Monday, August 25, 2014

What Fundraising Letter Made Me Mad?

One of my all-time most-read posts is 2010's Are County Historical Societies Dinosaurs? in which I took on what I saw as the increasing irrelevance of many historical societies. I've learned that it's assigned in museum studies and public history courses and shows up in some unexpected places.  I always like to think that we're moving forward. But today, forwarded from a colleague, came a historical society's fundraising letter that reminded me how little has changed over the last four years. Here's the letter in its entirety with only the name changed: 
Dear Members and Friends: 
As you may know, building a healthy endowment is of critical importance for the long term health of any non-profit organization, including the ABC Historical Society. 
Once again we are asking your help in boosting our endowment fund.  In these times of shrinking financial support from other sectors we are counting on the generosity of our members and friends to take up the challenge and provide the ABC Historical Society with a solid foundation on which to build for the future.  Once again we have been issued a challenge grant in that all money raised by us will be matched one for one.  What that means is that every dollar donated will effectively be doubled! 
All money raised will be deposited into our endowment account at the local bank.  No donation is too small and of course, no donation can ever be too large!  Thank you for your support!
Honestly, this letter made me more annoyed, angry and discouraged than anything I've read in a long time.  Why?  There is not one, not a single one, mention of anything this organization does.  As far as the letter reads, the primary mission of the organization is building an endowment.   It's pretty easy to moan and groan about how small organizations can't get grants, that they do great, important work, but in fact, this is far from the only organization who can't even figure out for themselves why they matter much less make the case to their community.  

A long time ago I was in a workshop taught by management consultant Dorothy Chen-Courtin who made us ask "so what?" at least seven times to get to an meaningful mission statement.   Do you collect?  So what?  Do you preserve those collections?  So what?  Keep asking til you find real meaning and purpose.  I see small organizations everywhere doing great work, with few resources.  Those are places that deserve our support as a field and our individual contributions.  Lazy organizations--because that's what I'll call this one--seem hardly to deserve anything.  That's a sad fact, because our communities, large and small, rural and urban, deserve history organizations that can be so much more.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seeing IS Believing: What Prototyping Can Do

Are you thinking that the pace of change at your institution is glacial?  If you work at a historic house, are you crippled by the fact that your interpreters, volunteer or paid, seem to resist any change in how they share ideas and information with visitors?  Has somebody at your institution said, "Visitors will never do that!" whatever that is?    Have you been thinking and planning, but afraid to take the step of actually making change in your historic house?

I've written several times about my ongoing work with the Harriet Beecher Stowe House on re-interpretation.  We've talked with visitors, talked with ourselves, talked with a great group of scholars and community leaders, we explored surrendering the chronology and learned a great deal along the way. But still, our ideas remained untested. We've used a version of design thinking to help shape our work and we had prototyped internally, but it was time to take the plunge and actually test out our ideas, in the historic spaces, with real live visitors. Here's how it went.

We decided to rethink four spaces in the house.  Two spaces in particular were both exciting and scary--the front parlor and the kitchen.  In our conversations with visitors, they had told us they really wanted to be able to sit in the house.  So that's what we did in both those spaces.  Stowe House is lucky to have a collections manager, Beth Burgess, who cares deeply for the collection and cares deeply about engaging audiences.  She's been a valued part of the team since the word go, and her willingness to move and remove objects in the service of interpretation has been so valuable.  So the period kitchen table was replaced with a reproduction, covered in brown paper.  Several chairs in the front parlor and the center table were relocated and replaced with folding chairs with fabric covers and a simple table on which there were reproductions of news articles and anti-slavery materials.  Total cost of all this?  Zero dollars.  Our overall goal was to more closely align the historic house experience with the Stowe Center's mission which includes:  promotes vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspires commitment to social justice and positive change.  

The interpretive staff approached this with some pretty serious trepidation.  The education staff (big shout-outs to Shannon Burke and Brian Cofrancesco, my amazing partners in this entire process) and I decided that to start, one interpreter would lead the tour, except in the prototyping spaces, where I'd take the lead.  I'm very far from a Stowe expert, but I like a challenge, and I'm confident of my ability to encourage discussion.

What happened?  Over the next two days all of us were inspired and moved in so many unexpected ways.  It started with our very first group,  atypical for Stowe House, where most visitors, are like most historic house visitors, are white, female and over 65.  This group, just walk-in visitors, was a small group of African American and Latino local middle school students who give tours at a local cemetery as a summer job. When we got to the parlor, and sat down, I asked everyone to take a document to look at, and asked for a volunteer to read out loud.  One student read runaway slave ads and hesitated a bit, and then continued. Their adult group leader gently asked, "what were you thinking when you stopped reading?"  He looked up and said, "The ad said the slave was 5'11.  I'm 5'11.  It could have been me."   That stopped us in our tracks.  Just the act of reading out loud made something real and personal. We've found that reading aloud also worked for other types of visitors in different kinds of connecting ways--from parenthood to where you're from.
In the kitchen at the end of the tour, we'd designed the experience so that participants would have an informal chance to reflect on Stowe's commitment to social justice and connect it to the change they'd like to make in the world.  Sitting around a table covered in brown paper, encouraged to write and talk at the same time, meant that there was space for both.  Talkers talked, writers wrote, drawers drew,  thinkers thought and the table filled with thoughtful comments about the difference we can make in the world.

In just our brief experience, we discovered some really important things.

First, what we learned about the internal workings.  Although Shannon, Brian and I had these ideas in our heads, we really needed to show the interpretive staff the ideas in action.  And once we did, what had been some pretty substantial hesitation melted away.  Visitors loved the idea of participating in what seems like a behind-the-scenes process and that made interpreters feel comfortable with the experimentation.  The fear of change is powerful, and the simple prototyping was something that everyone could experiment with (it's an experiment!).  Seeing is believing.  And from our willingness to risk failure (that first tour easily could have gone not so well) and our willingness to learn from every visitor and every interpreter's experience, it's now become something that all of us are invested in. Wrote one staff member after giving her first prototype tour:
I was nervous at first, but as I talked, and as they participated I began to feel really excited and completely invigorated by what was happening.  My experience in giving the tour made me feel incredibly excited about what I was doing, and more importantly excited about giving a tour.   
We found a way to make everyone a part of the process.  The prototype tours always include an observer/notetaker and a simple form to collect information and observations from both staff and visitors about what works, what doesn't, and what we can continue to tweak.

And what did we learn about visitors?  They love experimentation.  They love dialog.  They love being fully in historic spaces. Stowe staff have been getting emails from visitors talking about their experiences (how often does that happen to you?)  Here's what one visitor wrote:
[The guide] advised us of some experimental procedures we would be involved in that were being tried out as part of the tour. The discussion group catalyzed by viewing media reproductions from the slave era was a terrific idea. After the normal hesitation to speak, our group was really starting to engage but had to break off in order to maintain schedule. My thought was, Is there some way to accommodate an extended discussion during or perhaps at the end of the tour? All in all a great experience.
And a big lesson?  Visitors are up for it all if it's framed and presented in ways that encourage--but not require--participation.  One of the documents we used in the front parlor were the words to the Abolitionist's Song, sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.  As we were wrapping up before my departure, we discussed the ongoing prototyping process, I said, "I bet you some group actually sings this in the tour"  Sure enough, Brian tells me that 3 or 4 groups have actually broken into song.    

We've got much more work to do, and many questions to answer and explore in the process of developing and refining the experience, but this speedy prototyping brought new energy and joy to our work.  Our cost?  Still pretty much zero dollars.

(and, in the shameless self-promotion category:  if you want to embark on rethinking your historic house interpretation, be in touch.  We can work together on a process that can create real change and meaning.)

Monday, August 4, 2014

"Their Lives are Full of Art" Visiting the Museum of Innocence

This past spring, Marieke van Damme and I separately had the chance to visit the Museum of Innocence, in Istanbul, winner of this year’s European Museum of the Year award. We had a great conversation about it, and she’s been good enough to share her thoughts here on this unusual museum experience, created by Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk. Marieke is is a museum professional based in Boston. Her recent project, Joyful Museums, explores museum workplace culture. She invites you to weigh in on what your workplace is like here. Results of the survey will be posted this fall.

I fell in love with Orhan Pamuk’s grand writing style when I picked up Snow at the Harvard Book Store in 2008, a couple of years after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  While planning for a trip to Turkey earlier this year [2014], I crammed as much Pamuk in as I could, simultaneously reading Istanbul: Memories and the City, The Museum of Innocence, and The Innocence of Objects, Pamuk’s catalog of the museum he created in Istanbul. The books did not disappoint--I had a feel for the city before I arrived and, once there, felt I knew its secrets just a little bit more than my traveling companions.

I had the pleasure of visiting Turkey with the University of Michigan’s Knight Wallace Fellowship, where my husband was a 2014 fellow. Together we visited politicians, toured the Bosphorous, bought an incredible number of scarves, and ate gorgeous lamb dishes with candied pumpkin desserts. While visiting the MoI was number one on my must-see sites, I unfortunately didn’t visit until my last full day in Turkey. After 16 days of non-stop activities in four areas of the country, I was exhausted and much preferred the idea of sitting by the Golden Horn drinking Turkish coffee. Luckily I had made an appointment to meet with Esra Aysun, the Director (who has since moved on)  that afternoon so off we went in search of the museum.

It isn’t terrible easy to find. The streets in the neighbourhood of Beyo─člu are steep, winding, and often without clear street signage. As you get closer, the municipal wayfinding and other curious tourists lead you to the site. Inside, we donned the audio tour and set to work listening to Pamuk describe the exhibition.

The book came first, but Pamuk dreamt up both the story and the physical museum simultaneously. In the novel, the main character collects personal objects reminding him of his life with his muse and creates a museum devoted to their experiences. In real life, Pamuk collected objects of old Istanbul, renovated a historic house, and installed three floors worth of curated cases filled with these objects. There’s a lot to take in physically and mentally.

I had very high expectations. I am a fan of Pamuk’s work, I began my museum career in collections so I value objects and their stories, and I’m fascinated by Turkish culture. Also, earlier in the trip I recommended the museum to two colleagues who came back utterly moved by the experience; one of them cried at the beauty of the displays. I thought: This is going to rock my world.

It didn’t. Here’s why.
  • The space is stunningly beautiful, a cabinet of curiosities for the modern era. But to me it felt too clean and too organized. It could have been a shop display instead of a museum exhibition.
  • I made the crucial mistake of reading the exhibition catalog before I visited the museum instead of afterwards. The audio tour repeats much of the same information in the book and I found myself frustratingly skipping ahead.
  • I was exhausted and there was no good place to sit. A bench looking out at the displays would have been very welcomed! Of course, looking at the small and elegant space, I couldn’t identify a great place to put one.
  • Even though I loved the book, I knew the story wasn’t real, and the objects didn’t have power over me. I loved looking at these relics of mid-century Istanbul, but I felt as if I were in a high-end antique shop instead of a museum.

One reason the Museum is so beautiful is because it is simple. It tells one story, not several, and not for varying audiences as most institutions must do. It speaks in one voice and gives only one message. Another reason the Museum succeeds is because it is not burdened by what other museums do. There were no school groups, no excessive signage/wayfinding, no labels, no gallery cards, no security guard watching you sternly. While this is refreshing and makes for an elegant presentation, the lack of regard for the visitor is clear. I visited the museum at the end of a long day of sightseeing ( i.e. scarf-buying) and I was exhausted. Yet there was only one place to sit and it was away from the exhibits. The restrooms were down a narrow set of stairs clearly not up to code. The audio tour, while useful in providing interpretation, was long and distracting. (Am I the only person who has trouble listening thoughtfully and looking intently at the same time? You wear the thing around your neck and it knocks the glass whenever you lean over to inspect a case. It’s a hassle!)

Esra, the Museum’s Director, told me they do consider themselves a museum and have such a designation from the Ministry of Culture. While she acknowledges they are more an art installation than a “museum,” they do collect and interpret objects and consider themselves as a city museum for the average Turkish person, representing the years 1950-1980. I would argue that because they interpret objects through a lens of fiction, the MoI is more art installation than museum. Also, museums, as defined in an American context, hold objects in the public trust, and the MoI was conceived, created, and financed by an individual, making it a fully private institution. Another issue to consider is sustainability; Esra admitted they don’t know how long the museum will stay open, but as long as people read the book, the museum will stay relevant.

The museum just opened in 2012. I find it to be a true millennial museum-- it was created from the imagination of one person, it speaks to the average citizen, and it is just a touch narcissistic.

What I love about Pamuk is his deep connection to the city. I’ve found that many of my favorite authors also use place meaningfully; I’m thinking particularly of John Irving and Salman Rushdie. Why couldn’t there be a museum of The Hotel New Hampshire? Or Zadie Smith’s and Helen Fielding’s London? How different is “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” theme park in Orlando, FL? (I saw the Harry Potter “exhibit” at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and I suspended all disbelief that those “artifacts” weren’t real.) There’s also now a Game of Thrones “Exhibition” traveling the world. The Museum of Innocence (the novel and museum) work because the power of place overpowers the need for a traditional museum experience. It’s also inspired university students in Istanbul to think more about how the city and objects intersect (check out An Innocent City:  Modest Musings on Everyday Istanbul).

Pamuk’s work inspired me, in part, because, as the Director Esra Aysun said,   “Museum visitors are not scared of the objects.” They become “part of the experience” because it is a museum for them. The objects are not intimidating, the whole experience is not intimidating. “People can take pride in their own lives, as characters. They can know that their lives are full of art.” What a simple, but beautiful, idea.

Postscript: Pamuk's ideas for museums are more fully articulated in his Modest Manifesto for Museums; well worth a read. His manifesto is strong in several areas, particularly in stressing the need to interpret history through stories, and to tell the stories of all people, not just the rich and powerful.