Sunday, November 5, 2017

Traditions Mashup: Mexico City

I've just returned from last week in Mexico City, participating in the CAMOC conference.  CAMOC is the ICOM committee devoted to city museums, so fittingly we were in an incredible city at an incredible time of year.  The city's Day of the Dead celebrations were a mashup of old, new, borrowed, silly, and deeply meaningful.


If you saw the James Bond film Spectre you saw a giant Day of the Dead parade (above) making its way through Mexico City.  But the funny thing--this parade was for the movie only.  But then the city government and the tourism bureau decided everyone might enjoy a parade--not a traditional part of usually family-centered Day of the Day, and this year, we got to see the second annual edition.

On last Saturday, we wrapped up the afternoon sessions, and headed off to Zocalo, the city's main square in front of the cathedral and found ourselves squeezed ten deep, awaiting the parade.  It didn't seem much of a tourist attraction, as most of the people around us were local. 



Finally a huge roar goes up from the crowd as the start of the parade rounds the corner.  In the historical center, the earthquake's effects were scarcely visible.  But the parade began with a huge fist made of piled up hardhats, followed by a delegation of rescue workers and an ambulance.  A parade, originally for James Bond, and then promoted as tourism, became the city's own, as locals cheered in honor of rescuers and victims.

The parade had everything--everything skeletal:  skeletal marching bands, skeletal revolutionaries, beauty queens with skull faces waving from their floats...and many of the watchers were equally fabulous in their appearance. One night, a spectacular parade of lighted figures made their way through the park and into the Museo de Arte Populare, created by an enthusiastic crew of makers eager to share their work.

But Day of the Dead goes on for days, and the mash-ups continue. American-style trick or treating has made its way into the holiday, and one night the center was filled with families trick-or-treating in all the stories, with candy happily handed out. 

Alters--ofrendas--were everywhere.  At Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo's house, a enormous one was dedicated to her; while at a monastery turned museum, a fantastical two-room offering was in honor of Manuel Parra, a renowed Mexican architect.  Nearby, in a shop, a altar honored a woman historian, and in another part of the city, we ate in a small restaurant where the patriarch of the family was honored on a fireplace mantel.  Through make-up, through costumes, through decorations--everyone got a chance to share their creativity.  At our hotel, the staff each decorated a skeleton figure and the guests all got a chance to vote. 


What do I think all this mashup of traditions old and new has to do with museums?  First, a reminder that surrendering control is a good thing.  Holding on to those precious traditions and not allowing them to breathe and grow can't be a good thing.   And second, these days in Mexico City were abundant evidence of the creative spirit of this community.  We saw original altars in every museum visited, reflecting the spirit of each place, and making each museum connected more to the larger city. How can you inspire the best creative efforts of your city, town or place?

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained


Every year, I ask mentees to contribute blog posts as a part of their year-long mentorship with me. Tania Said, director of education, David Owsley Museum of Art Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana and I have had some great conversations. In this guest post, she shares her lessons learned from launching a school-museum partnership.
 After 12 years of trying to launch a full-scale museum-school partnership with my city school district, we have finally begun! It’s a goal I’ve had since I started my position and one I know many other museum educators have too.
There is no step-by-step guide for launching such a partnership, but here are some thoughts to guide others wanting to develop something similar with your community schools.
Be patient
Don’t be afraid to start out small, but always keep in mind what you want to develop. A typical school tour program when teachers call or email to schedule a visit is fine. Our group visit program grew over the years from 1 in 6 of our visitors to 1 in 4 now. For three years, we had a single school partnership, and now we are serving all public city elementary schools. (Eventually I would like to include other local schools, including others in the county.) While we patiently grew our school programs, we also built our volunteer docent corps of students and community members, and with it our reputation.
Meet everyone in the school district you possibly can, especially administrators and teachers
While I have been the director of education, I made sure to meet superintendents and many of their fellow school administrators. Competing demands made it especially challenging when the state focused on evaluating teacher and grading schools. It was very high stress for all of them. The situation is no less complicated now since our local school district is struggling financially. However the superintendent knew that despite the school district’s difficulties more community partnerships were needed to bolster student learning and opportunities, so our offer came at the right time.  
Learn about other museum-school partnerships in your area, especially offered by similar museums
My university employer encourages faculty and professional staff to apply for special leave i.e. a sabbatical. I chose to study school visits to Indiana art museums last summer. It afforded me a chance to visit every art museum in the state, meet my counterpart, learn about their school programs, and read about museum-school partnerships around the country. Knowing which art museums offer free tours and reimbursement for substitute teachers, and which school districts offer scheduling support and bus transportation, etc. provided valuable models and ideas for a strong, local museum-school partnership.
Think what themes you can best support and offer options to the school district to choose
Another benefit of learning about other art museums’ school visit programs was gaining new ideas for tour programs. As a result, my education colleague and I were able to develop a list of tour themes for school administrators to review for the proposed grade-wide visit program. They selected 4th graders for Indiana art because Indiana history is taught the same year and some of the testing pressures lessen after 3rd grade.
Develop a primary point of contact in central school administration
Having a school administration colleague appointed by the superintendent made developing a sound program model much easier. In our partnership, the director of elementary education has been my go-to person advising on program development, and scheduling principal and teacher trainings. Later she will also help coordinate 4th grade teachers’ visits and approve their bus needs. She has been indispensable helping me figure out local school culture.
Offer as much as you can
For the new School Museum Art Readiness Tours (SMART), we decided we would offer the following, which we were able to do through a $5,000 local foundation grant.
  • an art museum program with a standards-based and curriculum-related tour for every 4th grade MCS student emphasizing language arts, social studies, and visual art
  • pay 50% of substitute teacher costs for art teachers
  • provide a program preview for principals and administrators
  • offer a professional development for teachers with visual literacy and museum object-based learning
  • ensure a special event for Muncie 4th graders and their families with teachers and administrators to celebrate their participation and success

Ask for as much as you can
We were pleasantly surprised to request and receive the superintendent’s support for the following for SMARTours:

  • bus transportation
  • lunches for students visiting the museum
  • scheduling support for teachers
  • survey distribution
  • test results
  • the remaining 50% for substitute teachers costs so art teachers can accompany the 4th grade teachers and students

Give teachers the inside scoop
Not only did separate SMART training sessions for principals and teachers provide an overview of the program, but it gave them a chance to learn where their students will visit and gave them a chance to see the art and museum first thereby ensuring their buy-in. When asked what the teachers will tell their 4th grade students, they said:
“How important an art museum it is.”  “How art is an important aspect of life and connects to all areas of study.”  “They will see things they have never seen before and may never see again. An experience to remember.”


Build docent support
Several of our docents are former teachers and one was a school curriculum director. Their feedback was invaluable and gave credibility to the resulting materials developed by my colleague. In addition, we provided the docents a training about the SMART program to encourage them to participate and lead tours, but also persuade them to be ambassadors for the program. The docents applauded upon hearing the presentation as it was as exciting for them to know the local school partnership had launched!
Build in fun!
Yes, there are pre-visit and post-visit activities to make it different from other school visits to the David Owsley Museum of Art, but they are learning by doing. And we will make time to celebrate with the end-of-year event and ensure everyone knows they’re SMART!

Later this month, we will lead the 4th grade Indiana art tours. Check back about another blog post about our further progress. 

Top to Bottom:  
Learning at the Owsley Museum;  
Children learn about contemporary art with Tania Said, director of education, David Owsley Museum of Art;  
Muncie Community Schools elementary art and 4th grade teachers participated in School Museum Art Readiness Tours (SMART) training at the David Owsley Museum of Art on September 11. The training is in preparation for 4th grade students' visits in late September and early October to learn about Indiana art and visit the Ball State University campus. 
Cathy Bretz, education program director (bottom row, left), and Tania Said, director of education (top row, right), led the training. The program is funded by the Ball Brothers Foundation; Cathy Bretz, education program coordinator at the David Owsley Museum of Art, trains docents who will provide tours to Muncie Community Schools 4th graders about Indiana art with cross-curricular connections between art, language arts, and social studies. The special initiative is part of the School Museum Art Readiness Tour (SMART) program, funded by the Ball Brothers Foundation;  
"Hearts and Flowers" Merle Temkin 
All photos courtesy the David Owsley Museum of Art.  

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Museum for Labor Day: Who Tells the Story?



Labor Day weekend here in the United States seems a good time to share my visit to the Plantation Tea Workers Museum outside Kandy, Sri Lanka, from a few weeks ago on the Old Peacock Tea Estate. I was in Sri Lanka for my work at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and I had spent much of the preceding week in a hotel conference room, in an intense workshop experience (perhaps recounted in a later post) so I looked forward to hearing up into the green hill country by train.  Up and up we went, and then the next day, up even further to the tea museum, which was founded by the Institute for Social Development, a Coalition member and an organization dedicated to improving both work and social conditions for tea workers and Hill Country Tamils.


As I thought about this museum and its founding, I thought about the other industry-specific museums I know--the vast majority of the ones we know well are corporate ones, telling a story from a specific point of view.  Their founding (and their funding) reflects the point of view of owners, rather than workers.  As I pondered this, I realized I should give a long overdue shout out to Patricia West, whose book Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House, published in almost twenty years ago, was really the first work that encouraged me to understand historic houses and museums in a more political context.


This museum has a clear mission, tied to the Institute's mission. The institute focuses on:
"rights issues of hill country Tamil people in plantation sector for last 25 years.  We enlighten them to claim their basic and fundamental rights by advocating the civil society organizations and politicians of the community while lobbying the policy makers of the country. Although the hill country Tamils were not directly involved in 30 years protracted ethnic conflict, it impacted on plantation community and made them most vulnerable and excluded from the mainstream development interventions." 
It's a small museum but the labels were in multiple languages, including English, and my visit (including the trip all the way up) was greatly enhanced by R. Nanthakumar, Programme Manager at ISD, who grew up in a line house on a tea plantation and shared a bit of his own history, updates on the current efforts to ensure full civil rights for this community, and the history of the larger community.


This was a museum where the story, except for the end product of the work, a cup of tea, was entirely new to me.  I didn't know how tea was harvested, I didn't know how the workers had come from India, recruited by the British, to work on the plantations, I didn't know they were essentially stateless for decades and decades. I didn't know about labor organizing, or about activists, including poets, for full civil rights for Hill Country Tamils. I was your average visitor who knew nothing.


But I learned alot! How often do workers really get to tell their story?  Sometimes local, city or regional museums take on telling workers' stories, and I've worked on a few of these projects as well--they're often a bit of a balancing act.  A bit of googling led me to some other workers' museums that I'm now curious about:

The Workers' Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa
The Labor Museum & Labor Movement Library and Archive, Denmark
The Workers History Museum, Canada
Amuri Museum of Workers' Housing, Finland
(FYI, none really came up in the United States--please share additions!)

Do you tell stories of workers at your museum?  How do you think about workers' rights? As the museum field slowly becomes more attentive to workers' rights in museums (see #Museumworkersspeak and the recent protests by interpreters at Plimouth Plantation), how much do we think about how we can encourage a broader campaign for workers' rights?


The Plantation Tea Workers Museum is not just about the past.  It's very much connected to present-day struggles for human rights and as part of ISD, in an action-oriented manner.  It's a small museum a long way away from anywhere but it changed my own perspective.  My next cups of tea will be accompanied by some thinking about the people who made that cup possible and their struggle for human rights.  And of course, in the same way the Coalition's members do every day,  I'll try to turn memory into action.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

No Bells, No Whistles: When Design and Content Marry Perfectly



Perhaps it's it's not surprising that a design museum would have good design.  It was lovely to visit the Cooper-Hewitt Museum a few weeks ago and discover an interactive exhibit that relied only on great design along with pencils and paper (plus stickers) to create a compelling visitor experience.  Yes, I got to try out their pen--but honestly, I enjoyed this more.

The goal of the exhibit was to engage visitors in thinking about how our creative efforts in design can help solve problems.  Incredibly clear, the exhibit began with a start here and then an overview of the process of visiting the exhibit.


 

Then it led you step-by-step through the design process, beginning with finding a value (interesting, right?  museums don't often talk about values as drivers of behavior).



Then you moved to a question. They were broad enough to encourage creative thinking, yet I began to see the constraints that encourage creativity being put into place.



You're asked to reflect on both question and value.


So far, it's been the incubation step in the creative process. We learn what the process  is, and we begin to gather information.  But the process still needs more information.  Because visitors might not be designers, we're given a hand, with a group of design tactics.  Will you use a stage, social media, a public bath or a police station to, say, increase access to healthy food?

 We're reminded that creative combining is a great way to find solutions.  That's why we're asked to pick two cards.  We've designed our solutions--but that's not the end.  We see real-live designers sharing their projects and we see other visitors sharing their solutions. A physician reminds us that "less is more" is often true in medicine as it is in architecture.




Finally, you get to place your project where you think, physically, where it belongs.  Does it work in a parking lot?  on a roof?  in a warehouse?  Helping to remind us that the city itself is a living laboratory for all kinds of creative experiments (as a rural dweller myself, it's the same thing with different vocabulary).

And although it seemed a bit of an afterthought, I loved this cartoon about successful and unsuccessful community design processes, a reminder that community engagement makes all things better.


Thanks Cooper Hewitt for providing us all with the reminder that pens and pencils combined with ideas are a place where creativity lives.  When it comes time to develop your next exhibit, consider all the alternatives.

PS  I did use the pen, but did not look up my saved works when I arrived home.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

"I am an activist" From Walden to Sites of Conscience


This Fourth of July celebration seemed different than others, somehow.  My social media feeds were filled with reminders of both the potential of the United States (tweeting the Declaration of Independence) and of the distance we still have to go (Frederick Douglass' 1852 Fourth of July speech in Rochester, NY).  Reading those tweets and speeches pushed me to finally write a small bit about my experiences with International Coalition Sites of Conscience members at our Africa and Middle East and North Africa meetings in May. Those two weeks were deeply meaningful to me as an introduction to Coalition members' work around the world. Whether it was sitting by the water in Tunis, drinking tea late at night or somberly trying to make sense together of a visit to a genocide memorial, those connections will long resonate for me. Somehow those reflections had the unexpected result of bringing me back around to an exhibition at the Morgan Library, just down the block from my office in New York City.

So let's start at the exhibit. It's This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal, featuring Henry David Thoreau's journals along with a stellar collection of Thoreau-related artifacts, many from the Concord Museum, where the show will travel later this year.  Thoreau kept a journal---lots of journals, filled with all kinds of things, from the weather to politics.

In the exhibit, big quotations on the wall pull you in to learn more.  And somehow, although I knew this exhibition has been in the planning for quite some time, the quotes seemed incredibly timely.


As I looked at the lock and key from the Concord jail where he spent one single night for his failure to pay the poll tax, I read this quotation,  "I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine."  That simple quote led me back to my colleagues in Africa and the Middle East.


Before I began work at the Coalition, I thought of Sites of Conscience in primarily US-focused terms: sites like Lincoln's Cottage, or the Levine and Wing Luke Museums, or national parks like Seneca Falls and Manzanar.  These are organizations that operate as relatively traditional (but inspirational) museums. But many of our Coalition members have come to memory work, the work of archives, museums and memory, from very different places and their organizations are often very young.  I'm just beginning to puzzle out how to share the vital knowledge and practice of these new organizations with the more traditional museum field in the US and elsewhere, in ways that may have the potential to transform our museum practice. And of course, at the same time, I'm working to find more ways to assist all of our members around the world in building on their own strengths.


Here's a bit of what I've been thinking (in no particular cohesive framework--I'm still thinking!).

Because many people working in these organizations come from human rights, social activism, law, and other fields, the gatherings represent a diversity of perspectives not always found in US museum work. It's a reminder that by privileging the knowledge of a museum studies graduate degree, we lose out on important knowledge, skills and perspectives. 

I was reminded of the power of archives, even more than artifacts.  Gonzalo Conte, from Memoria Abierta in Argentina, shared their incredible ongoing archival work, integrating oral histories, images, maps and more to build the ongoing work of justice.  Sites everywhere are doing the same--those oral histories and archives are valued for the ways in which they can speak truths, and in so doing, build justice and reconciliation.  But archives are only valuable when they are accessible. 


When we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which includes the mass grave of 250,000 Rwandans murdered during the 1994 genocide, I found myself balancing between the absorption of complicated information and emotion.  That challenge exists in almost every history exhibit, and the experience is different for every visitor. There are no easy answers, but as exhibition developers, working with those whose story we are telling is critical.  We know this, yet too often we neglect it. We need to find more ways to make those voices heard and more ways to support museum staff who work every day with trauma.  The Memorial seems to do an exemplary job of supporting both staff and visitors.


And lastly, I went away from both meetings struck by the potential power of museums and historic places that are sites of conscience.  In Tunis, we stopped at the site of the former 9th of April Prison (above), now a dusty parking lot and a place where our Tunisian members are working to have designated as a memorial or museum. As we stood there, one of the participants moved a bit over, and stood in a place, saying, "This is exactly where my cell was."  I asked how it felt to stand there. He said, "I do not let this define me.  I am not a victim.  I am an activist."

We need more activists in all our museums to keep from settling for the role of, as Thoreau described museums, "catacombs,"  for dead things, rather than places for the living power of change. 


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Fearless Museum Exhibit: A Post in Honor of World Refugee Day


Monday was World Refugee Day so it seems the past time to share one of the most meaningful museum experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s taken me far too long to write about—but if you’ve been in conversation with me over the last several months, I’ve probably told you about it.
In April, my dear friend and colleague Katrin Hieke joined me for a weekend of museum-going in Berlin and she had scouted out exhibits that I never would have found.  One of them was at the Museum of European Cultures—a museum I couldn’t quite imagine. What would it be about? High culture?  Folk culture?


Here's how the museum explains its work:
The Museum Europäischer Kulturen is dedicated to collecting, researching, preserving, presenting, and raising awareness of artefacts of European everyday culture and human lived realities from the 18th century until today. As such, we transcend national and linguistic borders and facilitate encounters among different groups of people. Our work is characterised by the term ‘cultural contact’.
We continually seek to forge connections between our historical collection and current issues. An important aspect of this work is a close cooperation with respective interest groups, as well as facilitating an exchange with our visitors.

The staff, led by director Elisabeth Tietmeyer, have chosen to continually expand all of our perspectives on what “European culture” is.   Katrin had found that they offered Tandem tours, in German and Arabic, of the exhibition "daHeim:  Glances into Fugitive Lives" so we arrived just in time.  What’s a Tandem tour?  One of the refugees/artists who created the exhibit led the exhibition tour, joined by a museum curator and a translator.  Along the way, our small group not only conversed in German and Arabic, but English and Greek.


What was the exhibit?  It was the work of a small group of refugees, from all over the world, who were housed at a single hostel in Berlin.  Using the hostel bedframes as their primary material, they created extensive installations, along with art work on the walls and in smaller iterations, that explored their own experience as refugees coming to Berlin. The works were powerful in and of themselves,  but our guided tour made it even more so.  He Xshared the stories of creating the works and of individual refugee stories.  The group of creators became a cohesive group, and now, even after the exhibit is finished, meet every week to socialize.


The works depicted the often-harrowing journey, the German bureaucracy, families left at home and memories of cities destroyed.  And in every instance, our guide made the experience deeper, more personal, more real.  At the small bedframe, adapted with rockers to simulate the rocking of a boat, with a small iPhone-sized video of someone’s voyage, when he shared his own journey, we all fell silent, suddenly into a world unknown to us. So as humans, the exhibition touched Katrin and me deeply.  But there are also important lessons for us as museum people.  



Here’s a few takeaways:
  • Be fearless.  This was a big exhibit with, I suspect, an unknown outcome when it began.  The staff had to trust its exhibition partners, the refugees themselves, and its own ability to explain and explore the content. 
  • Let go of your “museum” voice.   We talk a lot about shared authority, but then, often, we resort to exerting control after we talk to an “advisory committee” and get their input. 
  • Be about the now.  More than ever, the world needs more thoughtful, passionate voices exploring how we can make a better world together.  The long lead time for exhibition development often shoves us into irrelevancy. 
  • Don’t just talk.  It’s pretty easy to talk about how museums should be relevant and how we should be more diverse.  We are still moving way too slow and need to pair institutional and personal action.   Last year at ICOM, the mayor of Lampedusa, Italy, where many refugees have come ashore, spoke about how history will judge all of us in receiving nations harshly for our lack of actions in the refugee crisis. We must do more.

Want to explore more about migration and cultural organizations?  Check out the free downloadable publication, The Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees: The Role of Cultural Organisations coordinated by Maria Vlachou and just released this week.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Visiting The Museum of Things


Do museums need objects?  Do we have too many objects?  How do you contextualize objects? What should we be collecting? or not collecting?  These are the kinds of questions that many of us wrestle with on an ongoing basis so it was an unexpected pleasure in April to visit the Museum of Things (Museum der Dinge) in Berlin that is unabashedly about things, in particular, the consumer culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.


My great colleague Katrin Hieke and I experienced some pure delight in exploring objects and puzzling over how the open storage was arranged.  Sometimes by decade, sometimes by color, sometimes by origin.  The crowded shelves actually encouraged us to look deeper, to dig into cases that attracted us.  And as always, with museum visits, what you bring with you matters:  Katrin grew up in East Germany (DDR) so her added context about some objects was great--and she appreciated the way objects from both the DDR and West Germany were sometimes displayed together.


One section of the exhibition was about branding, but then there were also those anonymous objects that we think of as no-brands:  rubber bands, paper clips and the like, encouraging us to think about why some things need branding and others do not.


The museum had some lovely, simple interactives.  First, their calendar of upcoming events was not a display on a screen or a bulletin board, but on these shelves, making the calendar an object in itself. In another location, you could adopt an object and help support its care (you can also do this on the website). The interactives valued pencil and a sense of hand, something too rarely valued in contemporary culture.



But the interactives (and the exhibitions as a whole) didn't shy away from encouraging us to think more deeply about all those things in our lives.  "How should we live?" asked a question on a magnet board.



Wouldn't it be great to take an object away with you from a museum?  At the Museum of Things, a vending machine outside the door gives you a tiny package with a small object, a bit of verse, and a sweet.  What could be better?  Even though it's clear that this museum is very carefully curated and designed, as befits a design-oriented museum, it provided a kind of joy for me that's all-too-rare my museum visits these days--the joy of discovery, surprise, and connection.