Friday, April 30, 2010

I Miss History

I realized the other day that I miss history--which seems a very funny thing to happen when I'm living in a place like Kyiv (above, in 1918)  with such a long and complex history.  So I decided to think about why that is, and what I might do about it.

There's several different reasons why I miss history here.

The language barrier
My Ukrainian continues to be very limited, and even to read and sound out Cyrillic letters takes me a while (for instance, the other day, I was trying to read the list of stops on a mashrutka--a bus--and it took me so long that the bus had pulled up, loaded and unloaded passengers and pulled away before I realized that yes, that was the bus I wanted!).  So where there is information to be gained, such as the many plaques denoting who lived or worked somewhere, I'm not easily able to gain that information.  Living here has immensely increased my understanding of the challenges that new immigrants to the US (or anywhere) face in terms of language--negotiating everyday life is a challenge.  Imagine what then going to a museum is like.

What to say about history?
The decades of Soviet rule, with its singular approach to history have left a vacuum here.  I think Ukraine as a nation has not yet come to terms with its complex 20th century history, and hence, does not know quite what to say about it--in museums, in memorials, in outdoor signage.   There is still no considered value in the idea of multiple perspectives and voices.

How do I connect the architecture to history?
Architectural forms here are different, not surprisingly, than those in the United States and Western Europe.  So any knowledge I might have about building eras, or construction, or design, are not as useful here.  I can pick out those ugly new buildings, for sure, but am just beginning to understand the differences between Stalin-era and Kruschchev era buildings.

Where are those everyday people?
As far as I can tell, the presentation of history and folklife here still operates in a generic way.  Poets, writers, and artists get their individual due (and political leaders never do) but the kind of everyday story that is a regular part of my museum work in the States is not in evidence here.   I like that in my life at home I meet the railroad workers of Sayre, PA Lucy Rosen and her theremin,  and the Wckyoff family of Brooklyn.    (Above, a house where the poet Anna Akmetova lived for a time.)

Local history in the US uses the particular, the stories of individual people, to explore broader stories.  Here, I rarely meet those individual people--those many stories--in museum settings.   Have their stories been lost?  been suppressed?  not considered important by scholars?  As one museum colleague said to me the other day,  "We do not want to remember here."

Not Easy to Access Archives
I wouldn't start by going to an archives by looking at history, but I would certainly look at popular publications based on archival materials.  Archives here are still considered to be only the province of scholars and the enthusiastic avocational historians do not exist;  and hence archival material is rarely shared with the public.

What can I do?
First, I went out and found a guidebook of walks around Kyiv,  The Streets of Kyiv:  Five Walks in the Center by Galina Savchuk.   Although published more than a decade ago,  it provides a great deal of help in beginning to understand the center city and its changes over time--and led me to the most eccentric house.  Below, is the House of Chimeras,  built by Vladislav Gorodestky in 1902  to demonstrate the wonderful possibilities of concrete!

Second,  I think I need to ask more questions of people I meet.   Tell me about your family,  about where you live, about what you remember about the changes in Kyiv.   Those stories will begin to at least flesh out my small mental map of the city I live in right now.

And finally,  I'd love to encourage museums or other organizations here to undertake new ways of sharing these individual stories of their city.  As inspiration:  Place Matters, a project of City Lore and the Municipal Art Society that invites New York City residents to share their stories;  and to blow my own horn a bit, a project I worked on, Montgomery Connections in Montgomery County, Maryland, which uses banners, bus stop and print ads, a website, and cell phone audio to introduce, in three languages, the county's residents to its rich history (below photo courtesy the Montgomery County Historical Society).

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Велика ідея/The Big Idea

What's the big idea?  That's a conversation I always have when I work with teams on exhibit projects.  I'm indebted to Beverly Serrell and her book Exhibit Labels:  An Interpretive Approach for the chapter on the Big Idea--it's a wonderful distillation of how to think conceptually about exhibitions  and I make great use of it as well as the rest of the book.

This past week, I had the opportunity to put it to use for the first time (for me) here in Ukraine.  I'm working with the Tusten Preserve,  an historic site in the Carpathians with the bare stone remains of a medieval fortress, high in the mountains (see the picture above).   The site's enthusiastic young director, Vasyl Rozhko,  wants to redo the badly dated exhibitions in the small museum (below)  located in a nearby village.

He and I spent much of a day talking about ideas for the exhibits--to show the technology used to create and defend the fort;  to show how it was a part of several different trade routes;  and how the site was used for border defense;  what medieval life in the fortress was like, and how scientists continue to learn more about Tusten using new technologies.   Vasyl had some great ideas for interactive exhibits, and he's also recruited a student to help do some audience evaluation (Tusten is best known for a September festival which draws thousands of visitors) so ideas flew fast and furiously.

At the end of the day, we gathered with the team he had put together for the project.  None of them are experienced in exhibits, but as a group, they bring a tremendous number of skills:  designer, editor, fund-raiser, archaeologist,  architect and more.  With our cups of tea in hand, we set about trying to wrestle down the big idea,  using Serrell's framework of subject, verb and consequence, via a Ukrainian translation of one of Exhibit Label's chapters. As when I've worked on US exhibit teams, the subject and the verb is the easy part--it's the consequence that's hard.

How did we do?  A great start, I think.  (As in all my Ukrainian endeavors, my immense thanks go to colleagues acting as translators who do incredible work to keep up with fast-flowing conversations--in this case, thanks to Vasyl and Olya, both at right above.)  We haven't come up with a final big idea sentence, but I think we're well on our way.  It reads something like, "Human intelligence and natural features combined to make Tusten a critical line of defense and center for trade."     We'll work to refine that idea, and to use that sentence as a frame for all the exhibit development to come.

Ukrainian exhibits are generally organized not around ideas, but around a scholarly arrangement of facts and details.  So it's very exciting to see this small museum, in a small village, make plans to connect with visitors in new ways.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How Long Should Participation Last? Saving Visitor-Created Content

Laurel (MD) Historical Society director Lindsey Baker and I have been having several conversations about the long-term use and meaning of visitor-created elements in museums. My firm, Riverhill worked with Lindsay and her volunteer committee on the development of their current exhibit. She generously agreed to guest blog about the issue for The Uncataloged Museum.

When we first started thinking about how to put together our current exhibit, “Snapshots in Time: Our Community in 1910 and 2010” we laid out several goals. One of the most significant (in my mind) was an exhibit where visitors were able to contribute something. I wanted the exhibit to be living, breathing, and changing as people added to it during each visit. But even more, I wanted an exhibit that people felt invested in—that they connected to on a very personal level.

As we continued along the design process, we came up with several interactive aspects where people could contribute pieces to be kept in the exhibit. As we came up with these sections where people would leave behind a part of their experience, the question of how to deal with visitor- generated content kept coming to mind.   If we, as museum professionals, truly value the content that is contributed to our museum by visitors, then what should we do with it?

In our exhibit we ask people to examine how they define their community. Is it how you see yourself? And how do you see yourself—here, sit down and make a self-portrait. Is it who you have fun with? Here, sit down and play a game with your fellow visitors and tell us about the games you like to play.

So the pieces that people leave behind might be considered “fluffy.” A self-portrait. A piece of brown paper with the games that they like to play. A dry erase board covered in magnets for voting.

And so the question is, what happens next? We can’t keep the votes. But we could keep the brown paper. We could keep the self-portraits. Should we? If so, where? How? As part of the collection? As a separate piece of the collection?

More importantly, aren’t other museums struggling with these same questions? Where are they putting the stuff? Are they accessioning Max’s portrait of himself playing basketball? What about Ethan’s blob-ish looking portrait that could possibly be him as a spaceship and indicate that he has much larger ambitions than anyone would have guessed? Or the small list of games left on the brown paper—surely an important piece of history as it relates to recreational practices in the early twenty-first century?

I really don’t know the answer to these questions.  And I don’t know, just yet, what our visitors think.  Would they be disappointed to know we throw them out at exhibit’s end?     So the self-portraits which are actually of bunny rabbits and the hearts drawn on the table asking what games you like to play—who am I to say we should throw them out?  

Is there a proper method to dealing with these items? Once you ask someone to contribute to your exhibit what is the life span of his or her piece in the exhibit? Should you state rules up front for how you will handle the items and then have each 6-year-old read them and sign off on them before leaving their bunny rabbit portrait? I’m not really sure I know the answer or even if there is a correct answer. But as we continue to ask people to contribute to our exhibits, I think we should begin or continue the conversation about what exactly we will do with their contributions.

Lindsey raises some terrific points.  We'd love to hear what others do with these visitor-generated materials--and should there be some guidelines for organizations undertaking this work?  What does your museum do?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Slow Art Day in Kyiv

As most people who know me in person know, I talk fast (to the dismay of anyone who has to interpret for me here), I want to move on projects fast, I walk fast--so the idea of time set aside to be slow--and to be slow in a museum--a place where I spend a great deal of time--was pretty interesting to me.  Yesterday, I participated in Slow Art Day, an international event which happened in museums around the globe.  In Kyiv, it was organized by Larissa Babij.

What is Slow Art Day?  According to their website, 
Run by volunteer hosts around the world, Slow Art Day helps people slow down and see art in a new way. It's very simple. Attendees visit a local museum and view on their own 5 to 10 works of art pre-selected by the volunteer host. They then gather for lunch to talk about the experience.
The result? Participants say they get "inspired not tired" and plan to return to that museum again and again. 

And how was it in Kyiv?
Larissa had visited the museum and selected a group of artworks which she had e-mailed to those who registered and met us at the front desk with maps.  Importantly, this wasn't necessarily a group activity.  I looked at works on my own, and others looked in small groups.  Along with the works, there was a list of questions and a suggestion that you spend a least 10 minutes looking at each piece of art.  10 minutes! I thought to myself, knowing the statistics about how long people spend looking at and reading labels in museums.  But off I went.  The museum is organized chronologically, and I began with the most recent work and made my way back through Soviet Realism, impressionism and genre paintings, ending up with the icons that compose the earliest parts of the museum's collection.

I decided that I would just look for five minutes and then spend the other five thinking about the questions and taking notes on the questions.   Not surprisingly,  I found that, because of my own lack of knowledge about Ukrainian art, I made my own meaning out of the works.  The village looked like a village I had visited;  my students last year had written about one of the painters; how were the icons collected and restored;  I wove each of these works into my own narrative about my experience here. But I also looked more deeply at each work--at the ways the artist used paint, about who's depicted, about how works change as you move closer or further away. 

But Slow Art didn't end with the looking.  Afterwards, the group, about 8-9 people, convened at the Center for Contemporary Art for coffee and conversation.   Because most of us were involved in the arts in some way--as curators, as art makers, as art historians, our conversation ended up being not just about the art (and probably could have been more about the art itself) but about the process.   Some people wanted more information;  some people liked the deep looking and that was enough;  we talked about the differences between Ukrainian and American museum visitors;  and about guided tours or other ways to provide information.    We discussed how it would be nice to receive a list of works to look at every month;  to have a "curated" list that we could explore on a regular basis.

I particularly liked several things about the event:
  • It felt a little rebellious, because it was done outside the museum framework.
  • It didn't really cost any money.  Everyone paid their own museum admission and the only cost, perhaps, was making copies.
  • It was successful in making me look more deeply at works in this museum; and hopefully I will carry that with me as I visit other places.
  • And it had conversation!
Hopefully, wherever I am next year, on Slow Art Day 2011, I'll be slowly, contemplatively,  moving through a gallery somewhere.

Friday, April 16, 2010

How do American Museums...? Well, It Depends...

Yesterday I spent a lively session with scientists (researchers and scholars) from the National Ethnographic Institute here in Kyiv.   I'd been asked just to speak about museums in the States, a pretty broad topic and so decided to give a very brief overview,  highlight some trends I thought were interesting (transparency, participation, etc) and then open it up to questions.  The ethnographers had a broad range of questions including:
  • How are museums organized in terms of staff structure?
  • What is the path to becoming a director?
  • Is there a single national training school for the museum profession?
  • How are collections built?
  • What's the average salary of a museum worker?
  • How is repatriation of objects dealt with?
  • Is theft, internally and externally, an issue and how is it dealt with?
  • Where, in the US, is the ethnographic history of the US presented?
  • What are outdoor museums like and what do people do at them?
And in answering them, I realized that my answers often began with, "It depends."   It's a huge surprise to museum workers here that 90% of museums in the US are non-governmental ones,  governed by volunteer boards of directors and that as a result,  each museum makes its own decision (with of course, various legal distinctions on certain issues)  about how to organize itself, what to pay its staff, how to organize itself and all those other issues.

One of the legacies of the Soviet Union is what I think of as a "one size fits all" approach.  A single school to train museum workers?  Not likely in the US.   The Soviet legacy also includes a substantial  lack of clarity about legal issues regarding museums and a system that still does not encourage or reward innovation or achievement.   That, combined with Ukraine's high ranking on Transparency International's list of most corrupt nations and ongoing lack of funding means that change will come slowly here.   But I was heartened by the desire of these colleagues to learn more about American museums, both in terms of connecting with visitors and internal structure.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

How Facebook Changed my Photo-Taking--Could It Change Your Museum's?

I've been exceptionally lucky the last couple years and have traveled a good many places, from Peru to Ukraine, and in the US,  I'm on the road more than many people.  I'd never particularly taken photos before, mostly because I have two incredibly talented photographers in the family (here and here).  But, once I started using Facebook, I started taking lots of photos and sharing them there.  I had used Flickr for a bit, but didn't engage with it, but now I love putting my photos up on Facebook for friends and family to see.

Why?   It's simple--I get feedback.   I know that my friend Heleen will almost always comment when I put up a garden-related photo; and that Beth C, with two small girls, lives a bit vicariously through my travels;  Anne G likes anything with great color, pattern and texture;  and others just enjoy seeing somewhere different.  Right now,  I like that my Ukrainian friends can see what I find interesting about this place, and that my American friends can see a place they might never visit.  And I have to admit, I love looking at other people's travel photos as well.  If you're curious like me, I have opened my recent Facebook photo albums to everyone.

I take pictures for this blog, of course, and now for The Pickle Project,  and those museum and food images are now some of the things I look for when I'm out and about.  But I also, thanks to my handy little digital camera and Facebook, look for all those images that convey something of the places I've been.  Now I feel like I have a little audience for my caught-on-the-run photos rather than just randomly storing them away in a shoebox (or CD) at home.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton's campaign, "It's the audience, stupid!"

I see several museums using Facebook to share images in different ways.  Historic Cherry Hill in Albany, NY runs a great weekly contest using an object from their collection.  Lively conversation and debate almost always ensue upon posting of an object.  MassMOCA uploaded almost 400 photos taken in their photo booth at an event and invited readers to tag them.   I'm sure there's many other museums doing things that I haven't come across yet.

What else could museums do besides those pictures of objects or events?  I'd love to see local historical society staff or volunteers get pictures of the their community today.  What are the things you walk by every day that stay the same--buildings, perhaps;  or change--buildings, people, landscape, gardens?   Why don't more museums regularly share their historic photos on Facebook?  I'd love a photo a day of a place I'm interested in.   Is your museum doing this?  I'd love to hear about it.

So get out there and starting sharing your perspectives on the places you live!   And isn't feedback from your audience, no matter what size, a very nice thing?

Top to bottom:  some of my week in Kyiv.  French aerial troupe performing at St. Sophia's Square, farm building at Pirogovo Museum; pickles and tomatoes at a little food both at Pirogovo,  and the corner of Taras Shevchenko University.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Great Changes in Small Steps

"Great changes in small steps"--that's how Katerina Chuyeva, one of the members of the newly formed ICOM-Ukraine Section on Professionalism of Museum Personnel described their work.  The committee consists primarily of Ukrainian museum staff who participated in an extensive Dutch/Ukrainian program, MATRA which was designed to introduce Ukrainian museum professionals to current museum issues and included a train the trainers program.  Katerina (right) and Anna Peredhodko (left) are working with me to design a two day workshop here in Kyiv looking at cultual tourism and museum collaborations.  Tourism is high on everyone's agenda because of the upcoming Euro 2012 soccer championship to be held in various locations throughout Ukraine and Poland, including Kyiv.  Collaboration is a topic of importance--because collaborations are rare here and resources are scarce.

Planning a workshop here includes many of the same elements as planning a workshop at home, but some additional twists.  The same--thinking about audience,  using a variety of presentation methods (although most people here expect the delivery of a paper, rather than more interactive sessions),  planning the logistical details (when, where, when are breaks needed, etc).   But there are some additional elements unique to a post-Soviet way of doing business.   Here's a few:
  • Who should attend?  Job titles in many museums are still Soviet style and I'm still trying to figure them all out.  As I understand it,   there are "scientists,"  who function primarily as researchers about their own particular interests and curate exhibits; there are people in charge of "social programs" --programs for the people, however that's defined;  and there are keepers of the fonds (collections) along with gallery attendants, security guards, maintenance people and others.   But at other museums, the roles and titles have changed.  Larger museums like the National Gallery of Art now have education staff and a development department.  So identifying exactly who might engage in this workshop is sometimes a bit complicated.
  • Who wants to learn?   The idea of professional development and life-long professional or avocational learning is fairly new here, so many view attendance at a workshop as a day away from work, not a day to learn something new.   The three of us agreed that our interest is not in providing that day away from the office, so we've decided to target participants and issue some direct invitations.
  • Who's a decision-maker?  This is still a very open question for me but gets at the heart of creating change.  It's possible that, here in Ukraine, as in the states, smaller organizations are more able to create substantive change.  They're more nimble.  Not surprisingly,  many directors in Ukraine were trained under the Soviet system and every time I think about what it must have been like to wake up one day and find your world changed,  it's amazing that anything happens.   So who do we invite--decision makers perhaps not as interested in change?  or young professionals interested in change but with less opportunity to change their organization?  or a mix of the two?   (And, I should say, in several institutions I have met directors who are exceptionally committed to the change and growth of their organization)
  • Who will pay for it?  Museums, even large museums, don't have funds for professional development.  There are not specific grants available for an organization like ICOM-Ukraine to apply for to support professional development, there are no staff at the very few service organizations (although regional museum associations do exist).  So every expense--postage, coffee, copies,  has to be found somewhere.   This is a country where average salaries are very low. Of course, museum workers are paid at the low end of any pay scale and the global economic crisis has hit Ukraine very hard.  
But, and this is a huge but--all those obstacles are surmountable with the energy, enthusiasm and commitment of my colleagues here.   Will our workshop immediately result in great collaborations and fabulous cultural tourism in Kyiv?  No,  but I never expect that large a result in any workshop--but I do hope that the three of us, working together to plan and present, can inspire--and provide some concrete tools--for our colleagues to take some of those small steps to great changes.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Who Writes History? A Tale within a Few Blocks

Recently,  Ukraine's new deputy prime minister for  humanitarian affairs, Volodymyr Semynozhenko has ordered a review of the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory.  The Institute is a post-Orange Revolution organization, established in 2006 by former president Viktor Yushchenko.  According to the English language newspaper here, the Kyiv Post, the institute has:
focused on Ukraine’s Holodomor, the Josef Stalin-ordered famine in 1932-1933 that killed some seven million Ukrainians. It also has studied World War II events skewed or ignored in Soviet history books, as well the country’s 20th-century struggle for independence. The institute has also promoted Ukraine’s Cossack era, remembered victims of political repressions and developed concepts of historical education.
This, combined with reported efforts to close access to KGB archives and other efforts have raised concerns that the new administration here will roll back the access of historical documents and the presentation of history to a Soviet style--that is to say--the presentation of only one approved perspective and the limitation of access.

It's not that easy though, here in Kyiv, to forget this city's past--its past of revolutions, of sacrifice,  and much more.  By taking a walk just a few blocks around my apartment here,  the 20th century, in all its complexity,  is made real.   Here's a brief tour:

First stop, Taras Shevchenko University--supposedly ordered painted red by Tsar Nicholas I when students objected to conscription into the Russian Army. 

Next stop:  Lenin.  Yes, even though the Soviet era is gone, this statue of Lenin still remains.   He's not quite as big and as prominent as in some cities,  but here he still is, casting a stern look over a big indoor mall, Arena City. What would he think!

Maidan Nezalezhnosti, literally Independence Square, is the heart of the city.   The current name dates from Ukrainian independence.  But the most touching, to me, reminder of Ukrainian independence and the 2004 Orange Revolution is the Central Post Office pillar, with its four walls graffiti protected by a plexi-glass.  There were rumored plans for a Museum of the Orange Revolution, but I'm guessing those plans have now been shelved.   Only here, can you imagine this square filled with Ukrainian citizens, protesting a stolen election.

Just up the hill,  a monument to the soldiers of the Great Patriotic War.  That's World War II to Americans, and we Americans tend to not have much of an understanding of the Soviet role as our ally in the war and the sacrifices they made and the millions of soldiers and civilians killed.  One estimate is that World War II deaths were 14% of the 1939 population of the Soviet Union. Like many monuments in Ukraine,  there are almost always flowers here, and bridal parties make their way here to pose--some say as a way of conveying respect to those who sacrificed for them.

And finally, one of Ukraine's newest memorials, the memorial to Holomodor,  just dedicated in 2008.   One of former President Yushchenko's priorities was to bring global attention to Holomodor, the 1932-33 Soviet-enforced famine that killed millions of Ukrainians.  Archives were opened up and the world was made aware.   This is one of my least favorite monuments in a visual sense; with a number of competing elements, but the image below shows one part I found fascinating:  a representation of grain, covered by essentially, iron prison bars.

And what do I take away from my walk of victors and oppressors, protests and revolutions?  For me, it's the hope that this new administration's effort to restrict and remake history will be, as my mother would say, "closing the barn door after the horse has gone"   and that openness, once found, will be very difficult to roll back.  I hope scholars, activists and others continue to draw attention to all of the aspects of this country's history--both easy and the difficult.  The years of independence here have presented many challenges, and many old Soviet ways still remain, but the opportunity still remains to use history as a powerful tool to question, to ponder, and to shape the future. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

Villages: What's Gained or Lost?

This week I spent part of a day in a small village in the Carpathian mountains.  Like most Ukrainian villages, it's a pretty tough life with a host of contradictions.  No indoor plumbing, but satellite dishes on some of the houses;  crumbling Soviet era brick communal farm buildings down the road;  each house here accompanied by small traditional outbuildings constructed of traditional squared-off logs;  not many jobs; and a shrinking, aging population.

I've been in villages here, in Hungary, in Peru, in India, in Ireland--and of course all over the US--and I live in a village of only 250 people at home (which seems unbelievable to many here).   I realized yesterday that there's one big difference between villages in the United States and villages almost everywhere else.   No, it's not that yesterday's Ukrainian village has cell phone reception and Treadwell, NY does not.  It's that people are outside:  waiting for the now rare bus or ride to hitch, walking to the little market, walking home from school, or up to church, cleaning up for Easter, getting the plots ready for planting, and if you're a teenager, spending your after-school time in that timeless way of standing in a group, giggling, and sort of kicking at the dirt.   I don't want to romanticize this--it was not winter yesterday;  alcohol is a major problem in many villages;  and the lack of opportunity--and of basic services-- is common everywhere. 

But, that out-of-doors connection with your neighbors is a rare thing at home.  After-school sports, those big yellow school buses, the decline of small farms, big supermarkets instead of small markets (though I treasure Barlow's, Treadwell's general store); television and the internet, and most importantly,  our own big cars have all meant that we're much more liable to retreat behind our own doors.   I don't want to say that villagers (or others) in the US don't go outside--we do, but it's for pleasure.  When I see walkers at home, they're walking for pleasure or exercise, not to somewhere. 

So although I won't be moving to a Ukrainian village any time soon, it was a little reminder of a way of life that's virtually disappeared in the United States.  And for museums--how could we interpret this particular kind of past without freezing it in amber?  and how can we interpret that for increasing numbers of fully Facebooked and Tweeted audiences?