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!