Sunday, June 26, 2016

Milan-Bound: Exploring the Cultural Landscape

In a few days, I'm headed to my first-ever ICOM triennal conference, with the theme of Museums and Cultural Landscapes, joining thousands of museum colleagues from around the world in Milan, Italy. For most American museum professionals, ICOM is a bit out of our professional networks, but thanks to my German colleague Katrin Hieke, it entered my view in a more substantive way when we combined forces with two other colleagues to cover, in social media, the tri-national Museums and Politics conference in Russia in 2014.  I'm excited to expand my networks and meet and learn from colleagues around the world over the course of a week.

ICOM is organized by interest committees and I'll be presenting in two of them.  With Rainey Tisdale, I'll be talking about the Creative Cultural Landscape in the CAMOC section--that's the Committee for the Collections and Activities of Museums of Cities.  We'll be focusing on the way that museums can be players in building cities' creative capital.

I'll also be presenting a talk entitled, "Terra Incognita: Museums Studies Students and the Global Museum Landscape,"  at ICTOP, the International Committee for the Training of Personnel.  This talk is inspired by the course I taught last fall online for the Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies Program, where students worked with five museums from around the world to develop community engagement projects.  I'm curious about how we, particularly Americans,  can expand our understanding of museums around the world as a way of enhancing our own practice.

Plus, trying to get to as many other sessions as possible, meeting colleagues from around the world, recruiting new museum partners for this fall's course, exploring Milan's architecture and museums, and having an aperitivo or two.  I'll be tweeting and instagramming as @lindabnorris, from July 3-10, so if you want to see what's up, find me there!  If you're in Milan, I'd love to meet you and learn about what you please be in touch for that aperitivo (to get you thinking, below, at Bar Basso).

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Who Inspires You? Or Your Visitors?

We often think--or hope--that people are inspired when they visit our museums or historic sites. "We have great stories,"  we say, and hope that our visitors can make their way through the thickets of details and biography.  Interestingly enough, I've been working on two projects recently where I've actually been asking visitors about inspiration.  And because it's Father's Day tomorrow, it seems a particularly apt time to report back from my conversations.  Above, my own dad as a kid.  In my own childhood, he was always the one behind the camera, so rarely spotted on film!

At the Old Manse, a historic house in Concord, MA and a part of The Trustees, we asked people, before they visited the house, who inspired them. (a big shout-out to JHU museum studies student Caren Ponty, who's been volunteering on this project with me). This was a way of thinking about how to connect personal stories to the broader story of the house.  It was a bit of surprise that family came out way ahead. Here's what some people said about parents and grandparents:
  • Folks and family—we respect ‘em---lots of influence
  • Mother:  always positive, never complaining.  Shining example, always walked, saw color, religion
  • My dad…despite dyslexia, taught himself to read, Ph.D in biochem,  told he would never work, did, and now 95
  • Friends and families with motivating passions.  Their interests become my interests.
  • My parents—role models, do a good job of Christian lifestyle
  • Grandpa—always wanted to learn and wanted us to learn
  • My mom, because she tried to make the world a better place—not many people let someone take things apart to see how they worked.
But a few other people (and one animal) also came in for some shout-outs:
  •  People who make and do social activism, who write and do
  • My dog—she’s always happy
  • Communities and churches that help the less fortunate
  • George Washington—smart, brave, changed the world
  • William Shakespeare—loved the literature, resonates after so many years.  Still relevant
  • Jane Austen—her ability to communicate understanding of human nature and Charles Dickens—for people and characters
  • Resilient people, so hope for humanity
Our challenge now is to think about how we build on these responses--how we understand that the stories of family and inspiration are not limited to Emerson, Hawthorne, or those who witnessed the beginning battle of the American Revolution from the Old Manse's windows.  It's about how we share the stories of oft unsung families, such as those of Phyllis, Cesar, and Cate, the enslaved people who also lived in the house and who of course, had their own unrecorded family stories. How do we connect the stories of this house with the family stories of newcomers to this country?  Can we develop a shared well of inspiration?

In Savannah, I've been working with the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace to consider the visitor experience there.  A large percentage of their visitors are Girl Scouts, and they come ready to be inspired by Daisy (as she was known), the founder of Girl Scouts.  We've been asking them to complete, on a "Dear Daisy..." postcard, the following: "We heard about how you made a difference by founding Girl Scouts.  Here's how I would like to make a difference."  And the responses are as varied as the girls themselves:
  • keep animals and humans healthy
  • make sure that I am kind
  • let girls do what boys do
  • help people accomplish their dreams
  • create self-flying cars with mini-fridges
  • become President
  • keep your legacy for as long as I can
These Girl Scouts get that deep connection with Daisy.  And someday I have no doubt that I'll be getting from place to place in that self-flying car with a mini-fridge! I want all our historic sites to inspire that same deep well of inspiration. Our visitors--and our communities--want us to connect with them.  They want to be inspired by place, by story, by connections to their lives.  They're not particularly inspired by old-fashioned furniture, by dates; by complicated genealogies or by what you or your guides are inspired by.  The challenge for each of us seems to be to work together to let go of what we think visitors "need to know" and to embrace personal meaning-making.

One quick note about the how and the way of these conversations.  They continue to be one of the most rewarding parts of my work.  Take a few minutes out of your day and ask visitors (or non-visitors) some questions.  But make those questions meaningful, not just informational.  I ask those informational questions too, but the great conversations come when thoughtful questions are asked. Make those evaluations fun--the Girl Scouts thought the Dear Daisy postcard was an activity, rather than a chore. Final vital piece of information: anyone will answer a survey in exchange for a box of Girl Scout cookies.

Monday, June 6, 2016

CrossLines Teaches a Generous Lesson

While in DC, like many other AAM participants, I got a chance to visit CrossLines, a two-day exhibition in the Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian, developed by the Asia Pacific American Center there. It was described as a Culture Lab on intersectionality (which doesn't quite have the lure of other Smithsonian attractions like rockets and ruby slippers.). Artists from around the country working in an immense variety of mediums and ways of getting us to ponder our connected--and disconnected-ness, gathered together for a two-day exhibition.

There was much, much to look at, think about and talk about... but two big museum-person lessons stood out for me, that can be useful to all organizations, large and small.

First, risk and experimentation. The Smithsonian is big, big! And somehow the folks at the Asia Pacific Center persuaded the powers-that-be to take a risk on a project that had a relatively quick turnaround, involved loads of collaborators, in an iconic building, and had challenging content. Amazing. So those of you who work in institutions where someone say that you're either too big or too small to experiment? Use this as a convincing argument. What will audiences think? I can hardly imagine a more general audience that folks on the Washington Mall on Memorial Day weekend. Audiences are always up for more than they we think they are.

Second, generosity. In museums, we expect that people have certain knowledge when they come in, or that it's important for them to get what we want to say. Many, if not most museums are still using a megaphone model for visitor engagement. We think it's generous to share our hard-won knowledge with visitors, It's really not. Reserving the privilege of knowledge and perspective to you, the museum, rather than the visitors is an act of hoarding, not generosity.

But the artists at CrossLines? Happily they were unsteeped in museum pedagogy. Everyone I spoke to or observed made amazing efforts to connect with visitors at the place where visitors were. Nobody appeared to judge about what visitors knew or didn't know--and I'm guessing there were some tough comments coming from some visitors. If you wanted to talk about process, they would talk about that. If you wanted to talk about identity, they would talk about that, if you wanted to talk about the communities they're from, or in my case, the process of developing the collaborative work--all those. In other words, those artists demonstrated that one effective way to share complex issues to to just connect...with whoever walks in the door. The result: all kinds of people who might never have visited a contemporary art show, or thought about intersectionality and privilege, or even talked to someone different than themselves, had a chance to do all that.

Thanks, CrossLines staff and artists for such an inspiring experience that I'll long remember. Did you visit? Please share your thoughts.