#MCN2016 and the way forward

img_2027

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.

mcntwitteropen

***

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.

img_2014

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.

***

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).

rwbeighnets

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.

img_2005

***

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.

***

mcnpic

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.

povpic

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?

***

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.

img_1398

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?

***

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).

img_2057

Friends always let friends sing Black Sabbath at karaoke

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

img_2015

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.

saratweet

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.

1-xp8h7ue0tashp-c99ojcza

 

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,

img_1459

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,

img_1466

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)

img_1464

(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.

img_1463

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.

img_1468

Corner of the tactile reproduction with braille label beneath

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

Also, balloons.

img_1475

Teri and Lindsay and Silver Clouds with Twitter Birds

In short, an amazing visit.

Never Work Half Heartedly

When I started in my new position I had had great hopes for getting back into blogging more regularly.

Rather predictably, I have not been blogging more regularly. I have managed to do a few other things, but blogging has not been one of them. That said, there have been a couple of blog-worthy things to come up.

New Job, New City, New Department

All the new things! It’s a really exciting time at the Albright-Knox, and I am having a blast getting to know the collection, the institution, new colleagues, and a new city. My first week here one of my favorite contemporary artists came to give a talk, which was fantastic.

IMG_0203

And so far, since coming to the A-K, we’ve had several exhibitions open and close,

hosted Art Alive, a giant event in which dozens of groups create tableau vivant of works of art,

IMG_0496

Art Alive entry recreating Amanda Browder’s Rapunzel

and danced the night away at the annual summer fundraiser.

I’ve been getting to know the docents and have been heading out to the galleries to practice:

IMG_0515

And I’ve been able to put all my media development skillz straight to work, interviewing artists that have come to the A-K for exhibitions, projects, and talks.

IMG_0292

From an interview with Amanda Browder

We’re building a new team in the education department (complete with new job openings), and building out new programs and working on our plans for building new audiences (including trying some completely new programs).

download

While it has been a pretty packed few months for me personally, it is also a hugely exciting time for the institution itself: the selection of an architect to design the A-K of the (near) future was announced.

IMG_0502

Shohei Shigematsu of OMA at the A-K

AAM and Interpretive Planners

In the meantime, I had the great pleasure of working again with two amazing women– Julia Forbes from the High Museum of Art and Emily Fry from Peabody Essex Museum– on annual the Interpretive Planners’ pre-conference. It’s such a fantastic group of people, and always an inspiration to see everyone.

I also got to be on a panel at AAM with fantastic folks from Detroit Institute of Art (the incomparable Swarupa Anila and Alison Jean) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (the awesome Keri Ryan).

Sadly, I was only able to stay for one day of the conference, but I did get to see some interesting talks and got to see the amazing Sara Devine collect awards for the Brooklyn Museum’s Ask app (go Sara!). I did also get the chance to run through the Renwick exhibition of so much (justifiable) instagram fame. AND I managed to get folks out for karaoke in Chinablock– including my much-missed former crew from VMFA.

IMG_0431

YEAH

#MCN2016– New Orleans here we come!

Meanwhile, I’ve been having a ball working on the upcoming MCN conference. I get to work with amazing co-chairs, Suse Cairns and Trish Oxford, along with all of the fantastic folks on the program committee and so many others who put so much into making the conference a reality.

IMG_0408

Conference schedule planning: ALL THE POST IT NOTES

We’re really excited about the program and the really incredible submissions that came in (a record number!). I’m also very excited about everything going on with the SIGs this year, and (of course) with the Educational and Interpretive Media SIG (which means I get to spend even more time with Emily Fry!). Can’t wait for New Orleans!

Lots more in the mix, and more things on the horizon. Now, I really am planning on getting some more blogging done.

IMG_0388

Sage advice from the Cornell Art and Architecture school on a recent trip to my alma mater

The Jar of Awesomeness, Amplified

Been a little slow on the blogging side lately. My excuse is pretty lame, too– museum life has been crazypants busy the last few months and blogging was backburnered. Writing more was one of my new year’s resolutions, but, well, it’s the end of the month, sooooo….

In addition to end of year/beginning of year usual madness, we have some big, busy projects in process, all of which I’m super excited about, but also wishing that perhaps they hadn’t all ended up scheduled at exactly the same time. (Says everyone, always)

platespinning

One new development that I am really excited about is that I am co-chairing the Program Committee for MCN2016. First of all, this co-chair gig means I get to work with two amazing women: Suse Cairns and Trish Oxford. Not only that, I get to give back to the MCN community, which has been my go-to museum world touchstone, support, and inspiration since the first time I attended in 2011. And, and, AND, because I’ve never been one for half measures, I’m also co-chairing the new MCN SIG on the block— the Educational and Interpretive Media SIG (Special Interest Group), with yet another amazing woman, Emily Fry. Stay tuned for more to come on that front, and get ready to get inspired in New Orleans in November!

After coming back from some holiday time away things got pretty hectic pretty quickly. But right in the midst of it I received a wonderful moment of inspiration that made me feel both proud and grateful. Early last year I posted about the Jar of Awesomeness. At the end of 2015 we did open the jar and read out the notes that were in there, and it was something I really enjoyed.

In August I got to go to Museum Camp, which was fantastic. The whole group worked on a large project together– the creation of a Space Deck, a deck of cards designed to help the user or player create space for themselves and others. A couple of weeks ago my very own deck arrived in the mail.

FullSizeRender

Hooray! It’s kind of amazing how incredibly satisfying it is to have this tangible evidence of one’s efforts, and it has been acting as something of a talisman, standing on my desk and reminding me of the lessons from camp.

On an even more personal note, in opening the box I was honored to see a couple of the ideas that I’d contributed made it into the final deck. One of which was the Jar of Awesomeness.

jarofawesome

Even better, I saw a notification from the Museum Camp facebook group that one of my fellow campers posted a picture of the Space Deck in use. When I went to look at the picture I found a colorfully decorated jar marked with the title Jar of Awesomeness.

jarofawesomecard

Spotted in the wild! Kind of can’t beat that.

MCN2015– Content and its discontents

#MCN2015 Part one

This year at #MCN2015 I was part of a session that looked at some of the words we use in the field—words that appear over and over, but that seem to have lost (or perhaps never really had) a clear meaning. It was such a pleasure, both because I got to do this session with fantastic people whose work I admire—Jeffrey Inscho and Ed Rodley—but also because it was a really lively, interactive session and I love nothing so much as a room full of excited museum folk having at something.

IMG_0209

People came!

There are always sticky words in any field, but the three that really stood out when we were first talking about proposing a session were content, digital, and engagement. We gave an introduction to the issues around the semantics and slippery usages of these words in particular (and buzzwords in general), and then split into breakout groups focusing on one of the three words.

IMG_0208

Jeff took on “content,” Ed took “digital” (a topic about which he had given a rousing Ignite talk the night before), and I took “engagement.” Each group switched through the three words so we could try to capture input from everyone who came to the session.

With each group I asked if people had either ideas for alternative words that could be used instead of engagement, and also asked if everyone had ideas of how to contribute to a common definition for engagement (particularly if we couldn’t find a better word to replace engagement). The convergences and divergences in the lists, rounding up three groups’ worth of contributions, are fascinating.

Alternative words seemed to be a bit more of a challenge, and for many participants they said they thought their word could be either an alternative or part of the definition of engagement—and there is a lot of overlap between the two categories. The full lists are at the bottom of the post. (For both lists I’ve kept in duplicates, indicating that more than one group came up with the same word. Words that appear on both lists are bolded).

There were some themes in the conversations that happened with each group. Connecting, immersion, action/interaction, and sharing were among the ideas that cropped up repeatedly. With one group there was an interesting point that was raised by someone whose work focuses on social media—that for her engagement was clicks, follows, views. For others in the groups, particularly those in education and interpretation, attendance was the a starting point—perhaps not really counted as engagement, which seemed to require a deeper connection than bodies in the door. Several people raised the connection between engagement and measurement or evaluation. For me, one of the most thought-provoking comments (which came up in two of the groups) was when one person said that engagement for us was seeing visitors doing what we want them to do. It was a great moment in my own processing of what the term means, how we use it, and why it is good practice to interrogate why we choose the words we choose and what we actually mean by them.

For me this was something of a continuation of some of the ideas that bubbled up in a panel I was part of at #MCN2014 in Dallas. The idea behind both discussions is really one of mindfulness. (Including reminding myself to be mindful in using slippery terms). There is no perfect word. One of the participants noted that “learning” was the word that was used all over in the place of engagement in the past, but that learning fell out of fashion and engagement fell into fashion. For me, rather than finding a perfect word, I’m trying to focus on being mindful about the words I use, and to define what I mean when I say engagement, or content, or digital. I’d love to hear what you think.

Alternative words

Attendance

Attention

Care

Changed

Collaboration

Connection with People

Conversation!

Discovery

Digital

Education

Emotional Connection

Empathize

Entertain

Exploration

Financial Support

Immersed/Immersion

Impact

Inspire

Interface

Interactivity

Investment

Involvement

Involvement

Marketing

Measurable

Membership

Participation

Participation

Participation

Reflection

Sharing

Totally Absorbing

 

Definition of Engagement

Absorbing

Action

Action

Activating the Mind

Amplified

Attendance

Attracting attention

Being Present

Being (Present)

Care

Choice

Clicks

Collaborative

Committed

Connected

Connection

Connection with people

Connecting to prior knowledge

Contributing to

Conversation

Creation

Crying

Deeper Understanding

Degree of the depth of content

Democratization

Did they do what we want?

Doing

Duration

Education

Engrossing

Feel

Financial Support

Financial Support

Flow

Focus

Follows

Fun

Guessing

Holding attention

Imaginative

Immersed

Immersive

Interacting With

Interaction

Interactivity

Interest inspiring

Interface

Interior engagement vs. exterior

Interpretation

Laughing

Learning

Listening

Making

Measurement

Nounification

Part of how we define success

Participate

Participation

Personal

Perspective shift

Relevance

Remembering

Responding to

Results

Reward

Safety

Saying

Sharing

Sharing

Sharing

Semantics matter

Signs of engagement

Social practice

Thinking

Time investment

To be absorbed in

Use

Views

Visitor vs. museum perspective

What we want the visitor to do

If you aren’t already following Ed Rodley’s blog, Thinking About Museums, you should go check out his recap of how we talk about “digital” here.

 

Ever wondered what would happen if you locked 100 museum nerds in a museum for three days?

At the start of August I got to go to camp. I do a lot of camping, but this was the first time I’d been to camp since 1984.There were fewer lanyards, friendship bracelets, and god’s eyes crafted than the last time I went to camp, but it was still chock full of fun stuff. Listen, y’all– I got to go to Museum Camp

While there were most definitely fun and games (literally and figuratively),

IMG_4982 IMG_4983

there was also a lot of thinking about serious topics (sometimes in ways that were a lot more fun than thinking about serious topics usually turns out).

IMG_4986IMG_4943IMG_4985

The theme for camp was spacemaking:

“You can make space by empowering others. You can make space by inviting non-traditional partners into your work. You can make space by giving yourself permission or time or a paintbrush. Making space gives us a safe place to feel the fear and courage necessary for us to grow as individuals and organizations.”

For three days about 100 people- museum professionals, community members, activists, students, staff, and interns all but took over the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. (Elise Granata has a great post about the the process of co-creating the museum as a safe space for the camp here).

IMG_4951

Each day was broken into a wide variety of tasks, discussions, and experiences. We spent much of the three days working in teams,

IMG_4981

Team Ritual #7– Simon, me, and Vania

with work sessions interspersed between pecha kucha style spark talks and launchpad workshops.

I *loved* the workshops, particularly the first one I got to take part in: “An Introduction to Science Fiction Prototyping” led by Gregory Stock. It was a great way to put into action the idea of making space– for creativity, for learning, for fun, for yourself. Actively thinking about ways to create that space for ourselves in the work we do was a built into many of the sessions and team tasks throughout the weekend, and was a good, steady reminder to think about the thing we often put on the backburner: ourselves.

IMG_4958

For many of us, this eventually manifests itself in the form of burnout, and thinking about ways to unplug the burnout cycle was a truly fruitful process. If burnout is something you or someone in your life is grappling with, camper (and all around awesome person) Sara Devine talks about her working-through-burnout lessons from the weekend here. (You should go watch it).

I really appreciated the back and forth between the working sessions and the spark talks, which felt like touchstones, reminding me of the big picture reasons that had brought me to Museum Camp to begin with. There were some amazing, inspiring stories in these talks, and some incredible bravery from the speakers, from the courage to tell a secret to the courage to see an opportunity in a vacant lot and act on it. There were two that really struck a chord that resonated with me all through the weekend, and have been continuing to ring ever since. One was Beck Tench‘s talk about swimming with sharks, and how we often find that the shark we are swimming with is ourselves.

IMG_4953

Slide from Beck Tench’s spark talk

The other was Porchia Moore‘s talk about making space for everyone. She cited the recently released Mellon Foundation report on diversity in American art museums. Or rather, on the lack of diversity in many departments in American museums.

PieChart Mellon report

It is space that must be made– in our programming, in our interactions, in our partnering, in our hiring, in our recruiting– and it is on all of us in the field to make that space happen. I saw her give a great Ignite talk at MCN last year that will be the most thought-provoking six minutes of your day:

From these two talks I felt like I walked away with as many questions as I did answers. (And perhaps that’s as it should be. I mean, who has all the answers?) Here are some of the ones that I wrote down at some point over the course of camp:

  • For whom are we, as museums, as institutions, making space? For whom, as staff members, colleagues, coworkers, and managers, are we making space?
  • How can we help and support visitors to make space for themselves in our institutions?
  • How can we create situations or spaces in which visitors can empower themselves?
  • How can we support each other (colleagues, coworkers, supervisors, reports, volunteers, visitors) in their space making?

Big questions. Important questions. I’ve got a few ideas. I’d love to hear yours.

IMG_4987

___________________________________________________________________

The setting for this adventure was okay….

IMG_4877

IMG_4927 IMG_4970

if you’re into that natural beauty stuff….

IMG_4978

TOASTED FLUFF TOPPING. Just sayin'.

TOASTED FLUFF TOPPING. Just sayin’.

Also: tacos. And ice cream. And the very best bus station noodles ever consumed. And lots and lots of laughing with awesome people.

IMG_4984

A huge thank you to all of the amazing people who made this such a thought provoking, affecting experience. Nina Simon and Beck Tench for creating the space for this experience; all of the staff, interns, and volunteers at the MAH for being super awesome and welcoming; the fantastic co-creators of Team Ritual; and all of my fellow campers for being such a great group of people to spend three intense days with.

Art as Play

Yesterday the interpretation team took a field trip to the Toledo Museum of Art to check out Play Time. Associate Curator of contemporary art Halona Norton-Westbrook, who co-curated the exhibition along with Associate Director Amy Gilman, spoke with us about the origins of this experimental exhibition as we visited the included works installed throughout the museum.

Harmonic Motion by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and Charles Richard MacAdam

We had visited Harmonic Motion first thing upon entering the museum and it was interesting to hear how the museum’s original vision, and interactive space for all ages, tended to be more attractive to, or at least more actively engaged with, by children than adult visitors.

Anything Can Break by Pinaree Sanpitak

Anything Can Break was another work in the exhibition some of us had encountered before meeting up with Norton-Westbrook. This was one of my favorites because I had been lucky enough to spend some time in the room with it completely alone. The work contains small cameras that are installed in hanging boxes, which capture visitor movements that then trigger musical sounds to play through speakers. When multiple people interacted with it simultaneously, sounds played in combination with one another creating a completely spontaneous and dynamic experience. My solitary interaction with Anything Can Break was both an unexpected and satisfying experience as I felt I had conversed with the artwork itself.

Animation by Stina Köhnke

Another one of my favorites was Animation – a work by American artist Stina Köhnke that seemed to be a wall of stuffed toys that grew out of a chair. Actually, I had discovered this work on the TMA’s website the day before so I was looking forward to seeing it in the galleries and it did not disappoint. Mountains of plush toys and furry animals brought back memories of arranging my own substantial collection of stuffed animals in my childhood bedroom after hours of play. While standing in front of the work, we witnessed a little girl sprint toward it to touch the animals only to be pulled away by an embarrassed mother. Norton-Westbrook explained this was a common occurrence with this particular work and it was something that had come to be expected and staff in the galleries were continually refining the best ways to balance the need to protect artworks with some of the visceral responses. What other response could one expect from child when they encountered such a magical sight!

Swing Space by Jillian Mayer

Swing Space by Jillian Mayer

Swing Space was a group favorite as the act of swinging elicits the same feeling of joy from adults as it does from children. Four swings installed in an unfinished gallery space was paired with projected patches of blue sky for anyone who wanted to recreate the experience of an endless summer day spent on the playground. The swings were full up when we entered but once the children gave up their seats, the adults milling around in the background (us) quickly took their place. As one of our team said later, what could be better than swinging in a museum?!

Photo: Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion, Toledo by SANAA, 2006

Our experience with Play Time next took us over to the magnificent Glass Pavilion where Norton-Westbrook introduced us to Glass Mountain and Masking Tape Installation, works that resulted from two artists’ onsite creations. She noted it was key that Play Time continued to evolve over the course of the exhibition so that it was, like many of the works themselves, constantly in motion.

Blubber by Mark di Suvero

Blubber by Mark di Suvero

As an interpretation team working in an art museum, we often find ourselves grappling with how to facilitate opportunities for visitors to meaningfully engage with art. I’d say with Play Time Toledo got it perfect with an innovative idea—unlock the child-like wonder that lies dormant in most adults by offering up opportunities to connect with art through the activity of play.

Museum Reconnaissance, Continued (with special appearance by the Cheesebarn).

Last week the team headed south to the Columbus Museum of Art to check out their Center for Creativity and to chat with the awesome Merilee Mostov. Such a great trip! Such great discussions!

At the moment the museum only has a couple of galleries open as they are in the midst of an expansion and renovation project. It’s set to reopen later in the year, and they’ll have a snazzy new wing when they do. In the meantime, the Creativity Center continues to be open so we headed to Columbus to check it out.
IMG_4235

The main spaces are hubs of ideas jam-packed with opportunities for creating, thinking, solving, and playing.

IMG_4237

Each of these points was directly connected to works of art that were hung nearby, such as the station that is set up to allow visitors to create their own images using their phones along the lines of photographs by a Russian photographer from the collection displayed on the wall next to it.

IMG_4243

IMG_4239IMG_4238

The center also includes a space called The Wonder Room that incorporates works created by local artists specifically for the space.

IMG_4250IMG_4251IMG_4249

There are opportunities for visitors’ imaginations to run wild.

IMG_4248IMG_4253IMG_4256

And the team jumped right in (we will always take an opportunity to play, apparently).

IMG_4236IMG_4233IMG_4228

The Imagine the Possibilities installation was really exciting– visitors had created so many different things, all using only one material in only one color. Some of the objects were just amazing, and it was fantastic to see they way that participants built off of one another’s creations.

IMG_4222IMG_4261IMG_4267

I was also really impressed with the inclusion of feedback stations throughout both the Center and the museum as a whole. They are taking the responses that they receive at the feedback stations and categorizing and analyzing what they hear from visitors. They get a lot of feedback, which means a lot of data– so much to work with!

IMG_2458

Denver Museum of Art, African Gallery

I think one of the themes in our museum reconnaissance missions this year has been creativity as a medium of engagement. It’s run, like a thread, throughout the conversations we’ve had with our colleagues and counterparts, and some of the installation at Columbus made me think a lot about what the Denver Museum of Art is doing, as well as some of the things happening at the Art Gallery of Ontario. One important piece that both the Center for Creativity and DAM have in common is real estate (always a commodity in short supply). As we’ve been visiting museums that have incorporated this into their floorplans, we’ve been thinking a lot about what positive experiences we can take away from the installations that can be done without (permanent) space. Are there spaces available for shorter periods of time? What can we do that would last a week? A day? A couple of hours? As we’re winding up our (fiscal) year this month, these are all questions that we’re going to be focusing on in the year to come.

Interpretation team goes to Columbus!

Interpretation team goes to Columbus!

Also, icing on the cake that was a great day out was that on the way back to Cleveland we stopped in at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn. We tasted cheese. We tried out jams. We met Grandpa. It was all the awesomeness you would imagine Grandpa’s Cheesebarn to be.

Grandpa's Cheesebarn!

Grandpa’s Cheesebarn!

Museum Reconnaissance Missions

Our department went on a couple of really fantastic research trips last year, and I’ve had the folder with my notes in it in the to do pile for an embarrassingly long time with all sorts of plans for writing about what we saw.  No better time than the present, right? Each of these trips was so incredibly valuable for us as we think about projects that we have coming up and the direction we would like to head towards with interpretation in the future.

Detroit Institute of Arts

The team visited DIA to meet with the Interpretation team, as well as some members of Education, Exhibitions, and Curatorial. It was a fantastic visit–it is always such a boon to have the chance to talk with colleagues at other institutions, learn how they are organized, and to see the culmination of their work in the galleries. Interpretation departments and teams are all grappling with so many of the same issues, it gives tremendous food for thought to hear about what processes and solutions are being put into play at other institutions– particularly ones with long-established histories in interpretation. This is particularly true when it offers the opportunity to spend the day with awesome people– and the DIA has an army of awesome people.

View this post on Instagram

Interpretation team field trip!

A post shared by Jennifer Foley (@jennifer_foley_) on

There were quite a few takeaways from this trip, but I think the biggest one for me was hearing about how they were using visitor research, and how much it informs the work they do. We love having visitor research data, and do use it to inform our thinking about projects, but it was so great to hear about some of the ways in which the folks at DIA had used their data, how it had influenced decisions, and how it informed conversations around the work.

(I actually got to visit the DIA twice in the last year, most recently for a VTS practicum in March,  I visited the Diego Rivera & Frida Khalo in Detroit show while I was there, which is gorgeous and so worth the visit).

Portland Museum of Art

We were able to take a whirlwind trip out West to the Portland Museum of Art to meet up with their Education Department (as well as a number of folks from several other departments).

View this post on Instagram

Interpretation museum adventure! #pma

A post shared by Jennifer Foley (@jennifer_foley_) on

We have been working on a storybooth prototype, and the PMA’s Object Stories project offers a well known  museum storybooth example, and one that we’ve been very interested in learning about as we’ve been thinking about our own project.

Object Stories Booth at PMA

Object Stories Booth at PMA

We had such great discussions with everyone at Portland– from hearing about the fantastic programming that they are doing to what they learned from Object Stories and more.

Kevin checking out the Object Stories stories at PMA.

Kevin checking out the Object Stories stories at PMA.

They are doing some amazing things at the PMA, and it was really inspiring to hear about the ways in which they are connecting to a variety of communities in Portland.

IMG_2413IMG_2419

Our discussions about Object Stories were incredibly helpful for thinking about our upcoming project, and that was just one of the great takeaways from the visit. It was great to hear about projects they are working on, and inspiring to hear about the ways that they have experimented with making connections with visitors. In particular, I really admired how much of their work was informed by the community at large, and the really important ways they are thinking about the many audiences and potential audiences there are in Portland. We were also excited to hear how the museum was tackling social media, in which many departments are directly involved.

Denver Art Museum

On the way back from Portland we stopped in Denver to visit the Denver Art Museum.

We happened to get there not long after they released their report on creativity and community, so I had some really interesting reading material for the flight. For example:

But although irreverence is good, irrelevance is not. When polled, visitors consistently express a preference for rich, meaningful, object-based content.

DAM was full of surprises– at least for me. As a (probably over-) seasoned art museum visitor I walk into museums with a framework of expectations (as do many of us).

View this post on Instagram

At the Denver art museum

A post shared by Jennifer Foley (@jennifer_foley_) on

DAM had many of the things that one would expect in an art museum visit.

View this post on Instagram

Excited for our day at the Denver Art Museum today

A post shared by Jennifer Foley (@jennifer_foley_) on

But it also had some surprises tucked into spaces throughout the galleries– maker spaces that give visitors the opportunity to create themselves.

IMG_2458 IMG_2460 IMG_2468 IMG_2502 IMG_2506 IMG_2517 IMG_2539 IMG_2555

We spent a lot of time in the maker spaces.

For me, having the opportunity to create something– even something simple (or perhaps especially something simple and low stress) was a great experience. I left thinking a lot about creativity and ways that supporting visitors’ creativity (even those who don’t think of themselves as creative) can expand and enhance visitors’ experience in the museum. We’ve been exploring ways that we can do even without having dedicated maker spaces, including programs like writing workshops and the storytelling workshop that Bethany wrote about recently).

We were also able to visit one of their special exhibitions, Matisse and Friends, which included unique interpretive elements, such as a single audio stop designed to facilitate contemplative looking, super comfy seating to encourage longer engagement with the paintings, and the opportunity to share a journal response to the works in the exhibition. We watched visitors interact with each of these elements, engaging with each one.

These visits and discussions were amazing and we will be thinking about what we’ve seen for a long time to come. I want to extend a huge thank you to all of our colleagues at the DIA, PMA, and DAM, who were all incredibly generous with their time, their knowledge, their ideas, and their experiences. We came away inspired, impressed, full of ideas, and completely wowed by the amazing things happening in the field.