Tuesday, July 23, 2013

First time conference goers?

I'm working with Ashley Martin, my fellow co-chair for the New England Museum Association's Young & Emerging Professionals PAG, (so many acronyms!) to develop a "Welcome to Conference" panel/breakfast at NEMA's annual fall conference, coming up this November in Newport, RI.

We're planning to talk about choosing sessions, networking, setting aside downtime, capitalizing on your new contacts, and we'll set up a few icebreakers for those who attend to make contacts right away.

To that end, I am seeking feedback: what advice would you give to a first time conference goer, or a young professional looking to network at a regional conference?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Weekly Blog Roundup

Here are a few interesting and useful blog posts for the museum world.

Job Search Red Flags & Due Diligence from Captain Awkward

So this isn't a museum blog, or even a museum post, but it is crucial advice. Jobs in museums are so tight, especially the last few years, that it's easy to forget that the job search process has two sides. When you interview at an organization, it's also an opportunity to make sure that the culture and job description are the right fit for you. This is a great overview of things to look for, things to ask about, and validation for making decisions that are right for you.

Hack the Museum Camp Part 2 from Museum 2.0

I was curious to see/hear the results of the Hack the Museum weekend at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, and here is Nina Simon's wrap up post. Sounds like it turned out to be a blast - I am particularly struck by the consideration of risk in museums here, and as experienced by the campers. Are things really as risky as we think they are? I'd be curious to see how these exhibition pieces are received by visitors to the museum. (I also wonder if successful visitor engagement is one of the benchmarks of success for this weekend, or whether it was more professional development-focused?)

Science Museums and History of Science Museums from Tufts Museum Studies Blog

The Science in Museums series at the Tufts blog has been consistently interesting and thoughtful, but this one really struck a chord with me as an historian. How do you balance the science and the history context to produce a thoughtful exhibition? Are there times when the science is less important than the history, or vice versa? Should the two considerations be kept separate, or should they always be discussed together?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Loneliness of the Military Historian

My training is as a military historian - medieval in undergrad, early American in graduate school. I love the way this poem plays not just with gender roles but also with the concepts of historical truth and how to present uncomfortable research.

Copied over from the Poetry Foundation's website.

The Loneliness of the Military Historian
by Margaret Atwood

Confess: it’s my profession
that alarms you.
This is why few people ask me to dinner,
though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.
I wear dresses of sensible cut
and unalarming shades of beige,
I smell of lavender and go to the hairdresser’s:
no prophetess mane of mine,
complete with snakes, will frighten the youngsters.
If I roll my eyes and mutter,
if I clutch at my heart and scream in horror
like a third-rate actress chewing up a mad scene,
I do it in private and nobody sees
but the bathroom mirror.

In general I might agree with you:
women should not contemplate war,
should not weigh tactics impartially,
or evade the word enemy,
or view both sides and denounce nothing.
Women should march for peace,
or hand out white feathers to arouse bravery,
spit themselves on bayonets
to protect their babies,
whose skulls will be split anyway,
or, having been raped repeatedly,
hang themselves with their own hair.
These are the functions that inspire general comfort.
That, and the knitting of socks for the troops
and a sort of moral cheerleading.
Also: mourning the dead.
Sons, lovers, and so forth.
All the killed children.

Instead of this, I tell
what I hope will pass as truth.
A blunt thing, not lovely.
The truth is seldom welcome,
especially at dinner,
though I am good at what I do.
My trade is courage and atrocities.
I look at them and do not condemn.
I write things down the way they happened,
as near as can be remembered.
I don’t ask why, because it is mostly the same.
Wars happen because the ones who start them
think they can win.

In my dreams there is glamour.
The Vikings leave their fields
each year for a few months of killing and plunder,
much as the boys go hunting.
In real life they were farmers.
They come back loaded with splendour.
The Arabs ride against Crusaders
with scimitars that could sever
silk in the air.
A swift cut to the horse’s neck
and a hunk of armour crashes down
like a tower. Fire against metal.
A poet might say: romance against banality.
When awake, I know better.

Despite the propaganda, there are no monsters,
or none that can be finally buried.
Finish one off, and circumstances
and the radio create another.
Believe me: whole armies have prayed fervently
to God all night and meant it,
and been slaughtered anyway.
Brutality wins frequently,
and large outcomes have turned on the invention
of a mechanical device, viz. radar.
True, valour sometimes counts for something,
as at Thermopylae. Sometimes being right—
though ultimate virtue, by agreed tradition,
is decided by the winner.
Sometimes men throw themselves on grenades
and burst like paper bags of guts
to save their comrades.
I can admire that.
But rats and cholera have won many wars.
Those, and potatoes,
or the absence of them.
It’s no use pinning all those medals
across the chests of the dead.
Impressive, but I know too much.
Grand exploits merely depress me.

In the interests of research
I have walked on many battlefields
that once were liquid with pulped
men’s bodies and spangled with exploded
shells and splayed bone.
All of them have been green again
by the time I got there.
Each has inspired a few good quotes in its day.
Sad marble angels brood like hens
over the grassy nests where nothing hatches.
(The angels could just as well be described as vulgar
or pitiless, depending on camera angle.)
The word glory figures a lot on gateways.
Of course I pick a flower or two
from each, and press it in the hotel Bible
for a souvenir.
I’m just as human as you.

But it’s no use asking me for a final statement.
As I say, I deal in tactics.
Also statistics:
for every year of peace there have been four hundred
years of war.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Weekly Blog Roundup

Here are a few interesting posts from the museum blogosphere this week.

(Does anyone say blogosphere anymore, or am I hopelessly behind the times?)

What MOOCs and Webinars Can Teach Us About Digital Engagement - The Museum of the Future

I am as yet unsold on MOOCs - I have tried, and failed, to participate in four Coursera classes so far due to a combination of lack of engagement and lack of time - but I still see the glimmers of possibility in them. If museums are really going to put their mark on the lifelong learning environment, this is the way to go, if only to make sure they are staying relevant in the conversation. Jasper Visser has some good pointers and insights about using digital technology to foster mass learning experiences.

Insta-Memory: Dismantling the Boston Marathon bombing memorial - History @ Work

The question of handling the Boston Marathon bombing memorial that sprung up in Copley Square in the days after April 15 has been an ongoing and fascinating one. Rainey Tisdale has blogged eloquently about the memorial in progress here and here, and the New England Museum Association is working with the city of Boston and other cultural organizations to collect and preserve the items at the memorial. Northeastern University is spearheading a fascinating online project documenting the Marathon bombing as well. This is likely to be a difficult question for Boston's museum and public history professionals to consider for some time to come. In this post, John Matthew Barlow does a nice job of pondering the intrinsic nature of a memorial, and expanding those ideas outward to the healing process of the entire city of Boston.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

10 Networking Tips for Young Professionals

I've been collecting some networking tips over the last few weeks, and thinking about what advice I would give to a young museum professional who's still in grad school or in a first entry level job or internship, and here's my list of ten. They're not all obvious or earth shattering, but I think they all go a long way toward addressing the nuts and bolts of how to make and keep professional contacts.

1. Keep your business cards in opposite pockets. That is to say, keep your business cards in your dominant hand pocket so that you can reach in quickly, and keep the business cards you receive in the opposite pocket. That way you'll be able to pull your own out quickly and you won't get it mixed up with the ones people have given you. Keep a pen handy, too, in case you need to write down more details for the person you're giving the card to. I spent about 2 years writing the Tufts Museum Studies blog url on the back of my own business cards when I was editor of that site, so people would visit it and connect it with me.

2. For that matter, have a business card. If you're currently employed at a museum, you're all set. However, if you are networking and in search of a job, it would be quite awkward to hand over your employer's card while you drop the hint that you'd like to talk about job opportunities. So either way, I recommend having a personal card. It doesn't have to be anything fancy - name, phone, email. Some people put a line like "museum professional" or "museum student" in the title line. Some people put a Twitter handle or a blog URL. If you blog or tweet regularly, and plan on keeping it up, go ahead. Just make sure the whole card isn't cluttered overall and that the essential information is there - name and email at the very least.

3. Pregame before business meals. Not the kind of pregaming you do before you go to a bar, but you get the idea. It's not uncommon to network or talk business over a meal. Maybe you're at a conference, maybe you're at a lunchtime informational interview, maybe you're sitting down at a coffee shop. Humans socialize around food. Here's the thing, though: if you're starving and all you can think of is eating, you're not going to be an effective communicator. Eat something beforehand so that you don't have to eat the meal, especially if you're susceptible to blood sugar issues. I'm not saying don't eat your meal - that would also be weird - but instead of staring longingly at your pasta while you try to answer questions about how awesome you are, take a bite here and there and keep up a lively conversation.

3b. Don't drink to excess. Ideally, don't drink at all. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's astonishing how many professional situations involve easy access to alcohol. If you're already nervous, a drink is not going to help - it's not a freshman mixer, it's a career opportunity. If you want to sip something or hold something in your hand, bars almost always carry ginger ale or juice. (True story: I once ordered a selzer and cranberry mix at a bar at a conference, and the next day the person who had been in line behind me sought me out to thank me for doing that - she was always nervous about the peer pressure of alcohol in social situations and she literally hadn't realized until that moment that she could just order something else to drink.)

4. Hold EITHER a drink OR an hors d'oeuvre in your non-dominant hand. This was given to me as a tip at a long ago etiquette dinner sponsored by my undergraduate college and it has stuck with me ever since. Imagine an evening cocktail party. You're mingling, you're chatting, and all of a sudden there's that curator you've been dying to meet since forever. If you have food in one hand and a glass in the other, how do you shake her hand? How do you reach for a business card? You don't. So when mingling, hold one or the other, and do it in your non-handshake hand. No one wants to shake a hand that's clammy from holding a soda.

5. After an event, write down where and when you met a person on the back of their card, along with any pertinent conversation details. I didn't do this after my last AAM conference. Wow, big mistake. I have a pile of business cards and a dozen memories of great conversations, and while I'm pretty sure I can connect the dots, how embarrassing would it be to be wrong? So if you're in a large networking situation like a conference or a workshop, take a few minutes within 24 hours to write a few notes on the back of each card you receive - whatever will help you remember context. I usually do conference, date, panel (if applicable) and a few words about the conversation we had, especially if I want to follow up.

6. Use those contacts after the fact. People don't usually hand out their business cards just to be polite. They're a tool for communication. Use them. Pick a few people with whom you connected, or who you think would be especially helpful to know, and reach out to them in the week or two after you've met them. If they offered to meet for a drink, follow up on that. If you mentioned an article you read recently and they seemed interested, send it to them. Then keep up with it. Don't be obnoxious - if they don't reply, let it go - but don't be afraid to take the first step, either.

7. Plan your clothes like a military campaign, taking into account all the activities of the day. This is really a conference tip. Really think about what you'll be doing in a day: are you sitting in panels? taking tours? getting on and off buses? walking the exhibit hall? are you planning on approaching any of your museum idols? Right up there with picking your panels for the day is making sure you have appropriate shoes and clothes. You really do not want to have a wardrobe malfunction in the middle of a panel you've been dying to attend. That may mean leaving the more stylish clothes at home, but that's ok.

8. Have a story about yourself. Think about what you most want to convey about where you are in your career, what you are seeking at the moment, and where you'd like to go next (do you need a job? an introduction to an organization? more experience in a certain area? advice about your career path?). Put that together into a narrative. Trim it down. Rehearse it a bit, in front of a mirror if you want. As a young professional, you're going to be asked a lot about yourself, and you'll want to have an answer in your toolkit that both conveys who you are and what you're looking for.

9. Informational interviews. These are pretty much the greatest thing since sliced bread. Museum professionals are the best people in the world. They want to help you. They are also human beings who are happy to talk about where they've had successes and failures in life. Make connections, follow up on those connections, and suggest a meeting to talk. Think through what you want to ask and what you want to know. DO NOT go into the interview thinking that if you just show how great you are, they'll hire you. Go in with a pure quest for knowledge and professional friendship. I once met someone who offered to talk to me more about grantwriting at a conference; I followed up; she invited me down for lunch; we had a terrific lunch, I toured her organization's historic houses; I kept in contact and used the resources she'd suggested to learn even more; thus, when it came time for my graduate internship, I chose to spend half my time in development, knew what I was getting into, and had a basic understanding of the job, which was a huge leg up. All because of one great lunchtime conversation.

10. Self-edit. This seems stupid and self-evident, I know. But we all have that one thing we talk too much about, and sometimes a networking situation is warm and friendly, and we're tempted to tell the person we've just met that hilarious story about that one time... Just say no. Be careful and precise about what you say. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Do you have any other networking tips you'd give to young museum professionals? Anything you wish you'd known when starting out?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Weekly Blog Roundup

Happy Independence Day! Here's a few interesting blog posts from the museum world this week.

The Empathetic Museum - Museum Commons

There have been a few posts floating around about the idea of an "empathetic" museum lately, and I like this one the best. It's a good, thoughtful consideration of how museums can be more responsive emotionally, and not just intellectually.

Swaps, Residencies, and Sabbaticals, Part Two - Thinking About Museums

Ed Rodley has been considering some interesting possibilities for professional development recently, and in this post (and the post previous) considers the logistics and possibilities of swapping staff between museums as a form of professional development. I'm intrigued, though the thought of leaving my work undone for 6 weeks is enough to give me the shivers. I'd love to see some examples of small institutions, where only one person does a job, or multiple jobs, where this works.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review: Monuments Men

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

I wanted so badly to like this book. I've had it on my to do read for months, if not years, so it was with eager anticipation that I began reading it several weeks ago. I'm a fast reader; I didn't read this slowly because it was dense, or technical, or long; I read it slowly because it was enormously frustrating.

The Monuments Men tells an utterly fascinating story: the efforts of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Architecture division of the American military during the Second World War, tasked with preserving cultural heritage in the wake of the most devastating fighting the world had ever seen.

The men who served in the MFAA division were fascinating, talented individuals who came from all walks of life, and many of them went on to serve in prominent, influential roles in the postwar museum world - most notably, James Rorimer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and George Stout of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. Monuments Men identified cultural treasures - buildings, archives, and works of art - in wartorn cities and either worked with soldiers to protect and preserve them before assault on a city or coordinated preservation and conservation efforts after a city had been attacked. After the end of fighting, the division embarked on its most difficult and intensive mission: to find and recover Nazi-pillaged works of art.

The authors are correct in stating that this is a fascinating, previously untold story of the war, and that the world could learn a great deal from the work of the MFAA division - there has been nothing like it since, and cultural patrimony the world over has suffered for it. Imagine if there were a modern version of the MFAA, and how the story of Iraq's museums might be different today.

The trouble is, this book is not that definitive history that the MFAA deserves. It's a cursory, mediocre survey that puts greater weight on movie-style invented dialogue, stereotyped and repetitive biographical development, and the shock and awe value of piles of gold and Rembrandts rather than taking the time to tell a sensitive, thoughtful story.

Inside this book, that story is begging to be told. Instead of an incisive look at the brilliant, tough Rose Valland, the curator at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris who collaborated with the Nazis in order to track French patrimony as it left the country in the hopes of recovering it someday, the authors reduced her to a two-bit noir character, full of mystery and coy glances and possible weird (and probably invented!) flirtations with James Rorimer.

The trouble is, the book is popular enough that George Clooney optioned it for a movie, which will be coming out this fall. He'll play George Stout, and Matt Damon will play James Rorimer, while Cate Blanchett will hopefully lend some actual substance to Rose Valland, who deserved better. Until I read the book, I was incredibly excited about the idea of Matt Damon as James Rorimer, on whom I've had a museum geek crush for a while now. Hopefully the movie can gloss over the book's flaws and condense its sprawling, incoherent narrative into a driving quest to retrieve masterpieces from their German repositories.

In conclusion: pick this up only if you want the lightest of beach reads and a very cursory introduction to the work of the MFAA division. Do not expect a quality history or you will be disappointed.