Thursday, September 29, 2016

What Do Mushrooms Have to Do with Bridge-Building?

Again this semester, I'm teaching International Experiments in Community Engagement (more on that to come) for JHU's Museum Studies Program online, and as a result, thinking about community engagement is always on my radar.  I've come to think that it's too facile a term, one that we bandy around without enough deep thinking.  If you haven't read it yet, you might want to be reading Nina's Simon's new book on relevance, which I think might be a better frame than community engagement for thinking transformatively about our work.  Reading Nina's book and discussing engagement with my students, I decided that I needed to share projects that inspire me in some way, ones that connect and build bridges in our communities.

The answers to how to connect with community are different everywhere, and for every organization. So my first community take: mushrooms!  Last winter, in Riga, Latvia, I was facilitating a workshop at the Latvian National Museum of Natural History and someone happened to mention that they had a mushroom exhibit every year, with fresh mushrooms, that was incredibly popular.  It seemed such a surprising thing so I kept an eye out, and sure enough, last week on their Facebook page, there it was! Many thanks to Polina Skinke of the museum for sharing more about it, including all these photos.)

It turns out that in Latvia, mushrooms are not just a food, but an integral part of the culture. The museum event has been going on for decades (since Soviet times), as you can see from the photos, although clearly, this is a tradition that's lasted for centuries.  Says Alex Cowles, who blogs in English at Life in Riga,
Latvians are bonkers about mushrooms. It’s a national obsession. There is barely a single stretch of forest untouched by foragers come late summer and autumn. You can’t walk for longer than a minute or two in any direction without bumping into people carrying baskets and knives, wearing picking gear, complete with straw hats creeping about like Nosferatu on his day off. 
Believe it or not, mushrooming is, in fact, one of the most popular open-air pastimes among Latvians. (I guess drinking beer wasn’t one of the considerations.) It’s especially favoured among older generations, since it’s fairly low-energy, it’s free food for those with less income and many will tell you that even a poor crop will at least get you out for a walk in the forest. If you find yourself with an abundance, you can even sell them at the market for a bit of extra cash.
Sometime each September, the museum staff and some friends head out to collect mushrooms, as they have for years. But now there's a twist:  they run a Facebook contest for someone to go along on the collecting mission with the mycologist and the staff. I like that it builds community not only outside the museum, but inside as well. Creativity always flourishes when we change our view, and here's a great chance to do that.

They then return and carefully and beautifully set up all the mushrooms, all carefully identified.  Note that the pot denotes edible ones.  There are special stickers, cookies, and activities for kids.  I was amazed in the photographs at how many people, of all ages, are carefully looking at the mushrooms, taking notes, snapping photos, and, I have to imagine, having conversations with the people standing next to them.

The display builds on the museum's deep knowledge--they have mycologists who, of course, are experts, but it also honors the expert knowledge of those who come to look and share.  I imagine that it's an event that some people never miss, even though the mushrooms might be the same from year to year.

Last winter I also visited a market and ate some great local food in Riga, and I can see that a whole generation of young people are beginning to think more about local food, so I can also imagine that the museum plays a role in keeping a piece of important knowledge alive, knowledge that helps make Latvia, Latvia, not by keeping it behind glass, or published in a journal article, but by making collective, community knowledge come alive.  As Nina Simon in the Art of Relevance, writes, "Relevance is not something an institution can assign by fiat. Your work matters when it matters to people—when THEY deem it relevant, not you."

Ready for some mushrooms?  Here's a  version of the most popular recipe for mushroom soup, via a 1984 New York Times article. Enjoy!

1 pound mushrooms
6 slices bacon
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sour cream

Wash the mushrooms, and cut into thin slices.
Dice the bacon, and fry until lightly browned in a 12-inch skillet.
Dice the onion, and add to the bacon.
Fry the mixture, stirring, until the onion is just wilted. Add the mushrooms.
Over low heat, stir with a spoon for 10 minutes.
Add flour, water and salt.
Bring water to boil, and boil for 5 minutes until the mixture has the consistency of gravy.

Add the sour cream. Stir until well blended.

Thanks, dear Latvian colleagues, for inspiring me!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Still Good? A Museum Re-Visit

Have you ever visited a museum again after a number of years, wondering if it will still be as interesting or exciting as you thought it once was? A couple weeks ago I had the chance to revisit Plimoth Plantation, somewhere I had last visited probably twenty years ago.  The memory of that long-ago visit was a lovely one, around Thanksgiving, with my big extended family.  Our kids, now all grown-up, fully engaged with the interpreters, and I still remember how the way one wowed my nephew, who described himself as living beyond the Hudson, by switching to speaking in Dutch.

Would it still be good?  Would there be interactive media everywhere?  Do people still suspend belief at a living history site?  What would I think?  Here's the good news:  I still found it compelling, and found some additional changes that deepened the experience even more.  The better news:  the things that matter are those that any organization can do.  Ask deep questions, seek answers, care about the visitors, and be unafraid to shake things up.

Some of what I saw:

The biggest change is that your first stop in the 17th century is the Wampanoag village.  When I visited before, the village seemed an afterthought to all those Pilgrims.  Now Native people, rightly, are who you encounter first.  But you didn't encounter them without any guidance.  This large clear label, addressing directly, the misconceptions a visitor might have and what is considered respectful behavior, was read by almost everyone as they walked down the path.  The label begins, "Do you have a picture in mind from movies or books of what 'Indian' looks like?"   The change in approach--both physical and conceptual--helped to shift your perspective.

And something I saw over and over again, throughout the visit, was how skilled the interpreters were at meeting visitors where they were.  Here's a conversation about deer hunting, with a tourist from the midwest.  They chatted about bow hunting, about the return of deer to suburban neighborhoods, about recipes using venison, and more.

And here's an interpreter talking to students.  I only heard part of the conversation, when a boy asked if the interpreter gave someone a butt-whipping.  "I killed him,"  said the man, to somewhat stunned silences from the group.  He continued to explain and engage, but the sense that this was no easy place, came through loud and clear.  Below that, a visitor from the UK has a long conversation about where she's from, and where the character the interpreter is playing is from.  Just down the road, as it happens.

A question about a interpreter's bandaged finger, deftly handled, led to a broader discussion about the different kinds of religious beliefs at the Plantation, all the while the multi-tasking women continued their daily chores.

Every single interpreter I met, listened to, or eavesdropped on, was thoughtful, kind, and exceptionally responsive to visitors.  It's the end of the busy summer season and I'm sure loads of those questions (and bad visitor jokes) were ones they had heard many times before.  But they never seemed that way.  I want to know more about their training!

There were some new elements.  Down at the bottom of the road was "America's first test kitchen."  In a house no longer considered accurate, an uncostumed interpreter was testing recipes, on the day I visited, using quince.  The signage outside, her dress, and the printed-out recipe, all easily transitioned you back to a contemporary space and let you easily shift your conversational focus.  A new crafts building outside the village allowed close-up looks at the production of pottery, flies for fishing,  bread and textiles.

As you can see, it was a beautiful day with great light, so I was also struck with the messiness and everydayness of the site.  Reproductions allow the visitors to fully embrace the site:  to see the messy bed, the dirty fireplace, the wrinkled clothes hung up rather than the original draped artfully over the bed. There's no preciousness of artifacts here.

I ended my visit with a colonial meal--that's a peas cod (a sort of handpie),  squash, and some cucumber pickles and left feeling refreshed and rejuvenated in all sorts of ways, not least about the ways in which we can, when we work hard enough, connect with our visitors.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Pondering Museum Futures: Honest Questions

I've been lucky enough to have many great conversations about museums in three different countries over beer, vodka and prosecco, with my friend and colleague Katrin Hieke from Germany. That's why I'm so pleased to share this guest post with her observations, thoughts and questions about a Swiss museum conference. The idea of questions is an intriguing conference theme, and as you'll see below, the organizers worked hard to embed it all the way through.  We hope you end up with some questions of your own!

At the end of last month I had the pleasure to attend the annual congress of the Swiss Museum Association & ICOM Switzerland on Museum Future(s). It resonated a lot with me and stirred up quite a few questions. Maybe that was not only because the museum field seems to be very much on the move (has it ever not be, I wonder?), but so am I -- reconsidering my own professional future having nearly finished my long ongoing dissertation project. And since future(s) of all kinds are a constant thread in Linda’s and my discussions, it seemed appropriate to write here, and to pass on my thoughts and questions.

Thinking about the future(s) of museums, you might say, is nothing new. Your are right. We all do it in a way when we set the course for the next years in programming, when a new board takes up its work or we compile financing plans. And there are, among others, change-makers like Jasper Visser and The Museum of the Future blog, or the AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, whose thinkings are devoted to the future(s) on a regular basis.  However, in terms of museum conferences in Europe, it was the first that took on this topic in general and it seemed utterly appropriate to do this on neutral, Swiss ground.  

It all starts with questions
I loved how the whole conference was set up around questions. Questions cards were distributed on registration by mail long before the conference, and at the conference itself, on coffee tables and in the delegates bags. Speakers were asked a crisp question about the future(s) of their museum or museums in general first, before they presented. A whole booklet about the conference topic, published some weeks before and as a result of a workshop, comprises pages and pages of questions - some easy, some tough - about the status quo of your museum, how you assess this, what you wish for and where you might see room for improvement. Some of my favourites include:
  • What is your greatest weakness in terms of content, and how did it evolve?
  • Which offers with societal impact would you like to have in 20 years?
  • Do you actively ask your audience for feedback?
  • Would you be willing to run exhibitions and events solely for reasons of revenue increase?
  • How does the effort for communication relate to the one for content?
  • What is the role of individual, what of collaborative working?
  • Which image do you have of your own institution regarding its social and cultural relevance? Are you a preserver? A content provider? A stimulator of discourse? An opinion maker? A changer?
I believe that change starts with honest questioning, aloud or to yourself, and an open conversation; it continues with getting out of your comfort zone, scrutinizing what your are doing and why you are doing it, and if it's still in line with your ideas; it's about dreaming of where you want to go and some risk taking in leaving your own tracks in thinking and doing.

The whole setup of the conference acknowledged that there is no simple answer, and not the  one right answer for all museums. But rather very individual solutions, futures in plural, which requires knowing the individuality of your museum, first. And it is work. Or, as Isabelle Chassot, director at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture, put it: Museums can't be updated like an app; their future(s) need to be negotiated with society and politics in a long, but rewarding process.

Future is not (only) about technology
Future scenarios are often equated with technological progress, but that's only one side of it. The concept discussed at the conference aimed at a broad mindset, as the sample questions above indicate. Of course, questions about the future(s) of museums can not do without tackling issues like digitalisation. But globalisation, changes in demography, individualisation, urbanisation, economization, and flexibilisation -- trends identified by futurologists -- play an equally important part. And they create much tension, e.g. between programming for content and/or audiences; between niche and/or mainstream, between the amateur and/or professional and so on.

We have the choice
One of the very best parts about the conference was the emphasis on the “we”. The full title of the conference read: Museum future(s): We have the choice. It places the responsibility, but also the obligation, into the hands of us, the museum professionals. It reminds us that there are different paths and options to be considered. And that the future is not exclusively determined from outside, but that instead we should not give it out of our hands and start the shaping the future today. This empowerment is remarkable especially in German speaking countries, where it is quite common to delegate responsibility and action to political institutions and public authorities as the main financiers of museums. Yes, they do have the power to influence the course, but they are certainly not the strongest force, if we don’t let them. So the message here is let's not get pulled, but rather let's push things forward ourselves.

The hard way from theory to practice
The morning of the first conference day was devoted to magnificent, comprehensive, mostly provocative and rather theoretical reflections on the general positioning of the museums of the future as well as the visions of the future in previous centuries and what we could learn from this for today. Pascal Griener from the University of Neuenburg reminded us to be aware of the ideological residues stemming from 19th century when discussing current and future museum concepts. Zeev Gourarier, director of the MUCEM, named the importance of objects and collections, interdisciplinary approaches and a return to enchantment as keys to museum futures.

The afternoon sessions were meant to be devoted to deeper dives and to move on to the practical side of things. However, these got stuck more or less in the contemporary. The session on content and audience comprised descriptions of current education projects and stood pretty much clear of the actual topic of the conference, the future, for which subjects like the prerogative of interpretation must be discussed.

What makes it so difficult to take a look beyond now and some general plans for the future? What does it need, in terms of institutional frameworks and/or personal requirements? How can the many good questions raised at the conference and in the booklet be a starting point for active considerations - and maybe change?

Basil Rogger from the Zurich University of the Arts and author of the booklet, believes that we need to develop a culture of dealing with the future: we need to take care, to be persistent, to have fun, to find ease, and to actually shape the future and have the belief to do so.

Do you agree? What does it take to be a visionary these days, especially in the face of wearing daily business and given that the institution concerned is in itself devoted to the past? 

Take it further
If you can read one of Switzerland’s languages (German, French or Italian) I highly recommend downloading the booklet ‘Museum Futures’ by the Swiss Museum Association, which is full of food for thought and many more questions than the ones above. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What AM I doing?

In a conversation with my great Take 5 colleagues the other day, we were talking about the shape of our days, our weeks and our months as independent professionals.  It's fairly often that I get asked questions about what I do, either by people interesting in becoming freelancers (by choice or not), people beginning their career and wondering how I got from there to here; and even people I met on airplanes, who ask things like, "so you pick the stuff on display?"  I thought I'd give a one-month (slightly longer) recap, to give a sense of what independent consulting means, at least in my case. Here goes:

In mid-July, I headed off to St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, where I'm in the final stages of an managing and curating an exhibit for the headquarters of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.  An exhibit in a police headquarters is a first for me, and I'm working with an enthusiastic group of volunteers and designer Melanie Lethbridge.  I love St. John's, so I always make sure that my time there includes not only the archives, but also some walks out and about. This time, an evening spent watching whales cavort off Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America.  Plus, time planning a new book project with Jane Severs, checking out the new exhibit at the Rooms, and a lively lunch with Jane and Kate Wolforth, talking all things interpretation.

In late July, I was a keynote speaker at the Association of Midwest Museums conference in Minneapolis.  I got to meet tons of great people, share some ideas on creativity and innovation, hear other great ideas, eat some amazing food and see the American Swedish Institute's beautiful new building and their historic house (plus, a chance to walk my creativity walk with some on-the-fly, totally unserious, historic house tour-giving.)  I also got a chance to catch up with Barb Wieser, an American friend from Ukraine and attend an event at the Ukrainian Cultural Center.  A big shout-out to the fabulous Paige Dansiger who captured me (above) and other speakers with her great on-the-spot sketches.

In between, and during travel, I'm catching up on emails, attempting to write blog posts, checking in with various clients, and thinking about new work including writing proposals that may or may not come to fruition. Hopefully each trip home includes a bank deposit, but not always.  See risk, below. Plus of course, finding time to enjoy summer in the Catskills--it's beautiful up here.

A relatively quick turn-around and I was off to Concord, MA, where I'm working on re-interpretation of The Old Manse for the Trustees.  The Old Manse is an historic house with a fascinating complex story, and this trip was to begin the prototyping process.  I did a training session with interpreters and some actual prototyping. It's always energizing to get feedback from visitors directly. Whether prototypes are successful or not, it's a process worth embarking on to deepen our thinking and challenge our assumptions.  On that same trip, one dinner with Rainey Tisdale, planning for a trip to Columbus, as well as catching up on everythin; and another dinner with a former Fulbrighter to Ukraine.  On the way home, I visited Fruitlands, a museum I'd heard about forever but had never been to.  If you're interested in museums I visit, I actually, and nerdily, maintain a Google map of those visits.

Again, a quick turn-around at home, enjoying summer, my husband, and a homemade music festival (thanks Gohorels!); also working to line up three international museums for my Johns Hopkins course, International Experiments in Museum Engagement, starting this week. Stay tuned for more on that.  I also agreed to serve as a Fulbright reviewer and Rainey and I began work on a journal article together.  Farmers' markets, walks in the cool evenings, and appreciating other people's gardens, all a part of home.  Plus of course, bills and invoices, emails, and other writing, and a conference call or two.

Off to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center with a day-long review of our work together over the last several years, an appearance on public radio talking historic houses with Shannon Burke and Cindy Cormier, and making final plans for the exciting new visitor experience next year. Back home again after three days.  The week at home included work on the Old Manse, writing final text and reviewing designs for the Constabulary exhibit, JHU course prep, and prepping for a one-day workshop at the Ohio History Connection with Rainey. Plus a small bit of work for my ongoing client, Context Travel, commenting on a Paris walk framework and and a phone call about a possible speaking engagement.

That week also brought the start of an exciting new project.  With Lithuanian colleague Vaiva Lankeliene I am conducting an assessment of cultural heritage needs in Ukraine for the British Council/European Cultural Foundation.  There's much to dig in on and plans to make for a research visit in October. Thanks heavens for Google Translate, also getting used as I try to read French materials for another project possibility.

That Sunday we had an all-too infrequent Take 5 meeting here at my house.  Carolyn Macuga made the trek up a day early, so we jampacked Saturday with the Bovina Farm and Studio Tour and the Delaware County Fair.  Take 5 is always a wonderful time to reflect on our work, individually and collectively. Haven't checked out our website or signed up for the newsletter?  I hope you'll find them both useful and thought-provoking.  We talked ethics, book projects, SEOs, interpretation, and as always, ended with an infused vodka toast (this time, sour cherry, cucumber and basil, or blueberry).

An early morning departure once again (coupled with the desire that I could both live in a beautiful place and close to an airport), off to Columbus, Ohio,  A meet-up with Rainey and a fascinating tour of the Columbus Museum of Art, a place that has embraced creativity as a key part of their mission, followed by dinner with Megan Wood, one of my former mentees. The next day, two half-day workshops at the Ohio History Connection, trying out Creativity Karaoke (amazing job, all of you!), and some deep dives into embedding creativity into an institutional culture.

Back home again, to a day full of phone calls (not as common as it once was thanks to emails): brainstorming ideas with a potential new client; talking to a professional considering career changes; catching up on prototyping at the Old Manse with Caren Ponty, one of last year's JHU students who is helping out with the project;  and trying to puzzle out the laws of Ukraine regarding museums with Vaiva. I juggled scheduling video interviews long-distance  for the Constabulary exhibit and trying to plan a few blog posts. Ended the day in a Newfoundland way by trying out one of the recipes for the Colony of Avalon's Colonial Cookoff--reasonable success with apple fritters.

What's the point of this crazy narrative?

First, if you want to be a freelancer, think about what risks you really are comfortable with.  Everyone does it differently, but for me, it means serious multi-tasking (hence why I find typos in these blog posts!)  and more than a bit of risk. There's risk in bidding new projects, and continual uncertainty in a financial sense.  I love the challenge of all that, but it's not for everyone.

Second, reflect. I've spent more time this year reflecting on my own process and the ways in which I connect with clients and audiences.  The better I understand my own process, the better I can present my work to clients.

Third, gratitude.  My career has been a complicated, sometimes surprising and circuitous line of choices, but along the way, Drew and Anna, mentors, mentees,  Rainey, my Gang of Five, other colleagues, and clients have all helped me think more deeply about the work I do, how we might do it together and what risks we might take.  I try and pass my own experiences and knowledge forward, when people ask, but I will say, honestly, the thank-yous really matter.  I'm always willing to find time for coffee or a drink to meet new people, but I've been surprised this year when I made time for a couple young professionals who never followed up with a thank-you email.  Gratitude does matter.

Fourth, network, but gently.  I don't want to be in your face or in your social media feed constantly, but I do want you to think that I'm around, that I'm doing interesting things and that you might have a good project for us together. There's a ton of advice out there about your social media presence--I just blunder my own way and I know fellow consultants who have none, but make your own decisions about it.

Fifth, keep learning.  My work is predicated on my ability to learn new things:  new tools to help me work efficiently (hello, Slack), new ways of thinking about our work (on a regular basis, hello Nina Simon),  new places to understand (hello, Latvia),  new perspectives (hello #museumsrespondto Ferguson tweetchat) and new challenges (hello, Ukrainian cultural policy).  I still think of myself as an Emerging Museum Professional, because I always think I have more to learn.

If you're interested in working with me or pondering through a new project together, be in touch!