Senufo, Shiva, and the Jar of Awesomeness

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Shiva probably never had to dance in the snow in India. (This particular bronze has been in Cleveland since the 1930s, so perhaps he has acclimated?) Dancing, driving, walking, and sliding through the snow is a pretty standard part of how things roll in wintertime Cleveland. Usually. (It’s been a light winter for snow this year, but we’ve been making up for lost time in the last couple of weeks.)

We’ve put the finishing touches on the Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa multimedia tour, which has been exciting. The app is now in the iTunes store (which is even more exciting– did I mention that it’s free? It’s free!), and there’s lots of work is going on in the exhibition space this week.

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Today I had the rare moment of having lots of things that need doing, but none that are due in the next 24 hours. Huzzah! It also gave me the opportunity to open up a folder of raw pieces for some ArtLens segments that I’ve been hoping to get to for a Very. Very. Long. Time. Double Huzzah! (Also? some of these raw bits are reeeeally interesting, and I think will lead to some great final outputs). *And* one of those bits-of-flarn projects that has been hanging out for months and refusing to get done basically got done this morning. Triple Huzzah!

We cover a lot of ground in our department. (I mean a *lot* of ground).

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We do heaps of programs and videos and lots and lots and lots of app content and gallery interpretation and interactives and things with docents and many, many things. It is exciting to have such  varied work, and I feel really fortunate to be able to do interesting, meaningful work, and to be a part of a team of talented, fantastic people. Toward the end of 2014 I was talking with someone that I don’t get a chance to talk with all that often and they asked how my year had been. And I said, “oh it was great, we did great things, and worked on great stuff, and had great projects.” To which he said, “Oh, yeah? Like what?”  And I said, “………..”

Because in that moment I couldn’t really think of an example of the great things we’d been doing throughout a great year. Of course there were challenges along the way (definition of every year), but there were also great things that we accomplished in 2014 and I didn’t have any of them on the tip of my tongue.

I think a big part of it is that it is sometimes hard to find a moment to step back, even briefly, at the end of a project and to really think about what worked, what didn’t, what you’d do differently, what you would like to do again. In some ways the nature of how the work our department works: we are always working on multiple projects simultaneously. And many of our projects are ongoing (we’re always creating something for ArtLens, so it’s never really done). The end of one project doesn’t necessarily lead to a natural moment of reflection.* More often, it leads to freeing up the time you were putting into project A to let you put it toward project B. In the end it sometimes makes it difficult to delineate what was accomplished in a given period of time (like, you know, last year). Which is ridiculous and needs fixing. If not for 2014, then for 2015.

To wit, The Jar of Awesomeness:

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The plan? To fill the jar with all things awesome, large and small as a reminder to ourselves (and me in particular!) of all of the great things that happen, the moments of good fortune, and the hard-earned achievements that come from the dedication of the team. The bottom of the jar is already covered with more to come.

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* Which is why we schedule post project discussions after big projects.

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New year, new things

We’re all back in the saddle, post-holidays, and right back up to speed. We’re in the midst of a large-scale project connected to the upcoming Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa exhibition– since early this summer we have been working on a multimedia tour for the exhibition that will be available as an app for iPhone. It’s a project that is both similar to many of the things that we do (either continually or regularly) already, such as our work on ArtLens and audio tours for selected special exhibitions, while also adding new experiences for the team.

recording senufo

One major change is that we are working in video from the start (rather than working with audio files and visual components). We took a swipe at something similar in the spring when we developed videos for the Caravaggio in conservation exhibition, and the lessons we took from that have been really helpful to this project.

still from senufo

Video presents challenges similar to those found in audio, as well as ones that are unique to the medium. (Such as, oh yeah, every time you want to cut our some phrase or word or uhm or uh, you can see the cut. Ohhhhhh, right….) But it also presents distinct advantages and opportunities, as well, such as getting a real sense of the people speaking, whether it is the curator or a West African sculptor. (We were very lucky to have video collected this last summer in Cote d’Ivoire).

Abou interview

Working on audio tours, multimedia tours, and creating video and audio files over the last few years has given me a completely different perspective on audio tours and apps when I see them offered at other museums. When I see wands or iPods or any other device being handed out at the entrance to an exhibition I now think a lot about the almost endless series of steps behind the outcome. Forty-five minutes of finished segments likely has months of recording, transcribing, scripting, editing, securing rights, reviewing, revising, re-editing, laying out the stops, cataloging all the information, getting all the credit information together, selecting thumbnails…

working on senufo app

It’s an astonishing amount of work. (But it’s a lot of fun).

Our research and evaluation team is going to be talking with visitors about their experience using the app, and we are excited to hear what they think– and what lessons we can take away for the next project.

In the meantime, we’re getting ready for a year of storytelling– lots of projects in the hopper for 2015.

make a story

 

Yoga and the Museum

Yoga: The Art of Transformation opened at the Cleveland Museum of Art last summer. From June to September, over 1400 visitors participated in:

  • Three lectures.
  • One four-week seminar.
  • Four gallery talks.
  • And FORTY-FOUR yoga classes.

Gallery talks and lectures? Easy. We do these all the time. Where we really had to stretch ourselves (pun absolutely intended) was the yoga classes. Sure, lots of museums offer yoga in the galleries, but for us, this was a new challenge.

Yoga on the Lawn

Yoga on the Lawn

It wasn’t difficult to find people to teach. As soon as the exhibition was announced, yoga teachers in the area were calling and emailing, wanting to know how they could get involved. Even before plans for a yoga studio were added to the exhibition’s design, I had a list of excited teachers and studios ready to offer classes. We started out by scheduling two classes each Sunday of the exhibition’s run (with the creative title “Sunday Yoga”). When Sunday Yoga sold out, in some cases months in advance, we first added more spots to those classes and then more classes during the week, evenings, and Saturdays. We also had a weekly drop-in yoga session out on the lawn.

Even though these programs were successful, there were still aspects of the summer that could have gone more smoothly. Here are some of the lessons learned.

Stretch Yourself…

Every time we do a new program at the museum, there’s an element of anxiety. Will people come? Is this actually worth it? Will the art be in danger? Will yoga enthusiasts be running around the galleries shoeless?* All valid questions, and sometimes, the answers make it seem like an idea is impossible. But often, these new programs are welcomed and enjoyed by our audiences. We learned that a new program can be successful, even if it requires implementing new ideas, and it’s worth trying.

Full classes!

Full classes!

…But Not Too Far

When the yoga classes filled up and more and more studios wanted to get involved, I got excited. I wanted to keep this momentum going and really celebrate how enthusiastic the community was, but I didn’t consider how much more work it would be. Yes, it was exciting, but by the end of the summer, I was completely exhausted and behind on a lot of my other responsibilities. It would have been better to look at what resources the museum could expend and consider more carefully how much we could take on.

Be Flexible

Working with nineteen different yoga studios and teachers also meant working with a lot of different personalities, ideas, and methods. While I tried to clearly lay out our expectations and resources, there were inevitably classes that required special arrangements, like bringing in musical instruments and props for yoga and harmony experiences or setting up chairs for meditation and therapeutic yoga. Some of these I knew about in advance, others were a surprise. Expect that no matter how many times you ask for details, you might not get them!

Deep Inhale

Sometimes your volunteers or your yoga teacher won’t show up. Sometimes people will get mad at you when they buy tickets for the exhibition and don’t realize the yoga class wasn’t included (or vice versa). Sometimes you schedule a kids’ yoga class for the first week of school and not realize it until you get to the empty studio. Sometimes your speaker will get laryngitis. Sometimes people will ask you if a black teacher is doing “African” yoga.** The potential for random, disruptive, or unfortunate happenings is there in any program, and even more so with forty! It’s easy to let it get to you. Take a minute to yourself when something like this happens. Don’t just run off to the next thing, no matter how busy you are; wait a second, breathe, and let it go.

The exhibition sign was a popular photo op.

The exhibition sign was a popular photo op.

 

Be In the Moment

Because there is so much advance work that goes into making a program happen, I sometimes feel like the actual event is anticlimactic. Once all the paperwork is in and the arrangements are made, the actual day-of feels easy. But if you’re already thinking about the next thing you have to do, you miss what’s going on right in front of you. I was reminded of this in one particular class, when I overheard a very experienced yoga practitioner chatting with a complete beginner about how much they both enjoyed one of the works in the exhibition. That moment of connection, when someone can relate a centuries-old work of art to their own life and is so excited that he or she wants to share it with others – that’s what it’s all about.

Practice

Last summer’s experiences showed that there is a deep interest in yoga in the Cleveland community. With many of our programs, we try to meet people where they are by incorporating their favorite experiences into the museum. Thinking about the success of these programs, we’re looking at ways to make yoga a regular part of the museum. Like yoga, viewing art can be a relaxing and inspiring experience. What could be better than bringing them together? 

Even if they weren't taking part in the class, lots of visitors enjoyed watching!

Even if they weren’t taking part in the class, lots of visitors enjoyed watching!

* This was brought up in an early meeting. I thought, “No way. Who would forget their shoes?” That first weekend, I had to run after two people who got all the way out of the studio, into the lobby, and onto the escalator completely barefoot. Yeah. 

** And yet not one question about whether the white teachers were doing “European” yoga. 

 

Whatcha Wanna Make?

Things are humming along at a quick clip in the department. The schedule of programs is weighty this fall, we’re still working on our audience research project, we’ve got some new multimedia projects on the docket, and an experiment in content development for an exhibition coming up next year. Exciting things! Busy things! We need help! And best of all, we’re going to get it! (We’re in the process of hiring a new team member).

We’ve also started scheduling some team field trips, which we’re very excited about. The list of places range from in town to the other side of the country. We took our first one on Friday– the closest one on the list (we walked)– to think[box].

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What (you may ask) is think[box]? An excellent question! It’s a maker space connected with the Case School of Engineering. Right now it’s in the basement of a building on the Case campus, but they have expansion in their future with plans to move to a much larger, multi-floor facility. I’m sure that is going to be a fantastic space, because the basement space was already impressive. They have some seriously cool equipment. Industrial 3D printers! Laser cutters! A CNC router! Looking at all the possibilities just made you want to make stuff. Which is, of course, the point.

And you can go in and make stuff. My favorite part of our tour through the facility was the access discussion. Who has access? Everyone. Not just students and faculty, everyone. And the cost of access? Free. It’s a community maker space. You need to go through training to be able to use some of the equipment, and there are some costs for the use of materials, but if you just thought up a super awesome project idea and you need a you need a 3D microscope to do it, you can get hooked up.

We (not surprisingly) came back excited about some possibilities, and I hope that we might figure out a way to partner with them. But I’m also hoping to be able to talk with them about their experience with making, and what we might be able to to take back across the street to our end of the ‘hood. Making is definitely part of our museum culture, but it isn’t part of all parts of the museum.

More to come….

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Practice, Practice, Practice

We do lots of different things in our department (often all at the same time). While this sometimes can leave all of us feeling like we are professional plate spinners, there are also real benefits to having all of those plates spinning all the time– I can honestly say that I’m never bored.

It does sometimes make mastery a challenge, though. Mastery takes time and focus, and both can be in short supply. It can also be a bit daunting when you start doing new things, because the first few times you do something (or the first twenty times, or maybe the first fifty times, depending on how complicated the task is), the results can be sort of disappointing. The first time you do something isn’t actually all that hard. It’s usually frustrating. You read the instructions. You watch a couple of YouTube videos showing how to do it, you think, okay, I’ve got this. I can do this. And then you do it and it looks nothing like you thought it was going to. For me, I leave it alone for an hour or two, go back at it again, mess it up again, leave it alone, go back again… repeat seemingly ad infinitum.

The scary thing is making the second one of anything. Having made the first one, you now know that you only sort of know how to do the mechanics of it. Probably more importantly, you also know that, while you have figured out how to make that thing, you haven’t figured out how to make it as good as you want it to be.

Ira Glass has a great take on this:

A friend of mine and I have been talking about a project for the last year and a half. It’s a personal project. It’s an idea that I’m excited about and interested in. It’s also only one of a dozen projects, some personal, some professional, that we’ve talked about doing. I sent him the Ira Glass video right before one of our planning meetings for one of the more complicated projects we’re working on with a note that I thought we should take Glass’s advice.

Step One: we’re going to do a lot of work.

We started collecting pieces for the first project this weekend, including spending some time figuring out how to use the GoPro camera I just picked up. These things are supposed to be waterproof, right?

 

Sampling and Museums

Our team discussion this week was focused on targeted programs for particular audiences, but we also talked a lot about art, theft, and appropriation (and 80s hair bands). The discussion was part of our ongoing planning work for the year and beyond, and we started by asking what we were doing already and how other museums were responding to specific audiences and then added in that in our year of experimentation we should start by stealing from ourselves– figuring out what is the core components of successful things we’ve tried and reapplying them to other projects.

The conversation seemed particularly appropriate at the moment since 2/3 of the interpretation team is getting ready to head for the annual AAM conference. One of the things that I find the most inspiring about conferences is having the opportunity to talk with peers and colleagues about what they are doing. Every conference I attend I walk away with my head and my notebook full of amazing projects that I’ve heard about– and new ones that I’m thinking about doing.

Often, those new projects that I’m dreaming of on the way home have their origins in a project someone has told me about. I had a conversation recently with a colleague about taking inspiration from projects that we encounter–at another institution, described in a conversation, written up in a blog–and she repeated the oft-quoted Picasso quip about theft: Good artists copy, great artists steal. (Rather appropriately, he perhaps stole it from Oscar Wilde–Talent Borrows, Genius Steals— who likely stole it from someone else). Whenever someone brings this quote up in conversations about museum work I cringe a little.  Steal doesn’t seem like the correct descriptor– particularly when we’re talking about the kind of inspiration that comes from hearing from colleagues or talking with peers.

I know someone who works on race cars. At the company where he does this there are a number of builders working on vehicles. One builder has complained bitterly about the newest builder’s work, including saying that his work isn’t up to snuff. And yet, whenever one of New Builder’s vehicles is about to go for testing (in a wind tunnel to check the aerodynamics), Grumpy Builder will stop doing major work on his project and will start stalling. After NB’s vehicle returns with positive test results in hand, GB will suddenly spring into action on their project. One day soon after testing NB came in at an off hour to find GB inside NB’s test vehicle with a tape measure. Turns out that when a vehicle came back with positive test results GB checked all the specs, applied them to his own project, and then claimed the results as his own innovation.

Now, that’s stealing.

I was thinking about this in our team meeting. We look at what other people do all the time, and bits and pieces of those things end up in our own projects, mashed together with other ideas taken from all kinds of experiences— from watching a band play or going to the grocery store or listening to a show on the radio. When I think about the creative process– whether it’s the process of drawing, or making a video, writing a story, or creating a new program at the museum– I think a lot about sampling.

On this (old skool) track by De La Soul not only do you have the foundation of Schoolhouse Rock, there’s James Brown, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, Syl Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and the 99th mayor of New York (and airport namesake) reading the comics. There are a lot of reasons why this album is so influential, but I think an important one is that it is a masterful mixing of seemingly disparate, unrelated bits and pieces that belie both an encyclopedic knowledge and a deep love of music and sound.

Behind the song you can imagine crates and crates of LPs. Most museum people I know have metaphorical crates of LPs, too– idea files with articles or pictures or random thoughts, some of which will get pulled out and mixed with something else and something else and a dash of something else to make something new. We sample from people, experiences, articles, conversations, movies, music, things overheard on the bus– from all kinds of places. Bring on the samples.

Planning and Projects

We’ve had an incredibly busy couple of years in our department (and in the institution), and it is just recently that the manic pace has started to slow a bit. There are still a lot of balls in the air, but we seem to be past the point where we regularly forget what day of the week it is (or on at least a handful of occasions, what month it is). So we’re taking the moment to, in the immortal words of Vanilla Ice, stop, collaborate, and listen.

We thought about making a music video, but opted for planning with post-it notes instead.

BC and the planning board

We had an incredibly productive discussion, and I’m really excited to see what directions the process takes us. I work with amazingly creative, perceptive, empathetic people, and I see fantastic things on the horizon. Including a panoply of new and interesting projects (more on that soon).