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.