Monday, July 28, 2014

Update: Disaster Plans for People

I wanted to update my last post about disaster plans for people as I've had great emails, great comments here, and great conversation threads on both ICOM and AAM LinkedIn groups.  All you stimulated additional thinking and clarity on my part, helping to shape my upcoming presentation.  Here's a bit of how my thinking has evolved, thanks to you.

Definitions:  Crisis or disaster?  Most often it appears, we take disaster to mean a natural disaster and there were many responses related to that.  There are also, however, what Cathy Stanton thoughtfully called in her comment "slow emergencies (with a nod to James Kunstler's "long emergency"). Coincidentally, Gretchen Jennings wrote about museums' role in the United States' current national crisis of the influx of young, undocumented children crossing the border.  I now think crisis is a better term for my intentions.  Definitions #2:  People or our people?  Several commenters took my emphasis on people to mean disaster plans that include plans for how people should act during a crisis at a museum such as evacuation during a fire.  Lots of museums have that.  It appears that community is a clearer, broader term for my intended group.

Planning:  Lots of commenters mentioned traditional disaster plans but several of you mentioned that this kind of active community engagement should be embedded in a museum's DNA: in their mission, in their planning processes, in every aspect of our work. Several of you reminded us of the importance of networking with all other elements of our community in thinking about how we can be of help. Then it's easy to respond.  A plan might not be flexible enough, as disasters or crises are hard to predict, but, as Sally Yerkovich wrote in a Linkedin comment,
If a museum truly thinks about the needs of its community on an ongoing basis, a response might come naturally. For example, in NYC on 9/11 some museums like the Tenement Museum that remained opened welcomed people fleeing from lower Manhattan. In nearby Newark, the Historical Society opened its doors and provided coffee, a place to gather, watch TV and be with others. Both institutions saw themselves as part of the social fabric of their neighborhood and, thus, immediately considered the needs of their neighbors. Would a plan have helped here?
And interestingly, in one email, a colleague took some museums to task, "I was very annoyed at that response 'we have no time for that.' That museum deserves the same response from its community when the museum is in need. "  

Inspiring Examples:  Many of you shared great, inspiring examples from around the world, ranging from the simple act of offering space or a hot lunch to the much more complex.

Katie Boardman shared this from Tom Reitz in Waterloo, Ontario:
The Museum has been listed as a cooling centre in the past ... which means that if the temperature soars during the summer, and people in the community need a place to go that's cool because they don't have air conditioning, they can come to the museum during our regular business hours - the museum has air conditioning. This isn't built into our emergency plan - but now that I think about it, maybe it should.
An anonymous Vermonter wrote,
The museum's visitor center acted as a makeshift shelter for some residents who were stranded from their homes due to flooded roads. I was away the weekend that the flooding happened and could not return until three weeks later because of closed roads. When I did return, I could not believe the devastation in the community. The museum was fine but the people were not. The director had attended local community meetings with Red Cross and National Guard officials and the community had come together with the museum as the hub.
Lise Summers from Western Australia alerted me to the quite amazing Tsunami Debris History Project of the British Columbia Maritime Museum, aimed at linking personal belongings that have made their way across the Pacific with their owners--and I'll be tracking down similar efforts in Japan that she mentioned.  Bronwyn Grant from New Zealand shared the various ways in which Christchurch museums were working with their communities as they recover from earthquakes in 2010 and 2011: this ranges from getting art out into public places, serving as Civil Defence headquarters, and starting a Quake Story Museum.

And about those long emergencies, what are we doing?  These responses were fewer, although of course I've seen science museums addressing the issue of climate change.  How can we engage our communities in thinking about long term social change and justice?  What kinds of authority do we have and what kinds are we willing, as institutions, to surrender?  Keep your great comments and observations coming and thanks to all who've already contributed to the conversation.

Images:  Top:  motorcycle washed ashore in Canada from Tsunami Debris History Project; center: Vermont flooding.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Do Museums Need Disaster Plans for People?

Any museum worth its salt has a disaster plan somewhere (hopefully somewhere easy to find).  It probably has information about contacting emergency services;  what happens to objects in collections storage and the safe evacuation of staff and visitors.  But over the last year, I've been paying attention to a number of conversations, in person and in the online world, about the ways we, as museums, can be more responsive to community needs in times of disaster.

I watched my colleagues in Ukraine step up during the protests on Maidan and the country's ongoing changes;  Gretchen Jennings has focused on empathetic museums in her blog Museum CommonsElaine Gurian's writings continue to inspire; my colleague and friend Rainey Tisdale curated this year's Dear Boston exhibit on the anniversary of the bombing; and David Fleming's talk on the Social Justice Alliance of Museums at AAM provided new inspiration. All evidence of a more people-focused shift for museums. But much of it seems ad hoc.  Committed folks in museums react on the fly as disasters--political, social, natural, environmental--happen.

This September, at the Museums and Politics conference in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, Russia, I'll be presenting on this topic--the idea that a museum's disaster plans should include a focus on community, not just buildings and collections.  I proposed the session not because I'm an expert, but because it's an issue I'm interested in exploring, particularly from a wide range of global perspectives.   I'm looking to hear from you with your thoughts on any of the questions below.

  • What would a disaster plan that focused on the people in a community look like?
  • Can we plan for it?  What kinds of disasters do we need to think about?
  • What resources can we provide?  emotional?  physical?  technical?  (see the bike-powered charging station at the top of this post)
  • How do we balance human access and needs with responsibility to our collection?
  • What can we provide that no other type of organization can?
  • How can we begin conversations before a disaster about community needs?
  • And for how long does our disaster assistance last?
  • How does contemporary collecting fit into this process?
  • Should our assistance and commitment be limited to local disasters?  What about ones that happen in other places around the world?  What's our responsibility?
  • If we can be of service to our community during a disaster, how might that reshape our ongoing missions?
  • And of course, what examples can you share--from anywhere?


  • Ryan Nelsen (R) and Fields Harrington (2nd R, white shirt) ride a tandem bicycle to generate power as people wait for their cell phones to recharge on Avenue C in the East Village on November 1, 2012 in New York as the city recovers from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. This neighborhood is in the area of Manhattan without any electrical power. (STAN HONDA - AFP/Getty Images)
  • Child's artwork from a event at the National Art Museum of Ukraine.
  • Dear Boston exhibit image via Metro
  • Detail from Spray for Justice, on the first floor of the Museum of Liverpool, is a tribute and memorial to the people who lost their lives at Hillsborough at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest on 15 April 1989.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Observed: Creative Constraints

Over the past weekend, I saw a few great examples of how artists use creative constraints to inspired their work and wanted to share them in the hopes that they inspire you to think of constraints as inspirations, not barriers.

First up,  visiting artist Raúl the Third in the Polly Thayer Starr Artist Series at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  Raúl, a graphic novelist, was working in the Education Studio, where anyone, of any age, could drop in and draw or chat with him.  I was struck though, by his choice of medium. Three containers of Bic pens, pieces of paper.  That's it.  He explained that, as a kid growing up in Texas, these simple materials were all he had access to, and that he knows that for many kids, it's the still the same.   His works, including the forthcoming graphic novel Lowriders in Space, use the same. The constraint of those simple tools produces some amazing work.

Next, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston,  where I was entranced by Jim Hodges work, but particularly enjoyed the creative constraint of A Diary of Flowers—Above the Clouds--556 drawings of flowers on diner-type paper napkins.  Together they form a beautiful installation of individual constraints.

The Art Lab (I think that's the name but cannot find on their website) took another constraint as they encouraged visitors to make flowers related to Hodge's work You, which consists of a large number of plastic flowers creating a sort of curtain (that would be the non-art historian explanation).  In the Art Lab, you were encouraged to make two flowers in order to take one home.  In this case, the creative constraint, the number you could make AND take, also helped build a collective project and a community sense of participation.

And two creative constraints spotted on Monhegan Island, Maine.  On the Cathedral Trail, anyone walking can create fairy houses, but they must be created only with natural materials found at hand, not brought in, or plucked off a tree.  I last visited Monhegan more than 20 years ago and it was amazing to see the constraints still in play, despite not a single sign telling walkers about it.  The variety of these tiny spaces is beautiful and inspiring.

I found my final creative constraint walking back to town on Monhegan.  The island has long been inspiration to artists ranging Rockwell Kent to George Bellows to Jamie Wyeth and the landscape is still dotted with painters with brush and palette in hand.  The views of sea, sky and grey-shingled buildings are everywhere.  But one young enterprising artist, perhaps 9 or 10, had set up her work on a rock with the sign below.  Her constraint:  mermaids and fairies only for her small business!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why Can't Local History Be More Like Local Food?

I live in the northwest Catskills of New York State.  It's rural, really rural (see above). Like so many rural counties all over it has suffered a long economic decline and a steep decline in agriculture, once the mainstay of its economy (Delaware County's butter once won prizes at 19th century Worlds' Fairs). But recently, here, like so many places, there's a lot more going on in terms of our understanding of food and place. A few examples: a school friend of my daughter's, in her twenties, is creating a hard cider start-up;  local creameries, producing milk, butter, cheese and ice-cream band together for this upcoming week's Milky Way tour;  at local farmers' markets I see families who have lived on land here for generations selling products side by side with retirees taking up a farming career as a sort of hobby; and Brooklyn expats have headed here to open restaurants featuring local products.  A particularly exciting part to me is the decision many talented young people are making about staying in or coming to the area to try and make their way.

As I thought about it, I realized that local museums in rural communities have a great deal to learn from this local food movement (and from farmers in general, I'll say).  Here's a couple lessons I think we should be taking to heart:

  • Tradition and new ideas can co-exist.  Anyone who farms has to learn from those who farmed before them.  But at the same time, combining that traditional knowledge with new ideas can creatively combust into something new.  Local history museums are too tied to the idea that tradition--that whatever works--or doesn't work-- is the only approach.  Above, Shannon Mason and her mother Gail Danforth of  Danforth family farm come from a tradition that not only won their family an award at the Chicago World's Fair, but also now have adapted and also produce yogurt and kefir.
  • Young people have ideas and are willing to work hard to make them happen. This seems almost silly to state, but I can think of so many historical societies who are reluctant to engage with young people in substantive ways.  And, for those rural museums looking for staff, it's not about the money.  No one becomes a farmer for the money, they become farmers because they like the work and can make a difference.  If you're on a museum search committee, seek out those young people (with or without master's degrees) who have a passion--and make the commitment to let them work hard, make change and make a difference. 
  • Spread independent decision-making.  As far as I can tell, farmers make independent decisions all day long, every day.  Does every decision at your museum have to be made by committee? It's not only a time-suck but also an energy and enthusiasm sucker.  Museums need to rethink how we connect with--not just audiences--but how we begin to connect with those young people that are shaping our communities now and in the future,  Sharing decisions is a big part of that.
  • But network.  There's strength in numbers.  Whether it's farm tours or connecting with New York City chefs, farmers of all sizes and types know that connections and working together can only benefit them. Stop being territorial, museums!
  • Direct interaction matters.  Whether you're from a large dairy farm speaking to New York City school groups or a small purveyor of pickles chatting with me at farmers' market, you know that direct, enthusiastic interactions make a difference.  I've wondered why my local history museum isn't out every week at farmers market for instance, meeting and greeting.
  • Consider your organizational and personal values.  I've written about values before but continue to believe it's something that museums and historical organizations don't spend enough time on.  We talk one kind of values but sometimes practice another;  or we're reluctant to surface long-held values in the service of change and new ideas. There are values embedded in every strawberry, green bean or even burdock root I buy at a farmers' market--and often those values are stated clearly.  Can you think of a museum's whose values are stated up front?  (I suspect there are some, but none come immediately to mind).
  • And, duh, stories matter  I put this post up earlier today, after noodling on it for a day or so in my head, sent it out into the world, and this evening, Diana Limbach Lempel, a friend and colleague who thinks intensively about placemaking, reminded me in a tweet of something I should have of course, included.  She tweeted, "I'd say that buy local/local food often is doing local history's work to tell place-based stories meaningfully."  She's absolutely right.  Just take a look at some of my local farm stories at Catskill Family Creameries,  Spring Lake Farm and many others at Pure Catskills.   And then consider how boring another spinning demonstration is.
I don't mean to romanticize the new farmers in my county;  or to neglect those longer-standing family farms whose work continues to feed us all.  There will be failed farming experiments out of the ones I've mentioned, I have no doubt;  but those failures are all part of a creative learning process.  But I do want to encourage rural museums and historical societies to consider what they can learn from their local farmers to change the ways in which we work.

Top photo:  Treadwell, NY view;  Center:  Danforth family from Cowbella; Farmers' market haul, 2014; Bottom, Michelle Gagner's family on the farm, circa 1910, via Delaware County NY History and Genealogy.