Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why Can't Museums be More Like City Markets?

I love all kinds of food markets: outdoor farmers markets and particularly, big city indoor markets--Toronto's St. Lawrence Market, Pike Place Market in Seattle, fish vendors under the bridge in Venice. That means one of the nicest parts of picking up my daughter from college is a visit to the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. As I shopped yesterday, I realized that this kind of market has much to teach museums. What do they do well?

It's friendly--everyone can go
City markets like this one are not just the province of the educated and well-to-do, or the old but not the young, or whatever. It really does represent a cross-section of a community, I think.

Knowledge is freely shared
At the cheese-mongers, long detailed labels explain each cheese's provenance and taste--but that's not all. When I ask about different cheeses, the guy behind the counter takes thoughtful time to share his knowledge--and a taste of each. Sort of like a "curator of cheese" who loves working on the museum floor.

It embraces diversity
I'm sure the stands at the market are somewhat different than fifty years ago. Falafel and sushi now reside among the booths run by Amish and Mennonite farmers from rural Pennsylvania. All kinds of people working together (as opposed, I must say, to a recent major museum visit where I observed that all the professional staff I saw, wearing name tags, were white, and all the guards working on the floor were people of color). There probably is stratification at the market and I suspect change may have come slowly, but change has happened.

Tradition matters
At the butcher's I went to, most of the butchers were over 60; and a couple were, I'd guess, over 70. But at the same time, a young guy was learning the ropes about cutting meat and working with customers. The informal passing of knowledge from one generation to another is a hallmark of those who work there.

A market engages all your senses
It does matter what it looks like. The booths don't rely on their reputations to attract customers. Meat, produce, cheeses, and more are all displayed beautifully. You taste, smell, touch and hear--in addition to the colorful and creative visual displays.

It encourages conversation, connections and independent learning
A butcher teased me about my lack of meat-cooking knowledge--and then came out from behind the counter to give me a hug as he jokingly apologized for teasing me. I overheard other customers discussing what to make for Christmas dinner, or any of a number of other topics. (and by the way, absolutely encourages return visitation, made more meaningful by those conversations). I didn't have to take a guided tour of that meat counter, but it was my choice to learn how to cook that leg of lamb and why a leg is a better choice for me than a crown roast. Free-choice learning at its best.

And, by the way, it's free!

From top to bottom:
Reading Terminal Market sign
Center food area, Reading Terminal Market, December 20, 2008
Cheese case, by camera_obscura, via Flickr
Two of the meat guys, December 20, 2008
Tri-color cabbages at the market, by rockamandy, via Flickr

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cataloged (or catalogued)

In some random flickr browsing, found these great behind-the-scenes photos of the Booth Museum in Brighton, UK. Thanks, maskingtape for these!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Story of La Guerra Civil or Why I Work in Museums

Nina Simon wrote a fascinating thoughtful post on her Museum 2.0 blog on why she works in museums and encouraged other museum bloggers to do the same. So I'd been thinking about what I would say when an experience this past week brought it into clearer focus for me.

At the beginning--like a number of museum professionals I know--I came into the field as a teenager. I didn't work wearing a costume, but I began volunteering at my local historical society when I was fourteen. I started with my mother's encouragement, mostly as a way to get me out of the house (my older sister was a candy-striper at the hospital which was not so interesting to me). I was lucky enough that summer to work for a young graduate of a museum studies program , who was very encouraging and gave me a varied selection of tasks to do. That year, or one of the ones right after, I did an inventory of the costume collection--and so at first glance, it was the cool stuff that attracted me to the field. I still remember a magenta evening dress from that summer.

But now, as I think about it more, I think the real answer might lie somewhere else--and the illustration for this isn't me in the attic inventorying costumes, but rather me, creaking my bedroom door open so I could read, late after bedtime, by the light of the hallway that streamed in. I loved reading, and I particularly loved a whole range of old-fashioned stories--Anne of Green Gables, the Railway Children, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Those stories and the details in them--the apple tree outside Anne's window or the Turkish delight found through the wardrobe door. These compelling stories, filled with detail and texture, fill my memories. As my career in museums has progressed, it's that love of stories, that opportunity to understand other lives, that has formed the main frame for my work. I found I wanted to tell stories, to hear stories, and to connect stories to other lives, past and present.

What reinforced it this week? For a project at the Montgomery County Historical Society in Rockville, MD, evaluator Catherine Harris conducted a series of focus groups for us about different topics. Montgomery County is tremendously diverse (at some high schools, 94 different languages spoken). This project will be done tri-lingually, in English, Spanish and Chinese, the three most prevalent languages in the county. The Spanish-speaking group, all mothers meeting at a high school, provided me with a memorable connection. We asked participants about their interest in several different topics in local history. One topic was the Civil War, with a question framed around the idea of battles fought in your own backyard. I have to admit, sometimes I think of the Civil War as the province of re-enactors, or academic historians.

But to these women, most from Central America, the idea of the Civil War here was a fascinating, important one. Why? To paraphrase one participant, it was because they knew civil war at home, where brothers and fathers were taken or killed, and it was amazing to think that, not much more than a hundred years later, that a place where the American Civil War was fought could now be this--the land of highways, rolling fields, housing developments and shopping malls--and of freedom and safety.

After this morning discussion, I wanted not only to find better and more meaningful ways to tell the story of the Civil War, but also to learn the stories of these particular women and find ways to share them with their community. Relevance comes in surprising forms--but only if you take the time to listen to your audience. Those human stories connect us in many more ways than we might perhaps imagine.

Top and Bottom: Participants in the Spanish language focus group, Gaithersburg, MD
Center: Boys read story books in the shade, Caldwell, Idaho, July, 1941. Photograph by Russell Lee, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Looking Backward at Planning

This week I had a rare opportunity--a chance to look back at a planning process, ten years old, where I was a participant. It was a great chance to ponder what makes a planning process work, what might slow it down, and what outcomes, other than those intended, it might have.

Ten years ago, I served as a parent participant in a process called a search conference for my local rural school district. I knew at the time, but had forgotten, that the facilitator of the conference was writing her dissertation on the process. Coincidentally, I came into contact with her and she shared a copy of the dissertation with me.

A search conference is a formal process that brings together a large number of community participants to envision a future for an organization and begin steps to achieving that future. There were sixty or so of us, that cold weekend in February, 1999. We met for 2 1/2 days at the school, many of us not well-known to each other and attempted to craft a vision for the school district my daughter attended.

What did I learn looking backwards?

How difficult it always is to bring all the right people to the table
By right people I mean everyone who has a stake in the outcome of the plan. In this case, the team lacked teachers from higher grade levels and parents and community members that represented different economic levels. I see that now in my own work as organizations struggle to put together focus groups or seek out new board members different than themselves. It tells me, more than ever, that we need to make renewed efforts to represent our communities.

The use of silence
One activity that weekend was for everyone, in silence, to group activities underneath a common set of goals. Everyone began with ten or so strips with a single activity listed on it; all at once, and in silence, we placed them where they thought they belonged, but could continue to move ours, and others, until we felt all were in the right place. I'm a talker, so silence isn't my first option, but I remember this as an intensely focused and thoughtful silence, with all participating. Interesting to learn that this was an add-on to the process, as facilitators felt a different approach was needed.

The importance of leadership
At the time, the school district had an energetic new superintendent who soon departed for a different district. Not surprisingly, the follow-up process lost steam under an interim superintendent and a fast approaching financial crisis. Even when a new superintendent arrived, the process had irretrievably faltered and was never returned to. Could a dynamic leader have made a difference? Perhaps.

Change scares people
Much of my work is about encouraging organizations to think about new ways of working, of reaching people, of interpreting their collections or engaging their communities. Reading this was a bracing reminder that for many people, change is scary, not exciting and that I need to find new ways to articulate the meaning and importance of change.

Consensus doesn't mean success
A central idea in the dissertation was that a planning process like this, which is focused on reaching consensus, may not result in real change because it doesn't provide the real time and space to work out critical issues. In other words, that consensus is reached because people don't want to disagree publicly, but those disagreements still simmer and in the long run, make the plan's success impossible.

I'm not for planning meetings as shouting matches, but perhaps a little more work to bring those disagreements to the fore, encouraging planning participants to fully articulate those concerns. I've been in some meetings recently where disagreements were plentiful and although it's an exhausting time, it's been clear in all the cases that these disagreements are long-standing among board members, but never discussed. So, let's discuss.

Lifelong learning
Perhaps most importantly, reading the dissertation gave me a look back at ten years of learning: my personal life as a parent, PTA president and general school activist, and my professional life working with organizations to encourage new learning. At the same time, I realize how much I learn from each of my consultancies and how much there still is to be learned. I eagerly anticipate a continuation of the long and winding path of my own learning.

Top: snow footprints by gamezero Below: path in Dover by tethairwen
Both via morguefile