Thursday, June 25, 2015

Do You Wave at Your Visitors? Island Lessons

I'm spending this week vacationing on Vinalhaven, an island in Maine.  It's a place where we spent summer vacations more than a decade ago, but our return has reminded me of a local habit that is one perhaps we all should adapt at the museums we work in.  Here on the island, no matter who you drive by, you always wave.  When you're driving, it's never a big wave, sometimes just a couple fingers lifted off the wheel.   And on a rainy day, I learned that it goes even further.  I had walked into town, and on the way back it began to rain.  Almost immediately, the first car to pass me stopped and asked if I wanted a ride;  I said no, and not very long after, but in much harder rain, a truck, driven by a young construction worker, also stopped to ask.  I accepted the second, had a nice chat with a life-long island resident and got dropped at my door.

What can museums learn from this?  It's just the lesson about being welcoming to everyone.  How often have we walked in a front door and had the person at the front desk barely look up at us?  If, as a regular museum visitor, this makes me feel unwelcome, think about how it makes  new museum visitor feel?  I still remember a visit to the Getty Museum, when one of the guards stepped forward to have a conversation with a boy and his father about a sculpture.  It totally shifted the dynamic from guard to friendly museum staff.

Like being on an island, we need to recognize that we--visitors and locals--are all in this together, and the simple act of friendliness--eye contact, hello, small conversations--are one small ways that we can demonstrate our connectedness.  Next time you're in the gallery say hello to a visitor or two;  and if you supervise front-line staff, ask them to smile!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What Would You Bring to a Museum?

My friend and colleague Fabiana Chiu posted this on her Facebook page last week and I was so intrigued by the idea I asked to share it more widely.
Museums are filled with meanings. Those meanings are offered by us, the people who go to and work in/with museums. What if instead of paying an entrance fee, we each brought an object of ours as payment in lieu? Something that we think is related to/reminds us of the exhibit we are there to see? A point of connection, a conversation starter, an offering to appease the soul. For instance, What would you bring to the Frida Kahlo show at the NY Botanical Garden? What would you bring to her if you were to meet her in person? I would bring her one of my plants.
And in a PS, she explained the image at the top of this post:
PS, the succulent pictured here was purchased and raised by me when I was in my teens. When I left Peru for good, my dear aunt Blanca adopted it. Here it is, 30 years later, alive and well, strong like us.
What exhibit or museum would you bring an offering to?  And what would you bring?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Underestimating Our Visitors: Part 2

It's hard to believe that it's been two years since I shared Shannon Burke's observation about visitors gained during a prototyping day at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.  She noted that we tend to both over-estimate our visitors' knowledge and underestimate what they're up for.   This past weekend I was back at Stowe Center, doing more prototyping and was reminded of the underestimating part--and why prototyping is always, always, worth it.

In the interpretive planning for the new experience at the Stowe House, we'd been struggling with how to convey the impact that Uncle Tom's Cabin made in its initial publication as a serial in the National Era.  Our designer, Roger Westerman, came up with a suggestion--an audio installation that conveyed the sense of one voice reading, then another, then an entire room filled with voices reading the book.

And here's why you prototype.  We weren't at all convinced (okay, Emily was)  that this would work so we decided to give it a try, on Stowe's birthday celebration, when there were many visitors. Rather than audio, we decided to try it as a participatory activity. After a brief (very brief--that's another lesson we're continually learning) introduction and passing out of an typed excerpt,  I read a sentence from a chapter.  I asked one person to join me in reading, and then invited the whole group to read along.  Our groups were amazingly varied that day:  from a high school basketball team, to seniors, to international visitors.  And they did!  Not only did they read along, but when we did a debrief, they talked about not only their understanding but also about what it felt like to them.

They absolutely understood, through their own voices, the sense of the words spreading across the country, from person to person.   But equally importantly, they felt valued and cared for.  One visitor said that he'd never had the opportunity to use his voice on a tour, and loved it.  Another likened it to church, in a sense of fully participating.  In that vein, a clergyman offered us some good advice about enhancing the experience from his own work.  One person said she loved to read aloud; another said she hated it, but because I didn't make anyone read but made it optional, and in a group, that she felt comfortable doing it.  

Do we still need an audio installation?  Maybe not.  Our simple prototype taught us that the collective experience is really what matters.

But here's my bigger take-aways as you work to design new experiences in museums or historic houses:

  • Don't be afraid of emotional connections.  Many, if not most, visitors crave them.
  • Prototype, prototype, prototype.
  • Primary sources are powerful.  Don't hide them amidst your own words.
  • Big ideas don't need big budgets.
  • Don't be afraid of failure (we know that's an essential part of the creative process) and equally importantly, support risk-taking.  One of the great parts of the Stowe Center interpretive team is the way they support each other (and me) and encourage prototyping ideas.
  • Consider ways to make your tour groups a tiny community for the length of the tour.  As one person said about the debrief of several different experiences:  "Maybe the conversation, us talking here, is really the important part."
  • Celebrate success.  Yay Stowe team!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Buzzing Around: A Mentee Reflects on Professional Development

Each year, I ask my mentees to share something about their work and their ongoing learning in a few blog posts. First up this year, Susan Fohr, who is Education Programs Coordinator at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto.

My identity as a museum educator has been most profoundly shaped in recent years by my involvement in two professional networks -- the Canadian Art Gallery Educators (CAGE) and the Mozilla Hive Toronto Learning Network – which have each impacted my practice in very different ways.

CAGE is Canada’s professional organization for educators and programmers working in the art gallery field, which hosts an annual symposium in a different region of the country each spring. I attended my first CAGE symposium in Toronto in 2012, during which I realized I had found a group of people who face the same joys and challenges in their day to day practice, and who share a similar philosophy about the role of educators within our institutions and society at large. I did not hesitate in putting my name forward to be a part of the CAGE executive at that year’s annual general meeting, wanting an opportunity to be a part of ongoing conversations with my colleagues throughout the whole year. Being a part of the CAGE executive, a volunteer role, has allowed me to develop new professional skills outside of my role at the Textile Museum of Canada– I have been involved in the planning of three national conferences, handling registration in the role of Treasurer this year.

The symposium has become a highlight of my professional year over the past four years, allowing me to reconnect with colleagues from across the country as well as learning from international leaders within the field of museum education. Paging through the now full notebook that I have brought with me to Toronto, Montreal, Kelowna and Regina is a testimony to the range of ideas, perspectives and approaches that characterize contemporary gallery education both nationally and internationally. From sessions on best practices using tablet computers on gallery tours to conversations about representing and working with indigenous communities I have been introduced to a wide range of interpretive strategies that I have been able to apply in our programming at the Textile Museum of Canada.

The CAGE symposium provides a wonderful recharge every spring, but it has helped me appreciate the need for a local network and professional colleagues with whom I can connect in person and work with collaboratively on projects throughout the year. Interestingly the professional network that I have developed in my own community consists mostly of educators working in other informal learning settings like libraries, maker spaces and neighbourhood programs for youth.

Toronto is just one city in which the Mozilla Foundation has initiated a learning network (New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh are others), allowing organizations with the shared purpose of working with youth and promoting digital literacy “to explore how to better link to, learn from and support one other, while thinking strategically about how to make it easier for great programs to spread, and to connect mentors with shared affinities to generate richer experiences for youth.” In addition to the promotion of digital literacy and 21st century skills, entrepreneurship and a celebration of all forms of making are touchstones of programming supported through these networks. The former director of Mozilla Hive Toronto often used the analogy of a buffet to describe the network -- each of the 60+ organizations is invited to sample from a range of opportunities provided through the network. From monthly conference calls and meetups to funding to support projects developed collaboratively by more than one member organization, Mozilla Hive Toronto provides professional development for educators within the network, as well as opportunities to share knowledge, tools and audiences, ensuring that resources are used most fully and holistically across the network and the communities in which we work.

As one venue for informal education, museums have a lot to learn from maker spaces, neighbourhood youth programs, entrepreneurship programs, and tech startups. My involvement in both CAGE and Hive have revealed the common challenges that we face as educators across disciplines can only be addressed through collaborative practice and an openness to share knowledge, resources and expertise. By identifying our own unique strengths and needs, as well as those of our colleagues and partners, we can develop ways to work more efficiently, creatively and respectfully.
Here are some examples of symbiosis that have been achieved by working strategically within these professional networks:

Connecting with new audiences
In the spring of 2014, the TMC was developing a series of workshop modules for youth that explore the future of fashion. We wanted to explore 3D printing, wearable electronics, printmaking and garment construction; some of these topics were new to us, so we reached out to our partners within the Hive Network who could help us develop our competencies so we could lead future workshops ourselves. Recognizing past challenges we’ve faced in attracting youth participation in programs at our museum, we offered to host our workshops in the well-established youth drop-in programs offered by Hive partners at public library branches, another museum and neighbourhood youth programs. These organizations were able to provide new workshop offerings, and we were able to develop our competencies in delivering content related to 3D printing and soft circuits.

Sharing unique knowledge and best practices
In 2008, the TMC organized an exhibition of carpets from Afghanistan which incorporate images of war such as tanks, grenades and helicopters.  Understanding the challenging nature of some of the subject matter within the exhibition, we developed a resource guide to distribute to educators, anticipating some of the questions that might arise from the exhibition and providing background information about the historical and cultural context of the objects on display. As the exhibition began to tour Canada, this resource guide was included in the touring package, Having met me at a few CAGE conferences, a colleague from one of the institutions that hosted the exhibition reached out directly for additional advice on how to engage students in the exhibition content and recommendations for potential public programs. It was rewarding to see how another institution could build on our successes and adapt the content to the needs of their own community.

I hope these examples will provide inspiration for looking to your own networks for support as you embark on a new project. Our professional networks should allow for more than just opportunities for reflective practice and considering the big issues within our disciplines; our professional networks are there to support our day-to-day practice as museum professionals.

Images, top to bottom:

Integrating traditional skills and new forms of making in a wearable electronics workshop, spring 2014 Photo by Susan Fohr

2015 CAGE Symposium delegates receive a tour of the exhibition Moving Forward, Never Forgetting with curators Michelle LaVallee and David Garneau at the Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan Photo by Carey Shaw

Installation view of the exhibition Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan, 2008 Photo by Jill Kitchener