Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Fearless Museum Exhibit: A Post in Honor of World Refugee Day


Monday was World Refugee Day so it seems the past time to share one of the most meaningful museum experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s taken me far too long to write about—but if you’ve been in conversation with me over the last several months, I’ve probably told you about it.
In April, my dear friend and colleague Katrin Hieke joined me for a weekend of museum-going in Berlin and she had scouted out exhibits that I never would have found.  One of them was at the Museum of European Cultures—a museum I couldn’t quite imagine. What would it be about? High culture?  Folk culture?


Here's how the museum explains its work:
The Museum Europäischer Kulturen is dedicated to collecting, researching, preserving, presenting, and raising awareness of artefacts of European everyday culture and human lived realities from the 18th century until today. As such, we transcend national and linguistic borders and facilitate encounters among different groups of people. Our work is characterised by the term ‘cultural contact’.
We continually seek to forge connections between our historical collection and current issues. An important aspect of this work is a close cooperation with respective interest groups, as well as facilitating an exchange with our visitors.

The staff, led by director Elisabeth Tietmeyer, have chosen to continually expand all of our perspectives on what “European culture” is.   Katrin had found that they offered Tandem tours, in German and Arabic, of the exhibition "daHeim:  Glances into Fugitive Lives" so we arrived just in time.  What’s a Tandem tour?  One of the refugees/artists who created the exhibit led the exhibition tour, joined by a museum curator and a translator.  Along the way, our small group not only conversed in German and Arabic, but English and Greek.


What was the exhibit?  It was the work of a small group of refugees, from all over the world, who were housed at a single hostel in Berlin.  Using the hostel bedframes as their primary material, they created extensive installations, along with art work on the walls and in smaller iterations, that explored their own experience as refugees coming to Berlin. The works were powerful in and of themselves,  but our guided tour made it even more so.  He Xshared the stories of creating the works and of individual refugee stories.  The group of creators became a cohesive group, and now, even after the exhibit is finished, meet every week to socialize.


The works depicted the often-harrowing journey, the German bureaucracy, families left at home and memories of cities destroyed.  And in every instance, our guide made the experience deeper, more personal, more real.  At the small bedframe, adapted with rockers to simulate the rocking of a boat, with a small iPhone-sized video of someone’s voyage, when he shared his own journey, we all fell silent, suddenly into a world unknown to us. So as humans, the exhibition touched Katrin and me deeply.  But there are also important lessons for us as museum people.  



Here’s a few takeaways:
  • Be fearless.  This was a big exhibit with, I suspect, an unknown outcome when it began.  The staff had to trust its exhibition partners, the refugees themselves, and its own ability to explain and explore the content. 
  • Let go of your “museum” voice.   We talk a lot about shared authority, but then, often, we resort to exerting control after we talk to an “advisory committee” and get their input. 
  • Be about the now.  More than ever, the world needs more thoughtful, passionate voices exploring how we can make a better world together.  The long lead time for exhibition development often shoves us into irrelevancy. 
  • Don’t just talk.  It’s pretty easy to talk about how museums should be relevant and how we should be more diverse.  We are still moving way too slow and need to pair institutional and personal action.   Last year at ICOM, the mayor of Lampedusa, Italy, where many refugees have come ashore, spoke about how history will judge all of us in receiving nations harshly for our lack of actions in the refugee crisis. We must do more.

Want to explore more about migration and cultural organizations?  Check out the free downloadable publication, The Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees: The Role of Cultural Organisations coordinated by Maria Vlachou and just released this week.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Visiting The Museum of Things


Do museums need objects?  Do we have too many objects?  How do you contextualize objects? What should we be collecting? or not collecting?  These are the kinds of questions that many of us wrestle with on an ongoing basis so it was an unexpected pleasure in April to visit the Museum of Things (Museum der Dinge) in Berlin that is unabashedly about things, in particular, the consumer culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.


My great colleague Katrin Hieke and I experienced some pure delight in exploring objects and puzzling over how the open storage was arranged.  Sometimes by decade, sometimes by color, sometimes by origin.  The crowded shelves actually encouraged us to look deeper, to dig into cases that attracted us.  And as always, with museum visits, what you bring with you matters:  Katrin grew up in East Germany (DDR) so her added context about some objects was great--and she appreciated the way objects from both the DDR and West Germany were sometimes displayed together.


One section of the exhibition was about branding, but then there were also those anonymous objects that we think of as no-brands:  rubber bands, paper clips and the like, encouraging us to think about why some things need branding and others do not.


The museum had some lovely, simple interactives.  First, their calendar of upcoming events was not a display on a screen or a bulletin board, but on these shelves, making the calendar an object in itself. In another location, you could adopt an object and help support its care (you can also do this on the website). The interactives valued pencil and a sense of hand, something too rarely valued in contemporary culture.



But the interactives (and the exhibitions as a whole) didn't shy away from encouraging us to think more deeply about all those things in our lives.  "How should we live?" asked a question on a magnet board.



Wouldn't it be great to take an object away with you from a museum?  At the Museum of Things, a vending machine outside the door gives you a tiny package with a small object, a bit of verse, and a sweet.  What could be better?  Even though it's clear that this museum is very carefully curated and designed, as befits a design-oriented museum, it provided a kind of joy for me that's all-too-rare my museum visits these days--the joy of discovery, surprise, and connection.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Berlin: Reminders for our Future


First, a quick observation that probably applies to far more than blogging.  Since I began my new job at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience in February, my blog posts have been few and far between. It's no lack of ideas because the work is exciting and challenging, full of interesting questions to puzzle, but somehow finding the head space.  And of course, once you get out of the habit, it becomes much harder to get back into the habit.  That next post--it has to be really, really good since it's been so long!  I've finally moved past that thinking, hence the post below, but if you want to learn more about getting past that sense of perfection and you'll be at AAM, be sure and check out Maura Hallisey, Danielle Steinmann and my session on prototyping as a way to move towards change. Check out our guest post on the Center for the Future of Museums blog.  And now, back to our irregularly scheduled blogging.


A few weeks ago, I visited Berlin and in visiting even places I'd been before, I found it full of unexpected resonance in these troubling times.  Berlin is a city of memorials large and small, and I found meaning in places large and small, often unexpected.  In Berlin as in other European cities, you see tiny brass blocks with names and dates in front of some buildings. Sometimes just one or two, sometimes whole clusters.  They are Stolpersteine, stumbling blocks, a project by artist Gunter Demnig. Right there, under your feet, are palpable reminders of a regime that once rounded people up and took them away because of their religion, ethnicity, politics or sexual orientation; reminders that all these blocks were people, with families, with lives, with futures taken.


On my way to a meeting, I stepped into the Palace of Tears, the former train station that served as the main checkpoint in between East and West Berlin.  The reminder here:  that, as one German said to me over dinner, "We have tried a wall.  They never work."  At Checkpoint Charlie, an outdoor exhibit included images and text from John F. Kennedy's visit to Berlin in 1963:  a reminder that the United States is a inevitably a part of the larger world and that our future rests with that understanding.


The Topography of Terror Documentation Centre is near the site of the Nazi SS headquarters. It's unflinching in its look at the horrific work of the SS.  There's nothing flashy about the indoor exhibition at the site, but a steady piling upon piling of information about the crimes of the Third Reich.  Virtually every visitor I saw was reading intently.  The reminder there:  that nations and people can be different, but that the need for activism is always present.



I came across this building, below, on my first morning in what used to be East Berlin. It says, "This house used to be in another country.  Human will can move everything."  What better reminder for an engaged, activist, human-centered future?


Monday, March 20, 2017

A Small Piece of the Big Picture: IMLS and Local Communities


The new administration's budget which proposes the total elimination of funds for NEA, NEH and IMLS (the Institute of Museum and Library Services) got me thinking about my role as a Museum Assessment Program (known as MAP and administered by the American Alliance of Museums) reviewer. This post is about the ways that my individual experience--like so many other of my colleagues' experiences--pushes back against the false narrative that funding for these agencies only supports elite institutions in big cities or that they are a frill, unnecessary in struggling parts of the country.

I have been a MAP reviewer for museums and history organizations from Eastern Washington State to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  In every case, the museum itself decides that its progress could be assisted by an outside reviewer.  It's an entirely voluntary process and the museum pays only a token amount. Reviewers like me, essentially volunteers, receive a small stipend for conducting the site visit and writing a report. That stipend and the travel expenses are covered by federal funds.

What have I found?  Every place is different, with different challenges, but all of my visits were characterized by an openness and willingness to learn.  In every case, the organizations were interested in thinking in new ways, particularly about broadening their audiences. Some had further to go than others in that thinking, but at every place, I found myself in thoughtful, questioning discussions.

What were these places like for those of you who might think that IMLS is only for the big guys? What difference does it make? Let's see.


Seven years ago I went to the tiny Hayden Heritage Center in Northern Colorado, where my overnight host, a member of the board, told me she knew I'd arrive soon because she heard the plane overhead in a big, starry sky; the same place where everyone on the board wore cowboy boots and I had a great lunch on Taco Thursday at the local bar.  The museum's collection was wide-ranging:  I recall a giant ball of string, some terrific historic photos, and objects that helped explore the story of this region's settlement including the vital role of women. I recontacted the Heritage Center to see if they'd made use of the report.  Here's the response from curator Laurel Watson, who joined the museum after my visit, when I wrote her to ask about the utility of MAP:
They are key resources to give us tools that enable us to assess our weaknesses and strengths and determine what we need to do in order to better serve our communities and continue to protect and preserve our local history and heritage. 

All the way on the East Coast, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the Queen Anne's Historical Society (above, a photo from a July 4th celebration) wanted to expand their community-based work. I remember a thoughtful community focus group, with deep, honest conversation about how the historical society could begin to reach out to the long-standing African-American community whose history had been largely absent in the telling.


In the middle of the country, a larger organization, Indiana Landmarks, was struggling to rethink its historic house. The Morris-Butler House had been the place where the organization was founded and helped jumpstart a preservation movement by forcing the re-routing of an Interstate (above). The house was now sadly outdated in its interpretation, consuming resources and not attracting visitors. Gwendolen Nystrom, now Director, Indianapolis Volunteers and Heritage Experiences at Indiana Landmarks wrote when I recently asked about the value:
The MAP review acted as the catalyst for fundamentally changing the operation of Indiana Landmarks’ beloved historic site, Morris-Butler House. The report provocatively asked the parent organization to consider “whether or not it is appropriate [for Morris-Butler House] to continue as a historic house museum” and prompted the organization to strategically reinvent the house. 
Through her recommendations and the subsequent planning input of other industry experts, we were able to successfully transition the house away from a traditional historic house museum to a smaller, more intimate venue that highlights its symbolic importance to the organization and demonstrates through adaptive reuse our historic preservation mission, all while retaining the historic fabric of the site. Our visibility and visitation has increased since these changes were implemented. This would not have been possible without the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) grant we received from IMLS and the American Alliance of Museums.
Back to the west again, for both a MAP review and then a later re-visit to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane (a mural from there is at the head of this post).  This museum is an unusual hybrid of state agency and non-profit organization, with history, art, and natural history collections--as well as a world-class collection of Native American materials from the region and the Americas.  It had been through some troubled times, and these were visits with lots and lots of listening.  They have a new director on board this month, and longtime curator Marsha Rooney just reflected on my visits,
Your Spokane MAP visits have been most useful to us, not only for the professional administrative guidance and recommendations found in your reports, but also for the enthusiasm, creative ideas, concrete examples, and internal teambuilding and communication skills that you modeled while on site.
It's been great to check back in this week with these museums and hear about my impact--but it's not about me.  These MAP visits are community investments.  The tiny (say not much more than the cost of a few golf balls) investment almost always lead to additional community investments of both time and money.  Said Laurel Watson from Hayden:
I have used the assessment report for grants for various topics that were brought up in the MAP. It has been a great tool for helping me and my Board (which is consists of entirely new people since the Assessment) determine strategies and goals for the Museum.
This is what the Trump administration has proposed:  the dismantling of support for nothing less than our nation's history. Again, from Watson:
Small museums may be a small piece of the big picture of our national history but without each small piece the big picture begins to crumble and fade.
Call your Congresspeople and your Senators to express support for IMLS, NEA and NEH.  If you've already done so, do it again.  Invite them to visit your museum or historical society to see for themselves.  We can push back and save this resource that contributes to community building coast-to-coast.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Stuck on an Object


All of us who work in museums see lots of objects--so many sometimes, that they seem to run together. But sometimes there's an object whose physicality or story sticks with us, for reasons we can't seem to explain.  My new job is just a block or so from the Morgan Library and last week I made a quick lunchtime trip--my first visit.  There is a major exhibit on Emily Dickinson there, all of which I enjoyed, but I found myself drawn to this tiny, house-shaped poem. In her tiny, unique handwriting, there it was:

The way Hope builds his House
It is not with a sill –
Nor Rafter – has that Edifice
But only Pinnacle –

Abode in as supreme
This superficies
As if it were of Ledges smit
Or mortised with the Laws –

I've thought about this piece of paper many times since that visit. But I still find myself puzzling over why. Is it that a house and a reclusive poet just seem to go together?  Is it the sense of hand, of personality in the writing?  Is it the combination of shape and poem?  It might be all of the above.

It was a gentle reminder of the many, many ways that each visitor approaches an exhibit and how many different ways there are to find meaning in the object. A generous exhibit design allows each of us to find our way.

What's a memorable object you've seen recently?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Building a Learning Culture: Food Included


A few weeks ago, I spent two days working with board and staff at the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis, MN.  Since that visit,  I've been deep in learning about my own new job, but I find myself thinking about those days and about how collaborative learning cultures are built. I first visited ASI this summer, when I keynoted the Association of Midwest Museums conference. I was unexpectedly impressed (truth be told) with a place I pictured as a sleepy place with folk dancing and woodworking.  But I found a museum that was humming with invention. At a reception there, an ASI board member spoke about how the museum had shifted its mission as the community around it changed: now the museum was not just about the Swedish experience, but about the immigrant experience (particularly the Somali and Hmong communities) for many, past and present; through the lens of Sweden and the other Nordic countries.  As a result, I was thrilled when Bruce Karstadt, President & CEO, asked me back to talk creative practice in the context of strategic and interpretive planning.


What made ASI a learning organization?

Some of a culture of learning comes in an organization's DNA. It's hard to identify exactly where it comes from and hard to see from the outside (that's ASI on a gray January day, above).  For the board meeting, I shared a reading list before coming. It wasn't focused on strategic planning as a task, but readings that touched on the values of ASI: stewardship, hospitality, learning, innovation and sustainability and the museum's key themes of culture, migration, the environment and the arts. We know that our creativity is enhanced when we take in a broad range of information.  On the list were articles, Ted talks and podcasts, ranging from Theaster Gates' Ted Talk How to Revive a Neighborhood with Imagination, Beauty and Art," the New York Times series on welcoming Syrian immigrants to Canada, Dr. Fari Nzinga's “Public Trust and Art Museums,” on The Incluseum Blog and a tech article on why Sweden is a great place for innovation. It was a broad list and I was surprised that everyone at the meeting had done the readings and were anxious to dive into conversation about the relevance to the museum.  Boards bring a wealth of experiences to their board service and finding time for them to think big picture is one of the most important things a leader can do.  Bruce Karstadt encouraged that conversation which I'm sure will bear fruit as the planning continues.  


Lesson 1:  Good ideas come from everywhere. Cast a wide net in your information sources and share.

The next day, the staff convened for a day and a half of thinking and planning. ASI is large enough that not all the staff know each other well, so the chance to learn more about each other was an important part of this process. Everyone, including senior staff, put aside time to participate in the process.

Lesson 2:  Make time to think together.  Every time there's a conversation about community engagement, people ask where they should start. My answer is always the same.  Get out there:  go to different, new places in your community.  Meet people, talk, listen, learn, repeat.  We divided up into groups and headed over to Midtown Global Market, walking distance away, with food, crafts and more from vendors serving food from their home countries, hipster foodies, and more.  The groups' assignment was simple:  observe everything you could about how a market experience could help shape a new interpretive experience in the museum's historic Turnblad Mansion.  And of course, we all needed to eat--so we each went armed with $10 to get a great lunch.


Lesson 3: Get out there and listen. What did we learn at the Market? One, the way different stall owners introduced new information to us about food. They were interpreters, in the museum sense of the word, but so friendly and always starting where we were, not where they thought we should be. We found one restaurant that gave you a discount if you did a Bollywood move or two--and even provided the instructions. We realized that the audience for the museum and the users of the market had very little intersection. How could that be changed?  The museum already has some collaborations underway with different communities--but this visit gave the team ideas about new collaborations and how to deepen other partnerships.


Lesson 4: Lead by doing. That's Bruce Karstadt, ASI President and CEO, at left, with other staff members in the photo above. Leaders who don't participate send the message that others don't need to either. Bruce, Peggy Korsmo-Kennan and other senior staff were enthusiastic participants for all the time I was there. It makes an enormous difference when your staff knows that your leadership believes in what's happening--and wants to hear from all of you.

Lesson 5: Have fun. After our market visits, the groups were tasked with coming up with new interpretive experiences in the house. Those were serious experiences, but we had a great time planning and sharing them.


Lesson 6:  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  The time spent together built new understandings of the staff dynamics. At the end of the visit, the entire team dedicated some time to talking about how to streamline communication (those long email chains?  everyone everywhere hates them) and how to design ways for creative ideas to thrive throughout the whole museum.  

The museum also had 2 elements already established that you might consider adopting at your organization:  first, the annual Elsie Pederson (I think I have her name right) Day, named after a dedicated, tidy volunteer. The day is devoted, once a year, to cleaning up and refreshing staff offices. It's that time to get rid of those old brochures, the flip chart notes, the whatever.  The second is a regularly scheduled staff fika, drawing on the Swedish tradition of a coffee break, with baked goods, to take time out of a busy day and connect.


One brief side note:  I was moved by their current exhibit, "Where the Children Sleep - Photographs by Magnus Wennman,"  memories of which returned to me when I watched the Oscar-nominated short documentary, 4.1 Miles, about a Greek coast guard captain  going out, every day, to save thousands of refugees at sea.  Look at the photos; watch the documentary.



Sunday, February 5, 2017

Learning Together: The 2017 Mentees


Once again, my annual call for participants in my small mentor program resulted in the chance to get acquainted with a number of you who made the effort to reach out and submit an application.  My thanks to all of you who shared your questions, your work, your ideas and more.  I'm pleased to announce this year's two mentees.


Tania Said is Director of Education at the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University in Muncie, IN.  She's had a varied career bringing her to this point--at the Smithsonian, in positions from an internship to Community Services Manager, at the Smithsonian's Center for Education and Museum Studies.  She worked at AAM and as Director of the Bead Museum in DC, but has now returned to where she did her undergraduate work.  Tania's questions revolve around ways to increase community engagement and ways to be an advocate for a more diverse workforce.

I loved her description when I asked an exhibit she had found interesting in the last year:
“What Lies Beneath” is a conservation exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I found it especially interesting because of my 12-year-old son and his friend’s reaction to it. They immediately dove into the answering the question of who painted the work of art in question, donning lab jackets, exploring the available tools, reading the docket, and writing their responses. While they skipped the introductory video, they clearly thrilled in finding out about the underlying painting by using and learning about x-ray and infrared scanning tools. The children’s reactions contrasted with the more typical response of watching me enjoy an exhibition and enduring any conversation I may want to have about it; instead, they were self-motivated. I believe this was not just how the exhibition was organized, but the diversity of information providers, and the excellent design presenting all of the opportunities for interaction. Adults visiting the small exhibition (less than 400 sq. ft.) seemed equally curious and willing to explore by not just reading and seeing works of art, but discussing it as well. 

The second mentee is Hannah Hethmon, currently familiar to many of you in the history museum field as Membership Marketing Coordinator at the American Association for State and Local History. Hannah came to the museum field from gaining a Master's degree in Viking and Icelandic Studies at the University of Reykjavík, Iceland, and previous experience as a marketing coordinator for Granite Grannies, Inc and a freelance copywriter.

Hannah wrote, "At the moment, I'm really interested in the ability of new technology, particularly social media, to democratize the museum invitation and become a powerful tool for letting more diverse (racially, economically, socially) audiences know that museums are for them as well."  That interest extends to her key questions for the year:
How can I help AASLH's emerging professionals create meaningful connections within the field without requiring physical attendance at costly conferences? And how can small museums use technology to become a valued part of their community member's lives before those people ever step foot in the building?

Secondly, I am trying to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to learn new aspects of the museum trade, participate in projects (or discussions, like the NCPH 2017 working group on "Community Engagement in a Digital World" I've joined), and make meaningful connections to others in the field from whom I can learn and with whom I can discuss ideas and strategies.
Again, thanks to all who applied.  And to Tania and Hannah, I look forward to a great year of conversation as I know I'll learn as much, or more, than I share.

Top Image:  women shipyard workers, Beaumont, TX,  by John Vachon, 1943, Library of Congress collection