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.

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