Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Good, the Bad, the So-So: A Few Smithsonian Museums

This past week I spent an afternoon visiting three Smithsonian museums in Washington, ones that are less-visited than the big crowd pleasers like the Air and Space and Natural History museums.  In each museum I found both exhibit elements to like and also some exhibit elements that were puzzling to me.  A quick review:

The National Museum of African Art had the best opening text to a label (above).   It read " Paul Tishman was often asked why he decided to collect African Art.  He replied, "How does one fall in love?"  It instantly made me want to see what he had fallen in love with and this bright citrus green made all the objects look terrific.   Simple (and inexpensive) introductory label--just a printed banner--but very large in scale.

The exhibit, Grass Roots:  African Origins of an American Art was a very large exhibition that explored the connections between basketmaking in the American South and its African origins.  Beautifully designed and chock-full of objects and images, it had a great opening design and an intriguing layout.  The bad news is that although you could photography from an overlooking balcony (below), photos were not allowed in the exhibition itself--a puzzling--and annoying inconsistency.

I particularly liked the way that the exhibit used not only the baskets themselves, but prints, photographs, and other documentary materials to explore not just the baskets, but the makers, the culture and  the landscape around them.  There were a number of video installations, but I dearly would have loved to handle and smell sweetgrass.  The most tactile of subjects was always walled off behind plexiglass.

And finally at this museum, a wonderful sign for the coatroom--an absolutely engaging introduction to the museum!

At the Freer and Sackler galleries, I was happy to re-visit Whistler's Peacock Room.  It's an amazing respite from hot and steamy Washington and a complete immersion in an artistic vision.  But I found the exhibits there a bit inconsistent.  First, the so-so.  A small exhibit on blue and white porcelain featured a very long, text-heavy label as the opening.   Although the topic was interesting and the works beautifully exhibited, this panel made me give the exhibit only a cursory look.   This says, "book on the wall" to me.

But then an exhibit, Taking Shape,  on ceramics in Southeast Asia had a much more engaging approach.  Using large photos, maps, and video installations combined with objects, I was, as a casual visitor, much more interested in learning about the work--and the creators.  Like the basketmaking exhibit, this one placed the objects in context.

I particularly liked that the label for the video began with questions and then let you know what you would learn by watching (and tell you that you only needed 3 minutes and 23 seconds to learn something!)

And in this exhibit, like in every installation here, objects were beautifully displayed and lit.  The lighting and casework provided the visitor with the chance to be drawn in and closely explore works.

Immediately above, an exhibit of bronzes from Cambodia.  You can read more about this exhibit in the NY Times review.  In all of these exhibits, it wasn't the cost of the installation that made it good, bad or so-so,  it was the thought and care that went into it.  Not surprisingly, the exhibits I liked the best were the ones where the thought and care was directed outward to the visitor rather than inward.

Finally, two lovely surprises.  The first was in the gardens outside the Smithsonian Castle, where enlargements of hand-tinted glass slides were installed.   It both put you in the place and transported you somewhere else.  The second, at the Hirshhorn, the surprise of someone wearing the perfect dress to visit this particular gallery space. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

How Do You Design Real Participation? A Catskills Tale

In much of my museum work, we're always talking about designing experiences that encourage real participation from our audiences and often museums are particularly interested in reaching young people.  Last weekend I went to an event, most definitely not a museum event, that I thought exemplified the qualities that could make museums into places people want to come to. 

I attended Cockstock 2, a music festival entirely generated by a small group of young people here in my beautiful part of the Catskills.   It's the brainchild of musician Alex Gohorel (center above) and his friends, held on a gently sloping field with the hills as backdrop.  This year as last, on a beautiful day.  (oh, and if you're interested, Cockstock 1 had a badminton theme;  Cockstock 2 was all about roosters).

So what did Alex, his family and friends do that museums might emulate as they consider designing participatory experiences?  A great deal.

Invite anyone to plan and participate
The event's Facebook page described it as a "celebration of art, information, and good company" and if you had something to share, you were invited to do so.  Some artists brought their work and did a small installation in the barn where anyone could come in, look at the work and talk (and many people did).  Another young woman working as a summer intern in a Farm to School program brought materials and set up a table-top display about her work.  Nothing was juried,  there weren't rules about where you could set up, and of course, there was no fee to participate--because it was a small new event the important flexibility was possible. 

Create many opportunities to pitch in and help
In this case, volunteering meant everything from performing to baking to silk-screening T-shirts and building a stage (and of course, that post-event clean-up).   There were more volunteers in the set-up than the year before.  

Make sure those opportunities are meaningful
Both of Alex's parents bring significant creative skills to the project.  Anne worked with a group to create silk-screened T-shirts for the event and John used his building skills to work with a group on building the stage.   Perhaps none of these young volunteers will ever become professional screen printers or builders but they learned about a process and about doing a job well.  And, I think, enjoyed doing it.  

Price it right
The festival was free if you just came for the music;  $5 if you wanted to eat, and $10 if you wanted to eat and get a T-shirt.  Payment was voluntary and I believe most people paid, even the musicians!   I contrast this with another local festival where the admission fee is $12 for adults including food.   It was great to have the choices about what level to pay at.  And of course if you wanted to extend the experience,  you could buy a CD.

Don't Regiment Everything
Want to play badminton--sure!   Want to bring your decorated hula hoops to share?  sure!  Want to paddle in the little pond?  sure!  Want to play music but didn't tell them in advance?  sure!   Want to dance--sure!  And you could do all of those whenever you wanted.   In the planning--not a single committee meeting.  Sometimes I'd pay money to not go to a meeting.

Make Room for Creators and Appreciators
There were loads of creators at the event--musicians and others.  There was space and time for all of them to share their work.  But there was also time and space for those of us who aren't artists to enjoy and appreciate the work.  The audience ranged in age from 4 to 70 plus--it really was for everyone.

Let Go!
Although Anne, John and Alex and many others committed significant time and energy to make the event a success,  they also understood that they couldn't control everything, that the event would make its own way,  And it did.  Imagine how lovely it was to have a band member from New York City look out at the view while playing and say, "We never thought we'd play by hillside.  It's beautiful here!"   I think there were some great unintended consequences and some new connections.

And the best part?  Never once did I hear someone say, "Well, we've always done it this way."

Thanks to Anne and Claire Gohorel and Drew Harty for some of the photos and to Nina Simon who I'm inspired by whenever I think about creating participatory experiences.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Vision, Mission, Shmisson!

I spent a day last week facilitating a conversation with staff at a museum beginning the work of revising the mission and vision statements.  To prep for the day, I randomly wandered the web in search of museum mission and vision statements and came away unsure of what we think we're doing when we write new guiding statements.

Yes,  we're exploring, we're engaging, we work in communities.  We reach out, we work with others, we want to educate and promote.  Rarely anymore do we only document, collect and preserve.   Should it be one sentence only?  Does it need several supporting paragraphs?  Is it really a true vision to say you want to be the best [insert type of museum or locality here] there is?

But the discussion with both staff and design/branding experts was an intriguing one.  We raised perhaps more questions than we answered.  Among them:
  • Who is the mission really for?  To be used internally or written so that front desk staff can articulate it to visitors?
  • Why is it that sometimes artifacts seemed to sneak away from the mission statement?
  • Who are we for?  What does the word "family" mean?  Does that mean some people stay away?  
  • Are there other ways to say "general audiences" rather than everyone?
  • It's great to be aspirational, as in a vision statement, but does an organization really need two statements?  Could it not be condensed into a single statement of purpose?
  • How does that vision/mission really connect to branding and design?
  • Can a museum commit to pushing all of its activities through the sieve of vision and mission?  What happens if you don't?
  • Can you please all of the people all of the time?  (pretty much no, I'd say)
If you have just revised your museum's vision and mission, I'd love to hear about it, particularly about the process and the final wording.   The work of deeply and collectively thinking about the work that museums do is critical--so those discussions about vision and mission need to happen--but I wonder whether there's a different way to capture those discussions for our stakeholders.   And of course, as I read somewhere in my random web travels last week (apologies for the lack of attribution),  a mission without a strategy is only a wish.

Why a bowling photo at the top of the post?  Because I found what has now become my favorite vision statement online.   It's for something called Bowling, Inc.  and it is:

More people, bowling more often, having more fun.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Back to Ukraine

One of the great things about working as an independent museum professional is that you never know what an encounter will lead to.   Although I've returned home from Ukraine to dive back into projects in the US, my time there is not over as I'll be returning for several projects.

I've been asked to put together a team to conduct an assessment and work on planning with Pyrohiv, the National Museum of Folk Architecture, the largest outdoor museum in Ukraine, just outside Kyiv.  With the support for the Foundation for the Development of Ukraine we'll be working with the staff during a visit this fall to  assess all areas of the museum's operation so that the potential of this incredible site can be fully realized.

Pyrohiv was the first museum I visited in Ukraine, on an incredibly cold snowy (Orthodox) Christmas Day just days after I arrived in early 2009.   On a rolling green hills outside a rapidly developing city,  the museum contains folk architecture from all over Ukraine.   It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, but faces issues of adequate funding, visitor services, staffing, new modes of interpretation, collections care and building preservation.  I'm looking forward to working both with the dedicated museum staff and the staff at the foundation to explore ways that this museum can best share its work and knowledge with both Ukrainian and international visitors.

I'm also working with the State Museum of Toys in Kyiv and a US partner on plans for a traveling exhibition of Soviet-era toys here in the United States.  Their collection presents a fascinating picture, virtually unknown to Americans,  of childhood in Soviet times.  From both ideological and design perspectives, the toys allow us to understand a time and place.    

Both these projects (and several others in the planning phase) came into being because of the opportunity to return to Ukraine on a enewal of my Fulbright grant.   The opportunity to think more deeply, to talk further with colleagues and meet new colleagues,  to visit more museums, and to make more connections, has been immeasurably helpful.   I'm a long ways from fully understanding Ukraine and Ukrainian museums, but each experience adds a bit more texture and color to my picture of this place.

Photos, top to bottom:  historic building at Pyrohiv,  Christmas service inside one of the historic wooden churches at Pyrohiv, a "space car"  toy from the State Museum of Toys, and a historic photo (courtesy of the State Museum of Toys) showing the much-coveted pedal cars in use.