Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Polymaths, experts, and the new information hunter-gatherers

I chewed through more than a few metaphors to try to encapsulate a concept that's been occupying my thoughts a great deal lately. In the end, describing it simply was best.

Before the connectivity of the modern world, the learned elite gained information in isolation, with exacting slowness. What one person learned was very often confined to that one person. Reading something and committing it to memory, or writing it out in a personal reference/index system were ways to gain and retain knowledge. One person could be a deep, thorough expert in their field, calling to mind a host of examples and connections based on personal study and personal experience. Their knowledge was internalized and kept secure with themselves, and they could speak eloquently on their subject by drawing on their own store of expertise.

Now, a new expert is emerging, more along the model of a card catalog. Think of a person who may not be able to speak eloquently on, for example, the various dictates of the Second Lateran Council of 1139, but who has a broad grasp of the movement of history during the 12th century and can easily and quickly locate information about the canon law adopted during the council, articles that interpret particular aspects of that law, and is savvy enough to sort through junk information to find relevant details quickly.

Think of the first as a person who stores information, and the second as a person who stores pathways to information. The second person will be able to move more quickly, access a broader range of subjects, and use the tools of the modern world more effectively.

But the first person is our deep thinker, who can connect all the dots of a problem and can speak with authority. The first person knows the location, hours, and menu of a local Mexican restaurant because they have been there; the second person knows that the restaurant is down the street a ways, and can quickly narrow down to the correct restaurant on his iPhone.

Are we moving toward a culture where we value the latter over the former? Is the latter more uniquely suited to the world today, and the former is a dying breed? Does everyone need a bit of both? Which is the more useful in a museum environment - or do we need both? Are the experts our curators, and the indexes our visitor services managers?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Just in case you haven't seen this hilarious re-writing from a registrar's perspective, here it is re-posted.

To the Top of the Case, To The Top of the Hall 
Now Pack Away, Box Away, Move Away All! A visit from St. Entropy, who,  like St. Bernard, comes to the rescue of those lost in the drifts. 

 ‘Twas the Night before Christmas, with nothing to prove—We were still reeling from the museum’s big move.There were boxes and boxes of…still more, smaller boxes,Full of papers and pictures and foxes and rockses.Huge jars stuffed with fish and enormous whale testiclesTeeny jars crammed with spiders and vesiclesThe movers had helped out by acting as sorters,Then submitted our names to the film crew of “Hoarders.”Not a creature was stirring—they were packed in too tight,Wrapped in paper and foam and unable to bite.We sat on wood crates and used boxes as tables,And discovered that…somehow…we’d lost all the labels.The boxes stretched out to the vanishing point,But not one helpful word could be found in the joint.Remember the last scene shown in “The Lost Ark?”This was seven times worse—and we sat in the dark.Not a thing had been copied, not a word databased,And our system collapsed due to very cheap paste.Without opening every box that we had,There was no way for us to move into our pad.  This called for a nightcap. Or several. Or many.Any solvents unpacked? Why, you guessed it—not any.So the director (with curses) and curators (with whining)Settled in for a night of unpacking and mining.When all of a sudden I heard such a droneI knew in an instant it must be my phoneI reached in my pocket, turned it on with a snap,And what should appear but the Dear Santa® app!It connected to Google and mapped our location,Then demanded a password for verification.My phone screen showed something all disjunct and frayedLike one of those paintings by Thomas Kinkade™.When, what to my wandering eyes should appear,But a miniature sleigh and eight androideerWith a jolly old driver, so lively and quick,I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.More rapid than banner ads his coursers they came,And he pulled out his Tablet and downloaded their names.“Now Cyber! now Ebook! on Dunder! and Twaddle!We must get there quick, we have no time to dawdle!”And then in a twinkling, as I watched on the screenNick arrived at the door looking fit, lean, and mean.A curator screamed, “My God!  It’s alive!”So I aimed for his head and threw an MRM5.Santa entered the room and got straight to unpackingWith ripping and tearing and general whacking.He filled all the shelves, crammed the drawers, stuffed the cases,Racked up the racks, leaving no empty spaces.In a flash he was finished, and all was unpackedAnd snugly assorted, complete and compact.But nothing made sense, there was no order at all.And what would not fit had been tossed in the hall.“But Santa!” I pleaded, “How will we be ableTo find the collections with nary a label?”Santa smiled like a man who’s pulled off a great featHe tapped on his phone and one box gave a tweet“I’ve equipped each “thing” with its own RFID tagThey’re findable even stuffed deep in my bag.”Sure enough every specimen, each object and box,Now bore that sign of electronic pox.Santa leaped in his sleigh, to his team gave a whistleAnd away they all flew like the down off a thistle.But I heard him exclaim, without missing a beat,“This system will work…until it’s obsolete.”
(Sally SheltonJohn Simmons and Elizabeth Merritt always find the holidays a moving experience.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Museum Offices

I love this old photo gallery from The Washington Post with a peek into the office of a senior curator at the National Gallery of Art. Look familiar to anyone?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

150th Anniversary of Fredericksburg

No battle is just one event, or one offensive, so technically the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg has been going on for a few days, and will continue into tomorrow.

But today, this morning, 150 years ago, my many-times-great-grandfather was leading his regiment toward Prospect Hill, where Confederate artillery and infantry were entrenched. They stepped off from Slaughter Pen Farm, marched through fields and across railroad tracks that are still there, and were part of General Meade's brigade, which pierced - for a few brief moments - the Confederate line. Richard Gustin's company, the Troy Guards, the company he raised and was voted captain of at the beginning of the war, suffered 50% casualties in the assault.

Slaughter Pen Farm, where the march began.

Stonewall Jackson's line.

Looking down Prospect Hill; the railroad tracks are about at the tree line.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Good Career Advice

I recently co-hosted a dinner conversation at the NEMA fall conference. 15 or so young or emerging museum professionals, my PAG co-chair Kate McIntosh, and I went out to dinner at the Bluebird Tavern in downtown Burlington, VT.

We had a great and far-ranging conversation about job searching, putting your best foot forward, the tricky nature of mapping a museum career, and had a hilarious and slightly depressing sidetrack into the worst interview questions we'd ever been asked. (The winner: "If you could imagine yourself as any kind of fruit, what would it be?")

One piece of advice I offered that evening, that I believe helped me in my recent job search and has helped me as a professional in general, is to read Ask a Manager. I purchased and read her book on job-searching, and combed through her free ebook on preparing for interviews over a dozen times at least. Her advice is straightforward, practical, and interesting. I like her core emphasis on being the best candidate for a job by being a thorough, competent, accomplished professional, and letting that show through.

I would encourage any professional to read her blog, and if you have a question, to submit it. She's very timely about responding, and the handful of times I have written in I've received excellent advice.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Back on Track

As it turns out, re-arranging everything in your life and moving to another state in the course of three weeks is rather exhausting. I'm settling in to my new job at the Vermont Historical Society, learning the ropes, and figuring out my new life in Vermont. After my first week in my new apartment - in which I did not have heat and several rooms were still under construction - life has settled into a rhythm.

I was lucky enough to attend some parts of the NEMA fall conference, and I have notes from two panels there, and I have been doing some museum reading and thinking in my down time, so I should resume a normal posting schedule here shortly!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Arts Organizations and Community

Somewhat delayed by unexpected events including Sandy, I'll be publishing a series of blog posts inspired by the proceedings at the Salzburg Global Forum, an annual leadership seminar for 50 young nonprofit leaders in the arts organized by National Arts Strategies. Bloggers have been asked to address a series of questions facing the nonprofit arts world similar to those being considered in Salzburg.

Arts Organizations and Community

In a post-recession world, institutions which survive will be those grounded deeply in a sense of community. By community, I mean that linked group of people who establish connections with one another and with others based around an idea or a place.

Communities of ideas can exist the world over, and may never even meet physically. The internet has provided an easy way to replace the physical with the intellectual, and has provided virtual meeting spaces to encouraging the sharing of ideas. Communication has always been at the heart of communities of ideas, and that communication grows faster and more sophisticated every day. “Web 2.0” and “social media” are both buzzwords of this new, more sophisticated linking.

Communities of place are much more traditional, and foster connections by the simple virtue of familiarity breeding not contempt, but mutual reliance and affection. Small towns and neighborhoods are the ultimate example of this type, which fluctuates widely as demographics shift from urban centers to rural areas. “Third places,” such as coffeehouses, bars, and other physical institutions are also a small-scale example.

These communities can co-exist and co-create – those interested in fiber arts might congregate at a yarn store, or those in a neighborhood might form a jogging group. Communities of ideas might create brief, intense communities of place, such as a Renaissance fair or science fiction convention, and communities of place might band together to promote an idea, such as an inner-city neighborhood advocating for music education in its schools.

Museums can and should participate in both types of communities. First, all museums have subject matter expertise and collection items that can speak directly to one or more communities of ideas. Engaging with those communities can activate their passion on behalf of an institution, and they can serve as valuable advocates worldwide, no matter the location of the museum. The key to this type of engagement is consistency and transparency – regular new content accompanied by honest dialogue with those who may be more expert in a subject matter than the museum itself. This type of community engagement is much more familiar to museums, but many have yet to take full advantage of its new digital possibilities

Museums have struggled as members of a community of place. Some have succeeded brilliantly for a time, only to fall behind with a change in leadership or staff. Some have eschewed their physical communities entirely in favor of connecting only with those who have particular interest in their collections. Museums can no longer be the temple on the hill that preaches down to the masses; they must now be equal community members. This requires a great deal of flexibility and understanding, as a museum must participate equally, sometimes allowing its own identity to recede (not disappear!) to allow for another member of its community to take center stage.

Ultimately, when the time comes to prove necessity, a museum that has integrated its planning, programs, and exhibitions fully with both its virtual and physical communities will survive.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Museums and the Communication of Value

Somewhat delayed by unexpected events including Sandy, I'll be publishing a series of blog posts inspired by the proceedings at the Salzburg Global Forum, an annual leadership seminar for 50 young nonprofit leaders in the arts organized by National Arts Strategies. Bloggers have been asked to address a series of questions facing the nonprofit arts world similar to those being considered in Salzburg.

Museums and the Communication of Value

In Greek mythology, the muses were a source of inspiration for artists. They served as an anthropomorphic symbol of that indefinable, unknowable spark that lives inside the human spirit, pushing it to do more, to expand beyond its own skin and its own immediate needs. An acquaintance once described art to me as anything that steps beyond the strict necessity of survival. We need to eat, but we do not need five star pastry chefs; we need to clothe ourselves, but we do not need high fashion.

Museums, then are a place for that unknowable spark to live. Museum – a place of the muses. A good museum serves as a sort of springboard, whatever its topic. It provides the canvas and the tools for inspiration. A natural history museum provides the visitor with displays and facts and invites him to then make connections and imagine the larger world that lays behind those displays.

Value is always a fungible concept, and thus investigating it should take this quality into account. If a museum is a springboard, a place for the muses, then value will hinge on an individual experience of revelation. An object, a label, the particular juxtaposition of two ideas – all these things can inspire and spark.

Communicating that value is an endlessly fickle proposition. Describing it too abstractly makes it sound useless; describing it too specifically leads to false expectations. The end result of inquiry is different for every individual as well. A spark of inspiration can transform into a willingness to perform a kind act, or to take up art, or to advocate for the environment, or simply an increased awareness on a particular subject. Measuring it is equally difficult; one person's lifechanging event might not equal the impact of another person's brief curiosity, and vice versa.

Nevertheless, communicating value is obviously absolutely essential to the survival of museums in particular and arts organizations in general. In a world in which everything must be proven of long-term use, and everything must lead to the obvious and calculated benefit of one's situation, sometimes the cruder explanations of value are the most logical ones. An outdoor museum will allow kids to use up energy, attending an exhibit opening will provide the right conversation fodder for a party, a science museum demonstration will fill a child's extra credit requirement: all of these are equally valid reasons to visit a museum, and of immediate use when luring in visitors. But ultimately none are the driving value behind a museum experience.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Videogame History

I have to admit to a bit of snobbish eye-rolling when I first started seeing commercials for the new Assassin's Creed III. The American Revolution? Really? Mainstream entertainment doesn't exactly have a stellar track record of accurately portraying that period in history. (Exhibit A: The Patriot)

This article, however, from, has me intrigued. The author is unashamedly thrilled with the game, and a few of his statements really stood out and gave me hope. I was particularly impressed with the descriptions of the way game designers handled Mohawk culture. I'll be interested to see if any Revolutionary War museums or sites highlight the game in the coming months. I think there's some great potential for inviting the game designers in - who obviously did their share of historical research, as the game's Boston is based on topographical maps from the era.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Interactives at the Maryland Sports Museum

I've been quiet here lately, scrambling to wrap up one job, prep for another, and move myself and my horse within the next two weeks, while prepping to present at NEMA and working on some larger projects. I'm excited to be working with National Arts Strategies to write a few blog posts on important arts administration topics in the next few weeks. This Thursday is also the NEMA YEPs Halloween Happy Hour and of course I'm scrambling for a costume, even after all my good ideas.

Setting all that aside, though, I wanted to present briefly some neat interactives I saw at the Maryland Sports Museum in Baltimore, which was quite a nice museum all around. It had one room that was specifically directed at kids, and contained a number of interactives. Some worked well and were fun; others were just quirky and didn't seem to have a clear educational goal. I'll present each very briefly.

Entrance sign, talking about the significance of the locker room in sports and inviting families to play with the interactives.

Mimicking the actual signed baseballs in the museum's collection. Kind of neat, but didn't have much educational oomph to it, and was placed high enough that many kids would have trouble reaching past the middle of it.
By far the most popular section, demonstrating uniforms and equipment for each Maryland sport. The family in the picture spent nearly their entire time in the room in this section with their two sons. Could've used more interpretive labeling but what was there got the point across.
This was right outside the room space; it was really quite nicely reactive, and played well, but seemed to have absolutely no value beyond "whoa, cool." That said, I still played several games.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Does an events-driven museum = a low-impact museum?

I don't have fully-formed thoughts on this one yet, but I have been thinking a great deal about events and programs and their place in a museum in the last few weeks. This line of thought was kicked off by this guest post on Museum 2.0 about community events at museums, and then brought to the forefront by my exciting new job at the Vermont Historical Society.

I've long believed that transformative, community-based events at museums can be incredible catalysts for connecting people to museums and their collections. Many people who would never come through the door for "another exhibit full of old stuff" will be lured in by a creative, fun program. The tour-de-force of the Minnesota Historical Society's AAM event - Beer, Burlesque, and Babe (the Blue Ox) - utterly carried me away and made me want to duplicate its quirky, fun, involved atmosphere in other museums.

The philosophy of the events-driven museum was laid forward by Nina Simon in this post originally, and then given a one year update here. She provides some pretty compelling evidence for the audience and revenue benefits of events at museums. I'm not sure I will follow her as far as the idea that events should entirely drive a museum - rather than collections, exhibitions, and a solid education program - but I find many pieces of the idea compelling.

Recently, Reach Advisors threw a monkey wrench into all my thinking and reading about events in museums with this blog post on finding meaning in museums. They found, fairly conclusively, that an overwhelming number of positive, transformative experiences in museums happened in exhibits and galleries - not during programs or events, and not even during direct interaction with staff in galleries. The comments on the post bring up some of my initial questions, and Susie Wilkening answers them effectively - in short, there isn't a "terms bias" here; visitors simply described their experience, and Reach Advisors then coded based on the context and description. (In other words, it's not that visitors couldn't tell the difference between an exhibition and an event.)

So where do we go from here? Does this provide a way to more closely tailor programming to provide lasting, meaningful experiences? Does this mean that programs have a short-term impact only? Does this mean that programming should really ultimately serve as an introduction to the museum galleries and exhibits? Do you think there's more meaning yet to parse from these results?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Even More Changes!

I'm very happy to say that I will be joining the Vermont Historical Society as their new Public Program Coordinator. Vermont is the home of my heart, and VHS is a terrific organization. We're headed up this weekend to find an apartment and make a whirlwind move. I'll miss Boston some, but I've never been a city girl. Living and working in a small town with deep community roots will suit me to the ground.

Friday, October 12, 2012

YEPs Track at NEMA 2012

I mentioned that I'm excited for NEMA, right?

I've combed over the program to create a track that I think would provide a good first time experience for a Young or Emerging Professional. This track will take an attendee from Tuesday night right through to Friday, but shouldn't be one-size-fits-all; you definitely will want to take a good look at the full program to make sure that your dream panel isn't happening on the other side of the hotel at any given time.

With that in mind, here's my suggested schedule for a new museum professional at NEMA, keeping in mind that I'm speaking for myself, personally, and not for NEMA or the YEPs PAG. (Warning: really long.)


7:00 - 9:00 p.m. PechaKucha Night
I didn't make this last year, but I'm hoping to this year. It sounds like a great icebreaker and a good way for a first timer to meet people even before the conference starts.


8:00 - 9:00 a.m.: Welcome Coffee & Baked Goods in the Exhibit Hall
Absolutely essential. Eat early and often, especially if you're a broke young nonprofit professional. Bring your own reuseable coffee mug to keep liquids warmer longer and to have a way to seal them and prevent awkward spillage during a session.

9:00 - 10:30 a.m.: Coming Back Stronger: How Museums Can Prepare, Survive, and Thrive After a Major Disaster
There are some good sessions in this time slot, but for my money this is the best for a new professional. It promises to be a good combination of theory and case study with lessons learned in recent memory. Disaster preparedness sometimes takes the back seat in planning, but it can be vitally important.

10:45 - 12:15 a.m.: Keynote Speaker Michael Jager
Keynote speakers have been hit or miss for me, but you should still be there, if only to have talking points for the rest of the week. Check out Jager's invitation video to learn more of what he'll be talking about.

12:45 - 1:15 p.m.: Opening Lunch
Definitely go to this. Stretch yourself a bit and sit at a table with people you've never met, and strike up a conversation. Opening lunch food is usually pretty good, too. Don't be like me and sit underneath the puppet performance, though. That was awkward.

1:15 - 1:45 p.m.: Dessert and Coffee in the Exhibit Hall
My first rule of NEMA: always go to the dessert breaks.

1:45 - 3:15 p.m.: Strategize Me: Making a Career Plan
If you're not going to come see me at the ECHO Lake Aquarium, then this session is a no-brainer. Linda Norris is behind the terrific blog The Uncatalogued Museum, she's smart and savvy, and she's a good person to know. This session looks like an ideal one for young professionals who are still figuring out the field.

3:15 - 3:45 p.m: Snack Break in Exhibit Hall
Are you sensing a theme? Seriously though even if you feel like you couldn't eat another bite, take this time to explore the exhibit hall. Get your exhibit hall card signed off by various vendors - it may seem a little silly, but two years ago I won a free registration and last year I had friends who won other great stuff. Plus, the vendors are nice people who will give you free samples and will teach you about cool things.

3:45 - 5:15 p.m.: Conversations About Advocacy
Making a case for your museum in your community is a really big deal, and with the trend toward decreased funding for museums, community support is crucial. This isn't going away anytime soon, and hearing about it from people on the front lines is a great opportunity.

5:15 - 6:15 p.m.: Exhibit Hall Reception
Same as above. Eat and chat. This will be quite crowded though, so if you're feeling burnt out from the day and need to get out of the hotel or just be alone in your hotel room for a while, skip it.

6:15 - 9:00 p.m.: Welcome to Burlington! An Evening at ECHO
The NEMA evening events are always a good time, and if you can spring for the $50 price tag, this is well worth it. Though the description says there will only be hors d'oeuvres, I've never left a NEMA event hungry.


8:00 - 9:00 a.m.: Welcome Coffee in the Exhibit Hall
More free food. Take this opportunity too to get your exhibit hall card signed.

9:00 - 10:30 a.m.: Sexual History: Exploring Interpretive Opportunities at Historic Sites
This looks like a great, balanced, researched approach to a tricky topic. As more and more research is done into the "alternative" histories of traditionally interpreted sites, sexuality and gender will become interesting and valuable topics to explore.

10:30 - 11:00 a.m.: Coffee Break in the Exhibit Hall
Go grab a quick drink, take this time to connect with someone, or check email quietly. Mid-morning recharges are key.

11:00 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.: Your Best Foot Forward: Personal Skills for Professional Success
No-brainer for emerging professionals. Dan Yaeger, Executive Director of NEMA, is presenting this session, which will be hugely valuable for YEPs especially.

12:45 - 2:20 p.m.: PAG Lunches
I can't make a recommendation about these, as they're all very different. I've gone to several over the years, and always enjoyed myself. Choose the one most relevant to your interests.

2:30 - 3:00 p.m.: Exhibit Hall Closing Reception and Raffle Prize Drawing
Definitely attend this. Make sure you turn in your filled out exhibit hall card to win a cool prize.

3:00 - 4:00 p.m.: Career Conversation with Michael R. Taylor
These are a fairly new addition to the NEMA schedule. I attended one last year out of curiosity and really, really enjoyed it. This is a great opportunity to have a more personal conversation with a smaller group of professionals, all of whom are seeking some kind of career advice.

4:45 - 5:30 p.m.: Newcomers Reception
This cocktail event is sponsored by the Tufts University Museum Studies program, and therefore I have absolutely no bias in encouraging you to attend. Seriously, though, this is exactly the kind of event that young professionals can benefit from. It's free, and it's a room full of people in the same place you are.

6:00 - ? p.m.: Dinner Discussion: Set Yourself Apart for Success
This is an evening conversation at the Bluebird Tavern organized by the Young & Emerging Professionals PAG and co-hosted by yours truly. It's really planned with emerging professionals in mind and should also be a fun, informal meet & greet.


8:30 -  9:00 a.m.: Coffee & Baked Goods in the Exhibit Hall
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Again, bring a reusable mug and fill up for the rest of the morning.

9:00 - 10:30 a.m.: Is the Customer Always Right? Sharing Curatorial Authority with the Public
I was really torn on this session, I have to admit. But when I asked myself which session would be best for a new professional, this one stood out. Sharing authority is a big hot issue in museums right now and we're poised at the edge of a new way of doing things that could be really exciting. I attended a session based on the same source book - Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World - at AAM this past spring and it was really terrific.

11:00 - 11:45 a.m.: NEMA's 15 Minutes of Fame!
I didn't attend this last year, as I wasn't sold on the concept, but crowdsourcing the speaker this year seems to have worked well and there are some really interesting candidates. Based on the way they've chosen the speaker, it promises to be a clever, high energy session.

12:45 - 2:00 p.m.: Annual Luncheon Meeting
Good way to wrap up a busy week. The food is usually pretty good, and it's always interesting to see how NEMA conducts business. Connect with everyone you've met one last time before heading home.

If you are able, try to stay in Vermont through the weekend. It's one of the greatest places on earth - no exaggeration - and it has some terrific museums. Drive down Route 7 to see the stunning scenery of the Champlain Valley, or down 89 on the other side of the mountains for some great museums in Waterbury, Barre, Montpelier, and Norwich.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

YEPs Event: Halloween Happy Hour

I'm pleased to announce that the NEMA Young & Emerging Professionals group will be hosting a pre-Halloween Happy Hour at the Red Hat.

Here's the official announcement:
NEMA YEPs are invited to a celebratory happy hour at The Red Hat. Friends, significant others, and co-workers are invited too!

Dress like your favorite museum—collections items, historic figures, artists—the more creative, the better!

Costumes encouraged – prize for best costume!
You can RSVP through the Facebook invitation.

I'm deep in costume-planning mode. I haven't dressed up for Halloween in 10+ years; it's usually my night to stay home and watch old movies. However, for this, I'm getting excited.

My favorite museum is the Musee de Cluny in Paris, the national museum of the middle ages. I lived in Paris for about four weeks during the winter of 2003, and went several times a week. It holds a special place in my heart.

I'm thinking of something based on the Cluny's favorite tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn. I'll have to steer clear of tacky department store medievalesque costumes, but I also don't have the time to sew something myself in the next two and a half weeks. Decisions, decisions.

Monday, October 8, 2012

New England Museum Association 2012 Annual Conference

We're now just less than a month out from the New England Museum Association's Annual Conference, this year held in Burlington, Vermont. I'm finally starting to get giddy, for three reasons.

First, Burlington (and the whole state of Vermont) is just about my favorite place in the universe. I went to college just south of Burlington, and lived & worked there for two more years. I could spend the rest of this post talking about what an incredible place Vermont is, but you'll have to trust me: best location ever for a conference.

Second, NEMA conferences are amazing. NEMA 2010 was my first-ever conference as a museum professional, and I was on a geek high the entire time. I loved it all. That was also the conference where I stuck my hand up during a panel and asked how an emerging professional might get experience in grantwriting, because it kind of sounded like fun, and I was mobbed by people offering advice afterwards offering advice and opportunities. Following up on those led directly to coursework in grantwriting and to my internship at Old Sturbridge Village in their development office. That's just one example of the terrific people you'll meet at NEMA.

Third, I'm going to be on two panels at NEMA! I'm pretty excited.

On Wednesday afternoon, I'll be on the panel Exhibition Critique: Online and Onsite Exhibits, featuring Voices for the Lake. Here's the full description:
The Exhibitions PAG is back with the popular Exhibition Critique. This year’s topic focuses on exhibits that are both onsite and online. We will be examining ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center’s Voices for the Lake. This IMLS-funded project aims to engage the community in stewardship of Lake Champlain through an integrated platform of online and onsite exhibits and outreach programming. What are the benefits and challenges of creating an exhibit that exists online and on- site simultaneously? After a tour of the exhibit by ECHO staff, our review panel of museum professionals from many disciplines will examine these and other questions. Paul Orselli from Paul Orselli Workshop will be joining us again this year. We need your voice there too, so please join us!
Then on Thursday night, I'm co-hosting an informal dinner discussion in my role as co-chair of the NEMA Young & Emerging Professionals PAG, called Push the Envelope, Break the Mold, Climb Out of the Box: Set Yourself Apart for Success at the Bluebird Tavern. Here's the description of that one:
Open to all museum professionals at all levels;
recommended especially for Young and Emerging Museum Professionals

Especially designed for those who are seeking creative ways to approach job searching and networking, this open forum dialogue will provide opportunities for participants to brainstorm and discuss ways to set themselves apart in an increasingly challenging field. Talk to professionals with all levels of experience—be it fellow job seekers, those with more experience in the field, students, consultants, and more—and learn ways to highlight your skills, create a career plan and goals, and emphasize your unique qualities when applying for positions, interviewing, climbing up the ladder, and, ultimately, setting yourself apart.
It's going to be a busy week, but I'm incredibly excited!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

AASLH Annual Meeting Online

As I mentioned, even though I'm not able to make it to Salt Lake City for the conference this fall, I signed up for the online conference, and I'm excited to follow along via LearningTimes. The sessions are starting tomorrow, and I'll be viewing and taking notes on them each evening. I hope to present short notes here in the next week or two.

I'm glad to see that at least two of the sessions that I personally helped select made it into the online conference selection. Here's the complete list:

Thursday, October 4

10:30-11:45 am EDT (7:30-8:45 am PDT)
Too Important to Fail! Historic House Museums Meet Communities’ Needs

12:00-1:15 pm EDT (9:00-10:15 am PDT)
Bad Boards, Bad Boards, What’cha Gonna Do: Strategies for Fixing Poorly Functioning Museum Boards

3:15-4:40 p, EDT (12:15-1:30 pm PDT)
Localizing Difficult Histories

October 5

10:30-11:45 am EDT (7:30-8:45 am PDT)
The Changing Web: The Future of the (History) Website

12:00-1:15 pm EDT (9:00-10:15 am PDT)
Yield to On-Coming Traffic: No Stopping Strollers and Small Feet

3:15-4:40 pm EDT (12:15-1:30 pm PDT)
What Do History Museums Really Need to Know About Their Visitors’ Experience?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Changes Ahead

After a little over two years, today I stepped down as the editor and main writer at the Tufts Museum Studies Blog.

I founded the blog in the fall of 2010 after pitching some ideas to Cynthia Robinson, director of the Tufts Museum Studies program, about digital collaboration and community. How to provide a consistent touchstone for a program that encompassed so much diversity in its student population? The idea of a blog filled some of Cynthia's hopes for communications tools, including a page to post up-to-the-minute job announcements, and so it was created. I'm grateful to Cynthia for her trust and her advice over the years in working with the blog.

I'd been blogging on and off personally for a long time, but this was a new adventure, and an incredible learning process for me. Some of the things I tried didn't work; some worked very well. After graduating from the program, it was clear to me that I needed a good succession plan, and I'm happy to say that my friend and former colleague Phillippa Pitts, a current student in Art History & Museum Studies at Tufts, is taking over the blog. She's going to do an amazing job with it.

I'll be contributing occasional posts, which I'll cross-link here, and I have my eye on a few museum projects that I have carefully left on the back burner until now. Onward!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Museums of Salt Lake City

I'm not able to be in Salt Lake City next week for the AASLH Annual Conference. I'm trying really hard not to sulk. I so loved being on the program committee, reading all the proposals and helping to shape the conference's message. I've registered for the online conference, though, and that will have to tide me over.

Hopefully, there will be less snow next week. The mountains will be just as gorgeous, though.
When I was in town for the program committee meeting in January, I did a fair amount of museum visiting. I'll do a quick recap of the places I went here, for anyone who's lucky enough to get to the conference and wants an overview.

Temple Square

Open rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Amazing.
You can't miss it. Literally everything in the city radiates out from this central location, and of course there's the massive temple. It's a lovely public space, with some wonderful historic buildings. The visitor centers have exhibits both about the history and current practices of Mormonism. If you get the chance, go to the open rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on Thursday night.

Church History Museum

Entrance to the Church History Museum.

Adjacent to Temple Square, this is the museum for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It's got everything, up to and including Joseph Smith's death mask and an original hand cart used by a Mormon pioneer. Make sure you get upstairs to the children's galleries, and if you're pressed for time turn down the offer of an individual tour. I learned a ton and had great interactions with my guide, but it took over two hours to get through the (relatively small) galleries.

Natural History Museum of Utah

I'm pretty sure there is no such thing as a bad photograph of this building.
The building is brand new, the collections have been completely re-installed, and the only drawback to this museum is that it is really difficult to get to, involving several different types of public transportation or a costly taxi ride. If you can make it up, though, there were some absolutely phenomenal exhibits and participatory elements.

Salt Lake City Public Library

Cafes and stores in the courtyard of the library.
So it's not a museum, but it's one of the best public cultural spaces I've ever seen. I was in absolute awe. If you get the chance even to just walk through, definitely do so.

The Leonardo

This interactive sculpture responded to its environment by moving around and reaching out in a way that was simultaneously awe-inspiring and deeply creepy.
Also brand new, this might take the prize for quirkiest museum space I've ever visited. It bills itself as a contemporary art, science, and technology museum, and it seems to have taken a whole bunch of interactive and educational elements and put them in a blender. Every which way I turned there was something fascinating, and much of it was very well-done, but I'm not sure it sent me away with a coherent overall message other than "COOL!"

This is certainly not a complete overview of every museum in Salt Lake City - there were plenty I didn't get to, unfortunately. It's a highly selective list of what I was able to do in a day and a half. I'd love to go back someday and dig deeper. If you're going to the conference, are there any museums on your list to visit?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Museum Mules

The American Museum of Agriculture, a new museum under construction in Lubbock, Texas, recently purchased and euthanized two mules in order to mount their hides for use in a new exhibit.

The incident has gotten a fair amount of play in the press recently - Google "mules museum" and after a link to the American Mule Museum - which sounds like a cool project - just about the only results are negative news articles about the Lubbock museum.

The furor seems to have been started when the museum itself issued a press release on September 17 stating that it had purchased two mules - aged 28 and 32 - either directly from their owner or through the intermediary of a livestock dealer. The animals were no longer suitable for work and would have been transported to Mexico to be slaughtered for their meat.

The museum has been working with exhibit developer Museum Arts in Dallas, TX to create new galleries and dioramas, including one showing the McCormick Reaper (presumably) being pulled by two mules. Phil Paramore of Museum Arts stated that the exhibit's authenticity absolutely depended on presenting stuffed, rather than fiberglass, mules: "The reason that you use a real animal is to most accurately show the way the activity was done at the time. A fiberglass replica just doesn’t convey the same message."

This has gone over about as well as one would expect. An equine rights advocate named Elaine Nash started a campaign to save the mules, based on conflicting reports about the scheduled date of their euthanization, and a Lubbock area rescue named Ranch Hand Rescue started an online petition to do the same.

Nash told newspapers, in response to the museum's statement that they saved the animals from inhumane slaughter methods, "All they saved the mules from was a nice rescue home grazing under an apple tree — loved and petted and given treats … they could have had a wonderful life."

I think there have been a few major missteps in this whole situation that are going to haunt this museum for some time.

First: why the press release? It starts off reading like a triumphal announcement of future quality, and then degenerates into a defensive morass. Was the museum being threatened with exposure? Were they trying to be up front and transparent about the creation of their exhibit? Were they genuinely proud that they had saved these animals from slaughter? Did they have any idea of the anger the press release would invoke? Why not just stick with reporting on the exciting new exhibits?

Second: saying "they should have been rescued!" is a simplistic analysis. As the recession grinds on, thousands of horses have been neglected or abandoned, and every horse rescue in America is bursting at the seams. If they hadn't suddenly become famous, these two mules would not even have been a blip on the radar of the lucrative business of hauling horses across the border for slaughter. (Slaughter in the United States was abolished several years ago, which has led to only a small decrease in the numbers of horses meeting that end, and means that all horse slaughter now takes place in other countries, beyond the USDA's sphere of influence.)

If the mules genuinely were aged, no longer comfortable in work, and their owner would have trucked them to slaughter, then humane, veterinary euthanasia may have been a blessing for them. It's possible they were in chronic pain after a lifetime of hard work, and would not have been comfortable or happy in prolonged lives.  They would not have whiled away their hours in a field eating apples and adored by small children. Many would argue that responsible rescues should devote time and resources to animals that can have a second chance. These mules would have faced an uphill battle to be placed with an owner who could afford to keep two non-working animals.

Third, and most difficult to get at, is Paramore's claim that the exhibit would have suffered in impact with fiberglass reproductions of mules. I'm trying to think if I've ever seen another museum exhibit in which mounted & stuffed animals - of any species - were used as supporting evidence. Generally, animals displayed in that manner are the provenance of natural history museums. I know of a few prominent stuffed horses in museums - Winchester, Comanche, and Misty all come to mind - but all were famous in their own right and died natural deaths. Their identity as witnesses to history is the source of authenticity in their exhibits.

We talk a lot in museums about the power of objects. We argue that the real thing, the actual physical historical object, is the draw. For all that there are some excellent discussions to be had about the educational uses of reproductions, awe is usually reserved for the actual thing itself. Does that awe extend to the more ancillary pieces of an exhibit? Would I be less awed by an original McCormick Reaper if it were pulled by fiberglass mules? To use a comparison: am I less awed by equestrian armor at the Higgins Armory because it is displayed on a fiberglass horse?

I really don't think so. I believe the museum erred in taking Mr. Paramore's advice. I couldn't tell whether Museum Arts has used this technique with success in the past. Their website shows one possibility in its portfolio gallery of the East Texas Oil Museum, but it's tough to say whether the horses in the photo are reproductions or mounted. I would be extremely interested to see any studies or evaluations done on exhibits - history exhibits, not natural history - comparing the effectiveness or impact of stuffed & mounted animals as opposed to recreations.

It seems to me that in taking life in order to embellish its galleries (not for scientific purposes), this museum has crossed a line. They are reaping the consequences of that action now as well; as of September 25, the Museum of Agriculture's Facebook page had 392 likes, and the Save the Lubbock Mules campaign's had 1,266.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Workshop Notes: "I love my job, but..."

I Love My Job, But...Raises, Transitioning, and Advocating for More Responsibility
presented by the New England Museum Association's Young & Emerging Professionals PAG
April 26, 2012 at the Tufts University Art Gallery

The NEMA YEPs host a series of mini-workshops each spring, evening presentations with a focus on career advancement in museums. I've attended all but one for the last few years. I'm happy to say that as of June I have been serving as co-chair of the YEPs, and am helping to plan the upcoming workshop series. This particular session was one of my favorites, for its frank discussions of important issues and for the clear engagement shown by the audience.

The speakers were Dan Yaeger, President of NEMA; Douglas Stark, Museum Director at the International Tennis Hall of Fame; and Laura Roberts, museum consultant and professor of museum studies at Harvard University. I believe the workshop is best summarized in a series of questions with their answers following.

How do you talk about salary in an interview?

Never talk about salary until they fall in love with you! Even if a job asks, really try to avoid giving salary requirements in a cover letter. Keep in mind, too, that salaries aren't really negotiable like they are in the for-profit world; museums are highly budget-oriented.

When is the best time to ask for a raise, and how do you do that?

Annual performance reviews are key. You should go into your annual review with ammunition, a list of things you've done well over the past year. If you don't get reviewed by your supervisor, then create your own annual review. Really sit down and assess your own performance over the past year.

You should also make sure to broach the subject of a raise while the budget is still being discussed - don't wait until it's anywhere close to finalized!

Keep in mind that a job description should be like any other document in a museum's strategic plan. It should be revisited and revised according to reality. If you've taken on additional duties, you should advocate to tweak your job description, and with that can come a natural conversation about more pay.

You should also get to know everyone in your institution so that you can build good relationships. That way everyone will be able to vouch for your value.

How do you seek out and ask for professional development?

Keep in mind that your boss - unless you have a really rare, really wonderful boss - does not care about your career as much as you do. His priority is the institution and himself, so you need to make the case for professional development in those terms. Offer to come back and share what you've learned from a particular workshop or conference. Even if you haven't made the offer, do so anyway! Write up summaries for everyone of anything you think was particularly useful. Remember, as you progress through your career and your job you are building political capital that you can use for things just such as this.

What do you do when people feel threatened?

This is a topic particular to young and emerging professionals, who are often energetic and eager to be on the cutting edge and can make more established staff members feel nervous. To help combat this, you should be self-aware but also be authentic. Share your enthusiasm for your work and make very sure to credit those around you for their help and advice. Sometimes, though, the institution just isn't a good fit for you - too moribund or resistant - and you will need a transition.

What do you do when you realize it's time to move on?

First, beware of inertia and fear! Job hunting is a pain, but change is necessary. On that note, be aware that the museum field is a small one; don't gratuitously alienate anyone, because they will come back to haunt you in unexpected ways. Once you've made the decision to move on, put your network into action - but make sure that you've built up your social capital with your network. (Keep in mind the "what have you done for me lately?" corollary.)

Apply to jobs even when you're happy in your job - people always interview better when they're happy. If you have a good enough relationship with your boss you can bring up the subject of looking elsewhere, but be careful with this!

Be brave enough to get out there and meet people. Don't just sit behind a computer. Build a network you can trust, and when it comes time to job hunt, assume everything will be broadcast, so be polite and discreet.

Any final messages?

Think about the messages you convey with your behavior and work and adjust accordingly - make sure the message is always under your control.

Keep in mind that career paths are not always what you think, so stay open to change and opportunity.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Book Review: Museum Masters by Edward P. Alexander

I wrote this book review for the Tufts Museum Studies Blog in January 2012. I'm reprinting it here as the first in what will be many book reviews, all indexed on my new bibliography page.

Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence
Edward P. Alexander

First published in 1983 by the American Association for State and Local History, Alexander’s broad overview of energetic museum founders and their famous museums is only a little bit worn around the edges. Much of the information he considers belongs to the historical past rather than the more recent past. Only when he finishes each chapter with small “where are they now” updates and refers to the Soviet Union or East Germany does he really go wrong.

Alexander set out to write short biographical histories of several men and women whose life work culminated in the founding of a famous or influential museum – Sir Hans Sloane and the British Museum, Charles Willson Peale and the Philadelphia Museum, Dominique Vivant Denon and the Louvre, and so on and so forth. The chapters are arranged chronologically and are self-inclusive: each is its own essay, and can be read independently. The structure makes this an easy book to pick up and put down repeatedly, and each individual chapter is 25-40 pages long and can be read in a day.

Alexander’s writing style is lively but informative, and for the most part he manages to organize and present large varieties and volumes of information succinctly and well. Many of the figures he cover had extensive careers even before they turned their attention to museums; in fact, for some of them, their museum work was nearly an afterthought. One of the strengths of his approach, however, was connecting the energy and innovation of individuals to institutions, and then to the larger museum world. He specifically sought out museums whose course was fundamentally altered by a single personality for his study.

I read this book hoping to see how individuals could change the course of museums, and while I don’t think I found the key I was looking for, I did come away with a great deal of respect for the clear visionary leadership that each individual showed. Some chapters stood out in that regard: Denon and the Louvre, Ann Pamela Cunningham and Mount Vernon, Artur Hazelius and Skansen, and John Cotton Dana were all especially good in showing how vision could create new archetypes for museums.

In summary: recommended for those who are seeking out examples of how clear vision can change the museum world, and who are interested in the backstory behind some of the world’s greatest museums.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area

My National Parks geekery continues: Sunday morning we took the ferry out to Georges Island for a picnic and an exploration of Fort Warren.

Looking across the parade grounds back west in the direction of Boston.
The fort itself was terrific. There were some great views of Boston and the rest of the harbor, plenty of space  to walk around, all of it beautiful. There were conveniently placed picnic tables and grills and the landscaping was a nice balance of cut back and yet still a bit wild in parts. Exploring the fort itself was exciting; some parts were pitch-dark and required a flashlight. I wished occasionally for more interpretation (we went into a building that housed enlisted men during the Civil War; how many? how, exactly, in those cavernous rooms?) .Fort McHenry had the jump there, with its re-creations of military fort life.

Some interesting - and outdated - political graffiti supporting the Irish Republican Army.
My favorite interior space by far - imagine a steampunk or costume ball in here!
The small museum on the island did some interesting things with its exhibitions. In particular, I liked the case showing the typical rations for those in different walks of life, from Confederate prisoners of war on up to Union officers.

Six different examples in all, starting in the near left.
The most sumptuous meal on the table.
I also liked the way the exhibits described daily life on the island, by breaking things down into the various times of the day, then providing object cases that visitors could open to see artifacts related to activities at those times of the day.

I would've liked more specific object labels inside the cases, though!
Finally, I thought the museum made brilliant use of space for its short film describing the history of Fort Warren - the screen descended from the ceiling to cover up a display about World War II, then rolled back up after the eight minute film was completed.

The film itself was pretty good, too, juxtaposing historic photographs with modern views from the same perspective.

Monday, September 17, 2012

150 years ago right now...

I've been thinking a lot about how historic sites allow you to time travel. Setting foot on the field, or in the room, where history happened gives you a real, visceral link to that history. I can't even count how many places have given me chills, where I could feel the incredible gravitas of the moment. Louisa May Alcott's bedroom at Orchard House. The stockade field at Andersonville. Notre Dame in Paris.

For me, the connection is stronger on anniversaries, which may be why we make so much of them. Today is the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest day in American history: the battle of Antietam. I woke up this morning at 7:00 a.m., opened my eyes, and thought that precisely 150 years ago, my great-great-great-grandfather, Captain Richard Gustin, was leading his regiment, the 12th Pennsylvania Reserves, through the cornfields at Antietam.

Cornfields at Antietam, looking south.

I've always felt an affinity for Richard - as evidenced by my two-week Civil War trip and my years of on-and-off research into his life. He was an extraordinary man. Having now walked in his footsteps, it means the world to me that I can close my eyes and easily picture that cornfield, the fence at the road where the Confederate forces held their ground, the dells and trees of the small shielded part of the field where the regiment eventually fell back.

Other end of the cornfield, looking back north.

Ahead, the trees where the 12th Pennsylvania and others took cover after the morning's fighting.

That's what we're ultimately looking for, isn't it, in interpreting historic sites, and to a certain extent, in history museums? That bone-deep connection to the past? I spend so many of my waking hours trying to foster that moment in others that when I can take a step back and experience it for myself it's really special.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Integrating STEM into History Museums

Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, which has been through some rocky times lately, just got some terrific news: the National Science Foundation has granted the living history $2.3 million to embark on a study of how to integrate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum elements into history education and exhibitions.
According to the press release, "This new approach will integrate interactive, science activities, observation, measurement and experimentation with time- and place-specific narrative that characterizes historic learning experiences." The grant was received in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, and will be used to really pioneer new techniques for the field. Here's what they say about the planned initiatives:
The $2.3 million NSF grant will be used to:
  • Fund  research in creating exhibits and programs that fully integrate science and history, including a small prototype exhibit at Conner Prairie.
  • Engage participants from other history museums to create a model to reproduce integrated science- and history-learning experiences at the participants’ sites. These participants include: Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea in Mystic, Conn., Minnesota Historical Society in Saint Paul, Minn., California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, Calif., and Wabash County Historical Museum in Wabash, Ind.
  • The findings will then be distributed to museums throughout the country. Conner Prairie, the Science Museum of Minnesota and participating museums will be in a position to lend authority and nationwide visibility to the newly developed approach by writing papers, articles and speaking at conferences as well as making the research and results readily available.
I think there's huge potential here, for at least two reasons. The first is that there is major funding in STEM education. From a purely mercenary point of view, it's a very smart move for history museums to try to integrate science into their narratives. The second is that science is already there. History is the story of everything: that includes STEM subjects as well as art, music, gender, politics, race, you name it. It's all in there. History that's just names + dates + factoids is bad history. I am thrilled to see some major funding put behind the development of innovative new exhibition and education planning in less-commonly-explored topics in history museums.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Small Museums & Task Saturation

I'm an avid follower of the blog at the Small Museums Online Community, a professional affinity group of AASLH. It's updated infrequently, but it always gives me something to think about when there's a new post.

Recently, one post talked about the dangers of task saturation for employees in small museums. I've been thinking about it on and off since.

More and more studies are saying that multitasking can be detrimental to overall productivity, and blogs like Unclutterer emphasize a more focused, one-task-at-a-time approach to work and life. I've thought for some time now that the instant gratification attention grabbing distraction that is the internet is a danger for me personally - I rarely even turn my home computer on unless I'm home for a full day, in order to concentrate on reading, offline writing, or tasks that are right in front of me in the real world.

There's also no doubt that many small museums struggle to get everything done with limited resources, as the blog post eloquently describes. I don't see any horizon past which things will get easier, either.

Here's the thing though: the kind of task saturation they're describing? It's exactly why I love small museums.

Cleaning the bathroom one minute and writing a grant proposal next, then leading a school tour and writing a collections article later in the afternoon? That sounds like pretty much the best day ever for me. Before I learned about the field of public history, I knew that I loved history, but I struggled with the prospective narrow focus of an academic career. I love research and writing and teaching, but spending all day, every day, doing just that wasn't for me. I'm an active, energetic person by nature who needs lots of new things to try and lots of different things to do.

I suspect that a lot of public history professionals who are drawn toward small museums feel the same way. Yes, burnout is a real danger, but for some of us the demand and variety of tasks in a small organization are a reward, not a penalty.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Teaching students civic engagement and activism

I knew Dena Simmons at Middlebury College, and she was a smart, energetic advocate then; since our undergraduate days, she's only gotten smarter and more active in her work, which encompasses education and activism.

She recently wrote on introducing activism to students, and I think her ideas here are a great roadmap for thinking about teaching activism in a museum setting, as well.

I was particularly struck by what she had to say about mapping community - both from the students' perspective and from the educator's perspective. I found myself wondering how many of those maps of community include museums - and if not, why not?

Friday, September 7, 2012

AAM Rebranding Roundup

There's been quite a bit of discussion about the rebranding of the American Association of Museums as the American Alliance of Museums, revealed on September 5.

The direct coverage and explanation from AAM comes in a couple of forms. First, their general announcement, with an outline of the changes, is pretty good, and has links to learn more. (Was I the only one who noticed the website lagging in the first few hours after the announcement? Guess it caught everyone's eye!)

The Center for the Future of Museums has had a few blog posts about the changes. The Fractal Taxonomy of Museums, by founding Director Elizabeth Merritt, talks about the commonalities of museums (and aquariums and public gardens and all sorts of other spaces that fall under the museum rubric). The post-announcement statement by AAM President Ford W. Bell, The Future of Museums, and AAM personalizes the changes and re-affirms his commitment to advocating for museums.

I've read some good, thoughtful analysis about the changes in a few places. Max van Balgooy at Engaging Places did a really terrific overview of the impact of those changes on historic sites. I agree with him that AAM has felt at times like an art museum's playground. The changes in the organizational membership structure in particular sound like they'll be beneficial to smaller museums.

Jamie Glavic at Museum Minute points out that there's a difference between "association" and "alliance," and that difference really can signal a shift in thinking.

The Western Museums Association calls the new AAM the "Rebel Alliance" and argues that the name and logo changes are necessary because the entire organization has changed.

Lee Rosenbaum at CultureGrrl is more skeptical, however. She blogged about the odd reveal via website change and then post at the Center for the Future of Museums here, and now wonders if the shift might be more of a marketing ploy and membership drive than anything else. Ford Bell responded to her questions in a guest post soon afterwards.

ArtInfo quotes Lee and has found one museum that already appreciates the new membership system.(Wow, that was really fast!)

I'll choose optimism. I think the changes really do open things up for smaller organizations to get a foot in the door and begin the process of professionalization, while banding everyone together.

I remain, however, troubled by the way the changes were made. I appreciate that AAM has done member polling, but I am frustrated at the lack of communication about the upcoming changes. There was no "changes coming soon!" press release or member email, just an unannounced total makeover of the website that went up a week before the changes were even explained. I would have much preferred a graduated rollout with a series of announcements.

I am particularly uncomfortable with the new logo. Quite frankly, I find it ugly. I don't see A or M in there. It's busy. It makes me mostly think of a school of fish.

On the plus side, my old AAM logo water bottle is now a collector's item.

PS - in case anyone was wondering, the other AAM, the Automobile Association of Malaysia, went through its own rebranding in June.

Edited to add:

From Peabody's Lament, "the official blog of the American Hysterical Society," a museum & public history satire blog, comes this tongue-in-cheek coverage.

Brand New, a blog about corporate logos, does an utterly fascinating post about the new AAM logo, which I complained about above. I'm still not sure I like it, but I get the concept much more now.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Should we syndicate museums?

In my other life, I am an avid equestrian. I compete at the extreme low end of a sport that has recently garnered a great deal of attention for its Olympic profile and because Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, is involved in owning and riding competitive horses.

The vast majority of riders at the Olympics did not own their own horses. They rode horses owned by other people who pay the bills - much like jockeys don't own the racehorses they sit on. The Romneys co-own their mare, Rafalca, with one other person, and have been getting flak for the amount they spend on her. One thing that's been overlooked in coverage is a new trend in horse ownership at the upper levels: syndication.

Here's a great article about syndication, its structure, and what it offers both owners and riders.

Obviously, even with syndication, we're still taking serious money. These people are deeply invested in the horses and riders they support, and they have a certain degree of disposable income.

What about syndicating a museum?

At a certain level, that's what a membership program is for - charging a higher fee than regular admission in return for a series of tangible benefits. At another level, any major gift program is also going to have some guidelines for recognition of and ongoing relationships with its donors.

It strikes me, however, that there's something about syndication - in the way in which these equestrian supporters go about it - that's fundamentally more involved than simply writing a check and expecting a pat on the back. They are invested in the successes of their horses. They are able to bond with other syndicate members in a common cause. They experience joy at success and grief at failure. Some owners retire upper-level horses to their own backyards.

What is it about this system that can be transferred over to museums, and would it be helpful? Would soliciting a multi-year, large figure donation from a patron of a museum, and truly integrating that patron into the successes and failures and joys and challenges of the museum help that museum, or is that a recipe for disaster?