Sunday, December 13, 2020

What a Year! Need a Mentor for 2021?

For seven years, I posted an annual call inviting applications for someone in the museum/archives/preservation fields to work with me in a year-long mentorship.  It was an incredible privilege to get to know one or two new people each year.  The mentees have been graduate students, young professionals, mid-career professionals; educators, curators, directors, archivists, and more.  I'm so happy that I'm still in touch with many of them. This year alone one got back in touch with book publishing news; another to ask a question about approaching a particular job and another to share her own progress at her museums.  During their mentorship year, they lived or worked all over the world:  Cambodia, Denmark, the UK, New Zealand, and of course the United States. (Shout-out to all of you!)

Tania Said, a mentee in 2017, shared her reflections from the perspective of a few years:

Having a year of structured mentoring with Linda Norris was a window into seeing what I didn't know. It was a chance to more closely examine the contrast in the museum field and the many shades of grey in between. She helped me become more intentional in my museum practice while preparing me for my next chapter. Our monthly conversations helped me grow in my work and kept me grounded at the same time; in fact, I attribute my career change to the seeds we sowed. Even today, Linda continues to be a supportive and trusted colleague.

Last year I took the year off.  I didn't have a particular reason but just felt it was time for a break.  2020 had surprises in store for all of us. After some reflection time, I'm happy to announce the return of my small mentorship program for 2021.  It seems like a great time for all of us to expand our networks, think together, and plan for change. I hope a chance to sit down, virtually speaking, with me once a month might be of use to some of you.  It’s a two-way street for me--from mentees I have learned to look at museum work from different perspectives;  I have learned about specific work in different contexts; and about the ways each of us approach challenges and opportunities and think about next chapters.

About Me
I've been a sporadic blogger this year, so for those of you who might be coming here for the first time--here's a bit more about me. I’m a white-cis-gender woman--I use she/her/hers. Currently, I am Senior Specialist, Methodology and Practice at  the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience where I have worked for four years. In addition, I teach in the online Museum Studies and Cultural Heritage Programs at Johns Hopkins University.  Before joining Sites of Conscience, I spent a considerable amount of time as an independent museum professional, working with museums and historic sites in the United States and Canada.  More than a decade ago, I was a Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine, a place that continues to engage me on so many levels as history is made and re-thought.   With my dear colleague Rainey Tisdale, I'm a co-author of Creativity in Museum Practice and work to embed creative practice in museum work every day.  If you want to do more than read about me, you can watch my interview with Paul Orselli or listen to me chat about Sites of Conscience with Dan Snow at History Hit.  And of course, check out previous entries here. 

What Does the Mentorship Look Like?
We'll schedule monthly conversations at times convenient for us both. You can apply for the mentorship 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 yourself deeply. I'll ask for one or two blog posts over the year on deadlines we mutually set and of course, I also expect active participation and questioning when we talk. In addition to the monthly conversations, I'll provide feedback, introductions as I can, and loads and loads of opinions! 

What Makes a Good Mentee?
I'm interested in people who have entered the field from different directions and who bring different perspectives to the work.  I particularly want to encourage BIPOC students and colleagues to apply.  The cultural field has deep work to do to ensure that our work is equitable, inclusive, and just and one of my goals is to contribute.  For colleagues outside the US, sadly, I only speak English, but you can be from anywhere in the world because we can always work out the time zones! I  know that many of you may be out of work and trying to figure out what's next. You do not have to be working in the field right now to apply. Applicants should be curious and willing to engage in conversations that are sometimes challenging (for both of us).  If you want to learn a specific skill--say, how to be a consultant, or how to catalog an object, this is probably not the opportunity for you.  But if you work, or want to work, in any aspect of museums, cultural heritage, archives, historic preservation or memory work, consider applying.   

Okay, I'm In! How do I Apply?
If you're interested, send me an email (linda at  with the subject line "mentorship: [lastname]" by January 6, 2021, 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)
  • In terms of your work life or studies, what learnings will you take forward from 2020 and what aspect of museum or cultural heritage work could be jettisoned?

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. For instance, I'm probably not very interested in you if your key questions are about becoming a consultant.  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 love curious people. I want to get off that Zoom call every month ready to think more about your work and my work and the ways we can make change together. Museums have a larger role to play in this complex world--but only if we dig in and get at it.

Special thanks to Mia Jackson for her thoughts on this post.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

A Cog in the Process: Election Day, 2020

For the first time, I was an election inspector here in my small town in the Catskills of upstate New York.  In conversations with people, I've discovered that most of us, including me, never gave much thought to the process--we would show up, chat with people behind the table, sign a book, vote and leave.  That's a privilege that white Americans have been able to exercise without much thought.  But this year has taught us all that it's good--and vitally important--that we understand the process, exercise our rights, and ensure that everyone's rights are protected.  So I thought I'd just share my particular experience as an election inspector.   

I'd been interested in serving as an election inspector for a while--but I was often traveling and it didn't seem practical.  But this year I had seen press coverage that many places needed election inspectors as many who usually worked were older and concerned about exposure to Covid-19.  I looked up my county board of elections, called them in September, and participated in the training (mandatory every year).  It was very clear in the training that the goal was to have every vote cast and counted appropriately.  

Election Day is a long day--every inspector works the full time that the polls are open, and in New York, that is 6:00 am-9:00 pm.  I left my house in the dark and arrived at the town hall.  My town has three election districts, but they all vote in the same space.  We all wore masks, and plenty of hand sanitizer was on hand.  Each district had four inspectors, two Democrats and two Republicans (someone asked me about Independents--I don't know!). What this meant is that there is confidentiality about your vote, but that the process of voting is fully transparent, if that makes sense.  You come in, give your name.  A Republican looks it up and you sign; a Democrat asks your name and confirms; a Republican says "she will give you the ballot" and a Democrat hands you your ballot.  And those positions are switched every hour.  

As a voter, head off to your little voting stand (I still miss the voting machines with curtains), mark your ballot, and feed it into the machine.  Sometimes it gets stuck or takes a moment and then one of the election inspectors (often me as I was often closest) gets up and advises you to give it another try.  Upon occasion, we chased people after they'd already gone out the door to have them submit again to make sure it was counted.  My apologies to the woman named Marge who I made come back inside only to find out that it wasn't her ballot that had come back out!

That day, it was a steady stream of voters all day long.  My town has farmers, lawyers, new transplants from New York City, artists, seniors, young people (and a majority Republican town).  My favorite voters were the 18-year-old first-time voters, sometimes pushed forward by a proud parent saying, "It's his first time,"  and sometimes shyly saying, "I've never done this before."  Some provisional ballots were cast, when the voting status was unclear.  Calls were made to the board of elections to clarify voting status or to answer questions.  

It's sad to me that a decreasing number of people distrust the results of elections in this country.  Part of what seemed to make that day work was a level of trust between all of us working, no matter what party we were from.  We were joined together, with our thermoses and our bag lunches, with our masks and conversation, in a collective effort that mattered.  Just after 9:00 PM, with the last voter gone, all of us gathered around while two folks (again, one Republican, one Democrat) opened the machine and ran the total.  While two folks stayed until the machine was picked up, the rest of us headed out into the night.

I know there is not a nation-wide system of voting and that my experience does not represent the whole.  For a clear analysis of the national changes that would make the entire system more accountable read Zeynep Tufecki's piece in the New York Times today.  She writes, "We have well-studied methods that are effective, and there is nothing more urgent than making sure our elections work — everything else a government can try to do depends on that."

And what does this have to do with museum work?  First, I got to participate in a civic, history-making process.  Second, the more museum folk participate in the civic life of the places where we live and work, the more we understand about our communities and the ways museums can actually matter to everyone.

If you worked elections, please share your experiences in the comments below. I'd love to hear them.

Images:  Washington Square Park, New York City, when the election was called and the end of the day at my polling location.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Blogging, What Blogging?

I last wrote a blog post on May 31st of this year.  That's just about five months ago.  I've blogged for more than a decade and have never gone more than a month without writing a post. My goal used to be a post every week.  But I have struggled to find what it is I want to say.   Travel fueled my thinking about museums--meeting colleagues, visiting museums, and sharing what I learned along the way.  So that's left a hole in my thinking--and writing.

But more importantly, I've struggled to think that I have anything useful to add to the deep and important conversations around museum change happening now.  I am in awe of those bloggers who have continued to write--not just to write but to write important words that we should all be listening to--and acting upon.  Like many of you, I've also been overwhelmed by the amount of great content in terms of webinars and online conversations. 

I wanted to share some of the writing--and watching--that has resonated with me.  Here goes:

Porchia Moore, everywhere she appears:  in particular, Cartography:  A Black Woman's Response to Museums in the Time of Racial Uprising and Reflexive Cartography:  Or a Ritual for the Dhying Museum Landscape--the Socio-Political Impact of Change in Museums, both on the Incluseum.  These posts made me think in entirely new ways.

The ongoing work of Mass Action, in particular the Readiness Assessment.

Joan Baldwin's weekly posts (and I am in awe of that!) at Leadership Matters. where she often takes a broader societal issue that's emerged that week and encourages us to consider in our museum context.

My colleague Braden Paynter at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience facilitates weekly webinar shorts, 30 minutes of great conversation on everything from Definitions of Justice to Finding Joy to Facilitating Digital Dialogue.  The webinars are all recorded--and they are free for all to attend. Check them out!

The Instagram account @changethemuseum, important, heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure.  We--particularly us of an older generation in the museum field--have a great deal of reckoning, listening, and changing to do.

Andrea Jones of Peak Experience Lab (and now at the Anacostia Museum) has only written one blog post during the pandemic, but it really mattered:  Empathetic Audience Engagement During the Apocalypse

Death to Museums online presentations and discussions on everything from calling out racism at specific institutions, to exorcising ghosts of the Confederacy.  Also, more of Dr. Moore!

Upcoming, I'll be reading Dan Hicks' new book The Brutish Museums The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. Dan was kind enough to respond to a Twitter stranger and meet me for a lively conversation when I was in the UK in February (remember travel?).  For Dan's perspective on the UK culture wars these days, check out his recent piece in the Guardian.

And I would be remiss not to mention the incredible effort of Paula Santos and others for the Museum Workers Relief Fund.  As all of you know, museum workers, particularly front-line workers and museum educators have been devastated by the pandemic and museum closures while, in some cases, billionaire board members have refused to step up and support the museum they ostensibly serve.  In the meantime, almost 1000 donors (including me) have donated $68,000 to support laid-off museum workers.  

What else have I done during the pandemic?  participated in many, many zoom calls, in multiple languages, and appreciated the changing seasons in the place I live, the Catskills of upstate New York.  I can't wait to travel again, but I'll see if this simple post gets me back blogging.  In the meantime, deep gratitude to all of you who write, speak, and inspire.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

If I Ran a Museum in the US Right Now

It's been months since my last blog post--as my Gang of Five told me, "when you're ready to write again, you will."  I had an idea a week or so ago that I never got to, but today I realized that I needed to reflect publicly on the events of the last few days here in the United States.

On December 1, 2013,  I wrote a post called "If I Ran a Museum in Kyiv Right Now." I had (and still have) a deep affection for Ukraine, its people and its possibilities and December 1 was the day that student protests morphed into something bigger and different, leading to many deaths, a revolution and a war in the East of Ukraine with Russia that continues to this day. My dear friend and colleague Ihor Poshyvailo read that post late at night, and he's been generous in saying that it inspired him to go to Maidan and begin collecting the stories and objects.  He's now the director of the Museum of the Revolution of Dignity, the museum that emerged from those days.  But in fact, friends, colleagues and former students immediately began doing so many things:  they were on the barricades, they served as medics, they made and delivered food--they supported each other and their community.

As I watched my social media feeds over the last few days I was struck by what seemed to be a lack of action and support from US museums.  Marilia Bonas, a Brazilian colleague asked on Twitter, "Waiting to see more and more american museums public statements against racism.  EUA (USA) had a strong position in defence of the new museum definition in Kyoto. Where are you guys?" 

So when directors spoke up, it really stood out:

Lori Fogarty of the Oakland Museum wrote, in a museum tweeted signed directly by her not just about support, but about action: "Members of our staff are engaging in brave and authentic dialogue about this moment...We will also be exploring ways for the Muaseum as an organization to respond, continue the vital work of equity and inclusion and insure that we give voice to the cry for an end to violence against black people, people of color and other brothers, sisters and siblings who feel the impact of marginalization and inhumanity."

Jorge Zamanillo, Executive Director of History Miami sent a direct message to his community in the Instagram post below, directly assuming responsibility for the harm that museums have caused in the continuing legacy of racism.  

If I were the director of a US museum right now, I would speak out.  But equally importantly, I would see what actions we, as a museum, could take.  It's no secret that museums are financially hurting right now, just as members of our community are.  

So what can you do?  Begin by asking some of these questions.

  • Can your museum serve as a safe haven for those who feel unsafe from the police?  What kind of direct aid can you give?  I saw somewhere today (who can help find info?) that staff from a museum in New York were outside with masks, milk, and other supplies for protestors.  
  • How can your museum begin dialogues? with whom?
  • Have you looked deeply at your collections, your hiring policies, and the ways in which you welcome visitors?  
  • Have you joined the protests in your city?
  • How are legacies of racism embedded in all of those--and how can you change them?
  • If you're a director, have you had a frank conversation with your board about expectations for their behavior and support of anti-racist work?

In 2013, I suggested that Ukrainians might want to begin collecting objects.  To be honest, I can't decide if that's something museums should be doing right now.  We should not be doing that unless we address the larger systemic issues of society and our institutions at the same time.  The answer to addressing those issues will be different in every community--but every museum--from the smallest historical society to the Smithsonian can play a part (see the National Museum of African American History and Culture's new web portal Talking About Race or check out the work of the many Sites of Conscience in the United States and around the globe addressing the difficult work of reconciliation--we have many lessons to learn from elsewhere).

If you want more suggestions, check out this blog post from Museum Education Roundtable for specific suggestions to support your community and to make change within your organization. It should be no surprise that the quickest professional organization to respond was one comprised of museum educators--hardest hit by Covid-related unemployment yet most connected to community.

A year or so after I published that post about Ukraine, I was one of a number of bloggers who jointly shared the post, #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson.  It's deeply saddening to realize how true that post still rings:
There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role--as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit--in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level? 
We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?
I wish I had more answers than questions, but I want to end by expressing my particular appreciation for young colleagues who have been far braver than I ever was at the start of my career:  Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, who spearheaded the #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson effort along with Gretchen Jennings, and whose regular tweet chats on the topic gave shape to new approaches;  other bloggers and activists,  and the many colleagues now working for fair and equitable treatment through the formation of unions at their museums.  I am in your debt.

Top photo:  Photo by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

Saturday, February 29, 2020

A Wellcoming Power of Ten in London

Years ago, Rainey Tisdale introduced me to the concept of the power of ten, developed by the Project for Public Spaces--the idea that public places need more than one reason to be there--preferably ten!  So in a park, for instance, you might walk, birdwatch, eat, play with your dog--you get the idea. Museums have gotten better at this, but many still have a long way to go.

I was reminded vividly of that concept when I visited the Wellcome Collection a few weeks ago in London--the entire museum had loads to do--but in particular, I found the Reading Room to be one of the most welcoming (sorry, no pun intended), fascinating, friendly museum/library spaces I had visited in a very long time.

First, it's a beautiful space, so the first thing you might do would be just to enjoy the space (above, photo from the Wellcome Collection website) But what else did I see people doing?

Read--there all kinds of books on the shelves, just ready for you to dive in.

Draw your self-portrait--and share it with others.

Play board games--and another complicated game I never quite figured out!

Look at art.

Build things with giant foam blocks--with your family or with perfect strangers--and the prompt was to imagine what abstract ideas might look like in physical form.

Share a drawing of what you eat to feel better.

Join in a facilitated conversation--for all ages-- about toys that represent all of us.

Send a postcard (oh yes, postcards free for the taking)

And also, dream, chat, connect, wonder, and more.  There were things you could do by yourself, there were things you could do with people you came with, and there were things that you could do with people you'd never met.  You could learn new things, or visit books that were old-friends.  You could use your physical self;  your emotional self; your connected self.  And importantly, I don't remember one piece one piece of digital technology (although there was lots in other parts of the museum, deployed in some interesting ways).

The Reading Room felt both the most old-fashioned place and the place of the future--where we learn to deeply connect.  Thanks Wellcome Collection, for making a rainy London afternoon so memorable!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Museum-Catch Up #3: No Labels Needed

We went to Mexico City for Christmas and visited lots of museums--a lot!  This is just a quick post about the National Museum of Anthropology.  The collections here are tremendous--I learned a great deal about cultures I knew little about.  Objects were beautifully displayed, labels were useful, and I loved the way the museum used both indoor and outdoor space.

But there was one place where a label wasn't needed--the objects themselves made an impact on me.  You can see it at the top of the post. After going through all of the exhibition galleries on the ground floor with the evidence of sophisticated cultures, this two objects are displayed side-by-side:  a simple wooden cross, evidence of European colonialism and a stone statue with the features destroyed, a visible symbol of the Spaniards' efforts to destroy existing cultures.

It was a great juxtaposition and one I'll long remember.  #MuseumsAreNotNeutral.

And, just because, some other images from the museum below.