Sunday, July 30, 2017

No Bells, No Whistles: When Design and Content Marry Perfectly

Perhaps it's it's not surprising that a design museum would have good design.  It was lovely to visit the Cooper-Hewitt Museum a few weeks ago and discover an interactive exhibit that relied only on great design along with pencils and paper (plus stickers) to create a compelling visitor experience.  Yes, I got to try out their pen--but honestly, I enjoyed this more.

The goal of the exhibit was to engage visitors in thinking about how our creative efforts in design can help solve problems.  Incredibly clear, the exhibit began with a start here and then an overview of the process of visiting the exhibit.


Then it led you step-by-step through the design process, beginning with finding a value (interesting, right?  museums don't often talk about values as drivers of behavior).

Then you moved to a question. They were broad enough to encourage creative thinking, yet I began to see the constraints that encourage creativity being put into place.

You're asked to reflect on both question and value.

So far, it's been the incubation step in the creative process. We learn what the process  is, and we begin to gather information.  But the process still needs more information.  Because visitors might not be designers, we're given a hand, with a group of design tactics.  Will you use a stage, social media, a public bath or a police station to, say, increase access to healthy food?

 We're reminded that creative combining is a great way to find solutions.  That's why we're asked to pick two cards.  We've designed our solutions--but that's not the end.  We see real-live designers sharing their projects and we see other visitors sharing their solutions. A physician reminds us that "less is more" is often true in medicine as it is in architecture.

Finally, you get to place your project where you think, physically, where it belongs.  Does it work in a parking lot?  on a roof?  in a warehouse?  Helping to remind us that the city itself is a living laboratory for all kinds of creative experiments (as a rural dweller myself, it's the same thing with different vocabulary).

And although it seemed a bit of an afterthought, I loved this cartoon about successful and unsuccessful community design processes, a reminder that community engagement makes all things better.

Thanks Cooper Hewitt for providing us all with the reminder that pens and pencils combined with ideas are a place where creativity lives.  When it comes time to develop your next exhibit, consider all the alternatives.

PS  I did use the pen, but did not look up my saved works when I arrived home.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

"I am an activist" From Walden to Sites of Conscience

This Fourth of July celebration seemed different than others, somehow.  My social media feeds were filled with reminders of both the potential of the United States (tweeting the Declaration of Independence) and of the distance we still have to go (Frederick Douglass' 1852 Fourth of July speech in Rochester, NY).  Reading those tweets and speeches pushed me to finally write a small bit about my experiences with International Coalition Sites of Conscience members at our Africa and Middle East and North Africa meetings in May. Those two weeks were deeply meaningful to me as an introduction to Coalition members' work around the world. Whether it was sitting by the water in Tunis, drinking tea late at night or somberly trying to make sense together of a visit to a genocide memorial, those connections will long resonate for me. Somehow those reflections had the unexpected result of bringing me back around to an exhibition at the Morgan Library, just down the block from my office in New York City.

So let's start at the exhibit. It's This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal, featuring Henry David Thoreau's journals along with a stellar collection of Thoreau-related artifacts, many from the Concord Museum, where the show will travel later this year.  Thoreau kept a journal---lots of journals, filled with all kinds of things, from the weather to politics.

In the exhibit, big quotations on the wall pull you in to learn more.  And somehow, although I knew this exhibition has been in the planning for quite some time, the quotes seemed incredibly timely.

As I looked at the lock and key from the Concord jail where he spent one single night for his failure to pay the poll tax, I read this quotation,  "I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine."  That simple quote led me back to my colleagues in Africa and the Middle East.

Before I began work at the Coalition, I thought of Sites of Conscience in primarily US-focused terms: sites like Lincoln's Cottage, or the Levine and Wing Luke Museums, or national parks like Seneca Falls and Manzanar.  These are organizations that operate as relatively traditional (but inspirational) museums. But many of our Coalition members have come to memory work, the work of archives, museums and memory, from very different places and their organizations are often very young.  I'm just beginning to puzzle out how to share the vital knowledge and practice of these new organizations with the more traditional museum field in the US and elsewhere, in ways that may have the potential to transform our museum practice. And of course, at the same time, I'm working to find more ways to assist all of our members around the world in building on their own strengths.

Here's a bit of what I've been thinking (in no particular cohesive framework--I'm still thinking!).

Because many people working in these organizations come from human rights, social activism, law, and other fields, the gatherings represent a diversity of perspectives not always found in US museum work. It's a reminder that by privileging the knowledge of a museum studies graduate degree, we lose out on important knowledge, skills and perspectives. 

I was reminded of the power of archives, even more than artifacts.  Gonzalo Conte, from Memoria Abierta in Argentina, shared their incredible ongoing archival work, integrating oral histories, images, maps and more to build the ongoing work of justice.  Sites everywhere are doing the same--those oral histories and archives are valued for the ways in which they can speak truths, and in so doing, build justice and reconciliation.  But archives are only valuable when they are accessible. 

When we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which includes the mass grave of 250,000 Rwandans murdered during the 1994 genocide, I found myself balancing between the absorption of complicated information and emotion.  That challenge exists in almost every history exhibit, and the experience is different for every visitor. There are no easy answers, but as exhibition developers, working with those whose story we are telling is critical.  We know this, yet too often we neglect it. We need to find more ways to make those voices heard and more ways to support museum staff who work every day with trauma.  The Memorial seems to do an exemplary job of supporting both staff and visitors.

And lastly, I went away from both meetings struck by the potential power of museums and historic places that are sites of conscience.  In Tunis, we stopped at the site of the former 9th of April Prison (above), now a dusty parking lot and a place where our Tunisian members are working to have designated as a memorial or museum. As we stood there, one of the participants moved a bit over, and stood in a place, saying, "This is exactly where my cell was."  I asked how it felt to stand there. He said, "I do not let this define me.  I am not a victim.  I am an activist."

We need more activists in all our museums to keep from settling for the role of, as Thoreau described museums, "catacombs,"  for dead things, rather than places for the living power of change. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Fearless Museum Exhibit: A Post in Honor of World Refugee Day

Monday was World Refugee Day so it seems the past time to share one of the most meaningful museum experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s taken me far too long to write about—but if you’ve been in conversation with me over the last several months, I’ve probably told you about it.
In April, my dear friend and colleague Katrin Hieke joined me for a weekend of museum-going in Berlin and she had scouted out exhibits that I never would have found.  One of them was at the Museum of European Cultures—a museum I couldn’t quite imagine. What would it be about? High culture?  Folk culture?

Here's how the museum explains its work:
The Museum Europäischer Kulturen is dedicated to collecting, researching, preserving, presenting, and raising awareness of artefacts of European everyday culture and human lived realities from the 18th century until today. As such, we transcend national and linguistic borders and facilitate encounters among different groups of people. Our work is characterised by the term ‘cultural contact’.
We continually seek to forge connections between our historical collection and current issues. An important aspect of this work is a close cooperation with respective interest groups, as well as facilitating an exchange with our visitors.

The staff, led by director Elisabeth Tietmeyer, have chosen to continually expand all of our perspectives on what “European culture” is.   Katrin had found that they offered Tandem tours, in German and Arabic, of the exhibition "daHeim:  Glances into Fugitive Lives" so we arrived just in time.  What’s a Tandem tour?  One of the refugees/artists who created the exhibit led the exhibition tour, joined by a museum curator and a translator.  Along the way, our small group not only conversed in German and Arabic, but English and Greek.

What was the exhibit?  It was the work of a small group of refugees, from all over the world, who were housed at a single hostel in Berlin.  Using the hostel bedframes as their primary material, they created extensive installations, along with art work on the walls and in smaller iterations, that explored their own experience as refugees coming to Berlin. The works were powerful in and of themselves,  but our guided tour made it even more so.  He Xshared the stories of creating the works and of individual refugee stories.  The group of creators became a cohesive group, and now, even after the exhibit is finished, meet every week to socialize.

The works depicted the often-harrowing journey, the German bureaucracy, families left at home and memories of cities destroyed.  And in every instance, our guide made the experience deeper, more personal, more real.  At the small bedframe, adapted with rockers to simulate the rocking of a boat, with a small iPhone-sized video of someone’s voyage, when he shared his own journey, we all fell silent, suddenly into a world unknown to us. So as humans, the exhibition touched Katrin and me deeply.  But there are also important lessons for us as museum people.  

Here’s a few takeaways:
  • Be fearless.  This was a big exhibit with, I suspect, an unknown outcome when it began.  The staff had to trust its exhibition partners, the refugees themselves, and its own ability to explain and explore the content. 
  • Let go of your “museum” voice.   We talk a lot about shared authority, but then, often, we resort to exerting control after we talk to an “advisory committee” and get their input. 
  • Be about the now.  More than ever, the world needs more thoughtful, passionate voices exploring how we can make a better world together.  The long lead time for exhibition development often shoves us into irrelevancy. 
  • Don’t just talk.  It’s pretty easy to talk about how museums should be relevant and how we should be more diverse.  We are still moving way too slow and need to pair institutional and personal action.   Last year at ICOM, the mayor of Lampedusa, Italy, where many refugees have come ashore, spoke about how history will judge all of us in receiving nations harshly for our lack of actions in the refugee crisis. We must do more.

Want to explore more about migration and cultural organizations?  Check out the free downloadable publication, The Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees: The Role of Cultural Organisations coordinated by Maria Vlachou and just released this week.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Visiting The Museum of Things

Do museums need objects?  Do we have too many objects?  How do you contextualize objects? What should we be collecting? or not collecting?  These are the kinds of questions that many of us wrestle with on an ongoing basis so it was an unexpected pleasure in April to visit the Museum of Things (Museum der Dinge) in Berlin that is unabashedly about things, in particular, the consumer culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.

My great colleague Katrin Hieke and I experienced some pure delight in exploring objects and puzzling over how the open storage was arranged.  Sometimes by decade, sometimes by color, sometimes by origin.  The crowded shelves actually encouraged us to look deeper, to dig into cases that attracted us.  And as always, with museum visits, what you bring with you matters:  Katrin grew up in East Germany (DDR) so her added context about some objects was great--and she appreciated the way objects from both the DDR and West Germany were sometimes displayed together.

One section of the exhibition was about branding, but then there were also those anonymous objects that we think of as no-brands:  rubber bands, paper clips and the like, encouraging us to think about why some things need branding and others do not.

The museum had some lovely, simple interactives.  First, their calendar of upcoming events was not a display on a screen or a bulletin board, but on these shelves, making the calendar an object in itself. In another location, you could adopt an object and help support its care (you can also do this on the website). The interactives valued pencil and a sense of hand, something too rarely valued in contemporary culture.

But the interactives (and the exhibitions as a whole) didn't shy away from encouraging us to think more deeply about all those things in our lives.  "How should we live?" asked a question on a magnet board.

Wouldn't it be great to take an object away with you from a museum?  At the Museum of Things, a vending machine outside the door gives you a tiny package with a small object, a bit of verse, and a sweet.  What could be better?  Even though it's clear that this museum is very carefully curated and designed, as befits a design-oriented museum, it provided a kind of joy for me that's all-too-rare my museum visits these days--the joy of discovery, surprise, and connection.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Berlin: Reminders for our Future

First, a quick observation that probably applies to far more than blogging.  Since I began my new job at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience in February, my blog posts have been few and far between. It's no lack of ideas because the work is exciting and challenging, full of interesting questions to puzzle, but somehow finding the head space.  And of course, once you get out of the habit, it becomes much harder to get back into the habit.  That next post--it has to be really, really good since it's been so long!  I've finally moved past that thinking, hence the post below, but if you want to learn more about getting past that sense of perfection and you'll be at AAM, be sure and check out Maura Hallisey, Danielle Steinmann and my session on prototyping as a way to move towards change. Check out our guest post on the Center for the Future of Museums blog.  And now, back to our irregularly scheduled blogging.

A few weeks ago, I visited Berlin and in visiting even places I'd been before, I found it full of unexpected resonance in these troubling times.  Berlin is a city of memorials large and small, and I found meaning in places large and small, often unexpected.  In Berlin as in other European cities, you see tiny brass blocks with names and dates in front of some buildings. Sometimes just one or two, sometimes whole clusters.  They are Stolpersteine, stumbling blocks, a project by artist Gunter Demnig. Right there, under your feet, are palpable reminders of a regime that once rounded people up and took them away because of their religion, ethnicity, politics or sexual orientation; reminders that all these blocks were people, with families, with lives, with futures taken.

On my way to a meeting, I stepped into the Palace of Tears, the former train station that served as the main checkpoint in between East and West Berlin.  The reminder here:  that, as one German said to me over dinner, "We have tried a wall.  They never work."  At Checkpoint Charlie, an outdoor exhibit included images and text from John F. Kennedy's visit to Berlin in 1963:  a reminder that the United States is a inevitably a part of the larger world and that our future rests with that understanding.

The Topography of Terror Documentation Centre is near the site of the Nazi SS headquarters. It's unflinching in its look at the horrific work of the SS.  There's nothing flashy about the indoor exhibition at the site, but a steady piling upon piling of information about the crimes of the Third Reich.  Virtually every visitor I saw was reading intently.  The reminder there:  that nations and people can be different, but that the need for activism is always present.

I came across this building, below, on my first morning in what used to be East Berlin. It says, "This house used to be in another country.  Human will can move everything."  What better reminder for an engaged, activist, human-centered future?

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Small Piece of the Big Picture: IMLS and Local Communities

The new administration's budget which proposes the total elimination of funds for NEA, NEH and IMLS (the Institute of Museum and Library Services) got me thinking about my role as a Museum Assessment Program (known as MAP and administered by the American Alliance of Museums) reviewer. This post is about the ways that my individual experience--like so many other of my colleagues' experiences--pushes back against the false narrative that funding for these agencies only supports elite institutions in big cities or that they are a frill, unnecessary in struggling parts of the country.

I have been a MAP reviewer for museums and history organizations from Eastern Washington State to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  In every case, the museum itself decides that its progress could be assisted by an outside reviewer.  It's an entirely voluntary process and the museum pays only a token amount. Reviewers like me, essentially volunteers, receive a small stipend for conducting the site visit and writing a report. That stipend and the travel expenses are covered by federal funds.

What have I found?  Every place is different, with different challenges, but all of my visits were characterized by an openness and willingness to learn.  In every case, the organizations were interested in thinking in new ways, particularly about broadening their audiences. Some had further to go than others in that thinking, but at every place, I found myself in thoughtful, questioning discussions.

What were these places like for those of you who might think that IMLS is only for the big guys? What difference does it make? Let's see.

Seven years ago I went to the tiny Hayden Heritage Center in Northern Colorado, where my overnight host, a member of the board, told me she knew I'd arrive soon because she heard the plane overhead in a big, starry sky; the same place where everyone on the board wore cowboy boots and I had a great lunch on Taco Thursday at the local bar.  The museum's collection was wide-ranging:  I recall a giant ball of string, some terrific historic photos, and objects that helped explore the story of this region's settlement including the vital role of women. I recontacted the Heritage Center to see if they'd made use of the report.  Here's the response from curator Laurel Watson, who joined the museum after my visit, when I wrote her to ask about the utility of MAP:
They are key resources to give us tools that enable us to assess our weaknesses and strengths and determine what we need to do in order to better serve our communities and continue to protect and preserve our local history and heritage. 

All the way on the East Coast, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the Queen Anne's Historical Society (above, a photo from a July 4th celebration) wanted to expand their community-based work. I remember a thoughtful community focus group, with deep, honest conversation about how the historical society could begin to reach out to the long-standing African-American community whose history had been largely absent in the telling.

In the middle of the country, a larger organization, Indiana Landmarks, was struggling to rethink its historic house. The Morris-Butler House had been the place where the organization was founded and helped jumpstart a preservation movement by forcing the re-routing of an Interstate (above). The house was now sadly outdated in its interpretation, consuming resources and not attracting visitors. Gwendolen Nystrom, now Director, Indianapolis Volunteers and Heritage Experiences at Indiana Landmarks wrote when I recently asked about the value:
The MAP review acted as the catalyst for fundamentally changing the operation of Indiana Landmarks’ beloved historic site, Morris-Butler House. The report provocatively asked the parent organization to consider “whether or not it is appropriate [for Morris-Butler House] to continue as a historic house museum” and prompted the organization to strategically reinvent the house. 
Through her recommendations and the subsequent planning input of other industry experts, we were able to successfully transition the house away from a traditional historic house museum to a smaller, more intimate venue that highlights its symbolic importance to the organization and demonstrates through adaptive reuse our historic preservation mission, all while retaining the historic fabric of the site. Our visibility and visitation has increased since these changes were implemented. This would not have been possible without the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) grant we received from IMLS and the American Alliance of Museums.
Back to the west again, for both a MAP review and then a later re-visit to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane (a mural from there is at the head of this post).  This museum is an unusual hybrid of state agency and non-profit organization, with history, art, and natural history collections--as well as a world-class collection of Native American materials from the region and the Americas.  It had been through some troubled times, and these were visits with lots and lots of listening.  They have a new director on board this month, and longtime curator Marsha Rooney just reflected on my visits,
Your Spokane MAP visits have been most useful to us, not only for the professional administrative guidance and recommendations found in your reports, but also for the enthusiasm, creative ideas, concrete examples, and internal teambuilding and communication skills that you modeled while on site.
It's been great to check back in this week with these museums and hear about my impact--but it's not about me.  These MAP visits are community investments.  The tiny (say not much more than the cost of a few golf balls) investment almost always lead to additional community investments of both time and money.  Said Laurel Watson from Hayden:
I have used the assessment report for grants for various topics that were brought up in the MAP. It has been a great tool for helping me and my Board (which is consists of entirely new people since the Assessment) determine strategies and goals for the Museum.
This is what the Trump administration has proposed:  the dismantling of support for nothing less than our nation's history. Again, from Watson:
Small museums may be a small piece of the big picture of our national history but without each small piece the big picture begins to crumble and fade.
Call your Congresspeople and your Senators to express support for IMLS, NEA and NEH.  If you've already done so, do it again.  Invite them to visit your museum or historical society to see for themselves.  We can push back and save this resource that contributes to community building coast-to-coast.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Stuck on an Object

All of us who work in museums see lots of objects--so many sometimes, that they seem to run together. But sometimes there's an object whose physicality or story sticks with us, for reasons we can't seem to explain.  My new job is just a block or so from the Morgan Library and last week I made a quick lunchtime trip--my first visit.  There is a major exhibit on Emily Dickinson there, all of which I enjoyed, but I found myself drawn to this tiny, house-shaped poem. In her tiny, unique handwriting, there it was:

The way Hope builds his House
It is not with a sill –
Nor Rafter – has that Edifice
But only Pinnacle –

Abode in as supreme
This superficies
As if it were of Ledges smit
Or mortised with the Laws –

I've thought about this piece of paper many times since that visit. But I still find myself puzzling over why. Is it that a house and a reclusive poet just seem to go together?  Is it the sense of hand, of personality in the writing?  Is it the combination of shape and poem?  It might be all of the above.

It was a gentle reminder of the many, many ways that each visitor approaches an exhibit and how many different ways there are to find meaning in the object. A generous exhibit design allows each of us to find our way.

What's a memorable object you've seen recently?