Friday, January 29, 2016

Meet the Mentees

One of the best parts of my year, yet one of the hardest, is choosing for my mentorship program each year. This year, more than 30 of you shared your dreams for the museum field, your personal hopes for the future, your creative heroes, and objects that moved you emotionally. Thanks to all of you and I only wish I had time enough for everyone.

Related wish: that my other more experienced colleagues would do the same. So I'll begin with that offer. If you think you have something to offer as a mentor, be in touch with me and we'll see how we could expand the pool of people willing to engage in deep conversations about the future. I can guarantee that you'll gain as much if not more than you give. Our professional organizations are mov slowish or not at all on this, and I know from my JHU students and from applicants that more mentorship opportunities are sorely needed. I can move faster than an organization so let's get going!

I wanted to share some of the great responses. Creative heroes: only one person got mentioned twice. Jim Henson of the Muppets. But also on applicants's lists were David Bowie and David Lynch, a sit-com writing dad, Lin Manual Miranda, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, several colleagues, and others.

Emotional objects: the range of objects was incredible from the way a child's shoe in a Holocaust exhibit moved a young mom, to human remains, to contemporary art, to a frozen piece of mutton, and emotions ranged from joy to deep sadness and everywhere in between.

My two choices were surprising to me and in retrospective, they have some connections I hadn't quite articulated in my head before having our first conversations. David Lewis and Amanda Guzman have or are working on their PhDs, and they both come from outside the history world. As the field considers how what kinds of training and degrees are useful, it's intriguing to consider the place of emerging scholars in museums (and, whether it was all worth it). I think my world view will be expanded by theirs, which is one of my hopes in the mentorship.

They'll each be writing blog posts over the course of the year, so you'll hear more from them directly, but for now, a brief introduction in their own words.

Dave Lewis (and, by the way, the first male, and as always, one of very few male applicants ever, a conversational subject for another day.).

Dave is Curator of Collections and Digital Media at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, TN. It's his first museum job and he will defend his dissertation this summer on music, AIDS and public health in Trinidad and Tobago.

His big questions framed around several areas--how do we think about collections in ways that matter, and in ways that reflect honest relationships with the communities such material comes from? He's also interested in thinking about how museums can participate in tourism events, and at the same time, enhance our roles as places of learning. Plus (Dave had a long list of questions) thinking about broad digital accessibility, and how collections can be more valuable in ways both economic and intellectual.

His creative hero: Diamande Galas. Check her out.

Amanda Guzman

Amanda's currently a PhD student at Berkeley in anthropology. She's interned at the Smithsonian, both at the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the American Indian. She has a particular interest in the ways museums with Caribbean archaeological collections engage with both the diaspora and those in the community on the islands. Some of her big questions:

  • What constitutes a compelling museum narrative?
  • Should museums continue to be object-oriented display environments?
  • How can one balance academic concerns and creativity in museum work?

The change she'd like to see, like many of you, comes from her own experiences.

I would personally advocate for the introduction of an earlier, easily accessible stage of deepengagement with museums - specifically as a potential career option. As a native New Yorker with ahistory buff mother, museums were ever-present in my childhood as trans-formative places ofencountering new social worlds through the exhibition of often unfamiliar objects. Yet, it was only through free educational programs (e.g. taking anthropology classes) and internships (e.g. giving toursto school groups and working in an archaeology laboratory) respectively in both high school andcollege, that I became aware of my own ability to participate in museums in a role other than that of avisitor. These experiences are what introduced me to the intersection of the fields of anthropology andmuseum studies. They informed my decision to major in anthropology and current pursuit of a PhDdissertation topic which privileges the analysis of the history of anthropology and the history ofmuseum collecting in the given geographic area of the Spanish Caribbean, specifically Puerto Rico.

I'm looking forward to a great year of conversations and my immense thanks to all of you who applied--I hope all of our paths cross in person at some point as you set sail on your careers.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Border Crossing, Part 2

In this continuation of her earlier post on the crossing (or breaking) of museum borders, Andrea Jones takes a look at one border the museum world is often reluctant to cross:  who does what.

Educators Designing Exhibits

At the Accokeek Foundation (AF) we are a relatively small organization with a staff of educators, farmers, and other administrators that help us pay the bills and keep us afloat. We have no curators, trained historians, or scientists. In addition, we don’t have the budget to contract with an exhibit design firm to create the present-day exhibits that we needed for our Green History initiative. We had no choice but to cross the boundaries between educator and exhibit developer/designer.

But, the absence of experts actually gave us more freedom – not less. I’ve been to numerous conference sessions and workshops (one given by our own Linda Norris!) touting the benefits of prototyping. Our exhibits are a step beyond prototyping in that they are never really that permanent. They are just in a continual state of tinkering. We learn as we go.

We were particularly proud of our DIY exhibit “Underspace: The Science of Soil.” We commandeered an old storage shed and turned it into an immersive space that made dirt look pretty darn cool.

When visitors pull back the curtain, they suddenly enter a portal to the underground.

As we tend to take for granted what’s in the soil beneath our feet, we wanted people’s journey underground to look magical. After all, there are more living organisms in a tablespoon of soil than people living on earth! That’s pretty fantastical. We wanted our visitors to have a new appreciation for soil because (and you may have never heard of this environmental problem) healthy topsoil is disappearing by the day, due to heavy use of fertilizers, commercial development, over-plowing, etc.

In our quest to bring a sense of wonder to soil we brought our best crafting skills to bear. We used cardboard, plastic bags, yarn, lots of fluorescent paint, and black lights to transform our little shed into the most groovy “soil rave” you could imagine. The black lights were also a great way to hide the fact that this exhibit was extremely low budget (total cost around $300).

“Underspace” in daylight – not so impressive

“Underspace” under blacklight – wow!

On one side, we represented the vibrant, diverse life within healthy soil. On the other we recreated unhealthy soil, due to human causes.

Organic matter (compost) is being broken down by bacteria and mycorrhizae on the healthy side.

To top it off, we enlisted the help of a sound designer friend (shouts out to the very generous Erik Spangler!) to make recordings of the soil on our site (along with other organic sounds) to create a soundscape for Underspace. I was surprised how much the piped-in sound helped to create a truly immersive space.

Unlike traditional exhibits, ours was created in about one month. The design process was a steep learning curve and the exhibit required continual adjustments after it opened. The first hurdle was the herculean task of translating the researched information about soil into a visible, 3D exhibit. How real should it be?

What about scale? How big should a rotting banana be compared to fungal mycorrhizae? We settled on a quasi-real notion of the underground world. We decided that exacting accuracy could take a back seat to stimulating interest. For example, if we didn’t make bacteria large enough to see, then we excluded a hugely important level of the ecosystem. We created these little round boxes to represent a zoomed-in perspective, but the scale was still not quite perfect.

Another thing about rushing – we didn’t adequately consult experts before transforming the research into a visual representation. One of our farmers (who is well-schooled in soil science) entered the exhibit and pointed out that our differences between healthy and unhealthy soil were too stark, too extreme. Our unhealthy side has zero bacterial life. “That would be impossible,” she said. “The bacteria activity would be lower, but not disappear completely.”

Polly Festa, farmer at Accokeek Foundation

In our quest for clarity (an educator’s tendency) we had created a contrast that was a bit too exaggerated. This was a good lesson. We may not have curators, but we do have farmers. We added bacteria to the unhealthy side and amended the text.

We learned to make better use of the expertise we had. This year, when we re-launch the exhibit, I’d like to consult with a soil scientist in our network. At the end of the day, we still have to make decisions about trade-offs and balances in the realism of our representation. But more voices will result in a fuller discussion and ultimately a more informed decision-making process.

On one final note, I would like to underscore the advantages we had in engaging the entire Programs Department in building this exhibit. Our part-time interpreters' contributions were a huge asset in exhibit development as well as in the actual construction. Not only did they lend their creativity but they became more invested and learned more content than if we had just planned a traditional training.

The process of creating the exhibit created a powerful learning experience for all those involved.

Granted, it’s not realistic to involve hundreds of people (the weekend visitors) in building something like this. I don’t think it’s scalable in that way. But I started to think of our young, part-time staff like a group of long-term visitors. After all, there are many of them that come and go on to bigger and better things. If we can involve them in projects like these and make a real impact on their perspectives, they could potentially take our lessons with them in their future careers.

There will always be a place for the high cost, slick-looking exhibit within the museum landscape. But I want to encourage small museums to take on projects such as this. Why do we have to look slick like the big guys? Sometimes the DIY aspect is exactly what is attractive to a visitor. It’s really about the ideas and the creativity you bring, not the dollars. Thinking across boundaries is something small museums are often forced to do by virtue of having small staffs and tight budgets. But perhaps we can think of these constraints as a strength – as permission to step outside of our comfort zones and defy categorization.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Boundary Crossing in Museums

In the first of two guest posts, Andrea Jones, Director of Programs and Visitor Engagement, Accokeek Foundation in Maryland reflects on what pushing out interpretive boundaries at a colonial farm to become more relevant and meaningful. Stay tuned for part 2!

Creativity is often described as “thinking outside the box.” But have you ever contemplated just how arbitrary these boxes are? While teaching high school anthropology, I learned that the concept of race doesn’t even really exist, biologically.  (Mind = blown!) It’s all a spectrum of physical attributes that are categorized differently all over the world. Yet, from an early age I was conditioned to check the “Caucasian” box on every required form. Consequently, the cultural concept of race affected my identity in a profound way.

Lots of other boxes are arbitrary, too. And today’s society increasingly questions those definitions as more voices are heard. Are there more genders than just male and female? What is an American? Is Pluto a planet?

Boxes can be comforting and useful since they help us to understand the world around us, but they are also limiting. They don’t honor the complexity of life and the myriad possibilities that exist when boundaries are crossed.

Looking at categories as arbitrary human creations is a powerful way to shift your perspective and unlock creative new approaches to interpretation 
in museums.

Here are three boundaries [two in this post, one to come] we crossed at my museum (Accokeek Foundation) and how crossing them helped us to increase our relevancy and challenge our thinking.

First, what is Accokeek Foundation (AF)? AF is a partner of the National Park Service on Piscataway Park just south of Washington, D.C., in Maryland. We steward and interpret 200 acres of this park, including two farms. One of these farms, the National Colonial Farm, has used living history for over 40 years to interpret the lives and techniques of middling tobacco-growers in the colonial era. 

Using History to Teach Environmental Science

Along the east coast, where we are, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a butter churn or a spinning wheel. There is no shortage of historic farms to get your colonial fix. And frankly, the hey-day of this kind of interpretation seems to have passed. We decided it was time to look outside of the discipline of colonial history in its purest form. It was time for a remix.

One day a visiting mom said to her child, “See, aren’t we lucky we have electricity and cars, and all the things we have today?” I thought about what she said. Yes, life was definitely more convenient. But through the lens of environmentalism, all of the convenience has come at a great cost.

Coal burning plant with mining in front.  Photo:  Getty

What if the colonial era was a starting point for the story of the most challenging environmental issues today?

Instead of considering 1770 (our chosen interpretive year) as a time just before the American Revolution, what if we used this snapshot in time to look at family habits in an era when people were more directly connected to each environmental choice they made?

Today, water comes out of our bathroom sink – but from where? How much energy does it take?

"Hidden from view" water treatment plant     Where does water come from?

How does that compare to colonial times? The typical middling colonial family knew exactly how much energy (physical energy) it took to haul water from a nearby stream or well. They used it judiciously – approximately 4 gallons/day per person (according to our estimates). Today, each American uses between 80-100 gallons/day. That is a 2,000% increase in water use.

Most of us are completely disconnected to the “secret life of water” because of today’s complex infrastructure, urbanization, and increased job specialization. We don’t know how much energy is used in treatment plants and how little fresh water is readily available as the population swells and the climate changes.  By combining two disciplines, we can look at scientific issues with an eye towards understanding changes in human behavior through time.

In an initiative we call Green History, we rotate themes on the farm every 6- 8 weeks or so: Energy Conservation and Climate Change; Water Conservation; The Health of Soil; Food Waste; etc. Our first-person colonial interpreters invite visitors to join them in activities that act as conversation starters around the theme. For example, they help to carry water using a yoke to help our colonial family do laundry or water plants.

It’s hard work. But instead of leaving visitors with the shallow understanding that “life was hard back then,” we try to redirect that assumption to a bigger question:

“What is more important, convenience or conservation?
Can we have both?”

Colonial interpreters are trained to start dialogues designed to get visitors talking about this question, to help them draw comparisons between colonial life and their lives.

The interpretation is not designed to romanticize the past. Although colonial people used less water, they also did not have the benefit of current-day sanitation afforded by convenient water – sanitation that saves lives. It’s complex.

Seeing history through the lens of science has been a hugely impactful perspective-changer for our institution, as well as for me personally. But I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy to thread the needle, given that visitors expect a purely historical experience.

We work continually to try out different scripted conversation starters to help get visitors to think of themselves as current-day environmental decision-makers, while surrounded by the past. Part of the challenge is branding ourselves as an institution known for this kind of interpretation so that people are attracted to the experience because of its environmental conscience – rather than colonial history alone.

Time Traveling from Present to Past

The Colonial Era, as a specific category of history, was another boundary crossed. We wanted to completely erase that famous question that is often asked in history class: “What does this have to do with me?”

Each of our Green History themes includes a small hand-made exhibit that draws attention to a current-day environmental issue. This issue is then brought to life in the past on our colonial farm. Visitors usually encounter the current-day exhibit first, which provides a great way to frame their experience in 1770.

Since most of these exhibits are staffed by an interpreter, the area becomes a center for questions that you can’t ask a first-person colonial character.

During our Food Waste theme, we created sight rare to most colonial farms – a bicycle rigged to a compost tumbler. The odd contraption was meant to draw people in to talk to our staff member about compost.

They could take a spin on the “Hot Rot” (as we called it) and also play a compost sorting game to win $2,200 in fake money (the cash value of the food wasted by the average American family of four each year).  

Visitors were then invited back to 1770, to help the Bolton family to do some fall food preservation. The living history interpreters on the farm taught visitors preservation methods that have been lost in recent generations (pickling, drying, repurposing apples into apple butter, etc.).

The characters also make efforts to communicate something deeper – the true value of food when you are the human who has grown it from seed. Wasting is not so easy when agricultural plants are precious and cared for over many months.

This past to present boundary crossing is an explicit way for our visitors to connect history to their lives. It gives a fuller picture of a specific current-day issue – that it didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. These problems are the product of many thousands of decisions made by everyday people over time.

It also becomes obvious how RECENT some our environmental problems are. Food waste has increased by 50% since the year I was born (1970!). The brevity of the problem actually gives me hope that the trajectory of this course can be altered. We want to pass on this feeling of hope and empowerment that the context of history provides. The future of history is not inevitable.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Surprise! Looking Back at 2015

Like most bloggers, I spent the last few weeks contemplating my year-end post. So much time, in fact, that the year ended! I was lucky enough to ring in the new with Drew, Anna and thousands of Romans and visitors to Rome overlooking the Coliseum. But now, time for some reflection. I visit lots of museums, so many in fact that I keep track on a google map (2014 and 2015 combined). I realized that the one thing I wanted most in a museum or historic site visit was to be surprised. So here, in roughly chronological order, are the museums, exhibits and historic places that surprised me or made me feel a sense of joy and importance in our work. I've written about some of these, but others are thought of and shared often in person but I just didn't find the time to write about.

Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London
One of the smartest, most clever exhibits I'd seen in a long time, as befits the master detective. I loved the way historic objects and images were used to tell the story of Holmes in London. The place became real, but so did those 19th shoes used to explain Holmes' observation skills, and of course, that blue coat worn by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Dennis Severs House, London
Like magic. Entering at night, by candlelight, visiting in silence, voices rustle away as you enter a room. What is going on in this 18th century house? It was thrilling to see a historic house as an artistic creation by a single individual, with the ability to transport us to a different time with no more bells and whistles than candlelight, a room in disarray and a subtle sound track.

The Battlefields of the First World War, France
I would not have believed you if you told me one of my memorable historic site visits this year would be a visit to battlefields, on a chartered bus guided tour with college students, but it was. Why? First, a good, lively guide, with good knowledge and ability to judge his audience. Second, the people I was with. Watching students take in the enormity and waste of war in direct ways. Third, the physical places themselves. To walk in a trench now softened and green, to see a bomb crater, to read the names and names and names at a memorial. And lastly, to have a bit of meaning-making come full circle. We stopped at the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial, commemorating the first day of the Battle of the Somme when an entire Newfoundland regiment was virtually wiped out. The centennial is approaching and there are many commemorative efforts underway in Newfoundland. This summer, at a small outport town. I happened to have a conversation about visiting there. "You did?" said an older man, "my father lost an arm there." All of a sudden that battle was even more real, echoing down the years.

Museum Karel Zeman Prague
"Why do I make movies? I'm looking for terra incognita, a land on which no filmmaker has yet set foot, a planet where no director has planted his flag of conquest, a world that exists only in fairy tales." Karel Zeman

Pure joy. Just steps away from the Charles Bridge, the museum focuses on the work of pioneering Czech animator Karel Zeman. Using the hand-drawn early 20th century animations as a design starting point, combined with hands-on activities that explain the special effects, this museum turned our group of serious adults into a group deep into serious play. A perfect match of creative content, design and interpretation.

Context Travel Walks in Berlin, Prague and Budapest
Context Travel has been a great client for three years now and as result I've been on a number of their scholar-led small group deep dives into art and history. With them I've learned about art in the Vatican, Revolutionary Paris, the Golden Age of Amsterdam and even the food of Istanbul. But this year, four walks in these three Central European cities really stood out for me. The walks were on Jewish history and the Berlin Wall in Berlin, and the Communist era in both Budapest and Prague for three main reasons: a strong sense of place, even when some of the elements of a particular place had vanished. As I stood at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, a great docent helped us understand that the site had once been surrounded by the buildings in which the bureaucratic apparatus of Fascism functioned as a killing machine. Two, a sense of real people's history.

It was on the same walk that I first encountered artist Gunter Demnig's Stolpersteins, or stumbling blocks. The size of a cobblestone, these brass plaques are installed in front of the former homes of Nazi victims with just a simple name and date. You can now find them in many European cities-I saw them most recently in Rome last week.

But the most important factor in making these walks memorable were the docents' own stories. It always a fine line to work between over sharing and just right, but I'll long remember the story of one docent's brother participating in the 1968 protests, another sharing his story of being brought up in West Berlin when it seemed the height of teenage rebellion to go piss on the wall after a night of drinking. In Budapest, our docent, raised in Romania, helped us compare personal lives under regimes.

National Art Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine
Two exceptionally smart exhibits here last spring demonstrated the value of deep thinking about museum collections and the history of how museums have thought about the objects they hold. Heroes looked at art in the museum collection categorized as "hero" from Lenin to poets to heroic workers while another exhibit examined those works that had been blacklisted by various regimes and the roles (sometimes heroic and sometimes not) that museum staff played in categorizing and sometimes safeguarding such works. We have much to learn from examining our own histories. The museum's innovative director, Maria Zhadorzha, departed at the end of 2015; I only hope the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture has the initiative to name an equally talented director to lead the museum's exceptional team.

The Exploratorium, San Francisco and The Oakland Museum, Oakland
Paired together for two reasons: one, the same trip west, but two, places whose reputation precedes them. It's great to see that places you read about live up to their reputations. Great experiences both places but at the Exploratorium the surprises were how welcoming the exhibits were to adult experimentation and play and how they're expanding beyond the physical sciences to take on more complicated topics. In Oakland, the talk-back labels were genius, and visiting on a Friday community night showed that museums can attract broad segments of visitors, if they really make an effort.

The New Founde Land pageant, Trinity, Newfoundland
This seemed possibly hokey to me, and parts of it were. But the other hand, a musical theater production that moves the audience from place to place within a historic village while providing us all with a bit of Newfoundland's complicated history, proved unexpectedly moving.

Scandale:  Vice, Crime and Morality, 1940-1960,  at the Montreal History Center
This shouldn't have been a surprise to me because the exhibit Scandale was curated by one of my 2014 mentees, Catherine Charlebois, and our conversations that year often ranged widely over the issues of developing creative exhibitions. The exhibit uses oral histories as a framework, installed in all sorts of ways: a nightclub tables, in mug shots, at a card game. There were not many objects in the exhibit so, purposefully so, the oral histories and photographs do the storytelling work. Most surprising: walking in a recreation of a prostitute's room and seeing a downward video projection of a couple on the bed!

Lessons Learned
The lessons for me in all these surprises? Experimentation, a sense of humor, a deep commitment to place, and most of all, the sense in exhibit and historic site interpretation that our complicated human natures can make almost every story compelling and moving. I'm grateful to my clients, old and new, who embrace our creative process together.

What will surprise me in 2016? I've already got a few museum visits already completed this year and it's only the first week of January, so I know there will be surprises coming. In your work, consider making a resolution that surprise and joy are a part of your next project. Surprise me! What could you do differently?

(And please forgive the somewhat wonky posting and formatting. There's a learning curve on my new iPad!)