Sunday, February 24, 2019

Meet the 2019 Mentees

Every year it's a difficult choice to select mentees for the year.  All of you who applied had great things to say, moving stories to relate and tough but fascinating questions to discuss.  It takes me a long time and usually another pair of eyes to help me puzzle through.  Thank you all who applied!

It gives me great pleasure to announce this year's two mentees:  Tadia Lynch of New York City and Jeanne Rank of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Tadia completed an exhibition -specialized, MBA in Arts and Cultural Management and since then has worked with both private and non-profit arts organizations with a focus on program development, audience engagement, and arts access.  She is now Department Coordinator for International Programs at the Fashion Institute of Technology, helping to support her greater goal of advancing the Caribbean Arts Community through web-based platforms.

I ask different questions every year, but always love asking about a childhood creative act.  Tadia's was "a story pop up book that I illustrated and narrated the fictional story of a flying fish."  This year I also asked about a memorable museum experience of the past year.  Tadia's was the Charles White Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. She wrote, "The works were moving and illustrative of a dynamic experience as a POC. However, it was particularly memorable to me because of the interactions between visitors and the works."

What big questions will we be talking about this year?  Here's what Tadia's interested in:

  • How to grow an audience that is emotionally and mentally invested in a museum’s mission?
  • How to serve and create a dialogue with a broader audience?
  • How to ethically present polarizing topics in a non-biased way?
  • How to not be passive, but to stimulate a greater conversation?

Jeanne Rank has spent more than 15 years working in museums curating exhibitions, learning activities, and new strategies and is now working as a senior curator at the Danish Architecture Center in Copenhagen.

Her creative activity intrigued me:
As a child, I loved all kinds of aesthetic expressions and sciences, however my most creative experience is possibly the day I realized that I could design my own life. I used to live in a quite dysfunctional family and as a child I didn't understand much but was shy and insecure, and often bullied. When I was 11, we moved to another part of the country, and I realized that this was my chance to define myself in a completely new way. So, I did: I decided that I was an outgoing, strong person, and that changed life and led me to where I am now: as the first in my family I have earned a university degree and built an exciting career, I created my own beliefs about parenthood and have a wonderful family, and overall, created a life where I keep learning and also give back by mentoring others. Of course, life is not always easy, but I always have my core belief that we can design our life and future.
Jeanne's best museum experience of last year: The exhibition 'The Future Starts Here' at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. "
I loved this show as it was designed to help people to actively reflect over their own part in designing the future today. Not only it was the theme of the exhibition, but I really liked how the curators/museum succeeded in engaging people’s minds and this way transform an exhibition into learning and action. I think that the ideal for museums and exhibitions of the future must be creating transformational experiences that engage people in reflecting over their own personal role and this way connect to every day and the future. What I also loved was the interdisciplinarity of the objects - hereby embracing the complexity of the world, the connection to the self and the world. 
Jeanne posed one big question about her own museum that will lead to many others.
How can I help the organization Danish Architecture Center (DAC) I work for develop into the international museum-center they would like to become? Museums have a special ability to embrace and unite all people and connect the past with our future in the presence. This leads us hopefully to discuss how we can help present museums to design not only their own future, but also to take part in designing the future for all of us.
Tadia and Jeanne will each be writing a blog post this year, so you'll be hearing more directly from them.  And again, many, many thanks to all of you who shared the mentorship post, and even more to those who took the time to apply.  You all inspire me!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Session Title: Could Be Better

A few weeks ago, I spent a very long day in a Philadelphia hotel room with several dozen colleagues, from around the country, reviewing more than 160 proposals for the upcoming American Association for State and Local History conference, co-sponsored by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.   It was my first time ever on a national program committee although I've been a successful session proposer and sometimes, an unsuccessful session proposer.  Here are my (I take full responsibility for these as my opinions only) suggestions on writing better session proposals that will cause at least a couple program committee members to sit up and take notice.

Have a good session title. Be understandable, perhaps funny and brief.  Don't play too much inside baseball, thinking that everyone will understand.  Beware of what comes after the colon, and don't just use a keyword from the conference description to attempt to make your session relevant.

If you're considering having all of your presenters from a single institution, presenting as a case study, re-consider.  These often sound a bit too celebratory or just seem like a "here's how we did this" and the funder is making us talk about it.  If your project is really great and you really think everyone on staff can contribute a needed perspective, consider adding an outside moderator or commentator to ask tough questions that really encourage reflection.

Is the panel the best way to do this?  As museum people, we know people learn in all kinds of different ways.  Increasingly, conference organizers are encouraging new ways to presenting--embrace the challenge!

Who's telling whose story?  If you're talking about the interpretation of enslaved people,  your project--and your presentation--should have representatives from African American communities, or African American scholars or curators, on your panel.  Same for women, for indigenous people, for different religious groups or whoever it is you're talking about.  (this is a very brief comment on an issue that deserves considerably greater depth given its critical importance if we want to change our field towards equity.)

Who's the best person on your staff to present this topic?  Is it the director?  the curator?  or ...  Think, don't assume, and directors, use this opportunity to lift up and encourage your staff--that kind of professional support will only build your own reputation in the field.

Tell a compelling story  Make the reviewers fascinated by what you're doing.  Our small group of reviewers fell in love with one facilities-related proposal, despite the fact that most of us actually knew nothing about the topic.  Write well, pose interesting questions, have someone from outside the field read before submitting. 

As in exhibit label writing--avoid the passive voice and consider your audience--both on the review panel and at the conference.

Don't think you're such a big deal that you don't have to include your or your speakers' relevant bio information.   The program committee came from all over the United States, from institutions big and small from local history museums to culturally-specific museums, to big state institutions.   Be aware of course, that we can Google you too.

Be aware of the field.  If you're presenting on something that you did at your museum that seems like the greatest thing since sliced bread, be sure that it's different or a creative take on other similar work.

Saving a few minutes for questions is not interactivity.  Real interactive sessions are great, amazing places to do deep learning around all sorts of topics.   One of my favorite sessions as a presenter is when two colleagues and I challenged our participants to design historic house experiences around big cultural issues--but our historic house was the Simpsons.  If you're saying it will be interactive, really be interactive and tell the committee how.

Why does it matter?  If you can't articulate why your session matters, then it won't matter to your audience.  I think people come to conferences not just to learn facts, but to learn ideas and concepts, to be encouraged to think differently, to gain new perspectives.  You can't do any of that unless you can tell me why your session matters and to whom.

Many thanks to all those on the program committee who were patient with my many opinions and who shared theirs--and to all of you who take the time and energy to propose sessions.  We considered them all deeply and seriously. I learned a lot!  Hope to see many of you in Philadelphia at AASLH--so many amazing sessions coming.

Below:  the view from the guard tower at Eastern State Penitentiary at night.  Just one more reason to come to AASLH.