Monday, December 21, 2015

What Would You Do?

In this post I'm joined by Aleia Brown, reflecting on our joint NEMA session building on #museumsrespondtoFerguson. The session, including all the conversations leading up to and following, were an amazing opportunity to work with a thoughtful, reflective and passionate colleague whose work I had followed. Thank you Aleia!  And of course, please continue to check out the #museumsrespondtoFerguson monthly twitter chats.  Here's the latest Storify.
  • A volunteer at your museum says, “Those kids in this neighborhood, they come in and I know they’re going to steal something, so I keep a really close eye on them.” You’re the volunteer coordinator. What do you do?
  • You are in charge of an annual event and one of your regular vendors shows up selling the Confederate flag. What do you do when you’re a junior staff member?
  • You have photographs of your historic house museum in 1930, including an Aunt Jemima cookie jar in the kitchen. Do you recreate it exactly?
At the New England Museum Association conference, we co-facilitated the session, #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson: Bringing Race Into the Foreground. Our goal for the session was to open up in-person conversations that provide all of us with tools for moving beyond conversation to real change.

How did the session work?
Behind our conversations, we ran a rotating Powerpoint of historic and contemporary images about race and racism in New England. From the Amistad to Henry Louis Gates’ arrest on his front porch, there was much to show. We really wanted conversation and so we began by each sharing, from our own perspectives, experiences with race in a museum. And then we asked participants to share a situation, any situation, where you felt powerful, a time when you felt uncomfortable or out of place. and then a time in a museum, or anywhere else, that you found yourself in a racially charged situation--or an uncomfortable situation.

The questions above are just a sample of the ones we distributed to small groups for conversation, and then circled back to large group discussion. And we got discussion! So much so that almost half an hour after the session ended, folks were still sitting around talking and the hotel staff asked us to leave so they could set up for lunch (see above).

We’ve now had the chance of a month or so of reflection, and wanted to share some of our own learning.

The conversation needs to start now. One participant noted that she felt uncomfortable with having this conversation in a room of mostly white people. We agree that a more diverse group of participants would be great, but we also strongly believe that if we wait for the museum field to be more inclusive to have the conversation, it’s simply too late. Begin now. You can find all our conversation starters here, to begin.

Niceness is overrated.  Many of the thoughts shared by participants showed more of a concern for niceness, and a lack of willingness to rock the boat in any given situation. Nice is overrated. We also encouraged participants to think about who benefited from niceness. Rather than challenging racist remarks, niceness effectively ends the conversation. Niceness is often another form of complicity.

Internal conversations are the hardest.  When we did a debrief together, a week or so after, we both noticed that groups did not volunteer to share certain conversation starters. Some of those conversation starters were the ones that addressed staff dynamics. Ones like:
  • A person of color raises a concern about race in a staff meeting. What do you do if you’re the director? If you’re a peer? If you’re a subordinate?
  • Your museum’s education and outreach department consistently prioritizes white museum studies graduates over African Americans with deep community roots and experiences. What do you do?
  • Your museum’s security staff is African American and the rest of the staff is white. Each group eats lunch in a separate space. What do you do?
We wished we had recognized this in the moment, and encouraged sharing of perspectives. These are tough issues, not involving visitors in the abstract (if there is such a thing) but the people we work with and see every day. 

Get Out There A participant commented that it was difficult to get new groups of people into the museum. Linda was pretty vehement in her response--get out there! The days, if there ever were any, of expecting people to come just because you invite them are over. You--you personally, your museum--you--need to go to community places and meet community leaders in their own places, not in your own, safe to you, place.

Linda: At the end of the session, after some conversation about the risks of speaking out, Aleia spoke passionately from her own perspective about the risks that she takes: that speaking in front of a group of white museum professionals about racism is a risk; that co-leading the #museumsrespondtoFerguson tweet chats is a risk; that writing about the Confederate flag is a risk. She encouraged us all to think about the risks that people take every day to make the world different and to get out of our own, risk-averse heads and step forward.  I'll long remember this.

Aleia: I left the session with so many thoughts swirling through my head, but I will just share a few. First, I want to continue to encourage museum professionals to use specific language. In the session, and in other spaces, I often heard phrases like, “we don’t talk about it.” What is it? Racism, anti-blackness, prejudice, white supremacy…? I don’t think we can expect to solve our race-related issues in the field, if we can’t identify and verbalize them.

Second, I hope museum professionals understand that these sessions are not just mental exercises. Racism, in and outside of the field, is a real thing that has real effects on real people. I always wonder if I effectively communicate the urgency to understand racism as something concrete that negatively impacts every aspect of our society rather than abstract. Thinking about social justice is not enough. We have to act in ways that are timely, and beneficial to people of color- who the field has marginalized for so long.

Finally, our session was one part of our journey toward a field that values race equity and social justice. As Linda mentioned earlier, I always look to other risk takers for encouragement and motivation. Shortly after our session Mizzou students gained attention by risking their bodies, their scholarships and much more for race equity. Their actions should embolden us to not only discuss race, but to also take actions to make our field an inclusive and equitable space.

Be the Change
We asked participants to write postcards to themselves, with 30 day resolutions about addressing racism in museums. Some were personal, some were institutional, some were specific and some were general. But all of them were worth attending to. We’ve mailed them out, but we've shared a few in this post. What change will you be making?  

Monday, December 7, 2015

What Do We Want From Our Professional Organizations?

Over the past month or so, I've had several different conversations, online and in person, with colleagues talking about what we want from our professional organizations.  These discussions ranged from encouraging AAM, AASLH and other organizations to take stronger stands on issues such as diversity and inclusion, unpaid internships, or whether our own professional organizations could embrace the role of museums as the Canadian Museum Association did in their statement (below) welcoming refugees.

In my JHU online course, International Experiments in Community Engagement, my students reflected on what they, as emerging professionals, wanted from AAM and other professional organizations. Here's a bit of what they said (emphases mine).
I think one of the most critical things that AAM needs to address, although maybe not resolve, is the question of what the role of the 21st century museum is? We've discussed this at various points in this course, and I envision the AAM as serving in the role of facilitator of this larger discussion to make sure that it continues to happen. While AAM may not be able to define the answer and impose it on museums, I think that sponsoring a campaign like "Museums Change Lives" could be very effective. Beyond this critical question, I think that the AAM needs to look at where it and museums in general are at in the context of larger social issues as they apply to the work of museums.
I think that museum related professional organizations must be more proactive in pushing for museum staff to be more diverse, phase out unpaid interns, and close the paygap. (Unlikely that this can be accomplished, but I can dream). This can be done through mentorships, funding paid fellowships, and allowing for more opportunities for professional development for young professionals and students from diverse backgrounds. ...For people of color, the statistics of employment for curatorial, and management jobs are appalling and highlight the fact that as a POC the opportunities for actually entering the profession are daunting and nearly impossible. I also think that more needs to be done about changing the practice of using unpaid interns. And professional organizations should take a stand against this practice. 
Many of these organizations, especially AAM are expensive, and if you sign up at a lesser rate, you do not get the benefits of the higher rate such as access to sample documents. For someone like me, that works in a very small underfunded organization, having access to this information is beneificial across the board...Having "tiers" is exactly what we don't want in the museum community- a higher echelon that dictates as opposed to working with -aka in the trenches- for the community it supports.
I would like an organization that provides standards for ethics and advocates for museum and museum workers. It should provide a platform for discussion amongst peers whether it is job search, references, or furthering education. It would also be nice to have some sort of job search help with resume and CV writing.
I think a key part of the AAM's new strategic plan should revolve around community museum relationships...The AAM can play an important role in making these kinds of case studies widely available and encouraging dialogue. Just like AAM has spurred on discussions about evaluation and technology, the AAM can take on the same role when it comes to encouraging museums to pursue community partnerships. The AAM can create the safe space for museum professionals to discuss, brainstorm, and work through how to best going about engaging the community and finding relevancy through relationships. 
I think a vital aspect of a professional organization is to provide a robust community of continued learning.
The second thing I’d like from a professional organization is a more personal need, which is guidance and mentoring. I’m new to the field, as are many of us, and ongoing help, guidance, and coaching would probably reduce my anxiety as I launch myself into whatever awaits. AAM has a good career center, but I didn’t get the impression they were as strong in career guidance as in providing job resources.

Working smarter, not harder could save organizations money, time, and energy. In listing strategies to accomplish sustainability, AAM lists four that include memberships, business opportunities, becoming goal-oriented, and strengthening its brand. However, I think this could be expanded to include other aspects such as ethics or something we’ve been working hard towards in this course: community engagement.

I agree that the those real world case studies is one of my favorite things about AAM. Their conferences especially do an excellent job bringing professionals together to share their stories and experiences.

After the events on Friday and our discussions this semester, maybe they should also address crisis management issues in museums from a collection, a community and global support perspective.

One of the first things that I think (and am hoping) the AAM gets on board with is addressing diversity both internally and externally.

I’d also like to see programs to support employment at small rural museums or institutions that are generally off the radar. It seems like there is a lot of turnover and competitiveness in the field, but most of what is advertised are positions at large reputable museums. It would be nice to see equal enthusiasm as well as grant-supported positions and advocacy for a diverse body of institutions. Maybe something like the Teach America program, in a museum setting. 
I also like the idea of a huge, shared database of national museum collections so museums can share resources and collaborate with their peers in a more streamline manner. 
I think it is essential that the role of the curator be opened up to include the intellectual and social engagement of the museum’s entire community, but I’d like to see the AAM and other professional organizations work toward redefining this role so that specialized or advanced knowledge is still a celebrated aspect of curatorship.

I would personally like to see two things prioritized for AAM members: a regularly updated, well-publicized job board where museums can post open positions and individuals can search for them, and continuing education opportunities.

Professional Development opportunities are sometimes few and far between for smaller museums, and is often the first thing to get cut. AAM has the unique opportunity to help fill that void. However it needs to be accessible and affordable. Online is definitely a viable way to create more affordable programming that doesn't require travel!

I would love to see more museum advocacy aimed at increased awareness in communities of what local and state museums have to offer. I know there is a "National Museum Day" and other days like that, but I would like to see something more tangible. Does AAM have a goal of increasing museum visitor numbers overall?
What are my take-aways from this?  The needs and desires are many, and there's no way any single organization can address all of them.  But that said, there appears to be, from my students and others in the field, the sense that museums need to look internally at our practices; and to be better community partners--and that our professional organizations can take the lead in supporting both of those ideas.   In addition, the affordability of resources including professional development, is a key question for both small organizations and emerging professionals.  Perceived value for money will determine participation. As one of my students said above, "having "tiers" is exactly what we don't want in the museum community."

And finally, there's a need for coaching and mentoring.  Don't forget to apply for my own mentorship program, with applications due December 18.  

What do you want from your professional organizations?

Friday, November 27, 2015

Reflections: Moving Forward

We rarely take time to deeply reflect on our own museum experiences.  In this post, 2015 mentee Susan Fohr of the Textile Museum of Canada shares the impact of an exhibition in Western Canada. Her reflections are a great reminder of both the importance of regularly immersing ourselves as visitors and equally, the challenge of evaluating the meaningful experiences of our visitors.  After all, if Susan had not written this post, how would the Art Gallery she visited know of the deep impact the show made?

The longer I work as a museum professional, the less time I seem to dedicate to being a museum visitor.

As a museum educator engrossed in thinking about interpretation and pedagogy, I find that too often I spend my time at other institutions employing my critical eye, trying to understand the motivation for certain interpretive choices rather than enjoying an exhibition in its own right. As museum professionals, visiting other museums and questioning other institution's practices is an important part of our professional development; however, it can be refreshing to visit an exhibition and enjoy it in its own right and be open to the unexpected conversations to which it invites you to participate. These can often be the experiences that resonate with us the longest, as happened to me this past spring.

In April, I traveled to Regina to participate in the Canadian Art Gallery Educators annual symposium. The symposium was hosted by the Mackenzie Art Gallery to take advantage of opportunities to discuss Indigenous representation and engagement, a conversation that the gallery was cultivating through its current project Moving Forward, Never Forgetting.

"Moving Forward, Never Forgetting creates a space for intercultural dialogue and storytelling. The exhibition and related events encourage sharing, empathy, and deeper understanding of what it means for Indigenous and non-Indigenous to co-reside in these territories.... Presenting the personal expression of Indigenous artists alongside collaborations with non-Indigenous friends who share this territory, the exhibition addresses our complex histories in a spirit of creative conciliation. In addition, Moving Forward, Never Forgetting offers a gathering place where people of different backgrounds can meet to gain a better understanding of each other through art-making and conversation."

Having already heard much about the exhibition and its related programming from a colleague at the Mackenzie Art Gallery, I had already had a sense that this exhibition could be challenging and transformative.  I felt it was important to experience the exhibition on my own before we began our conversations as part of the symposium, ensuring a personal rather than an intellectual response to the works of art. The first day of the symposium concluded with an invitation to attend a performance of music and spoken word by Métis artists, but first I decided to spend some time in the exhibition, which was located on the same floor of the museum as the performance. Although rounds of applause could be heard from the adjacent gallery and there was additional traffic in the exhibition due to the special event, I did feel that I had the time and space to contemplate each work of art while also feeling like I was participating in a larger project of building dialogue and community.

I began my exploration of the exhibition in a large open gallery with a high ceiling; many of the artworks shared this same open space, whether they were hanging from the ceiling, arranged on the floor or more traditionally displayed on the wall. Smaller rooms were carved out of this larger space to house specific artworks. Three adjacent more narrow galleries housed additionally works of art. One of these galleries offered space for visitors to process and reflect what they had already experienced in the exhibition; tea and cookies were available, as well as books and catalogues for further research. Story keepers, a new position created by the art gallery, were present to assist visitors in learning about the stories behind the art works, and to collect stories from visitors. This was also a programming space during many of the participatory programs that were an important part of the project. The artworks that resonated with me the most reflect the range of approaches and voices that were included in the project. Illuminatis/Inabe (2013) by JaimieIsaac consisted of a series of light boxes of archival photographs from a residential school attended by the artist's relatives. One image featured a group of Catholic nuns accompanied by First Nations children holding knitting needles. This work forced me to acknowledge the role in which positive forces within my own life – my faith tradition and a hobby I practice to unwind – have been used as a tool of assimilation and destruction.

The dimly lit room that featured Adrian Stimson’s Sick and Tired (2004) was a space that was difficult to remain in when one learned that the metal bed frame and windows that made up the installation came from a residential school; this piece  brought to mind stories of residential school abuse from the news (in particular through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and contemporary Canadian literature. These works were an important acknowledgement of the difficult history of the country of which I am proud to be a citizen, a history very different from my own experience of what it means to live in this place.Other works moved me in other ways. Leah Decter and Jaimie Isaac's official denial (trade value in progress, 2010) invites visitors to comment on two statements made by former prime minister Stephen Harper. In June of 2008, he issued an official “Statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools;” the following year, he stated in a speech at the G20  that Canada has "no history of Colonialism.” These comments are then stitched onto Hudson's Bay blankets at a series of Sewing Actions, a means of empowerment which resonated with my own personal interests in textiles.  

In Skeena Reece’s video Touch Me (2013), an Aboriginal woman (the artist), bathes a non-Aboriginal woman (another artist whose work is featured in the exhibition). The intimacy and emotion displayed by the two women was deeply moving, and exemplified that message of conciliation that was a key message of the exhibition. The use of the word conciliation rather than reconciliation is an important distinction.  As co-curator David Garneau writes elsewhere, conciliation is motivated by a desire to bring into harmony while acknowledging  and living with irreconcilable histories.

The opportunity to tour the exhibition with David Garneau and co-curator Michelle LaVallee, the conversations about the exhibition with colleagues at the conference and further reading I have done since the conference on Indigenous history and experience in Canada have contributed to the deeper impact that this exhibition has had on me. However, I do think the personal connections I made to art in the exhibition provided the key motivation for exploring the ideas presented by the exhibition in greater depth. I am still unpacking the implications of this experience on my identity as both a Canadian citizen and a museum educator, but I am excited to see how my investigations unfold over time.

Top photo credit:  Don Hall

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

We are the Change: Mentorship Round 4

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
                                                                                           Barack Obama
The winds of change are blowing through museums this year, heading us down uncertain paths, both exhilarating and sometimes scary. For once, it's not the financial shivery wind of a recession, but a deeper gust, about our place and our responsibilities in society. One of the ways to face that change head on, in our field and in our careers, is to work together. We need to reach out collectively to explore not just how to build a career, but how to make museums more vital, more meaningful, more important places to more people. And so, as our field sails on uncertain seas, buffeted by winds of change, it's time once again for my own small mentorship program. 

I started this three years ago because I was impatient with our professional organizations. I wanted to make more of a contribution to the field but on my own terms (those of you who know me will easily recognize that quality of mine). Selfishly, I wanted to ensure I continued on my own path of lifelong learning and generously, I wanted to see how my own knowledge and experiences might be useful in other paths.  I've had an unusual career, from small museum director to running a museum service organization to teaching, to freelance work that now takes me to more places around the world than I ever imagined. Over the last three years, the chance to develop new relationships with amazing colleagues has kept me on that lifelong learning path, expanded my own web of connections, and brought new surprises into my work.  And that's why there's a Round 4.

Do you need a mentor?  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. Your curiosity and passion make great conversations happen for both of us. You might want to explore how your interests and museum work intersect, to learn to work more collaboratively with colleagues, to push interpretive ideas or to consider how to change the field. 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. 

But it's not my solely my perspective that matters in this process. Here's what previous mentees shared with me. They are each very different people, thinking about different ideas and at different places in their career, so a year's conversations were equally varied.

Susan Fohr of the Ontario Textile Museum, a 2015 mentee, wrote:

I've really appreciated having a colleague to whom I could talk on a regular basis about the big ideas and issues facing our profession, in particular interpretation and community engagement. Your willingness to share your professional experiences while encouraging me to share my own perspectives has given me greater confidence to make my voice heard. One of the things that has resonated with me the most from our conversations is something you mentioned during our very first meeting: write! 
Writing does not come easily to me, but some of the work of which I am most proud are things that I have written. Whether it was writing my responses for my mentee application or writing blog posts, I had the opportunity to craft lines of thinking that have never been as fully formed or articulated as I would have liked. There will be a lot to unpack in the new year, and I hope I can continue to develop the ideas we explored together in another forum that involves both conversation and writing!
And Megan Wood, of the Ohio Historical Society shared a longer lookback from her 2014 mentorship:
During my mentorship with Linda, I was at a couple of pivotal points in my career and was making choices that impacted my work and my personal life. Having a sounding board who was totally outside of my sphere, that had no stake in the decisions I made, was really helpful. Even after the mentorship was over and I needed some important career advice, Linda was more than happy to talk with me. On a micro-level, it was also refreshing to talk about ideas and examples for programs and projects I was working on. I find professional conferences refreshing because of the infusion of outside insight and having the monthly call with Linda was like a mini-conference.
The Shape of the Mentorship

We'll schedule hour-long Skype or Google Hangout conversations at mutually convenient times once a month. In addition to the monthly conversations, I'll happily provide feedback, introductions as I can, and loads and loads of opinions.  If I can, I'd love to meet you in person if we can intersect. 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.  It's your mentorship and it's up to you to take responsibility in shaping it.

How to Apply

If you're interested, by December 18, send me an email that includes your resume plus your responses to the following questions. No word count specified. Say what you have to say, short or long.
  • 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?
  • Tell me about a creative hero of yours.
  • What change would you like to see in the museum field?  
  • What non-work related book are you reading?

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 in working with those who 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 graduates and more, from anywhere in the world. Be interesting not dull; have a sense of humor, and demonstrate an interest for the field rather than just in your own career.  This year, I'd love to see applications from people who are making their way into the museum field along non-traditional routes.  I'll make a decision no later than January 7, 2016.

Questions, ask away!

Monday, November 16, 2015

How's Your Audience Feeling? Here's One Answer

This past week, I was in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, beginning a new project for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.  They've opened a new headquarters with dedicated space in the lobby area for a history exhibition. The RNC is the oldest police force in North America, with a proud history.  They've put together a volunteer committee of retirees and working policemen and raised funds to do the exhibit, highlighting a fascinating collection of objects and images. It wasn't surprising to me when I asked who the exhibit was for, getting responses like: constables, school groups, maybe tourists who wander over from The Rooms, the provincial museum next door.  Just what I expected.

But then I got a response I've never heard any museum person give anywhere.  Our audience, said one committee member,  "is people under stress.  We see good people here on their worst days."  At most museums, I think, we see people on their good days, not on the day their car was stolen, for instance.  What a challenge for designer Melanie Lethbridge and me.  We have to tell a complicated story--one of labor strikes, of sectarian violence, of devastating fires and more--in ways that connect both with those who have a deep pride in this particular history--and at the same time--reach out to those people who are perhaps bored, mad or more, waiting in a police lobby.   It's a different experience than a memorial museum and it's one I think we'll puzzle at for a while, to find a successful approach.

My other surprise?  I floated the idea of some sort of talkback board, envisioning that police would not be about letting people write whatever they want.  Again, surprise!  "We're big on social media" they said--"If we let people comment on our Facebook page or tweet to us, of course they could do it here."  How many times have you been in a room where someone said, "Oh no,  we could never let people just write what they want!"  whether it be online or in an exhibition.  Not these folks.

Big on social media?  25,000 Twitter followers--that's almost 5% of the population of the province. So big on social media that they were just featured on a Social Spotlight website analyzing social media campaigns.  My favorite element of their ongoing work?  They're funny:  they sent out an all points bulletin for summer last July when it was cold all month;  they checked out a Delorean for speeding on Back to the Future Day.

My Newfoundland lessons from last week?  Understand your visitors emotional selves, be open, and have fun.  Thanks RNC.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Considering Rewind at the Baltimore Museum of Art: Emotion and Learning

Shakia Gullette, Curator of Exhibitions at the Banneker-Douglass Museum,  is one of my 2015 mentees. We've had wide-ranging conversations, from career plans to meaningful exhibits to issues of inclusion within the museum field itself.  In this guest post she expands some of our conversations to share her reflections and analysis of Paul Rucker's exhibition, Rewind, at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Please be aware that there are challenging and disturbing images included in this post.

 “Baltimore is America amplified—the good and the bad. It’s where the North meets the South, and has so much historical information. I couldn’t think of a better place to do this project”
Paul Rucker

In September, Linda shared her experience at the New Founde Lande pageant and she briefly mentioned Rebecca Herz’s blog post titled, Should Exhibits Tell Stories? Herz addresses three issues/advantages that may arise during storytelling, which include storytelling as kitsch, stories evoking emotion, and the anti-storytelling moment. Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Paul Rucker’s highly anticipated exhibition Rewindat the Baltimore Museum of Art and immediately, I thought about Herz’s post. I knew this exhibit was designed to stir emotions and I wanted to truly examine how being led by emotions affected my experience.

As I was entering the exhibit, I wondered, how emotional is too emotional when you are already invested in the subject matter? How can you get past what you already think you know to learn something new? Rewind allowed me to explore both questions while confronting challenges we face each day as Americans.  

As I approached the entry of the Rewind exhibition, I was greeted by two people who appeared to be quite rattled. I asked them what they thought of the exhibit, the gentleman responded, “I didn’t like it and you should turn back around.” Initially, his response puzzled me, but then I knew this exhibition would challenge me to think differently. Yet, I wondered how this couple felt. Had their brief encounter with this exhibition scarred them? Where they so shocked by the content that they hadn’t learned anything? Even after I ran through these questions in my mind, I continued to pursue the exhibit.

Rewind focuses on race in America and how history repeats itself in different ways. Rucker uses a transmedia narrative, which created an immersive experience for the exhibition guest. He explains in his meticulously researched exhibition guide that his life’s work is meant to shock the attendee into thinking. Rucker began researching his exhibit content in 1992 after the LA Riots which were incited by police violence. He followed many of the outcomes and began to draw parallels with lynching. In the section titled Stories from the Trees we were able to see images from lynching’s magnified from their original postcard format and transferred onto throw blankets.  To honor the legacy of the story behind each slain individual, Rucker carefully placed the remaining throw blankets atop a safe which housed the artist’s Glock 22 semi-automatic gun which he used in another section of the exhibition. Stories from the Trees left me thinking about Baltimore native Billy Holiday’s song Strange Fruit and how 76 years after the songs release, the lyrics are still relevant. 

At this point in my visit it became apparent to me; there can be a balance of emotional investment and learning in exhibition storytelling. Sometimes, museum professionals take for granted the power we harness when we are able to bring a different layer to a past event in our history. Rucker was able to remove the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) from the confines of a text book and bring them to life with a very modern twist. Initially, the sight of 21 life sized mannequins dressed in KKK robes made my heart race. Rucker refers to this section as Birth of the Nation. Here, the artists recalls his experience as an onlooker at a Klan rally but through his creative lens, recast the KKK robes using camouflage, satin, and Kente.  After exploring each garment, I felt less threatened. I confronted my own definition of fear and white supremacy, and thought about how seeing these images in books as a child affected me. I then witnessed a father explaining to his three daughters that the KKK are “very bad people” and they are like terrorists. After overhearing his explanation, I tuned in as I had great expectation for the rest of their conversation. As the father began walking his girls through the exhibit, the mother came rushing in and demanded the children be taken out of the exhibit. Although the lesson had been cut short, I applauded the father for initiating the conversation and potentially changing the way the next generation will approach race relations.

The initial shock of the exhibition forced me outside of my own thoughts. In my mind, I thought I had a good handle on my knowledge base but I found myself deeply engaged in the exhibition guide—much like the artist intended. As I was engaged in the exhibition, I felt my perspective being challenged. I was no longer led by emotion because the artist armed me with a great deal of facts about lynching, unnecessary violence statistics, and how the number of prisons has increased since the 1940s.  I looked around to see if others were having the same revelation that I was experiencing. Sadly, I witnessed numerous people walk past the exhibition as if the art were non-existent. I considered that the content may have been too heavy and then it hit me. Rucker’s point was proven—we do not directly address the issues that plague the United States and this intentional silence means we constantly make the same mistakes again and again—hints the title Rewind.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

Observe One Thing Everyday

Last week I spent a day at the Old Manse, in Concord, MA.  It was a gorgeous fall day and our goal for the day was to consider interpretive planning in the context of this site, home to Hawthorne and Emerson, and a place of great conversation.   I had designed one observational time into the day, but we found ourselves with room for two, and both reminded me that all of us, individually and collectively, need to make time for observation in our daily work.

Everyone took a brief version of a multiple intelligences quiz and then were assigned, solo, to go out into the landscape and create an experience that facilitating learning for an intelligence different than themselves.  Above, that's Danielle Steinmann, interpersonal learner and director of visitor interpretation for Trustees (formerly known as the Trustees of the Reservations, the organization that manages the Old Manse and 105 other properties), contemplating an activity for intrapersonal learners.  Individually, the experiences proposed ranged from a complex and fascinating activity using music, math and the weight and length of the stone wall as a performance to providing visitors with stakes with the word "golden,"  much beloved by Hawthorne, so they could place them around the landscape.  I hadn't necessarily thought about this as an observation assignment, but all the participants took time to look deeply at the landscape around them in creating their ideas.

But then, on the spur of the moment, we found ourselves coming up with another idea.  A school group made it complicated to work in the historic spaces of the house.  But we could see all sorts of people outside:  dog walkers, a mom with kids in Halloween costumes taking pictures, and more.  We wondered about them. Why do they come?  What are their interests?  We quickly brainstormed three questions and the team spread out across the property to chat with visitors for just thirty minutes. These kinds of conversations are a different kind of observation than looking at the landscape, but perhaps even more valuable.   The team met members, met someone who considered Thoreau a hero and met still others who were just looking for a nice day out.  Below, Christie Jackson, Senior Curator, talks with visitors. And the best part?  When we gathered back together to share our observations, the team was so excited!  The observation and connection with visitors was rejuvenating--a reminder of why we do the work we do.

Don't say you don't have enough time.  It only takes a few minutes. Take some time every day to observe--not just in your museum but in the world around you.  And my own top discoveries for improving my own observation skills?  A Fitbit that gets me away from the computer and the chance to share my looking on Instagram.  So step away from your desk, grab a colleague, and head out there.

I'll leave the last word on observation to a regular visitor to the Old Manse:
We must look a long time before we can see.
  — Henry David Thoreau, "Natural History of Massachusetts"

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Leading Creativity from Everywhere: The 30 Day Challenge

 At the AASLH meeting a month ago, I spoke at the Small Museum luncheon and at the end, asked participants to write a message to themselves, on a postcard, about what they wanted to be reminded of in the next thirty days.  One of the questions that Rainey and I often hear is "How can I be a creative leader from my position in the middle?"   These notes to your future self are great evidence of how we all, no matter where we are in the organizational chart, or how large or small our museum is, that we all can begin creative work.  Here's some of what might be happening around the country!

And my personal favorite,

Just in case you think future resolutions can't take root, here's a sketch by Lauren Silberman of Historic Londontown Museum and Gardens that she did in a workshop last March:

And here's the photo she posted this summer.  That's the museum's director, Rod Cofield, taking a bit of time to incubate.

What's your 30 day creative practice resolution?  Stymied?  Consider purchasing your very own copy of Creativity in Museum Practice.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Ally & Amplify

Fall, rather than spring, is the time I think about new approaches, new projects and new learning.  I returned home from the AASLH Annual Conference a couple weeks ago with two thoughts on my mind:  how to be an ally and how to amplify more diverse perspectives in our work and in our field.   I know that most of my readers (according to Facebook) can be placed in the emerging professional category.  But this most is really for those of you who are not in that category:  you're in a senior position, or you're a consultant, or you teach, for instance.  (for you EMPs,  get this in front of those people in your work life).

The AASLH conference had lots of important components to me--it gave me a chance to see old friends, to catch up with one mentee, to learn from others, but importantly, to question our approach and our practice.  I'm on AASLH's Leadership and Nominating Committee and over the last year we've had lots of conversations about diversity and inclusiveness in our process and are reworking how we think about AASLH's leaders.  As a result of those conversations, AASLH Council Chair Julia Rose asked me to facilitate a conversation about diversity and AASLH.  The time and place made it into the onsite conference program but we were unexpectedly thrilled to have dozens of people show up to share their perspective on the topic (and even if the word diversity is what we should be talking about rather than a different term).  Participants observed that (I'm paraphrasing) "Diversity is reality. It exists and cannot be changed.  To be inclusive is the choice, the action we can take to value and accept diversity. We can consciously broaden the scope of who we include."

When I thought about that lively, passionate, conversation, I then had to think about what I, personally, can do.   Those actions can fall into two categories:  ally and amplify.  Here's some of what I'm thinking and doing.  


  • As an ally, I occupy a position of privilege on many levels in the museum field and in life.  I can listen and help make space for deep conversations and action,  whether it's about racism, pay equity, gender or a whole range of other issues affecting our field and our communities.
  • To that end, I'm very pleased to be joining Aleia Brown in facilitating a conversation at the upcoming New England Museum Association conference November 4-6 in Portland, Maine. We hope that #MuseumsrepondtoFerguson: Bringing Race Into the Foreground continues to open up conversations--and more importantly--action, about the ways in which museums can address issues of race, no matter where in the country they are located.
  • I'll also be continuing my own small mentor program as a way of creating connections and conversations.  Stay tuned for a full announcement in November.  For me, this project, now in its third year, has greatly broadened my own horizons and perspectives.
  • This year I've been in a couple situations, both professional and random on the street, where someone said something racist.  In one, I spoke up, in the other, I didn't.  I'll try and speak up every time. (Interestingly, it was the professional one where I spoke up)
  • In my role as an AASLH nominating committee member, I'll ally with others who care about a changing professional organization.
  • I'll broaden my information intake (suggestions welcomed!)


  • This blog and other social media give me great platforms, thanks to all of you readers.  I'll continue to share observations, questions and my own learning.  I welcome guest bloggers, so if you have an idea, please be in touch.
  • I'll also do my best to amplify and share the voices of  the growing range of thoughtful diverse museum bloggers raising important questions about our practice.
  • When asked to speak or serve on a panel, I'll try to ensure that a diverse range of voices are always included that it's not just, as has been referenced, "a sea of white women," or even more unrepresentative in our field, the line-up of white men.
  • I can encourage museum leaders at institutions where I work to listen to all sorts of voices--from differing communities and from the staff.  Every institution can design new ways to listen.
  • AASLH has shared a set of aspirations for its work and they include one on diversity and inclusion.  I'll be commenting and encourage you to do the same. 
  • When I work with students, I can make sure that they gain an understanding of key issues in the field and by amplifying diverse voices, create new allies and partnerships.

But why is this post for more senior professionals?  Because all of us need to do better.  We need to listen more and to demand more.  Our perspectives and knowledge are valued, but they are far from the only ones.  What will you do to ally and amplify?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thinking About Collaboration? Tips from You

At last week's AASLH conference, Lindsey Baker, Beth Maloney and I facilitated a session about the process of working towards long-term community engagement.  In our (possibly strained) metaphor, we called it, "Don't be a Runaway Bride,"  in the hopes of creating good conversations about the importance of long-term, sustained relationships in building community.

We began by asking participants to reflect on the communities they belonged to:  cat rescuers, gardeners, museum professionals, Latinos, activists, dog owners, sports fans, and even three Star Wars enthusiasts were all there.  But then we asked what community organizations their museums partnered with.  The answers, to a large degree, reflected the caution with which museums approach their communities:  libraries, universities, the chamber of commerce, schools.  Kind of boring, I thought, and to a large degree, reflecting current power structures in communities.

We then tasked them with conceptualizing collaborations between a specific type of museum, a community group who were not museum-goers, framed around a current topic of community interest (such as affordable housing, food security, or mass incarceration).   The small groups came up with projects all of which more interesting than anything that had been mentioned before.   I'll come back to those at a later date, but here are the pointers for community collaborations that emerged when the groups shared out those short brainstorming sessions:

  • find commonalities
  • people power
  • creative use of resources
  • follow your mission, but be flexible
  • be open to new groups
  • embrace the challenge:  don't run away!
  • bring in outside expertise (i.e. from the community)
  • be patient
  • let your community identify the issues

Lindsey, Beth and I were all struck by how many of you knew these and practiced them in other parts of your life, but how few museums actually put them to use.   Our final advice?  Get going!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What Can Museums Learn from Europe's Soccer Teams?

I say refugee, I say migrant, I say neighbor, I say friend, because everyone is deserving of dignity. Because moving for economic benefit is itself a matter of life and death. Because money is the universal language, and to be deprived of it is to be deprived of a voice while everyone else is shouting. Sometimes the gun aimed at your head is grinding poverty, or endless shabby struggle, or soul crushing tedium.
                                                                             Teju Cole in Migrants Welcome
Just about a year ago, at the Museums and Politics conference in Russia, I did a presentation called, "Do Museums Need Disaster Plans for People?"  In it, I talked about our responsibility to people in times of disasters both natural and man-made, disasters both immediate and long-term, and shared some amazing examples from museums around the world.

Over the last several weeks, as stories of migrants to Europe have been increasingly covered by the news, I've tried again to puzzle out what we might do.  I'm aware that the issue of migrants, however defined, is an issue everywhere in the world:  here in the United States, in Ukraine, where more than a million people have been displaced by the war in the east, and in so many other places.  Teju Cole, in his moving essay, reminded us of both our humanity and our history:
And more than “refugee” or “migrant,” I say “people,” and say it with compassion because everyone I love, and everyone they love has at some point said tearful goodbyes and moved from place to place to seek new opportunities, and almost all of them have by their movement improved those new places. ..Did all sixteen of your great great grandparents live, work, and die in the same town where you now live? If no, then you’re a child of migrants.
Museums can open their doors, they can provide free concerts, they can do all kinds of things to begin.  But more and more, I'm thinking about our role in the long-term--that in some ways our strengths--of being able to think about the long-term--can be a strength in working as a part of communities to find solutions to connect all of us more deeply.

But how will we do that?  Over the weekend I had saved the picture at the top of the post (from @JamesMelville on Twitter) because it interested me (for another take on soccer fans, see this long ago post from Donetsk about Shaktar's superfans).  This morning, I came across this article about how soccer fans--and now soccer clubs all over Europe--are taking a lead in both raising funds and making migrants welcome.  Here's a bit of what fans of the St. Pauli club, a working class club have been doing according to a spokesman in this New York Times article (be sure to read the full piece)
“We think we can provide more than just football,” Prüss said. “Not just about 90 minutes. We have a responsibility for the people around the club.”  Few take that responsibility more seriously than St. Pauli’s fans. Since 2004, the Ultras St. Pauli group has been visiting refugee camps around Hamburg, bringing clothes, food and lawyers to help the migrants navigate Germany’s complex asylum applications.
[After a game] After the final whistle, players from both teams walked to the four sides of the stadium, with St. Pauli carrying a banner that said, “Welcome,” and the Dortmund players displaying another that said, “Refugees.”
I think there's a critical piece in the way that European soccer clubs understand issues of migration that we're missing in museums. A spokesman for the Roma club says,
“No European club is city — or country — specific,” he said. “Look, we have Mohamed Salah from Egypt, Dzeko from Bosnia” — a reference to striker Edin Dzeko — “Gervinho from Africa. A lot of players are directly related to where refugees are coming from or going to.”
That diversity of staff, if you want to think about professional soccer players as staff,  helps to make these issues a matter of importance.  When museum staff and leadership lack diverse voices, it's easy to characterize refugees as "the other" and not do anything despite our common humanity. When we diversify our staff, our audiences, our everything, we begin change.  By opening the door, we might get the same response that came from a Syrian St. Pauli fan, “We can help build a society here,” he said. “This is the only society that gave us a chance to be part of it.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Consider the Possibilities: Coming to Louisville?

As the summer draws to an end, it's a great time to consider the possibilities for the future (above, that's Rod Cofield, director of Historic London Town and Gardens doing some serious incubation work in the hammock suggested in a creativity workshop I did there this spring). I'll be joining a thousand or so of my history museum colleagues at this year's American Association for State and Local History conference in Louisville, KY on September 16-19.

Here's what I'll be doing:

Listening Session on Diversity, Friday, 4:15, Location TBA During my year on the Nominating and Leadership Committee at AASLH, we've had a number of thoughtful conversations about diversity, inclusion and equity.  I'll be joining AASLH Council chair Julia Rose to co-facilitate a conversation about the ways in which AASLH can broaden and deepen these conversations.  Last December, AASLH issued a statement as part of #museumsrespondtoFerguson which read, in part,
“As integral members of American society, history organizations have a responsibility to collect, interpret, and engage in our country’s history, including both the harmonious and the controversial histories.” 
But it is not enough to look outward—we must also look inward to our own practices—as an association and for the field.  In this open conversation, AASLH leadership wants to hear from you on key questions such as:
  • What do we mean when we say words such as diversity, inclusion, access and equality?
  • What kinds of policies or statements should AASLH have in place?
  • How can AASLH more directly encourage the history museum field’s own practice in diversifying our stories, our staff, and our approaches?
  • How can we build personal awareness of issues of social justice, privilege and inclusion and integrate that into our work?
  • How can we translate philosophical agreement into action?
Special thanks to Incluseum for several of these questions and for their thought-provoking approach to issues of inclusion.   This is a critical issue for our field and we look forward to hearing from all of you.  If you can't make the session please feel free to comment below or email me your thoughts.

Banishing Boredom:  Facilitating Meaningful Meetings and Workshops
Tamara Hammerlein, Jeannette Rooney and I all know that you've spent way more time than you'd like in boring meetings. You know, the ones where nothing happens except droning reports or where the whole conversation goes off track.  We think meetings can be--and should be--both fun and productive and we'll be sharing and modeling a cornucopia of tips to take to your next meeting.

Small Museum Lunch
Creativity has a natural home in small museums.  Over lunch with your colleagues, we'll talk about how to build a creative culture among staff, volunteers and community.   Bring your own memory of your first creative act and get a free creativity tattoo plus a chance to win your copy of Creativity in Museum Practice (can't attend the lunch?  You can still get a copy of the book from Left Coast Press in the exhibit hall).

Don't be a Runaway Bride:  The Possibility of Building a Long-Term Relationship with Your Community
Lindsey Baker, Beth Maloney and I get the dubious honor of one of the last session slots on Saturday. We'll be talking about how to enter into long-term relationships with your community, rather than creating those projects that are like a bad blind date.  We promise lots of meaty conversation--and if you're not going to be in Louisville, you can participate in AASLH's online conference and hear us in a webinar.

What else do I hope to do?  I've got a list of other sessions:  I want to think about creating a 21st century museum in the boyhood home of Woodrow Wilson, as re-thinking shrine-y historic sites is much on my mind;  I want to continue thinking how we interpret unfolding events and how to interpret religion at historic sites.   And of course, I'd like to meet you if you're there.  If you're curious about my work, thinking about a new project or initiative that I can help with, be in touch.

Don't forget, you can follow the conference at #AASLH2015 on Twitter--and find me directly on Twitter and Instagram as @lindabnorris.