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storytelling on the oral histories, we had to be very attentive, responsible and mindful while staying true to the historical content that we intended to present.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.