Monday, December 21, 2009

Meet the Pickle Project

Check out a new project that I'm working on--The Pickle Project. My colleague Sarah Crow and I hope to document and present a wide range of traditional foodways in Ukraine. Ukraine was the "Bread Basket" of Europe, but it's far from a uniform place but rather a nation composed of distinct eco-systems and a diverse population. Starting with the blog, and hopefully continuing to "foodcasts" online and exhibitions in both Ukraine and the US, we'll engage audiences in an exploration of the cultural significance of food and sustainability in the context of social and ecological change.

Today, Ukraine's various regions are under intense pressure from economic transition, changing population dynamics, new food and land management policies, political instability and globalization. Such significant change can have lasting impacts on traditional cultures and landscapes.

Based on our own experiences in Ukraine and elsewhere (Sarah spent last year in western Ukraine as a Fulbright Scholar working on issues of sustainability and forest resources) we'll begin by thinking about questions such as:
  • How is knowledge about foodways maintained and transmitted to younger generations among Ukraine's diverse ethnic groups?
  • How have economic and social changes affected lives and foodways in Ukraine?
  • How have environmental conditions affected the ability of local residents to be self-sufficient in terms of food?
  • How are objects and traditional knowledge used in the food production and preservation process?
  • What are the social institutions that support food production in Ukraine?

And why did we call it The Pickle Project? To us, pickled everything somehow symbolizes Ukraine. Pickling, food preservation, and the collection of wild foods such as mushrooms and berries, are ways to eat through the winter, sometimes provide much-needed family income, and connect to rural agricultural traditions.

You can become a fan of The Pickle Project on Facebook or follow the blog. And if you have photos or stories to share, people we should meet, or villages to visit, please let us know. Special thanks to Irina Leonenko for her great photos for this post!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Good News and Bad News or хороші і погані новини

Last week I gave a talk at a local library about my time as a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine.  This meant I spent an afternoon wandering back through all my images and thinking about Ukraine's--and my--past, present and future.   Almost every day, I read two different Ukrainian websites and they present me with two different perspectives on life there--and the work of museums.   (For new readers--my interest in Ukraine comes from my four months there in spring 2009 as a Fulbright Scholar--blog posts from January-April give an picture of my time there).

The Kyiv Post is Ukraine's English language daily--and is filled with a regular and extensive diet of depressing news.  On just one day,  for instance, January's upcoming Presidential election fraud worries, journalists are still arrested and harasssed for their work,  and the eternal news about property development in Kyiv (the latest, a hotel near Pechersk Lavra, a monastery and national treasure, founded in 1015).   Bad news, all the way around.

But I also read the Ukrainian Museum Portal, which is updated daily with news from Ukrainian museums--and I still hear fairly regularly from my Ukrainian museum colleagues.   The portal is only in Ukrainian, so I use Google Translate to get the gist of the brief articles.  The financial situation is dire in Ukraine, so I know museums there are struggling--but--I see exciting evidence of change.  A few examples (hopefully the translations are relatively accurate):
  • The Ivan Honchar Museum is establishing a sort of friends group, to relax and chat about different aspects of Ukrainian folk culture with friends and associates, in honor of the museum's 50th anniversary.
  • The Museum of Volyn now has a virtual tour online and Svetlana Pougach does a great job of keeping the Bulgakov Museum's blog and website current, with beautiful photographs of events and programs.

  • The Bleschunova Museum of Personal Collections in Odessa sponsored a workshop, "Creating a Museum Together"  for teachers and students.   The Chernihiv Historical Museum had a seminar focused on working with the visitor, which attracted more than 60 participants.   I believe both these workshops were developed by MATRA participants.
  • Near Lviv,  citizens are preparing a nomination of four wooden churches as World Heritage Sites.
  • The enthusiastic education staff at the Kharkiv Literary Museum and the National Museum of Art continue to develop new programs for children.   At the National Art Museum there is a special program for children during the holidays focused on graphic arts.  A special exhibit and  classes take a lively approach to art that's found everywhere--from billboards to banknotes.
Why the change?   Several reasons.

First, Sustained professional development.
the Dutch government, through MATRA, invested significant time and resources in a 3 year training program for museum professionals.  Through workshops, mentoring, travel to the Netherlands, and perhaps most importantly, a train the trainer program, Ukrainian museum colleagues gained knowledge, connections and a sense of the possible.    This long-term training, rather than short-term visits from Western countries,  has a far greater chance of success.

Exposure to new ideas and inspirations.
Whether it's a trip to the Netherlands or connections with colleagues on the web--there are many chances to see new ideas and approaches.   My Ukrainian colleagues who visited the US this fall came back with many ideas--"just wait til you see our museum!"  one wrote after her return.

But most importantly,  it's museum workers themselves that are the agents of change.   
As I wrote in an earlier post about community museums in America--you don't get there by hoping.   With limited financial resources, and often working within a system that doesn't reward or encourage initiative,  museum professionals all over Ukraine are beginning to make a real difference.    I'm very pleased to have the opportunity, through a renewal as a Fulbright Scholar, to return to Ukraine for another four months, beginning in March, 2010 and continue to learn, share and work with museums there.  So Ukrainian museum colleagues--please continue to keep me posted on how we can work together!

Monday, December 14, 2009

My Prototyping Toolkit

I've just finished a round of prototyping family activities for The Hyde Collection as part of an IMLS-supported interpretation project.   Prototyping is always a great way to find out what works and what doesn't--and it doesn't have to be expensive.   Particularly in this time of limited resources, prototypes are a way of ensuring that your ideas actually work--tested by the people who actually use them--your audience.

So here's what's in my toolkit as I develop simple prototypes (my work primarily focuses on history and art;  science prototypes might be different).   For me, prototype development tunrs my office into little piles for each project, as I play around and try and figure out what works.  Because I am perhaps one of the most un-hand-skilled people in the world, it means even you can develop prototypes.

First--other museum colleagues.   When I wanted to know what sort of bag would work best for families to use in museums, I queried the museum educators on Museum-Ed.  Sure enough--great responses:  clear backpacks, garden totes and even children's tool belts.   I also found a great web resource from the Victoria and Albert Museum on designing family backpacks.

Mike Baird Photo at the Morro Bay Aquarium via Flickr
Web resources:  Other useful web resources for thinking about museum interactives include the Family Learning Forum of the U.S.S. Constitution Museum and, believe it or, Flickr and YouTube.   Searching for "museum interactive" on Flickr gives you more than 14,000 examples of what at least one person thought was an interactive worth documenting--and on YouTube--almost 5,000 videos.   Thanks to Flickr  I adapted a poetry writing template from the Denver Art Museum.   (And, as usual, a big thumbs up to museums that allow photography and a big thumbs down to those who don't).

Senses and Intelligences:  use as many as you can.  Think of interactives to use all the senses.  And I return again and again to thinking about Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences.  If you don't already think about your interactives within that framework, here's a place to learn more and take a simple quiz about your own learning style.
Office and art supplies:  nothing expensive but foam core, colored pencils, printable magnet paper and small magnet boards, clipboards, Post-it notes,  felt,  and of course, your printer to print out images and directions.  Most of these are things that any museum educator has in a plastic bin somewhere for program use.

Ways to organize:  Providing clear directions for interactives is one of the biggest challenges--how to make the directions detailed enough, but not too detailed.   In this project, one challenge was making sure that visitors used the right activity in the right room.   We used inexpensive translucent envelopes, labeled with the room name, color coded and accompanied by a map.

Primary sources:  Sounds simple but using the resources of your museum--the things that make your site special, are often forgotten.   Rather than just presenting something about travel in an abstract way, the excerpts from Louis Hyde's travel diary--shopping, eating, and museum-going--made the experience come alive--and combined with something a bit surprising (images looked at on a Viewmaster) made the travel journal activity deeper and more engaging for visitors.

Observers/Evaluators:  My colleague Catherine Harris designed the evaluation process at the Hyde.   Interns and staff worked with her and observed family groups (recruited for the day) as they used each activity kit.  The observations noted both behavior and comments and then were followed by an interview that probed deeper into their experience.  We will now measure our observations and interviews against our previously-developed goal for each activity--then make changes and finalize the kits.

Family Visitors:   The most important part of your toolkit!  They can be walk-in visitors or recruited family groups--I've done it both ways.  I find prototyping one of the most rewarding things I do--and it's because families really dive into the process.  They like trying new things,  developing new skills, and most of all, feel honored by the chance to be a part of the process--to participate in the creative work of a museum.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Heroes and Great Labels

A funny pairing in the title--but a chance to reflect on two exhibits I saw earlier this fall and haven't yet found a chance to write about.  Although I've found myself sharing them in conversations with colleagues.   Exhibits at big museums both, but with lessons for museums of all sizes and types.

Heroes:  Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece is at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.  To begin with, the marketing for this show plays on several different levels.  I had seen banners and posters before I knew what the show was about--and the show logo, an abstraction of a helmet, made me think I might be seeing one of those Star Trekky shows around at science museums.   Happily I wasn't.  The museum's website describes the show,
This exhibition explores the human need for heroes through the arts of one of the oldest and most influential cultures in history. Heroes are sometimes portrayed as superhuman protagonists while at other times as average people who rise above the ordinary.

The show's creators  allowed you to personalize your visit--in ways that immediately connected.   At the start, you could sit down at a computer and take a quick quiz to let you know which hero you were like.  You then picked up a small metal button (just like all museum visitor buttons) with the logo of "your" hero.    It didn't end there:  each object in the exhibit highlighted, using the same graphic, one of the heroes, so you could connect yourself directly to the works of art.

There was a corner with books to learn more,  and a place where you made your own pinax (a votive tablet) depicting your own heroes--displayed on the board were tributes to moms,  Rachel Carson,  Martin Luther King, "Grandma Piglet,"  and "Philip Esposito,  Captain, US Army, Rest in Peace." 

The exhibit was very busy the weekday afternoon I was there.   A group of middle school boys buzzed around the space, completing worksheets, taking the computer quiz, and looking at the objects.  A group of older women seemed to be guiding themselves through the space--but they were a serious group of learners, working from a worksheet showing forms of Greek vases.  A docent with a small flashlight guided another group, using Visual Thinking Strategies to explore the work.

Upstairs, a companion exhibit continued to connect heroes to our present-day lives.  Working with Art on Purpose, a community based arts organization, the museum has presented two shows of work by community members.  The exhibit I saw, Twenty Years of Wandering uses the journey of Odysseus as a frame for work by immigrants, refugees and the homeless commenting on what it takes to survive in Baltimore.  I also liked that the community-based work wasn't down off in some basement somewhere, as it sometimes is.

If you're in Baltimore, don't miss these shows--and the best part--admission at the Walters is free--and it says so in big letters right on the front doors!

At the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, the Kenneth Behring Family Hall of Mammals had some of the best labels I've ever seen.  It begins with the opening label:

"Welcome to the Mammal Family Reunion!  Come and meet your relatives."   We know the exhibit is about mammals--and we know the exhibit presents the science of how we're related to them.   The exhibit design is quite beautiful and although I don't love taxidermied animals, the use of animals in highly abstracted settings that referenced their natural habitat was new and compelling.  But what about those labels?  Here's one:

It's short, easy to read, and contains information that helps me understand a bigger picture.  Here's another:

Incredibly easy to understand what makes an Ungulate--and the clear design of both the label text and the installation allow you to take that simple equation and look at examples--coming away with an expanded understanding.   I saw parents reading this label with their children--and then pointed as they found the characteristics--a great "pointability" example.

What do these exhibits have in common?  It seems to me that the unifying threads are two:  one is a clarity of purpose.  These exhibit teams know what the exhibit is about.  There's a clear big idea and all the exhibit elements drive that forward.  The second is that both exhibits put visitors at the center.  It's not about telling us zillions of details about mammals or Greek vases, but understanding that a connection is what makes the exhibit memorable.   Importantly, the clarity of purpose and the visitor-centered approach are elements that don't cost money--just some thoughtful time and effort.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

We Can Do That!

Two conversations today reinforced the idea that local community museums have unique, important roles to play--that is, if we choose to think about them differently.   I paid a visit to my own community's fledgling history organization--after looking at some lonely tools and a great collection of photographs, the volunteer and I had a discussion about ways to get people involved in history--and I mentioned that I had found a historic photo of my house I'd never seen on Flickr--work done, as it turns out, by a young volunteer.   That led to a larger conversation about Treadwell past and present--our current population including many artists, and Treadwell's former self, where there were two grocery stories and six places to buy gas (along with a  milliner, cooper and assorted other occupations).  How can a very local history organization connect past and present--with an eye towards the future?

A colleague and I then discussed a new exhibit project, which led to a discussion of the kind of participatory museum that Nina Simon writes so eloquently about.   Recently, I've noticed that as I work with small museums, staff and volunteers get excited about the idea of serving as community gathering places, as places for conversation.  Christopher made a really important point--that they get excited because they can see that they can do it!  In the field, I sometimes feel that we (me included) spend a great deal of time suggesting to people that they need to do better--catalog better, store better, do better scholarship, create better exhibits.  It's pretty discouraging if you think you need a Ph.D, loads of acid free boxes, a fancy cataloging program and more.  Becoming a center for community conversations won't mean that you don't need to do those things, or aspire to best practices, but it does mean that you can see success--you can see the start of connecting to your community--and that can only lead to good things.

On Museum-L during the last couple days, there have been two interesting (and to some degree related) questions and responses about attendance and open hours.  It is heartening to hear that a number of museums are reporting increased attendance--due in part to "staycations" and the economic times, but also due to increased efforts to reach out to your community.  It certainly makes sense to me that celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo Bills matters as much as celebrating some other anniversary--and the results at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society have been terrific, as Executive Director Cynthia Comides reported on Museum-L,
Our numbers are up – way up. We have exceeded our highest visitation numbers since 2001. Family events doing very well, and our Thanksgiving week was a big success for both attendance and shop sales.
Some reasons:
1)       Popular exhibit celebrating Buffalo Bills 50th Anniversary drawing many first time visitors
2)       Collaborative cultural initiatives with other organizations
3)       Strong marketing efforts

The other discussion on Museum-L has been about open hours.  I've become a great advocate of changing hours, and am a bit peeved by the line of reasoning which says, we tried it and nobody came.  Funny, last time I was at a library there were lots of people there in the evening.  Maybe what we offer can be better, and more meaningful--then people will come in the evening and the daytime as well.  Those organizations reporting increased attendance didn't get there by hoping.

And a final observation.  Collect less!  It will give you more time to think about ways to engage your community.