Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Book Review: The Convivial Museum

The Convivial Museum
Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock

I actually read this some time ago, but took extensive notes, so I'll work from them for this review. First, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that my copy came to me via a blog giveaway from Paul Orselli at his ExhibiTricks blog. His review of the book is here.

McLean and Pollock's book is a wonderful little overview of their theory of the "convivial" museum, which they consider an ideal form of museum that welcomes, makes its visitors comfortable, engenders trust, inspires action, and fosters relationships. It's an essentially social museum, in which the environment is designed to spark people off one another - and by that I don't necessarily mean the people in the room; the connection can be formed with the people behind objects and paintings, as well.

They repeatedly emphasize the physical environment of a museum, devoting sections to sound, light, space and other basic human comforts. I found their explorations of the ways in which these physical aspects can encourage and deter engagement to be thoughtful and well-done. The use of examples and photographs were also excellent and illustrative, helping to ground some of their more theoretical discussions.

I also appreciated their statement that "in the most convivial museums, a spirit of welcome starts at the top." Front line staff is and always will be crucial in shaping a visit, but to truly foster the atmosphere they're describing, welcoming behavior needs to be modeled at every level of the organizational chart.

I've been wondering if a more traditional book, with more cohesive and voluminous text might have fleshed out their ideas more - it's rare for there to be more than two or three sentences to a page, for example - but it might also have lost some of that sense of stating simple concepts and then demonstrating or illustrating them through museum examples. I remain torn. Ultimately, I think I'd love to have another, longer, more in depth book alongside this one in order to spend more time with these ideas.

Monday, January 28, 2013

10 Free or Low Cost Ways to Encourage Professional Development

Kristie Sheppard recently brought up the question of professional development for museums at AASLH's Small Museums Community blog: To Do or Not To Do: Professional Development.

I argued in the comments there that museums should always encourage professional development, that it should at least be partially paid for by the institution, and that it should be freely available to all staff, not dependent on seniority. I realize, however, that that's the ideal. What should museums who have few or no resources do to encourage learning among their staff? Here are ten ideas that are free or very low-cost.

1. Organize staff trips to other museums. Most museums have at least one day during which staff is scheduled but the doors are not open to the public. Why not take a few hours and have the whole staff meet at a nearby institution for some peer review? This can be done formally - including a meet'n'greet with the other staff members - or informally - everyone just shows up at the new exhibition and then talks about what they saw and what they thought over lunch.

2. Host a workshop, seminar, or exhibit critique. Many professional committees for regional and national museum associations are always looking for space to hold their events. Volunteer your space, and in return, bargain for a few seats in the seminar for your own staff. You can also invite the exhibits or programs committee of an association to one of your exhibits or programs and ask for a critique, which is a great learning experience all around.

3. Cross train. Sometimes professional development is as simple as adding new skills. Sit down with someone else who does a different job and ask them about it - maybe over lunch, maybe by shadowing them for a bit. Have a development person train to give school group tours. Have the director learn the cash register in the shop. Have the education person sit down with the registrar for a morning. Adding skills strengthens individual employees, deepens your own talent pool, gets people thinking out of the box, and increases camaraderie and understanding among staff.

4. Book clubs. There are so many brilliant books out there that offer great advice for museum professionals. Many of us read them in our spare time - I keep my own ongoing bibliography on this blog - but the benefits of having an institutionally-sponsored book club can be huge. Pick something that's general, or has good ideas, or even has nothing specifically to do with museums but espouses a particular ethos you want people to talk about. Encourage everyone to read that book over the course of a month, and meet together to discuss over lunch. This would work even better if staff could read a few pages at a time to clear their heads during work time.

5. MOOCs. This stands for "Massive Open Online Course," and it's a trend that's gaining speed right now. Websites like Coursera and MIT's OpenCourseWare offer college classes for free - all it takes is some time and commitment. It might take a little bit of searching to find something applicable to museums, but the payoff can be huge.

6. Free online certifications and webinars. There are a nearly infinite number of online certifications and webinars that are entirely free. FEMA has an entire online certification, complete with supporting classes, that is great for museum professionals. The Wild Apricot blog does a monthly roundup of free nonprofit webinars; here's their January 2013 listing. There are great resources at AASLH's Connecting to Collections website, including free courses. This is just the tip of the iceberg: spend a few minutes Googling and there's almost certain to be an online class that you'll be interested in. Are they always high quality? No. But they're free, and even in the worst of them you'll be presented with new ideas. For sensitive information - such as collections care - stick with reputable distributors.

7. In-house papers & presentations. Have your own mini-conference or lecture series! Set aside time every few months for staff members to present on a topic they're familiar with. If you want to have fun with it, try out some Pecha Kucha. Have the curator take an intriguing object out of the collections. Have a staff member who just got back from vacation talk about the heritage programs in another part of the country. Invite someone from a neighboring institution who just presented at a conference to repeat their presentation for your staff and thank them with dessert. Keep this fun, informal, and open so that no one feels intimidated.

8. Product demonstrations. Curious about that new exhibit case/archival box/software program? Want more training? Most companies will make a representative available for you to talk to. I've had great success at conferences walking up to product booths and being honest: "Your product is not in my area, and I don't have power over purchasing decisions, but I'm curious and I want to learn. Talk to me." Try the same thing over the phone; find out if someone will be in your area and try to connect. Great conversations and great learning happen.

9. Online conferences. These aren't usually free, but compared to the time and the cost of flying across the country and staying in a city for a week, they're a bargain. Here's the upcoming AASLH Annual Meeting's online registration; here's their page of previous sessions available for purchase. Here's AAM's roster of past annual meetings.

10.  Socialize. Wait, what does this have to do with professional development? Trust me: on a basic level, many of the big professional development opportunities, like the AAM and AASLH national conferences, are about meeting people. You can encourage this even among your own staff. The better your staff knows and likes each other, the better they'll work together. We don't always have time to socialize with each other, and I might not know that you have the carpentry skills I desperately need to build the exhibit case I've always dreamed off. You can also enlarge this beyond just your organization: many professional organizations offer happy hours or cocktail meet'n'greets at local watering holes (#drinkingaboutmuseums comes immediately to mind, with branches in more and more cities); encourage everyone from your museum to attend.

Friday, January 25, 2013

How to Build Community

This is a poster displayed just inside the entrance of my local library here in Vermont. It's a terrific library on many levels, and when I noticed this poster I stopped cold. What great advice!

If you can't read the photography (sorry for the quality!) here's what it says:

How to Build Community

Turn off your TV
Leave your house
Know your neighbors
Look up when you are walking
Greet people
Sit on your stoop
Plant flowers
Use your library
Play together
Buy from local merchants
Share what you have
Help a lost dog
Take children to the park
Garden together
Support neighborhood schools
Fix it even if you didn't break it
Have potlucks
Honor elders
Pick up litter
Read stories aloud
Dance in the street
Talk to the mail carrier
Listen to the birds
Put up a swing
Help carry something heavy
Barter for your goods
Start a tradition
Ask a question
Hire young people for odd jobs
Organize a block party
Bake extra and share
Ask for help when you need it
Open your shades
Sing togther
Share your skills
Take back the night
Turn up the music
Turn down the music
Listen before you react to anger
Mediate a conflict
Seek to understand
Learn from new and uncomfortable angles
Know that no one is silent though many are not heard. Work to change this.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Review: Up & Doing: The Vermont Historical Society, 1838-1970

Up & Doing: The Vermont Historical Society, 1838-1970
by Weston A. Cate, Jr.

I read this for work, but it fits with my continuing interest in the founding and early years of museums and heritage organizations. The Vermont Historical Society is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, a remarkable length of time for any organization. (I'm working on commemorative programming such as a Farmers' Night presentation discussing the tumultuous decade of the 1830s.)

Vermont was the last of the New England states to found a statewide historical society, and the early years of the organization were less than auspicious. Its founding president and librarian, Henry Stevens, stored the Society's collections at his home in Barnet, Vermont, and for the next few decades intermingled those collections with his own. It's still unclear today how many of the Society's collections were never recovered after Stevens was finally ousted.

VHS's history is similar to many other early museums and historical societies. It originally focused on documents and books, with a small side interest in natural history items (primarily geological). Its holdings were occasionally consulted, and as a membership organization, it gradually grew into its role as promoter and instigator of scholarly works on Vermont history.

I was particularly struck, in this account, by the Society's long history intermingled with the important events of the state - closely allied as it always has been with the state government - and yet the relative lateness of its serious collecting of objects. "Collecting" as we think of it today, with grounding in historical perspective and a sense of preservation, was almost a foreign concept. For much of its history collectors were still fixated on the idea of the Wunderkammer - with in this case the exception of important portraits, which Cate describes as being added to the collection often by both the artist and the subject, with a flourishing reveal and a special evening event.

In other words, VHS was in a position to gather objects from the Civil War, from crucially important legal battles, from social movements such as abolition, suffrage, and temperance, from cataclysmic societal changes such as the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties and the Depression - and it didn't take advantage of its front row seat to history. This isn't to knock on the organization-that-was; almost no one was collecting contemporary objects at the time. (Certainly they weren't thinking about objects outside the mainstream of white male history, either.)

It serves as a good reminder, however, of how crucial it is, now that we have the advantages of a burgeoning and impressive field of museum theory, of perspective on our past mistakes as a field, to keep our eyes trained on the present as well as the past.

Overall, the book was short and well-written but I often wished for more incisive analysis rather than narrative history. Alexander's Museum Masters gave me an excellent template for what I wanted out of short, thoughtful institutional history, and this didn't quite measure up.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Review: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Assassination Vacation
Sarah Vowell

I liked this; I did not love it. It was a quick, engaging read, and I recognize in Vowell's particular brand of tourism a lot of the ways in which I travel, which is to say with one eye always on the lookout for plaques, brown road signs, and other signals of quirky history.

Vowell's heavy-handed emphasis on current events as a backdrop to the historical sites she visits was, for me, more intrusive than insightful. She really, really, really hates President George W. Bush and, for that matter, the entire Republican party after about the turn of the last century. Really hates them. Her anger - however comedically phrased - got in the way of her basically good-natured and eager explorations.

From a museum perspective, she did raise some incredibly interesting points, which can be summed up by this selection, on page 54 of my edition:
A lot of house tours are about the thingness of things. For instance, when one visits Jefferson Davis's White House of the Confederacy in Richmond one learns that his bed was so short because most people back then slept sitting up; one doesn't hear much about how on earth Davis could sleep at all given the fact that he was waging a war to keep human beings enslaved. And when one visits Andrew Jackson's house in Nashville, one is more likely to hear about the painstaking restoration of the wallpaper and nothing much about how Jackson's policies sent one's Cherokee ancestors on the Trail of Tears.
In short, Vowell criticizes many museums and historic sites for missing the big picture: the humanity of their stories. She reserves particular ire for historical sites and historians who ignore figures she considers evil or deranged in favor of presenting a rosier picture - the Samuel Mudd House, for example, and its emphasis on Mudd's favorite recipes rather than his alleged role in conspiring to assassinate Lincoln.

She herself is obsessed with a particular strain of the human story - the assassination of presidents - and finds endlessly inventive ways to track down small pieces of the story. Her travels illustrate the interesting dichotomy in lives lived, and often present a good/bad/ugly of historical interpretation.

I would recommend it as a fun, entertaining read, but not as anything much deeper, unfortunately, because there's a very interesting thread of story that she touches on from time to time but ultimately abandons in favor of quips and rants against the then-current Republican administration.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Cook's Illustrated and Evaluation

I just finished reading the New York Times Magazine's exhaustive, fascinating profile of Cook's Illustrated publisher and editor Christopher Kimball. I've read the magazine for years - it's a family tradition - and own at least two CI cookbooks. I fall outside the typical user, according to this article - I tend to use the voluminous notes before each recipe to craft my own final version. I can read, for example, that CI tried sour cream in the cranberry bread recipe but ultimately went with buttermilk for the final version, learn about the results of using sour cream, and decide to use sour cream in my own bread based on that.

What struck me professionally rather than personally in reading this article was this section:
What few quibble with is Kimball’s grasp of the magazine business. “I think he’s a genius,” says Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet. “He gives his readers exactly what they want while managing to repurpose every recipe six or seven times.” Privately, some editors at C.I. complain that Kimball’s business model sometimes works too well. SurveyMonkey, the software that keeps them in touch with readers, informs every aspect of the editorial process — when a test cook wondered whether most readers had access to shallots, SurveyMonkey told them they did. One consequence of a participatory approach to content is the readers’ tendency to pass on their contradictions. “When we survey, everyone tells us they want healthy, low-fat recipes, but then no one wants to make them,” an editor says. “They want dinner to take 20 minutes, but they want it to taste like it took all day.” It turns out that readers tend to return to the familiar — to date, Kimball’s magazines have published eight iterations of meatloaf — and, until recently, snubbed ethnic cooking. “Getting international recipes into the magazine was like pulling teeth,” an editor tells me. When they do make it into print, the recipes survey better after they’ve been decoded into familiar language: Thai-Style Stir-Fried Noodles With Chicken and Broccolini will get a more enthusiastic response than Pad See Ew. The readers’ prejudices dovetail neatly with Kimball’s. “We’re doing Saag Paneer,” he announced one morning. “Everyone here loved it except me — all that army green goop, you’ve got to be out of your mind! But we publish what our readers want, not what Christopher Kimball wants. I’m happier eating hoagies.”
I'm fascinated by CI's ability to do two contradictory things simultaneously: promote a highbrow, expensive, old-fashioned, and relentlessly edited style of cooking while also paying such careful, constant attention to feedback from its readers. There has to be something in there that museums can learn from. Museums have traditionally spent most of their time doing just what CI does: delivering high-quality, carefully packaged content with an authoritative voice. But many are struggling to make that content as appealing as CI does, and I wonder if part of the reason isn't that careful, almost neurotic, attention to detail in feedback that CI pursues.

I also appreciated that feedback contradiction appears here, too. I've seen this in museums: teachers simultaneously tell an educator that they didn't spend enough time in the museum when their 1.5 hour tour was clearly far too long for their students' attention spans, and made them late getting back to their bus. The answer is somewhere in between. CI readers want to prepare good food quickly, but say that they want nutrition and lowfat recipes. Those two goals are not always easily dovetailed. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle: informational, interactive tours that leave students and teachers wanting more but don't take up too much time.