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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Do We Make “Content”?

Last month I went to Dallas (my first time in the Big D, at least out of the airport) for the annual MCN conference.

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It’s one of my favorite conferences, and is one that I always feel like I walk away with ideas and inspiration and thinking about lots of big questions– it’s the one where I spend the plane ride home thinking that I’m going to get home and Do All The Things! Make All The Things! Make Very Very Good Things! And then I get home and my inbox is full and there are voicemails and deadlines and maybe even a fire to put out, and I think, I will do All The Things a little later.*

This year I presented in the case study group, which was really enjoyable– there were some great conversations about what makes a trusted museum brand. I was also on a panel that was organized by Robert Weisberg from the Met (who compared his institution first to pre-revolutionary France, and then to a space ark) that was downright fun. (You can read his thoughts on this year’s MCN here). Corey Pressman gave an inspiring (and often hilarious) talk about orality’s shift into the authority of print, and the potential for opening authority as we move into a time of secondary orality. Kimon Keramidas talked about his (supercool) projects with students at the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center. (The audio from the panel is here).

The panel touched on a lot of things that I spend a lot (I mean a lot) of time thinking about. Much of what I do professionally is “content development.” If someone had said to me when I was tied to a carrel in the library in grad school that I would grow up to develop content I would have looked at you like you’d told me I was going to find myself living out my middle years on Mars. Content development? What does that even mean?

I don’t really recall hearing the word “content” (the way it is used now) in grad school. I might have, but if I did it didn’t make an impression. It’s a word I hear all the time now, both in my professional life and outside of it, but it is a term that I find hard to pin down. What does it even mean?

The seeming ubiquity of the word doesn’t, for me, negate it’s inherent slipperiness. What does it actually point to? First and foremost, it points to its holder (“content,” after all, says up front that it is contained, which means there must be a container) while not pointing at all to its own identity. It’s stuff that goes in the thing– it’s only identifying feature being that it is held in something else. It seems to function as a placeholder for whatever we happen to be talking about at that moment. Labels, videos, software, tours, public programs, whatever. We seem to have tacitly agreed to use this catch-all word to catch all we do– and it the process it’s lost whatever meaning it might have, at some point, had.

And then we use it with visitors.

Ug. The internal/external meanings of museums’ weird nomenclature are rarely aligned. In my experience museums have extensive taxonomies so esoteric that only a select few have been initiated into the highest levels of knowledge. For visitors, much of it is just wordswordswordsthatIdon’tknow.

And who actually wants to make “content”? Content sounds like vitamins: something you don’t enjoy ingesting but do it because you’re supposed to. Who wants to listen to, watch, see, read, or make that? Content is a word that sounds desiccated. And it’s so overused that at times I think it no longer has a referent.

When I think about what we are actually doing, when I think about what I actually love finding out about and listening to, and watching, and learning about when I go to a museum (and I go to a lot of them– and not just the one where I work), it’s stories. Because we’re humans, and humans are hardwired to hear, tell, and process narratives (literally). It is how we make sense of the world; but it is also a critical way in which we derive joy from it as well. We don’t want to hear “content”; we want to hear a good yarn.

This may seem like just semantics, and it is semantics, but it isn’t only semantics. Externally, is it realistic to expect our visitors to get excited about something we call “content”? Internally, does approaching the work through the framework of “content development” have an impact on what we produce? [I would say that it does, and not for the better].

That said, I don’t have a solution for a better word. Ideas, stories, narratives, something else…. I don’t know, but would love to hear suggestions.

***

Meanwhile, I heard some fantastic panels and discussions at MCN, including a super fun panel on games with Emily Lytle-Painter of LACMA and James Collins of the Smithsonian that really had me thinking (again) about games (again) and museums (again). Our little department has several people who are gamers themselves (analog and digital) and the idea of bringing games into what we do at the museum comes up somewhat regularly. The session had lots of great advice, but was done through actually trying different things out– which is a great way to make the message stick.

I also really enjoyed a panel on museums and social media, and have been thinking ever since I left Dallas about Alli Burness‘s question: What do selfies mean?

And of course I visited the Dallas Art Museum:

Went to a honky tonk:

And had epic karaoke:

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Before heading home:

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*And over the course of the next year I usually get to Some Of The Things, which probably isn’t half bad.

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. 

 

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.