#MCN2016 and the way forward

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I started to write this on the plane heading home from New Orleans, but didn’t finish before the events of this week. I was planning to work on it on Wednesday but woke up feeling like these, maybe, weren’t the most important things to be thinking about. But then I read Rob Weisberg’s Medium post about the conference—and especially his thoughts on the same topic at the beginning—and decided to take a page and some inspiration from his book. The community, the work, our practice, the empathy and support that we have for each other in the MCN family is, I think, even more important now.

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Now that I’m back home, #MCN2016 is starting to pass into the rear view mirror, though it is very much still on my mind. One thing about being on the planning end of a conference is that your relationship to the conference is a bit different. I found myself thinking about some things differently (did the schedule turn out as we’d hoped? Do people seem to be enjoying things? Did we describe things clearly?), or thinking about things that I might not have thought about at all in previous years. This was my sixth MCN, and while every MCN is its own thing with its own flavor and experience, this one, for me, was a very different– and very special–experience.

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It was really fantastic to see so many of the things we’d talked about and planned come to fruition (and there are many contributors to that we, from the program committee to the board, the SIGs, and the indefatigable conference managers. And, of course, the two amazing women with whom I had the privilege of co-chairing the program—Suse Cairns and Trish Oxford). One of the first discussions we had with each other as co-chairs, and then had with the entire program committee, was the question of whether we needed to have a theme for the conference, and if so, what should it be. There was, initially, a broad sense that maybe themes weren’t all that useful—that the sessions and themes of conferences didn’t always line up, that it was only rarely a major factor in whether someone decided to attend or present at a conference. A turning point in that discussion came when one program committee member piped up to say that the theme, and its applicability to their work, may not be a key factor in their deciding to go to a conference, but it was a key factor in how they made an argument to their supervisor and their institution for supporting their attendance. We started thinking differently about the theme—if this is something that helps people attend then what could we do to help them to make that case?

Trish suggested that the program committee write haikus about MCN as a starting point. The resulting poems were funny, silly, poignant, and thought-provoking, and they eventually led to the discussion that sparked the resulting theme: The Human-Centered Museum. It may be that I was over-attuned to it, having been a part of the process that got us to the theme, but I felt like I could see the theme everywhere in the conference—not just in the sessions and the topics that people were talking about, but in everyone’s interactions with each other.

One aspect of this year’s conference that I found most interesting was the appearance of Chatham House Rule in multiple sessions. (You can read more about Chatham House Rule here, but the short of it is that sessions under the umbrella of the Rule are safe spaces where the specific details—names, institutions, identifying features of a story—are not shared outside the room). I hadn’t encountered this at previous conferences—I may have just not participated in sessions that happened—but it was part of a fair number of sessions this time around. For me, this felt like a noticeable shift. Conferences are a great place to talk about our achievements—and we need spaces in which to do this. Being able to share about wins with colleagues is positive in so many ways. I can’t count the number of times that listening to a panel talking about the amazing projects they are working on sent me off in a frenzy of inspiration, thirsty to set my own ideas into motion. And having a place to be able to crow a bit about things that worked out is another kind of inspiration—hey, we did this!—that can keep you pursuing the next step.

And in between those sessions about wins and achievements and next steps for projects we have all had those more private sessions over dinner or drinks or sitting on the hallway floor with those friends and colleagues you only get to see once or twice a year, who work in museums (but maybe not your museum), who give you that safe space to talk about the things that don’t make it to the panel presentation: setbacks, failures, stresses, worries. And those conversations are often just as inspiring as the ones that send you into a creative frenzy. These are both part of professional (and personal) self care.

To have so many sessions conducted in the safety of Chatham House Rule to me is the most human-centered approach to the Human-Centered Museum. We all have wins. We all have failures. We all need to be able to talk about both. We all need a space to talk about what we’re scared of, what hurts us, what inspires us, what excites us, what infuriates us, what makes us feel impotent, what makes us feel empowered—without fear. Being able to do this acknowledges that our institutions are not just abstract entities, but are made of up individuals, of people, of humans, and that our community of practice can provide support for all of the individuals that make up that community—when we soar, when we stall, when we crash—not only in those private moments with friends, but with our community in conference sessions is something that I felt most proud of this year.

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One of the things about being on the organizing end of things is that I wasn’t able to attend nearly as many sessions as I would have liked. Of the sessions I was able to attend there were several that really made an impact on my thinking, and that I will be thinking about for a long time to come. All were led by amazing people that I am grateful to count as friends and co-conspirators (in so many ways).

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Feeling like this captures Rob perfectly

Picture by Essie Lash

I had the pleasure of chairing Rob Weisberg’s session, It Doesn’t Have to be Toxic: When Empathy is your Workplace Secret Weapon.  (You can read Rob’s own round up of MCN here). Rob took on workplace toxicity by walking us all through his last three years of changing the process by which labels get created at his institution. For many of us who work in museums just the word labels prompts waves and waves of anxiety, so to hear someone describe the slow, long game process of shifting workplace culture through the medium of the label process was kind of like listening to someone describe making a working time machine: it’s possible within the boundaries of the laws of physics, but doesn’t seem like something that could actually happen in real life. This project is one that Rob has been working on for as long as I’ve known him, and I’ve heard him talk about bits and pieces of it over the years (including in our recent letter series for CODE WORDS), but this was the first time I’d heard it laid out, step by step, with a big picture outcome. It was amazing. There were so many aspects of this talk that I appreciated, starting first and foremost with honesty. He was clear about this not being a single-action solution. He was clear about it being a long process. He was clear about it not being all unicorns and rainbows. He was clear about it being hard work.

But it is work so worth doing. We will have setbacks and we will screw up and we won’t necessarily get to the dream place that we imagine, but one of the most important things I got from it was that even in situations where we feel impotent and unable to fix the problem, we can always change our piece of it. For a talk about a process that lots of people in museums experience as powerlessness it was amazing how empowering it felt.

Rob also led an unconference session about museum blogging, which was a great push for me to remember to get back to this blogging thing. Also, he brought beignets.

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Self-care and improving the workplace culture were themes of many of the sessions this year. One session on this theme that really stood out for me was Sustaining Innovation: Tips and Techniques to Keep Momentum in your Organization. Emily Lytle-Painter, Douglas Hegley, Jeffrey Inscho, Annelisa Stephan, and Greg Albers led this active discussion session with breakouts during which a very packed room of museum professionals shared ideas about how to deal with burnout, toxicity, and roadblocks. There were some wonderful ideas that came out in the discussion. One of my favorites from a member of the group I was sitting in: make a point to compliment the work of at least one colleague in your institution every day. I love the idea of this as a daily goal and the way that it turns your attention to the positive things that happen around us all the time.

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Trish Oxford’s panel on vulnerability in museums– The Power of Vulnerability in Museums –is another session that will be sticking with me for years to come. Trish started with a video that laid out why vulnerability is so, so hard in professional life. (And life in general, really).

We often talk about empathy in museums, but we rarely talk about vulnerability. Empathy is an active practice, and is an incredibly important part of our work in museums, but it is also something that we practice with control. It is a conscious process and practice, but it is one where we often set the parameters and hold the reigns. Vulnerability is a practice that requires us to relinquish control, and to trust that those to whom we leave ourselves open will be kind, will be generous, and will be empathetic toward us.

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The panel was set up with a game structure—questions were assigned to each of the panelists to answer throughout the session, and audience members joined into the discussion. The discussants were brave and open—vulnerable—in their sharing. You can read about the structure and the question on Trish’s blog post about the panel here.  In her list of questions there were three that really jumped out for me, and which I plan to bring into my thinking and practice at the museum. Two are related:

  • How has shame gotten in the way of change?
  • What does shame look like in museum work?

Shame is a driver of so many of the choices we make. How do we create environments in which mistakes and shame are decoupled?

  • How has silence been used as a solution to a problem in your experience?

I see two questions in this question. One is about how I can work on holding back and letting silence work as a solution in my own practice. The other is the flipside: how has silence contributed to a problem? When has silence given cover to problems?

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I also got to hear Stephen Boyd discuss institutional voice in social media practice: Institutional Voice: What Are We Trying to Say?  (full disclosure: we work together) Steve urged us to recognize that museums aren’t monoliths. They are made up of individuals with different points of view, with different voices, and that it is okay for the voice on social media to reflect those many voices.

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At work Steve uses his sailor voice.

He then raised a really important question—one that I would love to see discussed more often:

Do we always want social media interaction to translate into visiting the physical museum?

So… do we? How do the (un-discussed) assumptions about this question affect how we frame what we do, the way in which we do the work itself, and the choices that we make?

He also asked a question that I think we all need to ask in our institutions:

Do people expect the experience of the museum itself to match the social media voice?

I don’t know the answer, but it’s a really important question to ask our visitors. How might the answer affect our work? How would it change our work? How would it shift how we think about social media? About labels? About other aspects of the visit? About our visitors, full stop?

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There were so many moments over the course of the conference that were just wonderful. The Ignite talks at the House of Blues were fantastic.

The karaoke was, as always, epic. (Huge shout out to Koven, who managed to find the best den of room karaoke in a city that appears to be 100% pure bar karaoke).

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Friends always let friends sing Black Sabbath at karaoke

We had a very fun, jam-packed first timers’ session.

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We even got to learn all about the #jiasszz.

I got to see so many incredible people whom I do not get to see nearly enough, but who rejuvenate me whenever I see them. AND I got to meet new people and make new friends, and have great conversations. So, thank you, dear friends, for being so awesome, I can’t begin to express my gratitude for having you all in my life. The MCN community is amazing. The people in this community are amazing. The support, the love, the inspiration that run through every corner of this group are important touchstones for all of us to connect with during dark days, and for all of us to share, both inside and outside of our institutions, through the work we do.

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Words about words

Earlier this year my friend Robert Weisberg invited me to join him in an edition of the new CODE WORDS series of Epistolary Romances. We’ve been writing to each other about the words we use in museums (which is something I think about. A lot), and it has been so enjoyable and incredibly thought-provoking to enter into a written discussion about the topic with Rob, who is a serious word guy.

Our letters are part of this series of gathered letters between a pretty incredible group of museum professionals– check out letters between Jeffrey Inscho and Beck Tenchnikhil trivedi and Suse CairnsBruce Wyman and Daniel Meyers, Rachel Ropeik and John Gordy, and Lesley Kadish and Ed Rodley.

Our first and second pairs of letters can be read here. We have one more pair coming up soon.

Update: The complete set of letters is now up on Medium.

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Buffalo Public Schools and Mark Bradford: Five Buffalos

We’ve had a gorgeous exhibition up this summer called Shade: Clyfford Still/Mark Bradford.

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Knowing that this exhibition was in the works, Eric Jones from the Public Art Initiative started a project with the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts earlier this year. Students from this high school created a work of art inspired by the work of Bradford, and Bradford visited the school to talk with the students back in May. I got a chance to visit BPS192 and to talk with the students and their teacher about the project:

The project has made me think a lot about what kinds of opportunities there are when you can work with the artist. This wasn’t always as present an opportunity when I was working in encyclopedic museums where contemporary art was part of the collection, but one of a larger pool of collections. This project also highlighted some challenges– people have their own, very full schedules and aligning institutional schedules, public school schedules, the schedules of a dozen museum staff members, and the schedule of the artist is something of a moving target. That you’re trying to hit with a bow and arrow. From a thousand yards. While riding a galloping horse. Backwards.

Innovation and Inspiration: The Education Department Goes on a Field Trip

Field trip! The team hit the road at the very end of August for a trip to Pittsburgh. It was a jam-packed day, driving down and back with four museum visits in between, but so worth every minute.

The Frick Pittsburgh

First stop, the Frick Pittsburgh! (Yes, Virginia, there is a Frick in Pittsburgh) It was a quick visit so we weren’t able to see the historic mansion or the gardens, and only part of the art museum, but we did see the Killer Heels exhibition,

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along with the education center and the new welcome center (thanks to Robin Nicholson for the tour and quick visit!).

Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Museum of Natural History are in connected and contiguous buildings, so we got a two for one visit here. We met up with folks from the Innovation Studio (thanks to Jeffrey Inscho!), from the education department, and from the Hillman Photography Initiative and had some amazing conversations that still have me thinking and thinking and thinking weeks later. In addition to getting to see some amazing art,

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Carl Andre + three educators

(we talked a lot about the Andre piece, as the A-K’s similar Andre work is also currently out as part of a sculpture exhibition)

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(okay, we talked about this one, too, but it was a different conversation)

we also got to see one of the projects that the Innovation Studio has been working on that, to me, is the epitome of an inspired museum project: The Section of Mystery.

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It’s so magical as an experience I’m not even going to describe it here. You need to experience it for yourself. Suffice to say that it is delightful, not in the anodyne way that things are sometimes described as delightful, but in the way that the experience filled me with delight.

We also got to see the LIGHTIME project right on the eve of it’s launch. There is so much in this project that highlights ways in which museums can be relevant, the ways in which they can do meaningful, outwardingly-facing work that is thoughtful, insightful, creative, inspiring, and innovative. I keep returning to it in my mind, again and again, and it is making me think about how much of the field is wide open for museums to step into if they are willing to step outside of their tightly bound perimeters. I can’t wait to see where this project goes, and can’t wait to get back to Pittsburgh to see it again.

Andy Warhol Museum

We took a jaunt across the river to the Andy Warhol Museum where we met up with Desi Gonzalez (thank you!) who very kindly gave us a tour of the museum and of their soon-to-launch app.

We also got a chance to check out the tactile reproductions that the museum has made of a couple of Warhol’s drawings, which, in conjunction with the accessibility aspects of the app, were really interesting examples of accessibility practice.

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Corner of the tactile reproduction with braille label beneath

We wrapped up with a quick visit to the studios downstairs.

Also, balloons.

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Teri and Lindsay and Silver Clouds with Twitter Birds

In short, an amazing visit.

Shark Girl’s Birthday Party

So we did a little experiment with a program pretty unlike anything we’d tried before, and it turned out pretty well. Not perfect, but pretty darn good.

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We had a birthday party for Shark Girl.

DJ! Temporary tattoos! Sparkly birthday cupcakes!

Definitely had a couple of discoveries along the way (the sculpture garden is DARK at night), but also had a pretty good time with some happy participants, and we’re working on what we might do in the future to celebrate the Public Art Initiative.

And since doing things halfway is for wimps we rolled right into a brand new event on Monday– yoga on the portico:

img_1416We started things off with a tour of the collection, focusing on the theme of balance. It was a great group of participants (even if 61 is a bigger group than I’m used to touring), and the class that followed was fantastic.

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And the week kept right on rolling along with a fantastic visit from Interpretation peeps from Cleveland. I miss you guys! So good to see you!

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CMA + AK with Jim Hodges

 

 

 

New Projects: Outspoken

Right now things are still new enough that absolutely everything feels like a new project, but one has really started to take flight and I’m pretty excited about it.

The Albright-Knox’s is an institution focused on modern and contemporary art– I like to say that it’s the oldest art museum (founded in 1862) in the U.S. dedicated to the art of the now. They’ve been collected contemporary art since the start, and continue to do so. One of the things this means is that there are regularly artists coming through the building, installing or giving talks, so this new project is all about catching them when they are there to talk about their work. And since we always have another artist lined up to come through we’re planning for it as a series, which we are calling Outspoken. (Kudos to Tom Loonan for coming up with that title).

The first Outspoken video is now out, cut from great discussions with artist Amanda Browder

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and Public Art curator Aaron Ott about the project Spectral Locus.

More Outspoken to come!