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?