Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Graduate School Buyer's Guide for Museum Studies

Last week's New England Museum Association conference was amazing, and my head is still spinning from all the thinking, networking, and partying. (Okay, not really that much partying, but the hors d'oeuvres at the JFK Library were out of this world.)

I co-hosted two panels: the Conference Preview on Wednesday morning, and The Graduate School Conundrum on Wednesday afternoon. It's the latter that I'd like to take just a few minutes to talk about. I'll continue to follow up on this with additional thoughts over the coming weeks, because this is a topic that needs to be considered at length and with some really deep thinking.

Many, many ideas and tough questions came up during the session, but one cohesive subject that came to the top was whether museum studies graduate programs need a "buyer's guide," and what that would entail. I was taken aback not only by how little people knew about the graduate programs they were choosing but also by how little articulation there was about what people even wanted to know about their graduate programs. The overriding question so far seems to have been "will it get me a job?" That is a fine question. Answering it will not tell you much about the graduate program, however, and we don't even know all the moving parts that make up the answer to that question, though we have some good theories.

With that in mind, one of the excellent panelists, Linda Norris, has kicked off the conversation about a graduate school buyer's guide on her blog, The Uncataloged Museum. She poses some excellent questions and pokes at the bigger picture. We've also been having a good conversation on Twitter about some of her big questions, namely the positive and negative implications of a tight professional network.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Conservation Exhibit at the Shelburne Museum

I recently had the chance to visit the Shelburne Museum and explore a few exhibit spaces I'd never seen before. One of my favorites was the small area in the Horseshoe Barn devoted to the work of conservation.


There was a sitting area with books about conservation to read - some basic ones, and some of the more complex and scientific ones. I liked that this exhibit didn't speak down to the visitor. It recognized that conservation topics are complicated but important.


They also used a variety of practical examples to show various reasons for exhibition and conservation techniques.


These windows showed different types of glazing to use for UV protection, and explained why it's important.


There were also traditional-style panels with lots more information.


There were also interactive spaces that people were very much engaged with, showing different techniques conservators use to analyze and treat objects and artwork.

The exhibit wasn't large, but it was well-situated at the main entrance of the building that features the carousel horses that conservation interns have been painstakingly working on for decades. It's an excellent example of bringing behind the scenes work to the visiting public.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Circling the Sheldon" at the Henry Sheldon Museum

"Circling the Sheldon" was at the Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury, VT from March 1, 2014 - April 19, 2014, so I'm quite a bit behind in this review.

I did want to post about it, however, because I was so impressed with it when I visited in April 2014.

The Walter Cerf Gallery at the Sheldon is a marvelously flexible space, and I've seen a few other exhibits installed over the years. "Circling the Sheldon" has to be one of my favorites, for one major reason: it was one of the most creative exhibits I've seen in a long time.


Simply put, the theme was circles, and it afforded the museum the chance to really dig through their collections to explore that theme. There was an incredibly diversity and richness of objects throughout the exhibit. The broad theme allowed for the side-by-side display of objects that never would've been displayed together otherwise, and to display some objects in new contexts.


Here's how they describe the exhibit.
Visitors will find this distinguished geometric form in historic military and fashion buttons, a wooden peg leg worn by Jonathan Preston who lost his leg in action during the Revolution, Native American baskets, antique leather fire buckets, a colorful yo-yo quilt, and the historic clock face with Roman numerals salvaged from the Middlebury Congregational Church at the time of its 1989 building restoration.
In what museum universe would you ever see a peg leg alongside Native American baskets and a clock face? I love it.


Even the ubiquitous spinning wheel gets a new look when it's put alongside other circle objects.


Kudos to the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History for finding an intelligent, thoughtful, creative way to showcase their collection.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House

Louisa May Alcott and her family moved to a house in Concord, MA in 1858. Her father, Bronson, named it "Orchard House" after the apple orchards that surrounded it. It was in that house that Louisa wrote the book that would make her famous: Little Women. She blazed through the draft in one month, sitting at a little desk overlooking the front yard.

Orchard House is a truly special place. If any house can be said to have a soul, Orchard House has one. I worked at Orchard House in college, mostly as a tour guide. When I was promoted to opening and closing, I would often get to the house 15 minutes early and sit on the floor in one of the rooms, soaking up the atmosphere. I love that house like I love few other places in the world.

It's a special place with a really special history, on both the emotional and the intellectual levels.

Right now, Orchard House is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary telling the story of the house itself, which dates back to the Revolutionary War and contains fascinating American history above and beyond the Alcott family, whose story is much more far-reaching than just Louisa's literary career. The house has been a museum for over a century, and has a remarkable portion of original family furnishings and artifacts. If for no other reason than to tell the story of one of the most remarkable historic house museums in the United States, this documentary will be an extraordinary thing.

If you're a fan of Little Women, please consider donating to the Kickstarter campaign.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Blog Roundup

Some interesting posts from the blogosphere.

Blame the Crowd,  Not the Camera from Museum 2.0

Interesting take on a post by Grumpy Art Historian, in which he laments the National Gallery's new open camera policy. Simon argues the problem is not necessarily cameras, but the vast numbers of people crowding around star pieces of art. If you've ever visited the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, you know the feeling!

I find merit in both arguments. I tend to think that those taking photographs of objects are parsing their own experiences in their own way, and we shouldn't judge them for not having an "authentic" interaction with that object. At the same time, some people are clearly snapping photographs that they will never see again, that will not come out well, and are doing so out of a reflexive sense of imitation.

Ultimately, I would argue, the solution is more about mindfulness than anything else, but how do museums communicate that to their patrons? Only take a picture if you really think it through first? That feels elitist. Maybe provide more scaffolding by each painting or object to get people to think about the picture they're taking - like a hashtag for them to use, or a mention of the museum's Instagram account? Examples of fun ways for people to pose in front of the photographs?

So Many Job Openings, So Hard to Get Hired from Evil HR Lady

Okay, this one was mostly depressing, but I think points to some fundamental problems with museum employment as well. It's an employer's economy, and job profiles are in flux. There are also some actually helpful tips about matching yourself with a job that you may not be 100% ideal for.

Slactivism from Seth Godin

I may be a grinch, but I have become increasingly annoyed by the ALS ice bucket challenges. Part of that is admittedly jealousy - clever, viral, and raising a ton of money! But most of it is that it's become a gimmicky stunt that people use for attention - and then don't donate, or don't mention ALS. How many people dumping ice water over their heads really know what ALS is? Seth Godin offers a nicely different perspective here, one that made me think twice.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Weekly Blog Roundup in Museums

Here are a few interesting reads from the museum world & beyond.

How a Classic Business Matrix Can Help Museums and Historic Sites from Engaging Places

I've seen a few variations on the "apply business models to museums!" idea, but I really quite like this one. Definitely worth reading and considering.

Up All Night at the Museum from The New Yorker

Interesting, disturbing read from the New Yorker about the first ever adult sleepover at the American Museum of Natural History.

Joyful Museums

Yes, I'm plugging this again. It's a great project. If you haven't done the survey yet, please do!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Joyful Museums Project: Boosting the Signal

Marieke Van Damme is a Boston-based museum professional who is both smart and thoughtful. She's putting together a fascinating panel for NEMA 2014 about workplace culture in museums.

To that end, she's launched the Joyful Museums project, and she's collecting responses to a general survey about museum workplace culture.

Here's what she writes:
I believe that keeping its workers happy, despite grim economic and other circumstances, should be the top priority of every museum. 
Engaged museum workers will have a deeper commitment to the mission of a museum than a disengaged one, and they will strive for a higher quality product (exhibition, program, publication, etc.) for the public. Building off of the growing academic field of positive psychology, I intend to explore what being happy at work means, why it is important for the museum community, and how it can be accomplished.
So please, take a few minutes to fill out her survey. I'm hoping to attend her panel at NEMA, and I'll report back on the results here.

You can also follow her on Twitter @joyfulmuseums.

(ps - Marieke and I have emailed a bit about our respective NEMA 2014 surveys, as they have some thematic crossover. If you haven't taken my grad school survey yet, please do!