Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ask More? Ask More!

I've been thinking about writing an end-of-year post for more than a week as I read other reflections, advice,  what-ifs and to-dos.  But I realized that thanks to my great group of planning colleagues, I've been doing that kind of reflection for several months.  So no top ten list from me.  But just this morning, thanks to Anne Ackerson who blogs over at Leading by Design,  I read The Bamboo Project's list of six 21st century skills you really need.

It's a great list--but I really focused in on one skill for me to work on 2012.  It's #2--Asking more questions.  For me, it really relates to all the other skills. Asking hard questions of myself can make me more self-aware;  questioning can help lead to empathetic listening;  question asking can lead to authentic conversations; it can lead to reflection; and question asking can help take me outside of conversations with people just like myself.

So what kinds of work-related questions do I want to ask in the coming year?  Here's just a few...

For myself:
  • What new skills can I learn?
  • How can I stretch my own skills further?
  • How can I continue to encourage or mentor others?
  • What contribution can I make to diversifying our field?
  • How can I better organize my time? (as, sadly, I have realized that the prettiest new file folders aren't the answer)
  • Where in the world could I go next?
For potential new clients: 
  • Do you want real change?
  • How can we be most effective working together?
  • What do you want me to bring to the table?
  • How have you asked questions of your audiences?  What have you done with the answers?
  • Do you have fun when you work?
 For audiences and potential audiences:
  • How can museums make themselves into real places for deep listening, reflection, conversations, and interactivity?  
  • What would make you pay a visit? What keeps you away?
  • What community stories are we not telling?  Can you help us with that?
For museums I visit:
  • Do you really need that no photography rule?
For readers of this blog: (that's you!)
  • What do you want to read more about?
  • What blogs do you want to make sure I read?  Who should I make sure to follow on Twitter?
  • Have you liked the Uncataloged Museum on Facebook yet?
When I began this blog four years ago (four years ago!)  I thought about it as a place to raise questions, to share ideas, and to learn from all of you.  Those same motivations still continue for me--and I'm very interested in working with those of you who share a commitment to active questioning and listening.  So please be in touch if you have a project in mind.

So let's raise our glasses to a question-filled 2012!

Images, top to bottom
dullhunk on flickr
slainte74 on flickr

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Got Something to Say? This Space Available

As the end of the year closes in,  I'm thinking about both the past and the year to come.  As I think about the past year, I realize how many voices I value.  Some of them are the ones close to me--Drew, Anna (above) and the rest of my lively family;  my strategic planning colleagues;  Sarah Crow, my Pickle Project partner; my walking partner Anne; and the clients who dig deep and commit to thinking about new ways of doing things.
My Ukrainian colleagues and friends (for example, Ihor and Tania Poshyvailo, above)  continue to be sources of inspiration as they work to remake their institutions or create new organizations against pretty some pretty incredible odds.  Some of the voices I value are just people I meet along the way.  I love the process of talking to museum visitors and potential visitors, something I just did last week in Canandaigua, NY.  Every museum should do more of it. Some of the voices are the ones implicit in exhibits--from Ukraine to Iceland to here in the US--when an exhibit works, it's a delightful place to be.

Our Pickle Project Conversations this fall showed me that building a space for free and open conversations can be a critical part of creating a civil society.  I'm always thrilled by the willingness of everyday people to share their thoughts on what we're trying to do from 18th century western New York to making manti in Crimea.  At several conferences this year I've found myself having memorable conversations with someone entirely new (a great lesson about approaching strangers at these things).  And conference session participants have been lively and thoughtful.
Then of course, there are those bloggers:  Nina Simon as she takes on a new challenge;  Anne Ackerson; Jasper Visser; newbie blogger Gretchen Jennings;  Beth Merritt ever considering the future; Susie Wilkening and many others.  This year there's also the voices of the people I follow on Twitter, from near and far, as they make me think, lead me to new ideas, and make me laugh, all in 140 characters or less.

For a long time when I wrote this blog, I felt like no one was reading--so the voices of those who comment are especially valued and I'm always happy to see a comment pop-up.  Keep up the great work, you commenters.

But I want to hear more of your voices.  In the coming year, I hope to feature guest bloggers here at the Uncataloged Museum.  Have you read a great book that connects to your work,  seen a compelling exhibit, or just need space to try out a new idea?  I'm particularly interested in featuring colleagues from outside the United States--so as your new year approaches, consider joining me here.   I look forward to many more lively conversations in the coming months.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

I Wish I'd Known....

What do you wish you knew when you started your first museum job?  This week, I began a new project with the Connecticut Humanities Council and the Connecticut League of History Organizations,  facilitating a series of workshops as part of the new StEPs CT program which uses AASLH's StEPs program, combined with active mentoring and training, to help 20 plus organizations in the state move forward.

My meeting this week was with a talented group of project mentors, who bring, in total, decades worth of experience to the table. To get to know each other better, we began by talking about what we wish we knew when we began our first museum jobs.  Here's what we shared:
  • That what I learned as a camp counselor would be far more useful than what I learned in graduate school.
  • That I could temper my expectations and be more realistic.
  • No matter how good the programming or exhibits, all the board cares about is the bottom line.
  • Customer service never ends.  Every time the phone rings you have to be on your A+ behavior.
  • That all institutions are so different from each other.
  • That when you come to work in an institution, there's a whole host of existing relationships that you can only guess at.
  • I have to be me--not what others expect.
What do you wish you knew when you began your museum career?  Let's hear it!

Photo by elycefeliz on Flickr

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Do You Need Every Single Thing?

Often when conversations about new museum initiatives come up,  the reason for inaction is that there’s too much to do and not enough funding.  I won’t argue with the fact that right now is a really stressful financial time for every organization, but I do want to propose that perhaps, local history museums own too many meaningless objects--and that paying attention to meaningful objects will give us more time, more money, and more connections to our community.  After all,  consider the BBC/British Museum collaborative project, A History of the World in 100 Objects, a connection my colleague Christopher Clarke made at the WNYAHA meeting last month at the same time I was working my way through the BBC audio.

A couple months ago, I was working on a planning report for a museum looking to be more targeted about their contemporary collecting efforts.  A tweet looking for other models sent me to the McLean County (Illinois) County Historical Society and Susan Hartzhold, their curator, was good enough to chat with me about their efforts.

This historical society is an old one, founded in 1892, and a relatively large one,  with 9 full-time staffers.  When collecting started, in 1892,  all the objects were collected with provenance—a way of enhancing and reinforcing a sort of ancestor worship, I suspect. Susan’s been on staff for 20 years and she describes the issue as “stuff vs. meaningful stuff.”  As an organization, they were facing decades of collecting from curators who, for whatever reason, didn’t ask the questions that would provide the context for the object.

Some historical societies and museums might just shrug their collective shoulders at that issue—but McLean County chose another direction.  For the last ten years, the staff has gone back and looked at every single object,  trying to find, through research,  what meanings there are for each object—who owned, who used it,  how it compares to others.   They have looked at 18000 objects and deaccessioned 6000 of them.

There was not a collecting policy until the 1970s and now, Susan says, they have become, as a staff, hard-nosed about the collections they hold.  They have gotten rid of things that qualify as a “cabinet of curiousities,”  had no provenance or were in poor condition.  They have established benchmarks (i.e. limitations on the number of something—like wedding dresses from the same period) and objects with provenance always trump objects with no provenance.

It’s taken ten years and is part of a larger strategic plan—but what’s equally important, the size of the collection still stands at 18,000 because the society has continued to collect, but have been much more focused and strategic in their collecting.
What is that new collecting like?

Much of it has happened through partnerships with community organizations.  A local Black History Project grew from a teachers’ project and the museum became a repository for materials that were collected documenting the African American community in the county. 

There is an active South Asian community and the museum worked for five years to more fully engage with them—a task that was helped substantially by bringing in a traveling exhibit on Asian Games and inviting groups to support the exhibit.  But the engagement didn’t end with the traveling exhibit, the museum continues to work with the South Asian community.

There is a growing Hispanic community in the county and the museum has begun efforts to engage with it.  Susan admits that it’s a challenging effort as the museum is located in a courthouse, which makes many new immigrants fearful. They are currently working towards a partnership with a community’s Hispanic group to develop programming  for an upcoming exhibit about traditional Mexican arts.

Susan makes the point that these community efforts take a long time, take patience.   She says, “We have to go to them, we have to say, what can we do for you?’   

And that’s a great take-away from this story.  Collecting and caring for collections is a time-consuming process—but a wasted one unless we really approach the process in a thoughtful way—both in terms of what we have and in terms of how we engage with our communities today.

Images and captions courtesy of the McLean County Historical Society, and many thanks to Susan for taking time to share her work.

The nightgown was donated by a local woman, Jean, who was born in 1916.  When asked about the nightgown, Jean had a wonderful story -- She said that she was surprised by the gift, that it really wasn't her style.  She felt that her husband had purchased it for one of two reasons:

             1) He didn't know what to get her, so he let a sales clerk in the lingerie department at the local department store  "convince him that it was exactly what she wanted."  During that time period lingerie departments always had female sales clerks who helped both male and female customers. It wasn't unusual for clerks to help male customers pick out gifts for their wives or girlfriends.

             2) "He'd seen way too many Jean Harlow movies"
Jean said she only wore the nightgown once, but the story and the nightgown tells us so much about  the culture of the time period.
The pottery was brought to America by  the Alvarez's family; purchased in Zacatecas, Mexico. The donor’s father came to Bloomington in 1972, her mother and 2 brothers followed in 1974.  She joined them in 1975.  Her parents returned to Mexico in 1995, but the rest of the family stayed.

Monday, November 21, 2011

You Can Help Preserve an Endangered Culture

In 2010,  Peace Corps volunteer Barb Wieser found me through this blog, and we've since had the opportunity to get to know each other in person.  I've visited her in Crimea and had the chance to learn about the Crimean Tatar people's complex, rich history and her work at the Gasprinsky Library (and to learn how to make manti with her wonderful neighbors!) Barb's now working to raise funds to assist the library in its preservation work and I wanted to share her story with Uncataloged Museum readers.  It's easy to make a contribution--and I hope you can join me in supporting the work of the library.   Here's her story:

I am a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer and have been serving at the Gasprinsky Crimean Tatar Library in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine for over two years.

A little background on my site: The Gasprinsky Crimean Tatar Library was founded twenty years ago when the Crimean Tatar people began to return to their homeland of Crimea from which they were forcibly deported by Stalin fifty years earlier (an action in which 46% of the population died and has since been labeled a genocide). Living in exile in distant Soviet republics, the Crimean Tatars were forbidden, like many other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union,  to teach their language or practice the traditions of their culture. As a result, by the time people were allowed to return to Crimea and reestablish their communities, after the breakup of the USSR, much of the culture was lost and the language had become endangered. The Gasprinsky Library was founded to preserve, protect, and revitalize the Crimean Tatar culture and language; to be, as my counterpart at the Library so eloquently puts it, “the keeper of the memory of the Crimean Tatar people.”

However, like many cultural institutions that are a part of the Ukrainian government, the Library suffers from a severe lack of funds to do anything beyond building maintenance and salaries (the average salary for a librarian in Ukraine is only about $200 a month). Many of the documents of the library are in urgent need of preservation, particularly in a digital form that would give them a much wider audience. 

The Peace Corps gives Volunteers the opportunity to do fundraising in the U.S. with their Partnership Program in which people can make a tax exempt donation to support a Volunteer’s project. With this Partnership project, we hope to raise $3000 which would allow the Library to purchase a small flatbed paper scanner for the numerous archival paper documents—letters, unpublished manuscripts and other donated papers—and also to purchase digital scans of some of the library’s old microfilms. The Library is particularly interested in purchasing scans of the microfilms of the newspaper Terdzhman, published from 1883 to 1918 by the Muslim educator and reformer Ismail Gasprinsky, whom the library is named after. Perhaps no other document is so vital to understanding the culture and history of the Crimean Tatar people than Ismail Gasprinsky’s newspaper, but currently access to it is limited to a very few people.

The Crimean Tatars are a unique Muslim people with a vibrant, tragic history. The Gasprinsky Library, the de facto cultural center of the Crimean Tatar people, has struggled hard to preserve the language and culture of their people. By making a donation to this project, you can aid in that struggle. Thank you so much for your support.
Photos top to bottom:
Many of the library’s important original documents are in a state of disrepair.  
 Billboard in Simferopol marking the anniversary of the day the Crimean Tatars were deported (May 18, 1944)

Many Crimean Tatar writers, political leaders, intellectuals, and artists have donated their papers to the Gasprinsky Library.

The Gasprinsky Crimean Tatar Library, located in the city center of Simferopol, the capitol of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Ukraine. The Library is a historic building that was the site of a madrasah (Islamic school) in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Take the Ten Word Story Challenge!

At yesterday's AASLH webinar on storytelling, I invited participants a ten word story challenge as a way of using our imaginations about the historic spaces that we share with our visitors.  What's a ten word story challenge?  At some point, it's said that Ernest Hemingway was challenged by a friend to write a story in ten words--he responded with a story in only six.  His story?
                        For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Many of the participants in the webinar had wonderful responses when I asked them for a ten word story about the image shown at the top of this post.  The responses had a sense of drama, of excitement, that is often not found in historic house interpretation.  Here are just a few of the responses:

The dog passed, the lamp went dark.  No one ever ate in this room again.   
Answered an ad to go to the prairie as a bride.
The house is still; mourners are in the parlour.
Mother left. The children found her dog.
Yikes! Empty space on wall!  Out looking for another picture.
Awoke. Snuck off. Had fun. With who?
A quiet man had lunch. 
After the earthquake the lamp eventually stopped swinging.
The light was lit, they led them into the hall.

 Take the challenge--what's your story of this place?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What Makes a Museum Exhibit Sociable?

The vast majority of us visit museums with other people--but many museums are just beginning to consider that sociability within the exhibit development and design process.  Maria Mingalone of the Berkshire Museum and I are presenting a session this week at the New England Museum Association conference where we hope to talk with participants about designing exhibits for social experiences.  Is it the concept?  the design?  do we think too much about just interactions for families and not enough for adult visitors?   Are there exhibit elements that automatically make an exhibit sociable or unsociable?   (For an important take on this,  take a look at Kathy McLean's new book, The Convivial Museum.)
But for our session, we'd love to hear from you in advance of our presentation about what you think.  Please share your stories (or pictures) of exhibits that encouraged or discouraged social interactions.  What works for your organization?  What pitfalls have you overcome?  and are there unwritten rules about social interactions at your museum.  Do tell!

Sociable museum activities happen anywhere. 
Top to bottom:  MassMoca, photo by Drew Harty;  American Museum of Natural History, and the Rijksmuseum.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Want to Be a Museum Director? Evidently, Be a Man

This is just a quick post that I hope stimulates an organization or individual to do considerably more research--and, I hope encourages feedback and comments.  On Facebook, I like the Art Museum Partnership as they post interesting news, including appointments of new directors at larger museums.  I realized that it seemed like almost every face that popped up in the announcement of a new director was a male;  a white male. 

And I thought really?  So I went back through their FB announcements to the beginning (mid-August of this year).  And here's what I found.  Of the 15 directors named,  only 4 were women, just 26%.  Two of those four positions were at university art museums, which may suggest a different process than a board hiring process undertaken by stand-alone museums.  Admittedly, this is a highly unscientific survey, but revealing nonetheless.
Certainly, as anyone who's ever attended a museum conference can attest, this is a field filled with women.  Why so few women museum directors?  What do we know about the make-up of boards--are they mostly male?  What is it that boards think male directors can do better?  And as a field, why don't we make more noise about this?  Funny how future of museums seems an awfully lot like the museums of the past.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Miners and More Miners

As part of the Pickle Project's grand tour of Ukraine this month, Caleb Zigas of La Cocina and I spent a couple days in Donetsk, in far eastern Ukraine.  Donetsk is the center of the Donbass region,  where coal mining and metallurgy are the most important industries.  On my last visit to Donetsk, I wrote about the idea of superfans, based on an outdoor exhibit created by the Shakhtar football team.  This time,  I was impressed by the idea that Donetsk has chosen to highlight the things that make it different than any other tourist place, not the same.  The city is not a place much visited for tourism by either Ukrainians or westerners (in fact, we got more than one raised eyebrow when we said we were going there).  But,  it's one site of the upcoming Euro 2012 football (soccer for US readers) championship.  Donetsk is about mining. Two exhibits, both about miners, both different, both compelling.
 At Izolyatsia, a new cultural center located in a complex of industrial buildings outside of the city center, the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang worked with the organization's staff, miners, and volunteers to create an installation featuring large-scale portraits of miners installed in a huge space, filled with both salt and coal.   The artist actually went down into the coal miners, to experience what the men do in this dirty, hard, business.  Local realist artists were then asked to create portraits of workers as they came up out of the mines, dirty and tired at the end of the shift.  With the help of volunteers, and with audiences watching, Cai Guo-Qiang then converted those sketches into large-scale stencils,  blown into black and white portraits by the controlled explosion of gunpowder.   These large portraits were then mounted in a manner similar to that used to carry portraits of leaders in Soviet times, and installed upon huge heaps of salt and coal.
It was a really cold rainy day when we went--on a day when it was not officially open (thanks izolyatsia and Eko Art for the arrangements.)  It's hard to describe what it's like to scurry inside from the wind and rain, underneath the slag heaps,  to see these gigantic portraits of everyday people.   They are not the abstracted portraits seen in Soviet propaganda, but really people, tired, perhaps worried about their families and their jobs.  They made Donetsk seem really to me--the part that most people never see.  Standing there looking at the portraits brought both tears and respect to my eyes.  And I think it's tremendously important that this organization has chosen to focus on the ways in which contemporary art can illuminate and inform the history of a place.  I can't wait to see what they do next.
Very different is the Shakhtar Museum at the new, enormous stadium built by Donetsk billionare Rinat Akhemetov,  where the soccer team Shakhtar (the miners) plays.  This isn't a place where you go to learn the history of Soviet sport, or to fully understand the global, commercial nature of today's worldwide soccer.  It's a fan's place--but within that context, they also do an interesting job of engaging visitors.  On the one hand, it's a straightforward narrative of team history, but several elements make it fun, and certainly different than your average Ukrainian museum. 
There's a movie of past team highlights projected on fog;  and then you're invited to walk through the fog and see the future of Shakhtar--sort of a neat visual trick.  Players' feet (and goalies' hands) are presented as cast metal molds--a nod to the team's industrial heritage.  A projected football field and ball that you could kick meant that immediately, people who didn't know each other could participate--all of a sudden I looked up, and Caleb was kicking the ball back and forth with a total stranger.   And, by the way, an enormous giftshop with everything from soccer gear to Shakhtar air-fresheners.
At various points in my career I've gone to heritage tourism meetings where it seems like the conversation about how to make  a place special are just like the ways that every other community.  We have old buildings!  There were settlers!  Some of those things that make communities different are challenging to acknowledge because they represent a difficult past.  There's no question that Donetsk's mining life is a hard story to tell, and these projects certainly don't tell a comprehensive story, but both of them help visitors understand a bit about what Donetsk is, and how it came to be. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why Am I Thinking About Food?

All of a sudden, it seems, the museum world is thinking more about food.  I don't just mean thinking about what to serve in your cafe,  but about what food means,  if a museum can should have a farmers' market or a community garden,  how food connects to the "Let's Move"initiative, and much more.  It's been interesting to me as, at the same time, my own interest in food has grown as a result of the Pickle Project, an effort I co-founded with Sarah Crow to explore, understand and share the food traditions of the complicated place that is today's Ukraine.

So although I wish I could be at the Feeding the Spirit Symposium sponsored by AAM and other organizations, this week I'm headed back to Ukraine with Sarah,  Caleb Zigas of La Cocina in San Francisco and Rueben Nilsson of Faribault Dairy in Minnesota for a series of four community conversations, in four different Ukrainian cities, about food.

The juxtapositions between American food and Ukrainian food are sometimes startling.  Most Ukrainian villagers grow their own food;  but their city grandchildren rarely cook.   Ukraine has some of the most fertile soil in the world,  yet much farming is scarcely above a subsistence level.  The country's difficult history, with times of great hunger,  mean that Ukrainian cooks, growers and eaters are resourceful in ways most Americans have forgotten.

This summer I've spoken about the Pickle Project to a couple American audiences,  who are full of questions about food safety,  about sustainability, and about a country that most people only identify with in terms of Chernobyl or painted eggs. We have much to learn and share with each other.

This isn't a museum project, but we hope that a traveling exhibition emerges from our work.  We've been interested in how many colleagues have said, "You just started a project?!"  Perhaps that's what the museum field needs more of--projects that don't necessarily have a final product, but spring from a passionate interest in connecting.  But that's a subject for another post.

For now, however, thanks to support from the Trust for Mutual Understanding and our community partners in Ukraine, these conversations will be the next steps.  If you're in Kyiv, Donetsk, Odessa, or L'viv over the next couple weeks, we'd love to see you at a conversation--check out the Pickle Project blog for the dates and locations, or find us on Facebook--to keep up with the conversations from afar.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Seen Led Zeppelin at Your Museum Lately?

A few weeks ago, in the tiny Westman Islands off the coast of Iceland I turned a corner in the local history museum in the fishing village of Heimaey and saw this poster of Led Zeppelin.  I walked a little further and saw Muhammad Ali, Farah Fawcett and a beer bottle or two.  Definitely things I had never seen in a local history museum before, so I made a special effort to discover what I was looking at.  Literally, it stopped me in my tracks because I had never seen a period room installation like this:
 This local history museum, the Byggdasafn Folk Museum,  has much amazing history to tell.  The story of why it's called the Westman Islands (Irish slaves escaping from their Norse captors);  the invasion of Algerian pirates from the Barbery Coast;  the conversion and immigration of hundreds of Mormons;  and last but not least, the 1973 volcano eruption that covered the island in volcanic ash.  So why Led Zeppelin?
This museum chose to tell a story about all the kinds of people who live and work here--up to the present day.  This re-created space is a dorm room lived in by men who came to work in the fish factories in the 1970s and 1980s.   At first when I thought about this exhibit--which also has a great label explaining how they re-created it--I thought it was important because it was about contemporary life, not just some far-distant past.
But over the last several weeks I've continued to remember this installation and to think about its meaning to my own work.   Yes, this museum did a great job looking at all kinds of contemporary issues.  Is fishing the most dangerous job in the world?  If the video doesn't convince you,  the memorial listing of fishermen running up to the present day might.   But what really made me remember it?

I might keep thinking of it because it's a reminder of how reluctant many museums are to address issues of class and economics.  The guys in the fishworkers dorm were working class, and not all local.  The museum treated them equally.  Their story was integrated into the entire story of the community, not segregated into a separate exhibit about working people.  The museum just didn't tell the story of founding fathers and mothers,  without any mention of hired hands, factory workers, maids or servants.  Many museums have made great strides in this direction,  but few do such a good job at telling an integrated story; telling the story of workers as one part of a whole community story. 

And for an entirely different take on working, if you're in Western Massachusetts, check out MassMOCA's exhibit The Workers, where work by more than 40 contemporary artists encourages thought, debate, and sometimes confusion about work in today's global economy. 

So who knew that spotting Led Zeppelin on a tiny Icelandic island would lead to a meditation on class and museums? 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Brisk, Bold, And Not Boring

Recently I found myself waking up one morning wondering, "Why did I say I'd do that!"  What was it?  I had committed to giving a session at the American Association for State and Local History conference about how not to do a boring session.   Luckily,  with many thanks to my colleague Lindsey Baker, director of the Laurel Historical Society who joined me as co-presenter, willing to try anything, and to a great group of session participants, we all had a good time.  I thought I would share a bit of what we did with Uncataloged readers as you head off to conferences, Rotary meetings, or anywhere else where you stand up in front of a group.

First off, we planned.  Lindsey and I did an agenda, revised the agenda, talked on the phone, emailed, shared our powerpoints, and met the morning of.  I've been in sessions where the participants appeared to engage with each other for the first time on the podium.  For us, the planning really helped.

Changing the Space
The chairs were set up in straight rows--we just rearranged them into slight curves, which felt more conversational and friendly.  We put up big pieces of brown paper and asked participants to share their thoughts on what they love and what they hate about presentations as they entered.  Even this little bit of change communicates that a session might not be the same old thing.

Yes, we used PowerPoint, but we wanted to show that presentations can be fast-paced and compelling. We started by thinking about Pecha Kucha (20 slides/20 seconds per slide) as a starting point and discovered we could go even faster.   Lindsey's presentation was about how to do a bad Powerpoint, and she did it by actually doing a great version of a bad Powerpoint.  It's below, followed by my Powerpoint on what makes a good presentation. 

In addition to Pecha Kucha, we modeled two other presentation techniques. Drawing on ideas about multiple intelligences, we asked participants to draw (not write about) their idea of what a conference participant in 2111 would look like (you can find the framework at the end of my Powerpoint above).   Of course, there was some grumbling about not being able to draw,  but it produced some interesting results, spurring lively conversation.   We tried a stand-up interview as our next technique, leading one participant to comment, "It works so well we're now asking you questions about the project, rather than about interviewing!"   

Our final assignment (accompanied by candy) was small group work. We took real session titles from the conference and asked small groups to design participatory, engaging conference sessions.  From dropping a vase in a session on collections care to role-playing the closing of a historic site, the results were great.  And the results were gained by really lively conversations--and that, to me, is the sign of a great session--when everybody's ideas are in play.

We made sure we had some time at the end to debrief. Participants were also encouraged to ask questions along the way and we both got out from behind the podium.   There was nothing miraculous about our recommendations.  They are ones we know from our work with museum audiences, but somehow those techniques are often forgotten when we step in front of that conference podium.  It's just like working with school groups--if you don't approach the task with joy and enthusiasm (and a sense of humor) why would they?

We'd love to hear about other great suggestions for making any presentation more memorable.   What techniques have you found effective?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Oh, Planning Does Work!

Sprint006 plan
As any consultant knows,  there's a point when you can just hope for the best--you've worked with the client,  you've facilitated community conversations, and you've written the report.  And's like waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Has the organization really embraced the process?  Are there the skills and the drive to move a plan forward?  And the bottom line...did your work make a difference?

This past week or two I've had two experiences that reinforced my belief in the importance of planning, but they also helped cement my understanding that sometimes it takes a while for the results of the process, much less the plan itself, to be fully known.

Almost two years ago,  my colleague Anne Ackerson and I led the strategic planning process for a volunteer committee of a small town in Massachusetts as they worked to save a historic building for use as a heritage center.  Focus groups, space planning, conversations with other stakeholders,  benchmarking,  committee meetings, budget development--the whole process.  No word for a while, as sometimes happens with clients as we and they head off to the next steps.  But this week an email that read, "there have been many twists and turns to get us here but it finally is a happening thing!  Your study proved very valuable to us as we went before numerous committees, radio, TV and finally a special town meeting to appeal for the last chunk of funding."   That's what a good plan does--it helps convince others to join in, to help accomplish the goals.

Yesterday I went to a meeting with a client that had had a number of staff changes throughout a long interpretive planning process (mostly completed some time ago)  and met with senior staff,  three of four of whom were new (although not necessarily new to the organization).  To my surprise and delight, these four women embraced the knowledge gained in evaluations along the way;  over a long lunch we had a lively conversation about the meaning of community engagement and community anchor;  discussed the real needs of the organization to accomplish the interpretive goals;  and overall, made a substantive commitment to work together as a team to lead the way.  Tremendously gratifying.

What made the difference?  It's hard to say.  In the first case, it was a long-standing committee that remained united and committed to the project.  In the second, it took some staff changes to make that commitment happen.  But, like almost all of my work, it's about the people involved--and the need to be ready, to have a plan in place when the time is right.  Planning is best done when you're not under the gun but when your organization takes the time to slow down and think collaboratively with your community.  "Too busy!" you say?  Find the people; find the time.

Planning by J'Roo on Flickr

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Icelandic Museums

My family and I recently spent two weeks in Iceland on vacation.  It's a fascinating place, unlike any other and its museums were the same.  I saw traditional folk museums, met a few impassioned small museum professionals, and saw high-tech media installations.  I thought Uncataloged readers might be interested in seeing some inspiring images and have posted them on the Uncataloged Museum Facebook page (oh yes,  and don't forget to like it).  Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Talk, Talk, Talk!

This past month,  my book club read, A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, by Daniel Menaker, and although we had some mixed feelings about the book,  it did generate lots of conversation over a terrific lunch of home-grown fruits and vegetables.   We talked about social media and the web, and rather it has lessened conversations;  about how talking with family is different than talking with friends--we ranged all over the block.

But then one friend asked if we felt we were able to have deep, meaningful conversations in our regular lives, in our work lives perhaps.   And it made me realize how lucky I am to have a job where those deep conversations are really a part of my work.  Not every day,  but often.  Over the last several months I've had the chance to talk with colleagues about whether greed was the primary factor in the shaping of early Western New York; about the creative process of artists and whether representing in an activity is a way to share it with others;  over a dinner in Ukraine,  about how Soviet citizens and American citizens perceived each other during the Cold War;  with my long distance food writing course, about everything from wheat trials to the meaning of kimchee;  with my consulting colleagues at our retreat about the changing landscape of the museum field;  about how collecting beautiful objects tells the story of a life;  and most importantly,  over and over again,  how we, as museums, can encourage deep conversations in everyday life.   Increasingly for me,  museums are about those conversations--and the objects are the ways to frame or to spark thinking and talking. 

As I head off to the AASLH meeting in Richmond for several days of more conversations,   I'm grateful to be a part of a field that values and appreciates talk.  And at the same time, it made me realize how much more, we as a field, can do to encourage those deeper conversations among all the members of our diverse communities.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Where Do New Ideas Come From? How Do They Happen?

I hear from many emerging museum professionals that they have a hard time getting their ideas heard at their museums (if they can find jobs at them) and wanted to highlight a great example of both working from within and working collaboratively, in a setting many of us would find pretty challenging.

In spring, 2010,  in L'viv, Ukraine, Eugene Chervony (above), a young scientist,  attended one of my workshops about creating a visitor-friendly museum.  He then followed up with an invitation to visit his museum, the Natural History Museum in L'viv and talk about projects, so of course I did.  At that point,  his museum has been closed for renovation for twenty (that's right, twenty) years.  Amidst bits of construction debris, seemingly almost finished spaces and taxidermied animals stuffed into storage areas we walked, talking about some of his  ideas for the future.  But how could it happen?  No space,  an organization with no real plan for the future, no money...there was a long list of seemingly unsurmountable nos.
But last month, I was back in L'viv and saw Eugene's new exhibit, The Story of One River at the History Museum (not at the still-closed Natural History Museum).   The exhibit looks at the history of a river in L'viv in terms of not just science, but in terms of the river's impact on humans and our impact on the river (now wholly underground and essentially, a part of the city's waste disposal system).  And, quite unusually still, his exhibit incorporated English language text for international visitors.  How did this exhibit happen?
Eugene was good enough to share some of his thoughts on this project with me.  In Ukraine, scientists (and museum curators) are really specialists so a broad-based exhibit like this is unusual.  I asked,
How did you come up with the idea? He replied,
From MATRA partners [Note:  a Dutch program supporting various efforts in Ukraine] we got a task [note:  and supporting funding] to make an exhibition about co-existence of humans and nature and their influence an each other. So we thought about what we should to do. In my opinion we should present exhibition one story. The best example is a story about our river.   As I am biologist all nature belong to sphere of my work. And design and project management is what I like to do because it is a process of creation and every time it is something new, some new tasks,  some new ideas and problems. You can't be bored.  
And how/why did you decide to connect it to the present day?  
It is not a finished story and we are still part of this story. Children who are the target group should  understand that every action have consequences and you need to think to do or not.
Collaboration is not usual in Ukraine, so I asked, "How did you convince the history museum to partner with you?--and your own museum to participate?  He also mentioned that the agreement to participate took longer than he had hoped--like almost any partnership.
They were interested to participate  because it was supposed to be new kind of exhibition in the collaboration of Natural History museum and History museum. And also we promised new approach in exhibition design.   Our museum has partners  from Netherlands and also we are specializing on ecology and environmental problems.
What's interesting here is that Eugene promised a new approach to design, despite the fact that his experience was really pretty limited.  But his imagination, his willingness to engage current museum colleagues and to expand his network were not.  I asked how he found the skills he needed:
Everything was made by museum workers. The artist I found from my friends. I did research on who doing  art projects in L'viv and outside what dedicated to river and get whole network of connections. Some of them disappointed me and but some I enjoyed to work with them. With translations my American and Canadian friends helped me and I need to say big THANK YOU.
But the hardest thing to accomplish was to convince his colleagues of the art object (see above) and of its relevance to the exhibition.  Although people were interested in new ways of exhibit design, the reality is sometimes a bit harder--and really required, Eugene said, "a big fight" to install the art.

He would try and do a couple things differently (and what exhibit developer has ever done an exhibit that isn't the same?).  Those included these three:
Probably I would change little bit of way of presentation of information about river.
I would start full evaluation from the beginning but I didn't have the time and or experience for it.
I would not present so many animals without any background but ....
The exhibit ends with a space for visitor feedback on Post-It notes and I was curious about the comments.  Eugene wrote this about visitor response:
Children like to write feedback very much.
A 5th grade pupil wrote:  I did not think that in Ukraine can be like in the USA. (about exhibition)
Government should open this problem (talk about it more)
But most of them are thanks and best wishes.
 What are the takeaways from Eugene's exhibit project?  To me, they are:
  • Look inside and outside your own organization for skills, partners, and inspiration.
  • Work collaboratively and persistently, believing that both new and long-term colleagues can be valuable  members of a team.
  • Don't be afraid to think that you can learn something new--and just try those new things (as the Little Engine that Could would say, "I think I can, I think I can.")
  • Think about audiences--that should go without saying, but it's a bit of a new concept in Ukraine and too often, a new concept other places.  Eugene had a message he wanted to convey to children, and evaluation shows they're getting it.
Over the course of several days and a long car trip into the Carpathians this year, Eugene and I had a great talk about new exhibit ideas and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next!  And I'm sure that new, enthusiastic audiences are also looking forward to it.