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

 

 

 

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.

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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,

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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:

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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),

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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).

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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).

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The setting for this adventure was okay….

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if you’re into that natural beauty stuff….

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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.

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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.

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.

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. 

 

This is [only] a test

We’ve been experimenting some new things this summer. New programs:

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Including yoga classes to go with our big summer exhibition. (Very, very popular)  I’m working on an interpretation project for an exhibition next year that will be quite different (in terms of both content and delivery) from our usual mode. (Very exciting!) The museum has a conservation on view exhibition happening throughout the summer, and we have a wall up inviting visitors to ask questions:

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(Also quite popular with visitors).

We’ve also been doing some audience testing. It’s something that the department has been involved with in the past, but this summer the team is taking a deeper dive into the nuts and bolts of research and data gathering. One thing we’re looking at is interest levels for new content that we’re planning to develop.

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It’s been fascinating to listen to visitors give their responses to some of the ideas. And (as always) there are surprises that pop up along the way. Some of my favorites have been:

One visitor said they would be interested in a tour of Medieval art because they enjoyed painting from that period. Soon afterwards another visitor said that everything was always about Medieval art, which they found boring.

One response to the tour topic “Surprise!” one visitor said they wouldn’t know what it was about, but they would be curious to find out. Another also said they wouldn’t know what it was about– but that they weren’t good with surprises, and rated it at the bottom.

In response to a tour on the theme of the Monuments Men one visitor expressed that they weren’t familiar with the theme, asking if that was pictures of Abraham Lincoln on his throne. (I think they were talking about the monument in DC).

It was interesting to see how differently different people responded to the same topic. We’re going to be doing content testing for at least another couple of months, and we’re starting to see some patterns emerging. I think a big part of what we do as we move forward is to think not only about which topics rise to the top in overall popularity, but also about niches. For example, some topics did not get a  lot of votes overall, but those who liked them really liked them. We also need to think about polarizing topics. “Surprise!” is a good example– people seemed to rate it either at the top or the bottom, with few in between. For those who were interested, having it in the mix was a real positive. The negative responses were very solid in their reaction– would the presence of something they were turned off by turn them off from other options?

We’ve also started testing program formats for adult audiences. We have some new types of programs that we’re going to be trying out this year, so we’re testing both how well visitors will understand the planned descriptions (this will be iterative over the next couple months), and how interested they would be to attend a program using the new formats. Can’t wait to see what we find out!

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?

 

Something on my mind

For the last week or so we’ve been working on scheduling our first data-gathering adventures in July and August, which are going to be jam-packed with observations and intercepts for the whole team. We’ve also been working on planning for a couple of new programs and projects and how to evaluate them.

We’re a creative bunch, so the ideas keep rolling in and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about grouping, staging, and prioritizing. Meanwhile, the seasonal shift in the sunrise and sunset has been wrecking a bit of havoc on the homefront recently–our cats are now quite convinced that 4:15 am is breakfast time. The [only] positive thing about being awake then is that it is does build a quiet moment into the day when I can focus on something that I might otherwise not have the time to do (or that I would probably put off to another time). My what-on-earth-am-I-doing-up-now project this weeks has been a little mindmapping.

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I keep thinking about the question Why do we do it?, and the connected question What makes this fulfilling? For me, reaching goals is part of what makes the work fulfilling, so I thought I’d start with goals I’d like to work on this year. This isn’t meant to represent what I intend to achieve in the year, but is a way to start thinking about directions and planning paths. Although I started with the idea of goals for this year, built into the map are the places I’d like to reach next year, the year after, and in a few cases some year in the future.

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I think there are more than a couple of 4:30am mindmapping exercises in my future, with more refining and a few more concrete descriptions. Many of the bubbles feel like they need to be unpacked a bit. Sometimes it was hard to figure out where things were connected because it felt like they were connected to everything. Which reminded me of a tweet from Bethany at AAM this year:

I think this ties into a theme that I think has been woven through many of the planning and projecting exercises of the last couple of months, whether it’s applying some of the design thinking strategies, mindmapping, or creating personas. A lot of the focus of our discussions has been on visitor-centered-ness. It was a phrase that I heard over and over again at AAM, and it sounds like what we are trying to do, but since coming back from Seattle I’ve been thinking a lot about what we mean when we talk about visitor-centered practice or visitor-centered design. I heard a lot of examples of how that is conceptualized in panels (as well as informal discussions). How we define it in our team and in our work is going to be an important point to articulate in our planning.

For today, I included my own definition of visitor-centered-ness in my first meeting of the day, talking with the fabulous protection services staff about our collection app.

guardsand artlens

It was like giving a tour with the most engaged group ever, which was awesome. They are among the staff members who spend the most time with visitors (and the art), and they have a ton of experience and knowledge about how visitors experience the galleries, the app, the art, and the organization. I learned a lot from them this morning, and I’m excited to be talking to them again next week, when I plan to pluck their brains for even more information.

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.