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 M├ętis 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.