knowledge--from conferences, from books, from blogs, from your hobbies.

Rainey and I have been thrilled that we've heard from a number of colleagues who have read Creativity and Museum Practice together as a staff, trying out ideas and sharing perspectives.  So if you don't know where to start--the Try This sections of the book are free ideas to jumpstart your creative efforts.

And to push the abundance further out, include people outside of your regular sphere:  invite other departments; volunteers; whoever you can think of.   Take that turkey-filled abundance back to work with you.  The more we think together, the more solutions we can find for the tough problems all of our organizations face.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Buyers' Guide for Museum Studies? And Two More Big Questions

Last week at the NEMA meeting, Amanda Gustin of the Vermont Historical Society facilitated a lively conversation between Cynthia Robinson, the director of the Tufts Museum Studies Program; me;  and a jam-packed room of participants,  on the Graduate School Conundrum.  Go or don't go? What kind of program?  How do I choose?  We covered lots of ground in the conversation and Amanda will be sharing the results of her informal online survey on her own blog, but I wanted to share, as many people are beginning the work on graduate school applications, the talk about a buyers' guide for museum studies programs.  It's very exciting that the public history world is embarked on such a project, but there's definitely a need for a specifically museum-focused one as well.  What would it include?

Here's the list, in no particular order, of the topics the session participants would love to see in a consumer guide to choosing a graduate program:
  • Placement rate:  in museums, in full-time jobs, in other positions.  One year out, five years out and overall.  Kinds of placements: in what type of museums, in what type of positions.
  • Course requirements and content
  • What's the work load?
  • What skills are really taught?  When was the last time the program analyzed the skills needed?
  • Cost and its unfriendly associate, average amount of debt upon graduating.
  • Financial aid available
  • Certificate or degree; online or in person or a combination
  • Evidence of faculty involvement in current museum work; ability to take courses from a range of faculty members
  • What kind of networking is available?  How do current and former students make use of it?
  • Diversity and gender equity among faculty and students
  • Internships:  where, how often, paid or unpaid?
  • What are the application criteria (i.e. should you have worked in a museum before applying?)  What kinds of career counseling is offered for incoming students, including those transitioning from other careers?
We ended up this part of the discussion talking about whose job it is to undertake such a buyers' guide.  Is it the graduate programs themselves--is there one willing to take the lead, set standards and metrics?  Is it the American Alliance of Museums?  Their newly released salary survey talks about conditions in the field--wouldn't it be useful to know more before you entered graduate school?  Who will step forward--and even more importantly, the field changes when we ask it to.  When will we start really pushing for this?

But don't forget my two big questions.  The first came before the session, over lunch with Sarah Sutton, who asked, 

Why is it, for a field that is all about free-choice and independent learning, that we have made graduate degrees a prerequisite for entry into the field?

and the second came from the session conversation,

If graduate schools are highly valued for the networks, and graduate schools, like the museum field, continue to lack diversity; doesn't using those only those networks to connect with and hire, ensure that our field continues to lack diversity?  In other words, same old, same old.

Readers, what say you?  Would a buyers guide be useful?  What should be in it?  And what other big questions do you have?

Special thanks to Amanda for putting together such a great session; and to NEMA, for such a thought-provoking overall conference.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

You'll Laugh, You'll Cry: Upcoming at NEMA

I'm excited to be a part of two sessions at the next week's New England Museum Association conference in Cambridge, MA.  Kudos to NEMA for attracting their biggest audience ever--evidently a very full house will be on hand with more than 1000 participants.

Rainey Tisdale and I will be talking Objects and Emotions on Thursday.   What would happen if you collected only happy objects?  Thought about emotion in designing exhibits?  Actually asked visitors how different objects make them feel?  We promise a session with lots of interaction--and even a teddy bear or two.   If you haven't already, I highly recommend taking a look at Rainey's recent Tedx Boston talk, Our Year of Mourning, about the exhibit project commemorating the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing.  Whether you're coming to the session or not, it will absolutely deepen your understanding of the power of objects and the meaning of work we can do (and you won't want to miss the Friday session where Rainey and colleagues will go into greater detail on that project and the impact empathetic museums can make.)

On Wednesday, Amanda Gustin, Cynthia Robinson and I will be talking the Graduate School Conundrum?  Worth it?  Needs to be different?  Why bother?  Essential?  More than 300 of our colleagues responded to an informal survey for the session.  We'll be sharing those results and facilitating a lively conversation about the issues and what we, as a field, should, might, and can do.

What else is up at NEMA?  Rainey and I will have Creativity in Museum Practice books on hand for sale and even a few creativity tattoos left.  If you haven't got your copy yet and will be at NEMA, be in touch!

I'm also looking forward to squeezing in some other sessions:  on my list are Worst Job Ever:  How to Create a Positive Work Culture on a Limited Budget and Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Museums as Places of Belonging.  But as always, I love meeting new people and catching up with colleagues so I want to make time for that.  If you want to chat over coffee, be in touch here, on Twitter(@lindabnorris), or semaphore.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Need a Mentor? Round 3 Coming Up

Update:  Applications for 2015 are open!  Here's the details.

Wonder what's next in your career?  Want an ear that's not your officemate or your spouse?  Want to think about bigger issues in the field?  Want to gain a little experience blogging?  If any of these are the case, this is just a quick reminder to keep an eye out for my annual mentor announcement, to come by early December.  This will be my third year; and the two previous years have brought me great, amazing conversations with new colleagues.

Who will be eligible?  Pretty much anyone.  You can be at any stage in your career, and you can be anywhere.  All that's needed is a commitment to a monthly Skype conversation and a willingness to think hard about what concerns you.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Big Changes Start Small

Change is a tough thing--and there are plenty of big issues in our field that need changing--from equitable pay to lazy collections to enhancing our creative practice.  But one of the things that Rainey Tisdale and I always remind people of when we talk about creativity is the idea that change starts small.  A successful (or even not successful with lessons learned) experiment will lead to more and more and more.  In the last few weeks, some small changes have bubbled up and I wanted to share.

Above is a photograph of a lobby space at the Rosenbach Museum and Library.  We'd been having some conversations about how to make the entire museum (slightly forbidding in its Philadelphia town house) more family--and overall visitor--friendly.  This space previously had only two chairs, separated from each other, and a few children's books.  Emilie Parker, director of education,  made just a few simple changes.  There's a rug and a floor lamp, so it feels more homey.  There's a coffee table with books piled up, inviting you to sit down and take a look; there's additional chairs (and unseen, free wifi).  Nothing here cost anything but the space is now regularly used and feels inviting and welcoming (even before the addition of the coffeemaker).  We came to the idea of this change by observing visitors and by, equally importantly, talking to the visitor services staff and asking for their ideas.  The result, as Emilie put it, "adult learners learning informally!"  

Walk away from your computer, go look at your lobby, and see what simple change you can make.

At the end of our Visitor Voices workshops in Ukraine, we asked participants what one change they would make.   It's extremely rare for opportunities for visitor feedback in Ukrainian museums (but not for the National Museum of Art, above) and many of our participants said that just beginning a feedback board would be an important change from the comment book.  "I want to create feedback wall to find out thoughts of visitors." Ukrainian museum comment books often have to be asked for, pulled out from a desk and grumpily provided--a practice not conducive to visitor feedback.  But putting out Post-It notes in a place where everyone can comment, is the simplest of change.  That small change shifts our own--and the visitors--understanding of our museum's potential. One participant wrote as a task, "Understand more that visitors are not as ideal as we want and cannot “consume” all this volume what we want to give."  

I'm working with the Lake Placid Olympic Museum on interpretive planning and Alison Hass, their director, designed a very simple way to capture visitor interest in potential topics.  Big posterboard and stickers.  As you can see, visitors have lots of opinions about what they'd like to see.  Very simple, easy way to begin to get visitor feedback.  And, by the way, I've never seen visitors who weren't happy to share their perspectives.

Walk away from your computer, go into your museum, and ask visitors what they think.  Next, walk away from your museum, go out into your community and ask people what they'd like to see at your museum.  Big changes start small.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Curating Oral History in Montreal

Several months ago, one of my mentees for this year, Catherine Charlebois of the Center for Montreal History, shared her experiences collecting oral histories. She continues the story with this long-delayed (from my end entirely) follow-up post on making those histories work in the exhibition itself.

How to tell the stories using exhibition design?  Part of the solution lied in the exhibition scenario. We decided that the events would follow a rearranged timeline. The exhibition wopened with the shock of the demolition – the end of the story-- and that gradually we would go back in time through the justification of the need for a modern city. It then traveled back even further to the exploration of the daily life in the neighbourhoods in the years just before their demolition. For the visitors, we hoped it would translate as a dramatic contrasting experience between the warmth of the personal accounts of the life in the neighbourhoods and the emotions generated by their loss and the coldness of the planning of a new modern city and the bureaucratic inventory of buildings to be demolished.

In eight rooms, intriguing visual perspectives would arouse the visitor's curiousity. The design would combine a variety of presentation modes such as period rooms, poetic references to the locations, historical images and documents, and narrow and oppressive space.

Knowing that the majority of the interviewees had been videotaped, the designers planned for different type of broadcasting through the different exhibit spaces : television units with surround sound or earphones; screens inserted into period objects; and screen projections integrated in the décor. But each time the size of the screens and the ways it was used in the space had to do with the narrative.

How to tell the stories using testimonies?

Now that we had a design concept, we had to make sense of the 75 hours of taped interviews. We wanted to base a large part of the exhibit's storytelling on the oral histories, we had to be very attentive, responsible and mindful while staying true to the historical content that we intended to present.  It was the first time for our museum to base an exhibition almost entirely on oral history. We had few clues about how to do it. Few models existed for us. We had to invent our own solutions and develop a new methodology.   

For example, in the first room, where you find yourself in a demolished room, the tv screen, which sits on top of pile of abandoned furniture, is very small (in fact, it's the smallest of the whole exhibit) and presents the most emotional and moving documentary. We wanted to exacerbate the fact that we were showing something very intimate in this space. The size of the screen played a role. Graphic wise, the decor, the ambiance was the main focus there, the screen had to be more discrete.

In contrast, when you ended up in the neighbourhood sections, the screens were much larger, (in fact 2 out of 3 ) were projections on the wall and were positioned so it would be the main focus of the room. The message was "listened to those stories. That's what's important". Everything else shown in theses spaces were secondary to what was presented in the documentaries.

Thus, some of the decisions that we made to meet this new challenge were:
  • The hiring of a professional film crew (cameramen, sound technician, artistic advisers, film editors) to help us in production and post-production.
  • The hiring of well known and experienced documentary filmmaker who acted as our artistic director (and also as a mentor on how to make documentary features). 
  • The development of a specific methodology for the integration of the personal accounts into the exhibition; a blend of museum related and cinematographic approaches.
  • Assistance from the Concordia University Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) regarding the methodology and ethical aspects of filming the interviews.
In the end, we created 11 professionally-produced original short documentaries. These were in direct accordance with the exhibition concept and varied in length from 3 to 18 minutes. The documentaries screened in 7 exhibition areas for a total viewing time of one and a half hours.

More than 100,000 visitors have now seen the exhibition. We know that these short films contributed greatly both to the atmosphere of the exhibition and to the visitor’s experience. And as we planned and hoped for, as visitors move through the exhibition, they were not reading about history, but they were “meeting” people who had seen it and listened to their own personal acoount of the story.

In conclusion...

This exhibition project represented the culmination of several years of experimentation with ways to bring out the value of oral history in exhibitions and in history-related activities.

In the end, all the objectives set for the exhibition have been met. Thanks to the present-day relevance of the theme, the citizen-centered approach, strong press coverage, and the success (confirmed by visitor evaluations) of a design strategy based on a strong audiovisual component, the exhibition received an enthusiastic response from the media and from the public. In the first 5 months we noticed an 18% increase in total CHM attendance, with a 41% jump in attendance by Montrealers). The CHM succeeded in positioning itself as an important and innovative cultural, social, and museological actor in the eyes of the public, the media, its partners, and the City of Montreal.

This exhibition gave the CHM the opportunity to acquire expertise in producing and directing media work. We developed a characteristic signature in exhibitions and set quality and content standards which have become a benchmark for our next projects. Plus, judging by the interest that this particular exhibition has generated among colleagues, local, national and international and the awards it won we gradually understood that it is seen as a model on not just integrating oral history in traditional history exhibitions but making it the focal point.

But above all, the interviews carried out have given us a story which is at the same time knowledgeable and detailed, individual and collective, human and emotional – the story of the great urban upheaval that transformed Montreal in the second half of the 20th century. The interviews have given a voice to the citizens who were uprooted, to professionals who explain the issues of the period, and to today’s observers who evaluate its legacy. No more no less, they were entrusted the CHM with THEIR parcel of history, THEIR life moments, THEIR Montreal and again we (and I personally) thank them from the bottom of our heart for this unbelievable and fantastic opportunity. It has transformed myself as an individual and a museum professional and has revolutionized the way we do exhibitions at the Centre d’histoire de Montréal. Nothing less!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Goodbye Lenin, Hello Bake Sale

Needless to say, I've got a great deal to process and think about from my time in Ukraine.  Before I went, I wondered what kinds of changes I would see.  My last visit to Ukraine was in May 2014, including time spent in now-embattled Donetsk.  Since then, in just more than a year, the nation has gone through a revolution, the loss of Crimea, and the ongoing battles in the East.  Would it be different somehow? As always, my observations here are mine and mine alone, and there are probably as many perspectives as there are people in Ukraine (and honestly, also among people who have never been there).

But I did see, repeated all over Ukraine, one change I found tremendously encouraging.  In my first experiences in Ukraine, in 2009 and 2010, I constantly struggled to convey the idea that change could come from everyone.  There was then a disappointment with the leadership of the nation, but no sense that that was changeable;  the same sense of "it's someone else's job" was in museum work. The rare instances of initiative and teamwork were cheering, but few and far between.  More than once, I heard people say, "We like a strong leader," as an excuse for not doing something and waiting for the leadership, in government or the museum, to make change.  The top picture here was, until just two weeks ago, the perch of a large Lenin statue in Kharkiv--the idea of the strong leader physically as well as pyschically, remained in many Ukrainian cities, towns and villages until just the past year. But days before our arrival, down it came.
What replaced that desire for a strong leader for some Ukrainians?  Private philanthropy has been virtually unknown in Ukraine, except as practiced by a wealthy few.  The idea that individual people, rich, poor and in-between, could contribute both time and money for a greater good was really absent. But on this visit, here it was--the sense that individuals can make a difference.   It was most evident in the support for the military, which shamefully, after years of neglect and corruption, is lacking equipment as basic as bulletproof vests and warm socks.  Ukrainians (and me) could contribute to that effort in so many ways.  At the outdoor museum in L'viv, on a festival day, a bake sale (my first experience of one in Ukraine!) raised money for equipment and wounded soldiers;  museums in Kyiv are raising funds to support soldiers' needs and the eventual reconstruction of museums damaged in the East (and in greatly appreciated transparency, the National Art Museum reports on Facebook the money raised and spent).  Restaurants had places to contribute funds, and outdoor exhibits drew attention to soldiers' needs. One colleague said she went once a week to visit a soldier in hospital--not anyone she knew, she said, and not that he really needed anything concrete, but just to be there for him.
This sense of civic responsibility seemed to extend out beyond just soldiers' needs.  Colleagues are volunteering to help plan a future Museum of Maidan which entails challenging teamwork and negotiations;  one friend contemplates how to energize his "sleeping city,"  the high rise apartments that ring every city.  In L'viv, I went to a session about the Jam Factory, an effort to revitalize an industrial building.  It was an open session and I thought, "who would come to talk about this?"  But to my surprise, the room filled up with young people, civic activists, bicycle activists, cultural activists, full of passionate opinions about what should happen--and how to make it so.  The director of the Donetsk Art Museum, Galina Chumak heroically remains in the city, doing her best to protect her museum working far above and beyond the mere job requirements.  One group that has always had to work together to survive--the Crimean Tatars--continue that effort, establishing cultural activities in their new homes in L'viv and Kyiv.  Young museum professionals begin to meet to talk about how to work together to both change their museums and meet their own professional needs. And the list goes on...

Ukraine's challenges are many--and they're not going to be solved by bake sales.  There's no question that people are tired, tired of uncertainty, tired of war, tired of death.  But I was heartened by the determination of people I met, of different ages, from all different places in Ukraine, who understand that the responsibility for change rests with everyone, not just those leaders on those pedestals.  It was amazing to see the change--to see a bit of the future in such an uncertain time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What We Learned in Our Ukrainian Workshops

I'm just wrapping up a series of workshops about visitor voices in museums held in six different regions of Ukraine.  I was joined in this by three intrepid companions:  Tricia Edwards of the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian, who squeezed two sessions into her busy schedule; Ihor Poshyvailo of the Honchar Museum in Kyiv, who did an incredible job organizing all six and presented at three; and Eugene Chervony of the National Museum of Folk Architecture in L'viv, who joined me in five of them, and did heroic amounts of driving (which rates as highly adventurous in Ukraine) to do so.

Presenting professional development is a also process of learning for all us. I thought I'd share a bit of our lessons learned.  We're conducting our online evaluations this week, so in a later post I'll be sharing what our participants thought and learned.
First, as Eugene said, "Everything matters - weather, room, environment, participants' openness, exhibit topic in the room where you have the training."   Six different locations meant six different everything.  Sometimes one part of the workshop worked great, other times not as well.  It was a luxury, in a way, for all of us to have the opportunity to tweak the workshops as we went along.  If you rode the train seated near us or passed us in a car, you probably saw us editing away on the powerpoint and sorting through piles of Post-it note comments as we made revisions.
Second, always for me, is always the reminder is that you have to be the change you want to make.  If we want people to be open, to have fun, to take risks and consider that there is no right answer; we have to do the same--all the time, no matter how tired I might be (pesky nighttime mosquito in Kolomyia, that was your fault)  I think this is particularly important when you're presenting in another cultural context.  In the same way that we want museum workers to be attentive to visitors and communities; we tried to be attentive to them; to hear and value their voices and perspectives. That example setting also applied to having fun--we had lots and hope our participants did too.

Tricia commented, "I was impressed by how willing and eager and interested our attendees were in getting better at what they do so that they can serve their visitors more effectively. It was inspiring to see the enthusiasm and, seeing a definite lack of complacency, made me feel hopeful for the future of Ukrainian museums."
Next lesson: the reach for what Ihor called "the golden middle,"  the balance between theory and practice. It's also the balance between small group activities, presentations, and individual work.   Having Ukrainian colleagues with American experiences as co-presenters was amazing.  Ihor and Eugene were great at contextualizing some of our examples from around the world.  This whole idea--the idea of visitors voices--was really new to most Ukrainian museums, where the only way a visitor could make his or her voice heard was to write in the giant comment book (which I suspect is never, ever looked at--one is above).  But of course, it's impossible to meet the needs of every participant.  At one workshop all of us were surprised when a very young museum worker, with orange and blue hair, announced that she just believed in "a classical museum" where visitors had no voice.

We all built practical skills.  We planned the workshops while we were in four different locations (at least!).  Google docs, including the ability to create surveys, was a great asset to our work.   This project, so well planned by Ihor, set the bar for a standard of workshops and the expectations of hosts. We actually had a competition to host the workshop, so host museums really felt a part of it, receiving some grant funds for responsibilities, rather than just offering a space.  I did some tweeting and instagramming and found some colleagues in the room doing the same.  I also learned that evidently "selfie" needs no translation.
We went through piles and piles of Post-It notes.  Said Tricia, "I also learned (or, rather, was reminded) that Post-it notes are powerful tools. We used them liberally in our Visitor Voices workshops—for our participants to share information and ideas with us and to illustrate how they can be used by museums to incorporate visitors’ voices into exhibitions. The simple pairing of Post-it and pen is versatile, accessible, adaptable—not to mention cheap!"

Both Ihor and Eugene mentioned a lesson that's true for so many museums, no matter where. As Ihor said, "Around us there are plenty of simple decisions.  These simple but important decisions are what works today--how to do a lot with less."  And Eugene commented, "Changes without big grants are important for all participants."  Got that lesson everyone?  It might be one that matters the most, no matter where you are.  So get out those Post-its.

For me, a final lesson--changes are not made by governments, by foundations, by rules and regulations.  As a nation, Ukraine set upon a different course this past year by the actions of people. And so museums are also changing by the actions of people.  This quote from Margaret Mead is overused, but true,
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
These workshops were supported by a grant from the US Embassy in Ukraine.  Our big thanks go to the embassy for their support and many thanks directly to Katie Hallock, Vira Maximova and intern Christi-Anne Hofland of the Cultural Affairs office who made it so easy for us to do our work.

If you want to hear more about this project, working cross culturally and the Honchar Museum's other professional development project, we'll be presenting an AAM webinar on November 19.  Check back for full details.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What's Right with Exhibits? What I Learned in Latvia

One of my memorable moments at AAM this year was an informal meet-up with just a few of us to talk about what’s wrong with exhibits—particularly history exhibits. I’ve been trying to puzzle out why, so often, I feel overwhelmed by technology, information and even design-- and unmoved and underwhelmed by the experience, despite the presence of what should be compelling stories. Sometimes I feel like we’ve developed exhibit processes and practices in which we can’t get out of our own way to tell a good story.

In Riga, Latvia, I found an almost magical exhibit that made me remember why I love this work. It provided ideas and inspiration for me to strive for in my own practice. The Žaņa Lipkes Memoriāl
is a very small museum, located across the river in a neighborhood. You really have to seek it out—but I’m so glad I did, recommended by a second-hand Latvian museum colleague who sent a list of museums for me to visit.

Zana was “an eternal dissident.” He left school after third grade, but spoke several languages. He served in the first World War and then worked as a stevedore and other jobs on Riga's docks. He seemed to not like authority of any sort, and to have an independence of spirit—and of humanity—in almost every situation. His story is long and fascinating--you can read it fully here. But this very ordinary man—probably a man you wouldn’t look twice at on the street--did an extraordinary thing. During World War II, when the Nazis occupied Latvia, he saved the lives of more than 50 Jews by hiding them in a bunker built underneath his woodshed. This small museum commemorates this large act of humanity. I’ll do my best to describe this experience—because it is an experience almost more than an exhibition.

You cross the river, turn right, and go into a neighborhood of small wooden houses, wondering if you’re headed in the right direction. But there I was—a small sign told me I was at the right place. It was a sunny day, and my eyes adjusted to the dark, with streaks of light across the floor. You’re greeted and offered an audio guide. A very small first floor exhibit explains the neighborhood; but the real story is on the second floor. 

The room is dark. You hear music on your audio guide, and you’re first drawn to the large center—you look down, down, down, into a undergrounds space the size of the bunker, with video of Mrs. Lipkes telling their story.  You move around, and learn that the music you hear changes with the number of people in the room and the trajectory of each of us. Around the outside of the space, really feeling like a barn, are perhaps 10 cases, lit from within. Each explores one aspect of the story: Lipkes’ life; the physical structure, the lives of those he saved; and the ongoing relationship they maintained throughout his life. The cases are beautifully designed, and even the detail of easy-to-use magnifiers are provided. It’s a space that encourages quiet exploration; a sense that you too, are entering a secret place.

After exploring that room, I descended again, but not to the bunker, but to a space where you again look down into the bunker—but you also see a recreation of a sukkah, a reminder of the tents that sheltered the Israelites in ancient times, and a ghostly drawing of a beautiful landscape, perhaps the Promised Land, perhaps the landscape around Riga, but a faint landscape of memory.  For a fuller --and fascinating--explanation of the creative team's perspective, check out this article from e-architect.

I was lucky to ask a few questions that day of a new colleague, Anna Perchstein, who works at the museum, which helped extend my understanding beyond my symbolic experience.  But then, on that bright sunny day, I left the museum, shaped like an overturned boat, an ark-- and turned the corner to go out the gate. Right in front of me is a recreated woodpile--the place that kept covered such important secrets. A bench in front let me—and any other visitor—have one bit of final contemplation.

What made this museum work? It was the 2014 winner of the Kenneth Hudson award of the European Museum Forum honoring "the most unusual, daring and sometimes controversial achievement that challenges common perceptions of the role of museums in society."  I have to admit, that both my photos and my text here are inadequate--you'll just have to go see for yourself!

Here's what made it work for me:
  • It tells one story—and only one story--well. We’ve all been guilty of jamming too many stories, facts and objects into a single exhibit.
  • It thinks about the content and the design is a seamless way creating a whole experience.
  • It allows for individual exploration and contemplation.
  • It thinks creatively and out of the box about how to convey ideas and information. A dark room you explore on your own? Music that reacts to you, but doesn’t overwhelm? All of the elements work together.  I had done a quick read of Leslie Bedford's new book, The Art of Museum Exhibitions, this summer, but this museum will send me back to think about it again.
  • It is about emotion but not in a manipulative way. It makes us think about this “eternal dissident” and wonder why he did what he did and what we would do in the same situation. 
  • It makes us all human.