Saturday, December 8, 2018

Looking for a Mentor? Now's Your Chance!

Hard to believe, but this is the 7th call for my annual mentorship program.  Should you be interested?  It's often hard to know where a career in the museum field might lead you--and how to navigate the world of co-workers, organizational structure, and larger issues in the field as a whole.  If you think that might be helpful--maybe this is for you.

All kinds of colleagues have been mentees over these seven years:  educators, curators, archivists, directors, people in the United States, people working globally, students in Ph.D programs or just finishing a museum studies program, mid-career folks, people looking for a career shift or looking to make the most of where they are.  All kinds of people.

This week, I reached out to previous mentees to find out how they viewed the experience after a bit of distance.  Here's what some of them said:
"I think for me the biggest takeaway from our conversations was the encouragement to write, and this summer I had a narrative essay published in FWD: Museums, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Museum Studies and Exhibitions program at the University of Illinois at Chicago."
"It taught me how to approach mentoring others... I’ve gotten involved with the mentoring program that EdCom is doing. I’ve had a couple of mentees in that program as I “pay it forward.” "
"For me, as a new museum professional at a small museum that, in some ways, was isolated from mainstream museum practice, it was helpful to have someone removed from the situation to discuss challenges with. It was also great to have someone knowledgeable about the museum literature to discuss issues with - I knew I was getting advice that was grounded in best practice, as well as solid ideas on where to look for further resources. The fact that the meetings were regular and were things I didn't have to initiate meant that I was forced to find time in my schedule for reading and reflection - things that should be an integral part of the work of anyone new to cultural heritage work, but a part of the work that's hard to find time for in an entry-level job."
What do I gain from it?  Even though I now have "network" in my official job title, it's always been a key part of the way I approach my work.  I love new ideas and new perspectives--these monthly conversations provide that for me as well as for mentees.  Approaching work in a spirit of generosity repays itself in so many ways and helps expand a community of museum colleagues.

What's the Mentorship Look Like?

We'll schedule monthly Skype conversations at times convenient for us both, and you can apply no matter where you live or work or what stage of your career you're in. I'll expect you to be both a good listener and a good questioner--and be willing to look at your self deeply.

From you, I'll expect one or two blog posts over the year on deadlines we mutually set and of course, active participation and questioning when we talk. In addition to the monthly conversations, I'll also provide feedback, introductions as I can, and loads and loads of opinions!

If you want to know more about my work and my approach to the field. please read blog posts, check out my LinkedIn profile, follow me on Twitter or Instagram, and of course, check out Creativity in Museum Practice, co-written with Rainey Tisdale.  You might also want to check out the work of the organization I work for, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

What Makes a Good Mentee?

I'm particularly interested in people who have entered the field from different directions and who bring different perspectives to the work. At the moment as well, I'd love to hear from activists who see museum and archive work as a way to build a more just society. Unfortunately, you must be an English speaker, but you can be from anywhere in the world because we can always work out the time zones! I find that the quality of curiosity is a great bonus.

Okay, I'm In! How do I Apply?

If you're interested, by January 7, 2019, send me an email with the subject line "mentorship: [lastname]" that includes two attachments: your resume and answers to the following questions:
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What questions would you like to discuss with me during the year?
  • What was an early creative act? (I mean, not in work, but early, as in childhood)
  • What's the most interesting museum experience you had in the last year and why?
  • What's one thing wrong with museums?

How Do I Decide?

Because this is my own individual project, I get to make my own decisions, sometimes with the counsel of a few trusted colleagues. I'm probably not very interested in you if your key questions are about becoming a consultant. Non-US colleagues, people of color, and those entering the field from unconventional ways, you're particularly encouraged to apply.

I want to be challenged and intrigued, I don't care about your Meyers-Briggs type or your grades in graduate school. I appreciate people who don't take themselves too seriously. I want to get off that Skype call every month ready to think more about your work and my work and the ways we can make change. Museums have a larger role to play in this complex world--but only if we dig in and get at it.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Food not Fear

I'm lucky enough to visit lots of places in the world. This year alone, Senegal, Rwanda, Cambodia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Lebanon, Lithuania, Turkey, and Mexico have all been stamped in my passport.  I've discovered that there may be two fundamental approaches to exploring the world.

When I tell people where I'm going, one kind of person says, "Isn't that dangerous?"  And that danger might mean everything from sectarian violence to food poisoning.

But there's another kind of person--and fundamentally, I'm the second.  This is the person who asks me, when I say I'm going to one of these places, "I bet the food is great!  Tell me what it's like!"  That's the way I hope all of us would approach the world--with an openness to difference, to traditions, and to what represents comfort and hope to all kinds of people.

What have I learned from food?

Migration and Meals
I've had the chance to see long trails of migration and changing borders.  I learned about the work of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul over meals with colleagues from the Hrant Dink Foundation.  In Lebanon, I ate wonderful Armenian food with two Germans now living there, and learnt about how many Armenians made Lebanon their home after the Armenian genocide of 1915.  But in Puebla Mexico,  on a food walk with Eat Mexico, I learned about Tacos arabes, a speciality of the city, created by Lebanese immigrants.  Those trails of food connect us.

In Saint-Louis, Senegal, I watched bakers creating fresh baguettes, a legacy of French colonialization. In Sarajevo, my hotel served me special Bosnian coffee, which owed much to Turkish coffee. Dinner in a Romanian cafe had echoes of the Austria-Hungarian empire in its food, and at the same time, mama liga (usually called banosh in Ukrainian) reminded me how much interchange happened in this part of the world.  No matter where you are, the newest residents bring their own food traditions, which are mixed, adapted and embraced by others and old traditions hang on.

Local still Matters
Despite the fact that there sometimes seem to be a Starbucks or KFC on every corner, everywhere, local still matters.  Whenever I can, I seek out local markets, the best place to see that local still matters.  Along the road in Senegal you can see mango season ending and melon beginning.  In Mexico, mamey sapote had just arrived at the market when I was there.  In Cambodia, there's a riot of fresh fruits and vegetables in the crowded market--diving into the crowds is a feast for all the senses. 

When I persuaded a friend to pull over for a village market in Romania, it was hard to resist the large handmade copper still for sale.  I love when any waiter is happy to explain a meal--at one restaurant in Puebla, a waiter didn't feel his English was up to the task, so he went and pulled the owner into the conversation.  In Newfoundland, Canada, a new movement towards local food means not just partridgeberry jam but also house-made charcuterie including moose sausage.  Local food still mattering is just another way of saying local stories--everyone's stories--still matter.

Fried dough matters everywhere
Goes without saying--try it when you see it!

Meals are about talking, not just eating
Whether it's talking with African colleagues over a meal in Kigali, or eating seafood with a museum colleague in Antwerp, or laughing as we attempt to buy fruit from a street vendor in Phnom Penh with Sites of Conscience members from all over Asia, or drinking beer on the steps of the art museum in Lithuania (as above) meals have brought me together with so many amazing people around the world.   

This week, of course, like most Americans, I got to celebrate Thanksgiving with my own extended family (large and growing).  As we head into the holiday season, do remember how many people don't get the opportunity to gather around the table with family and friends.  Remember them. 

We're too big a family group to fit into a single photo, so I'll end with one from this summer--my Italian friend Martina, from Rome,  and her family visited Drew and me at the very beginning of their cross-country adventure.  We talked, we laughed, we ate--the best!

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Are We There Yet? Creating Deep Learning Experiences

Aerial view of Auckland Museum, with Auckland City Centre in the distance
Each year, I ask each mentee who's spending some time with me to write a blog post.  Here, Claire Lanyon of the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand shares her team's learning as they create Discovery Kits for in-school use.  Stay tuned in early December for the call for the 2019 Mentorship.
The Learning Team

As Learning Manager at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum, I am responsible for the team who design, develop and deliver learning experiences onsite, offsite and online.  I am part of the Learning and Engagement Team, which consists of two teams, the Learning Team and the Public Programmes Team.  The Learning and Engagement Team were restructured in October 2017, I was appointed in November 2017 in an interim role which became permanent in March 2018. 
Our Challenge
Approximately 10% of Auckland’s formal learners visit for a ‘learning experience outside of the classroom’ (approx 45,000 students per year).  Our target by 2022 is to increase formal learner visitation to 100,000 on-site visits per year, representing approximately 25% of K-12 students in the city. 
We are transforming our offer, there are so many aspects of this journey that I could share.  However, I have decided to focus on one of the projects that has been pivotal in re-engaging with the sector - a key priority for the first phase of transformation:  Discovery Kits.
This isn’t a new idea (as a potential funder pointed out, after speaking to a friend who used to deliver dioramas to schools from Auckland Museum somewhere during the 1930’s - 1950’s!).  However, we were keen to retain the essence, whilst innovating, and I was particularly keen to ensure that we were creating a scalable and sustainable model.  During discussions with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage during a previous role that I held at the Museum, a serendipitous sponsorship opportunity was already in discussion and this opportunity formed the first ‘low-risk’ testing phase for the development of a series of Discovery Kits utilizing Auckland Museum’s collections for authentic learning in classrooms throughout New Zealand.
The First Discovery Kit - Walking with an Anzac
Working with an organization called School Kit, who develop innovative teaching ideas that are robustly integrated with opportunities for authentic use of online sources for learning, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage had committed to producing Walking with an Anzac Discovery Kits that would be delivered at no charge to 1,000 classrooms, reaching 32,000 students.  In order to receive a kit, teachers committed to utilizing the resources within the same school term as delivery.  Auckland Museum was invited as a sponsor as, integral to the work that the students would be undertaking, was one of our online products - Online Cenotaph.
Within the Walking with an Anzac Discovery Kit, were thirty-two objects that related to a story of a specific service person.  As part of the sponsorship opportunity, it was determined that seven of the objects would be reproduced from Auckland Museum’s collection.
A snapshot of some of the objects within the Walking with an Anzac Discovery Kit
The reproduction of the objects was of an extremely high quality, the accompanying resources were pedagogically sound and the feedback from teachers and students was very positive.  We were able to leverage this positive experience and demonstrate to our Executive Team and key stakeholders that this was a model that could form part of our strategy to re-engage with the sector and develop learning opportunities and provide pre and post-visit resources that supports inquiry learning.
The Second Discovery Kit - Are We There Yet?
With this learning experience as a foundation, we were confident that this was an approach that we would like to replicate to support our learning offer for future exhibitions.  2018 is the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.  To commemorate this milestone, the Exhibition Team have developed a thought-provoking exhibition called Are we there yet? Women and Equality in Aotearoa.  The exhibition tells untold stories and features New Zealand women from all walks of life who have contributed to advancing equality for women.  It reflects on the tradition of Western Museum object collecting, showing whose voices are preserved in Museum collections and whose aren’t - aiming to unpack this and highlight these gaps and unheard voices.
With this in mind, colleagues from the Exhibition and Learning Teams met with School Kit to devise a plan for the Are we there yet? Discovery Kit.  Our aim was to develop a kit that would:
      Be suitable for use in year 7 to 12 classrooms, including all boys schools and schools with a religious character
      Elicit discussion and debate in a safe environment
      Be centered around the school community
      Showcase the exhibition and demonstrate that Auckland Museum is a place for authentic and meaningful learning experiences
During the development phase, we identified an opportunity to highlight and share the amazing work of an Auckland based company called Figure.NZ.  Figure.NZ:
exists to enable everyone to make sense of data and see Aotearoa clearly. Our dream is that when every New Zealander wants to use data, can get their hands on it, and knows how to use it effectively, the nation will be able to shift away from a culture of binary debate and arguments over what the situations are.”
We had a hunch that providing contemporary statistical data, that highlights gender inequality in an accessible format, would provide the students with a strong foundation to support them in making up their own minds about whether ‘we are there yet’ with regards to gender equality in Aotearoa (it was a bonus that Figure.NZ was founded by an awesome woman and potential role-model, Lillian Grace).
Figure.NZ’s business cards were the inspiration for the eight data cards that were inside the Are we the yet? Discovery Kit.  These data cards were designed to support the class teacher to elicit contemporary discussion and inspire the students to want to learn more - the topic was firmly rooted in what was happening in their own communities, right now.  Additionally, 32 blank ‘Draw a Scientist’ cards were provided to uncover the unconscious gender bias that may be hidden within their own classroom walls.
One of the ‘data sentence’ cards, provided within the discovery kit
Supported by comprehensive online resources, the Are we there yet? Discovery kit contains eight objects that can be seen within the exhibition and empowers students to interrogate contemporary data, examine historical objects and develop research and communication skills to unlock known and unknown stories of women from 125 years ago through to today.  Delivered to teachers, who register for the kit, the kits are free of charge and remain with the teacher indefinitely (ensuring a valuable resource for years to come). Utilising vinyl decals included within the kit, the students are empowered to create their own exhibition that highlights the stories of eight women within their communities.  The outcome will be that 16,000 students from 500 classrooms throughout New Zealand will have engaged with and interviewed women from their own communities in order to develop their exhibition.
A snapshot of some of the objects within the Are we there yet? Discovery Kit
The boxes were delivered to teachers during the first week of term 3, feedback so far has been extremely positive with one teacher saying:
“Of all of the kits I have had the privilege to use, this is the one that is making the most impact on my class.  This would be something that I will not rush through and will do each year”
It is early in the term so we have not yet seen the students work.  However, we are already very proud of the results and the feedback that is trickling in from teachers across the country.  We learned a number of things that we will take forward for the next kit:
      The decision to create this came very late in the exhibition design process, whilst this assisted us to make some quick content-based decisions, the timeframe for creating the discovery kit was tight.
      Partially due to the tight timeframes, the website was not ready until the kits were delivered in the first week of term.  Next time, we would ensure that the website is ready before the school holidays to empower teachers confidence in making their own connections for their own classrooms.
      The discovery kits are developed by School Kit who have a number of other kits, commissioned by other companies.  The Are we there yet? Discovery Kit web pages are beautiful but the Auckland Museum branding could be more prominent.  Some teachers visiting the exhibition have not made the connection that the Are we there yet? Discovery Kit was co-developed by Auckland Museum and School Kit.
      We would like to consider how we better help teachers and students have direct dialogue with Auckland Museum, as well as other schools utilizing the kits.
Finally, whilst this is a relatively cost-effective way to ‘engage every school child’ (one of our Auckland Museum’s goals in our current five-year strategic plan), it is an investment (both people and financial) that cannot be reproduced for every exhibition that we have.  Therefore, we are exploring additional business models that also enable revenue generation.  This business model is firmly a ‘loss-leader’ that boldly demonstrates our new learning team vision:
“To empower all learners to understand and contribute to a changing world”

Sunday, October 7, 2018

What Does Forgiveness Look Like?

Over the past almost two years in my work at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, I have traveled around the world, and even more importantly, listened to and worked with survivors and activists from all over.   As you might have noticed, I've blogged less--both because of time and because much of this is hard to write about--to do full justice to what I want to convey.  But in late August in Rwanda, I had an experience that I know my writing skills will fail me on, but at the same time, it was a museum experience that I know I'll think about, in both emotional and intellectual terms, for a long, long time so I wanted to try and share.

I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial with a group of Sites of Conscience members and activists from Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. I had previously visited the Memorial--which is both a museum and the resting place of more than 250,000 Rwandans killed during the genocide of 1994. It's moving and complicated, with a story that reaches much further back than 1994 and providing visitors a distinct sense of the long process of "othering" people and the deadly consequences of such work.

But this time, after touring the exhibits, we sat down in a large room and three people came and sat in front of us.  After introductions, the woman stood up and began to tell her story (and many thanks to the Memorial staff who translated into both English and French for all of us).  I didn't take notes or photos, because the story itself was so compelling, so my apologies for any mistakes.  She begins the story when she was young, and as a Tutsi, she remembers being treated differently in school, and even remembers making clubs in school, but not being told what they were for.  And then, of course, the killing begins and her entire family is killed--somehow she manages to survive.

And at this point, she reached down and tightly grasped the hand of the older man sitting next to her, and pulled up him to stand next to her.  Standing together, hands clasped, she said, "This is the man who killed my family.  We are friends and neighbors.  We help each other. I have forgiven him."  There was, I think, an audible intake of breath from many of us in the room.  And he begins his story.  I don't remember many details, but I do remember that he talked about propaganda (not referred to as such) and feeling like it was his responsibility to kill.  But then he talked about coming to the point where he felt the need to ask for forgiveness--and his appreciation that it was granted by her.

I've never had an experience like this.  Over the past two years at the Coalition I've met many inspiring survivors.  But this was the first time I heard directly from a perpetrator.  It reinforced for me the complex nature of victims and perpetrators.  Perpetrators become victims; victims become perpetrators, and there is often a gray line, particularly when people are exploited by leaders. There are many viewpoints on Rwanda's reconciliation and trial process --some positive, some negative. But this was a personal experience.  Both speakers expressed thanks to the government for making their lives better and it's clear that the government has played a strong role in this process.

I'm writing this on a day when much seems broken--that the ability to bridge across difference seems ever harder.  But these two people are powerful evidence that reconciliation can happen--and the Kigali Genocide Memorial a powerful example that museums have a role to play in this effort.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

I'm on History Hit!

It was a great pleasure to talk about our work and the work of our members at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience for Dan Snow's podcast, History Hit.  I hope you'll take a listen.
Plus, I'm now working my way through some of Dan's other episodes:  from the history of spying to Brexit to making comedy from history, there's so much to listen to.  Enjoy!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Walk the Talk: The Fearless Other Women in St. John's

We're on vacation in Newfoundland, Canada this week and as always, it's been a bit of a busman's holiday with a couple museum visits. My time here also included a great walking tour: The Other Women's Walk, created by Ruth Lawrence and presented/acted by Bridget Wareham, Wendi Smallwood, and Monica Walsh.

I was curious about what this tour would be like after reading about it in a local paper--so I walked down a few blocks from where we're staying and assembled with a group of about twenty.  Over the course of about an hour, we walked in and around Bannerman Park, learning the stories of women from the 1920s--and particularly, learning the stories of women for whom suffrage potentially meant little as they were working so hard to make a living, living on the margins. We met a sex worker, a cook, a factory worker and union activist, an Irish immigrant who found solace in another immigrant--a Chinese laundry worker, a teacher and our guide for the hour, a worker behind a bar.

As someone who thinks a great deal about historic site interpretation, and has been in many conversations about what you can say and what you can't say to visitors, I was struck by the power and frankness of the stories shared.  It was a fearless kind of feminism that I wish I saw more often in museums and historic sites.  I won't recap the whole tour, but here are just a few of the notes I jotted down:
  • "I'm in a war every day fighting to stay alive."  A sex worker discussing the governor general's wife's war efforts during World War I as contrasted with her own life.
  • In front of the historic Confederation building, the former seat of government "Here is where the laws are made to control us--laws made by men."  The bar worker after sharing a story of her own rape.  As we walked away from the building, she asked us to turn around. "That's stunning, isn't it?  That's [also] repression."
  • "They think nothing of one who holds the needle."  Labor organizer, who also reminded us that we can choose where to spend our money.
  • At a stop in front of a small monument to Shawnawdithit, the last living member of the Beokuk nation, we were asked to bow our heads in a moment of silence in her honor and "We'd do well to remember that we are guests on native soil."

Each stop was clearly based on research and directly related to a place (and their research is all credited on the project website).   It was a great reminder of how much history is there to be found and that all of our interpretation can go beyond the standard, great white man (and his supportive wife) still too often found in historic houses or the kind of walking tour focused on architecture (as we heard at the start, gently but firmly--if you're interested in those curved windows or the staircase, this is not the tour for you!).

I found it interesting that this was a performance--I'm used to projects like these that really encourage dialogue--and this didn't explicitly do so. Although in eavesdropping on my fellow participants, I found them relating the issues discussed to their own lives.  It didn't really give us a chance to talk to strangers, but I'm guessing many people continued those discussions in different ways after the walk.

The other aspect to the performance, as opposed to a more standard walking tour, is that every single piece of information wasn't included.  The creator, Ruth Lawrence, made sure all the information worked and moved a story forward.  And then three compelling actresses delivered--not just facts, but a sense of real women and real stories.

Kudos to all involved--I'll be thinking about this experience for a long time.

And a small shout-out to where I read about the tour:  The Overcast, Newfoundland's alternative newspaper, picked up at the Rocket Bakery, my absolute favorite place for coffee in St. John's.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Are You Ready to Learn? How Can We Help?

We in the museum field always talk about lifelong learners, but I'm increasingly interested in the ways that we, as museum professionals, can cement our own lifelong learning status.  My participation as a lecturer at the Baltic Museology School this month provided me with some lessons about my own learning styles (and limitations) and about constructing a space for all kinds of learners.

The Baltic Museology School is 15 years old this year with "the aim to develop and strengthen museological thought in the Baltic States, by linking theory and practice, in order for Baltic museums to become more professional, contemporary and accessible to society."  It brings together 30 participants from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia for a week of learning, conversation and yes, a bit of beer-drinking in Kaunas, Lithuania. My co-instructor, Jari Harju of the Helsinki City Museum and I took on the topic of opening up museums to new voices.

Participants' Learning
Jari and I, who had never met each other in person before, were both happy to discover that we shared a certain flexibility in how we approached the week.  I'm a huge believer in the concept of plussing, or "Yes, and,"  the process of building upon each other's ideas.  We adapted and shared ideas all along the way. That flexibility, I think, helped the participants' learning--they could see that we don't have all the answers, but we work towards them.

Our goals seemed almost contradictory:  we wanted participants to feel comfortable learning and we wanted to push them outside of that comfort zone.  We began with childhood stories of museum visits (good and bad, with family and with school, adventuresome and boring) as a way of shifting our perspective from museum worker to audience--and to learn a bit more about each other.  The week was jammed full (with a day of ICOM discussion on Wednesday and a broader conference on Friday) along with museum visits and yes, homework.

Anyone who has presented at workshops before has seen at least one person, sitting in the back, with their arms crossed, reluctant to participate.  One of the great joys of this week was that that person never appeared.  The participants, all working in English, dove in enthusiastically to whatever task we set them to.  Sharing your passion with a perfect stranger you've just met?  Sure! Small group work writing a label to bring out an emotion in objects, including mushrooms?  Sure!  Considering community participation in an exhibition on urban gardening and doing actual exhibit design?  Sure!  Making an audio stop to engender emotion?  Sure!  Designing an Arc of Dialogue around the issue of out-migration in the region?  Sure again!  Each day, it felt like they gained confidence in us as presenters, but more importantly, in their own perspectives, skills, and knowledge.  Another great joy?  So much laughter along the way.

On Thursday, we set them to the biggest challenge of the week:  leaving our supportive, protective museum envelope and going out to interview people on the street about museums.  I believe no one had ever done it, but both Jari and I believe that if you want to learn what people want from museums, you have to talk to them--and not in the museum.  Off they went, in tri-national teams to learn from Kaunas' residents.  They learned a lot--that museums are bullshit, said one interviewee;  that you would only go with family;  that museums are perceived to be only places of information; that museums should be open different hours.  Jari made a great point--that talking to visitors shouldn't be left to interns or front-of-house staff--that anyone involved in the museum should spend some time doing this.

Our favorite report from the on-the-street surveys came from the all-Lithuanian group.  Because there was no language barrier, Jari set them a bigger challenge:  to interview young workers.  The street in front of our hotel was fully under construction, so there were plenty of workers to be found.  But would they talk?  To our participants' surprise--they would!  (see above).

At the end of the week, we asked participants to map their journey, using their own hands as the template. Just a few of the responses are below. To see that journey from confusion, up and down through the week, to new-found confidence, was a wonderful thing.  That confidence-building came in some part from Jari and me, but it also came importantly it came from the School's organizers, and to the sense that building capacity in a region is a long-term responsibility that many people share.  The organizers from the three Ministries of Culture gave us as instructors both freedom and structure, using, I'm sure, all the lessons they have learned over 15 years. I'll use the knowledge I gained to continue to reflect on how that capacity-building and life-long learning can work in many different situations.

But my own learning--what about that?  I'll save it for another post.  In the meantime, my thanks and appreciation to everyone at the Baltic Museology School this year!  (plus, Lithuania is beautiful and fascinating.  Go visit).

Thanks to Julija Tolvaišytė‎, Kristine Milere and Monika Oželytė-Žąsytienė‎ for some of the photographs above.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

What's Better? Surprise or Interpretation?

Last week, two colleagues and I had quite the unexpected experience at--not a museum, but certainly a historic site--that gave us lots of conversation about interpretation, expectations, surprise, and how you feel when you're confused at a site.

Where was I?  I was in Istanbul to do a presentation at the quite amazing Hrant Dink Foundation with Amina  Krvavac of the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Katia Chornik of Cantos Cautivos (by the way, check out all their inspiring, important work).

We had some free time before our presentation, so we decided to visit a hammam--a traditional Turkish bath--something that none of us had ever done.  Our gracious host Nayat Karakose from Hrant Dink sent us here:  Galatasaray Hamam.  We enter, ponder the different fees (ever do that upon entering a museum--I bet you did!).  Finally we decide on a set of services, and just out of curiosity, ask when it opened. "1481" the guy at the front desk tells us. We remove our shoes and discover that no one really speaks much English, but we'll just figure it out, we think.  First, a change of shoes into those disposable slippers.

Upstairs we head, ushered by one of the women workers, into individual small rooms with a Turkish towel on a small bed.  We figure out we're supposed to change into the towels, and undress and do so, emerging, giggling, for inspection by the woman worker.  Evidently not all of our towels are on perfectly, so quick rearranging by her, at which point, mostly naked, we think, "okay, now what?  

From there, into a huge domed room to lay down on a large, heated, marble sort-of podium until we are really, really hot...and then are ushered into the massage room for soapy massage, cold water splash and more.  More general confusion and laughter all the way around (probably us and the workers both) until we emerged, thoroughly buffed and massaged, swaddled in towels, fully relaxed, to have our glasses of tea by the fountain.

But what did I think about this terms of interpretation and museums?  In a way, it was great to be surprised as we went along and that was made so much better by being with friends so we could look at each other with puzzled looks and laugh.  It would have been very strange as a solo experience. But equally, a bit of explanation have been useful (interestingly, I found an explanation of the experience on their website just as I was writing this.) 

But...and it's the caveat that museums and historic sites should be pondering.  Despite the barriers of language, the people working there were very kind.  And, to be clear, we came with the privilege of being tourists in a city that sees not as many tourists these days.  

Is your museum kind to everyone? Do you know that your museum treats everyone who comes in the door with the same sense of welcome?  I once watched the front desk manager (!) at a museum make a young couple spit their gum into a Kleenex she thrust forward as she lectured them about no gum in a museum.  I bet those visitors were really reluctant to return, as they were treated as misbehaving schoolkids.  You want to treat all your visitors with the same sense of hospitality--not just the ones with whatever privilege you value (explicitly or implicitly). Don't tell me that you know how people are treated at your museum unless you are regularly spending time at the front desk and in the galleries.

My personal takeaways:  

  • ending up with adventurous, funny, compassionate co-panelists is the best
  • it's a good thing to go outside your own comfort zone and be surprised
  • kindness always matters
If you've had an experience not in a museum that made you think about the value of interpretation--please share away!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Caring for Visitors

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  It's a former high school that was used as a security prison (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime during its murderous rule from 1975-79.  Not surprisingly, it's a tough place to visit:  rooms where torture happened, the photographs of victims (and torturers who often then became victims themselves), and the reminder that only 7 people of the roughly 17,000 imprisoned there survived.

It's an incredibly important story and as with all Sites of Conscience, one all of us need to listen to.  However, I was particularly struck by the gentle care that the museum took to provide space, both mentally and physically, to allow visitors to process these events, which feel like a kind of horrible madness.  The excellent audio tour includes both narrative and historical testimony, including from the trial of the prison chief Duch (who, lest you think this is the distant past, was only convicted in 2010 by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and sentenced to life imprisonment).

Until just a few years ago, the center courtyard was just a paved space.  But now it's green and lovely. Each time you leave a building you have a chance to take a deep breath, sit and reflect.  The tour gives you a heads-up before you come to stops that may be really difficult to hear.  The effective narrative reminds you that it is always humans--committing the genocide, resisting the genocide, and providing the testimony.   Every day there is a dialogue forum with a survivor of the Pol Pot regime and the White Lotus Room provides visitors a chance to meditate in a cool, quiet room and listen to Khmer traditional music.  The audio tour also provides traditional music that you can dip into and out of.

Upcoming on May 20 is the annual Remembrance Day, in memory of the spirits of the victims and when, according to the museum website, "Food and other offerings are made to the monks and as charitable acts to the poor."

The message of the site itself is the most important--as Tuol Sleng's director, Chhay Visoth notes:
My goal is for visitors to understand what happened here so that it never happens again—innocent people, including children, being imprisoned, tortured and killed. I want them to learn about the cruelty of this regime and remember the victims who died here, who were forced to make confessions for things they didn’t do and then put to death without mercy.

But it's constructive for other museum workers to note that the same compassion for victims extends, in a very different way, to a kind of compassion for visitors--and that this compassion is done with such simple tools:  green spaces, cool rooms to rest, music--that have such power, power that helps ensure that visitors will always remember the experience and some of the faces and stories of the victims. It's worth noting that this care, this compassion for visitors comes from victims, as virtually every Cambodian of a certain age was affected, one way or another by the Khmer Rouge's actions. With that remembrance and that care, we can, as we daily remind ourselves at the Coalition of Sites of Conscience, "turn memory into action."