Mermaids, paper-mache owls & cannons

How do I begin to digest a year where I worked a frequently changing configuration of two to three part-time jobs across similar fields, but of quite different content and character? The much-neglected blog seems like a good place to start.

While many museum professionals may find the content of this post to be business as usual (working multiple part-time jobs is incredibly common in the arts and museum field), it has been a unique and challenging time for me—seemingly worthy of some small amount of personal celebration and reflection. I feel I have learned so much about how we serve our communities in this field.

I began the year working as a museum educator for Historic Ships in Baltimore. And though the challenges of a constantly changing schedule only allowed me to stay for about seven months, I found this to be a wonderful job and the unequivocal best workplace that I have ever been a part of. I recommend this job to anyone looking to find happiness, friendship, and adventure in Baltimore’s museum community. Plus, you can qualify to fire a cannon, and you get to work aboard beautiful and deeply storied historic ships. (And if you were originally a somewhat soft-spoken, deferential pleaser, as I was, you may find you’ve moved more towards the salty, opinionated, and mildly belligerent end of the spectrum after working at Historic Ships—and though your husband finds this quite shocking at times, it’s probably a good thing, overall.)

As the new year kicked off, I also started a new part-time position doing marketing/social media at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, representing the best-ever museum brand (in my unbiased opinion), a brand that strives to be all about you, the visitor and audience, and how you personally connect with Baltimore’s industrial past. For me, this job was a lot about professional growth. The memory that stands out: feeling lost and bewildered as the worst and most inexperienced student in my MICA InDesign course and later emerging with some pretty decent graphic design experience.

Perhaps the most stretching and gratifying times for me this year have been in an educating capacity. Between working as a teaching artist in both visual arts and theater arts and working at the Ships, I have taught everything from how to act like a mermaid, to how to create a pointillist painting, to how to run a Civil War Navy gun drill.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount from working at Baltimore arts ed organization Art with a Heart. Favorite moment: showing up at a local rec center for an hour-long class with three bins of unpainted paper-mache owls and two massive crates of paint with no formal plan for how store, dry, and re-collect the owls all of which were ultimately destined for the nearby school’s beautification project. Because if you can find a little bit of heroic energy in your week, it’s a really nice thing when your job allows you to direct it entirely towards people. Mostly, my art-teaching experiences have cemented my view there is little else that rivals visual art as an avenue for empowerment and connection. My biggest takeaway or translation for museum education generally: find room in programs, where possible, for direct creation or personal contribution, because these moments are what lead to true vulnerability and community. Also, really challenge people. Scaffold, of course, but challenge.paper-mache owl

In 2018, I’m leaving the part-time life behind for a full-time job at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. I’m looking forward to having all my adventures in the same place and being able to truly dedicate myself to a mission and concentrate my community-building energies, but I’ll always hold a soft spot for the eclectic, educational days of 2017.


Does working for free actually pay off?

A lot of us grew up with the belief that if we offered our services free or cheaply, we would win more and better employment as a reward.

In fact, as a child I vividly remember my dad telling me how a medical intern he was supervising had clocked off and left the hospital at exactly the end of his shift—even though my dad still had several things he wanted to teach this person. My dad told me that this behaviour indicated a bad attitude; this person should have been eager and willing to stay past finishing time to demonstrate his enthusiasm and dedication to the field.

Lately, as I recall this conversation, I find myself thinking of this self-respecting junior doctor and feeling like he or she must now have a very nice, balanced life.

Perhaps my dad’s perspective held some water at the time of our conversation, but these days, I see more and more evidence that giving one’s labor too freely only devalues your overall market worth.

My husband put it all too clearly a few days ago when I casually observed that my recent (in the last few years) penchant for doing whatever it takes to deliver (even if it means working extra, unpaid hours) has paid absolutely zero dividends in terms of real compensation or job growth.

Even more ominously, he pointed out that the year he spent working for a tech start-up (and frequently getting shorted large sums on his paychecks) also did little to help him ultimately make money—he eventually had to cut his losses and leave the company. He may never see the money he is owed.

The scary reality seems to be that by working too cheaply or for free you very clearly and definitely set your value low. In a way, it is perfectly fair and you have no grounds for complaint; you already stated this was your value—or that your time was not worth very much.

In the museum field, the compulsion to overwork is often caused by the oversupply issue that exists in the museum labor market. With so few jobs available, how do you distinguish yourself from the countless, qualified others?

Yet, if you act as though you have all the time in the world to check email and pick up other work while also hustling to work your other part-time jobs (hypothetically speaking), you undersell your worth.

So what do we think? What is the best long-term strategy for accurately establishing your worth in the arts and museum field?

Bringing happy people together

Yesterday, my husband and I were walking our dog around the neighborhood when we bumped into another resident and started chatting about various local happenings. When the subject of Light City Baltimore came up, our neighbor commented that he was absolutely blown away by the event. I expected him to follow up by emphasizing the beauty or scale of the light installations, but instead he said: “I’ve never seen so many happy people in one place.”

Since then, I’ve been pondering the significance of this statement and how much is resonates with my own experience of Light City—and how much it can inform museums and what they offer to their communities.

My husband and I went to Light City on Tuesday night after having a disagreement earlier that afternoon. Since the evening had been soured, it seemed like an odd choice to go out into a crowd of people; however, it ended up being the perfect choice. It got us out of the house and talking again on friendly terms. And as much as we both hate crowds, it made us feel connected. We turned on the red safety light on our dog’s collar and laughed with satisfaction when several people commented that he was the best light installation of the night.

As museums have changed “from being about something to being for somebody” (for more info, read the article by Stephen E. Weil of the same name), they’ve also become increasingly about being “with” the people they serve. Light City is a beautiful illustration of this principle in action. The power and connective potential of Light City Baltimore would be absolutely nothing without the large crowds of people who attended and the positive energy they brought. Specifically, the experience of being surrounded by happy people is what makes the festival impactful.

So the next question for me becomes the following: How do we bring people to our museums and how do we make them happy while they visit? Here are some theories on why Light City does these two things so successfully:

  • It’s free.
  • It’s embedded in people’s everyday experiences and locales (the Inner Harbor being central and familiar)—so it’s welcoming and comfortable.
  • It’s part of the community’s narrative and identity. (It belongs to Baltimore, not to its organizers, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts. In fact, the Light City website contains very little trace of BOPA and its brand. Light City is also inherently participatory; and other local institutions and businesses are free to create their own related programming and displays.)
  • It’s transformative (in that it physically changes the landscape of the city).

I’d love to think more about how some of these characteristics can be transferred to museum programs and experiences. I think it would be wonderful to hear a visitor say (in addition to or even instead of “The artifacts/artworks were interesting.”) “I’ve never seen so many happy people in one place.”


Visitors play in The Pool [Reflect] by Jen Lewin

How can museums scaffold playfulness?

During Christmas, I enjoy catching up on trends I may have missed throughout the year as I observe the family gift exchange with my in-laws. This year, one family member received an adult dot-to-dot book—an apparent innovation on the popular adult coloring book. It looked intricate, engaging, and beautifully designed—and very appealing as a way to relax and get creative in a relatively low-stakes way.

Given the popularity of the adult coloring book, a dot-to-dot book for adults isn’t surprising. Creating art is both productive and soothing. Also, coloring and dot-to-dot books provide the scaffolding needed for adults to create something cohesive and aesthetically pleasing simply for its own sake.

Recently, I started working at Historic Ships in Baltimore as a part-time Museum Educator. This experience has been really valuable for me because it has opened my mind to the power of hands-on learning in cultural and historic spaces, something with which I had little prior experience. At Historic Ships, the Educators offer a variety of programs that allow visitors to engage actively with history by performing real tasks such as turning a ship’s sail, raising cargo, or running a gun drill.

As with coloring and dot-to-dot books, these activities might not seem, at first glance, likely to appeal to adults. They require some level of risk, vulnerability, and openness that most of us don’t entertain in our daily state of guardedness and fatigue. But they can nevertheless be pitched and scaffolded in ways that are captivating and engaging.

Adults, like children, love to be playful, but museums and cultural institutions, I believe, sometimes struggle to entice them to experience these instincts fully. I explored this question in an earlier post, asking how museums could invite adults to play in their spaces and with their content, and suggested some initial thoughts based on personal experimentation and relevant posts by other bloggers:

  • Include adult content and design choices
  • Provide platforms for sharing
  • Scaffold to ensure success
  • Ensure the visitor’s contribution is meaningful to the institution
  • Make it fun

Returning to this question, I would now suggest a couple of additional points:

  • Make the process (not just the outcome) meaningful and challenging. After observing programs at Historic Ships, I’ve noticed numerous opportunities for give and take, genuine challenge, and critical thinking with visitors.
  • Treat visitors with unconditional positive regard. This is a concept developed by psychologist Carl Rogers that advocates an enduring and fundamental acceptance of clients’ contributions. This attitude on the part of the museum is valuable in establishing the trust and safety required to solicit visitors’ participation in an activity. It means responding respectfully and encouragingly even when a visitor asks a question that seems obvious or silly, giving real thought and consideration to all visitor contributions, and accepting all levels of participation as valid and worthy.
  • Finally, thank visitors for playing. Participation is an act of generosity, and frequently, courage.

Image taken at The Matilda Joslyn Gage Home.

One artist’s vision is another visitor’s transcendent experience

Charlotte York of TV’s Sex and the City once described “great love” as a love that “shakes you to your core, after which you are never the same.” I think the same can and should be true of great museum visits—especially first time visits to a new museum.

I had a core-shaking, life-altering museum experience on Sunday when I visited the American Visionary Art Museum, a museum devoted to showcasing the stories and artwork of self-taught practitioners working from places of inner reflection and intuition.

The American Visionary Art Museum experience is a welcome onslaught of color and diverse personal energies, reaching the visitor on multiple sensory, intellectual, and spiritual levels. I recently heard Jake Barton of Local Projects describe great museum engagement as something visitors “fall into,” and this seems apt to describe the complete immersion and fascination I felt from the moment I stepped past the visitor desk into the galleries.

I’ve realized I hold a special reverence for museums that are audaciously, unapologetically individualistic, defying traditional institutional norms and forging new ways of being. (For previous discussion on this subject, see my post about Glenstone.)

The traditional museum is often neat, unemotional, and subdued in its tone. The American Visionary Art Museum, however, lives charmingly and compellingly outside this box. It is intense, passionate, and bursting with opinions; it’s also polished but relatively “unedited.” The overall effect is incredibly respectful, compassionate, and in strong service of the Museum’s social justice mission.

Museums with this kind of passion and self-confidence seem perfectly positioned to facilitate transcendence and spirituality within and among their visitors. My experience at the American Visionary Art Museum supported this theory; the space was vibrant and alive, and reminded me why the museum is my church.

The Museum website lists seven education goals the first of which is: “Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.” The importance of this lesson was imparted to me from an early age by my mother who deeply embraced and celebrated people’s eccentricities. The Visionary Art Museum, with its deep veneration of imagination, intuition, and inner voice celebrates human eccentricity with humor and honesty, serving what I believe is an essential human need to be silly, creative, and vulnerable—and to witness these qualities in others. The experience was transcendent and reconnected me to the example set by my mother, a positive early-life experience.

The Museum takes a refreshingly direct approach to trauma and difference, directly addressing personal tragedy, injury and disability, mental illness, loss, racism, and family dysfunction. This frank approach reduces stigma and emphasizes the gifts that a unique identity and life experience can bring—while celebrating ownership of all aspects of one’s life (both good and bad).

Storytelling seemed to play a crucial role in the interpretation of the artworks, and I emerged at the end of my visit feeling like I’d just surfaced from a great book. Artist’s stories are the frame for interpreting the art, an approach that clearly communicates to visitors that people (and their experiences and visions) are the priority and the focus. The stories function in complete deference to the artist’s frame, ensuring the artist’s experience is unquestioned and the artist is held up as expert and owner.

I recently attended an inspiring session at the recent AAM Annual Meeting: Going Beyond: Empowering Visitors’ Transcendent Experiences (click to download) led by Dawn Eshelman, Charles E. Fulcher Jr., Ben Garcia, Amber Harris, and Lois Silverman. Reflecting on the session handout and my visit to American Visionary Art Museum, I’m reminded of the importance of building ritual into museum experiences and celebrating inner narratives. Also, the ingredient of “surprised expectations” (cited in Charles E. Fulcher Jr.’s Seeing Deeper program) was at play for me during my visit.

Back in college when I was planning a career in social work, I took a child therapy practicum where clients’ inner narratives and belief systems—however peculiar or troubling—were the guiding forces of engagement, growth, and empathy. We know intuitively that this work is crucial for children, but often forget how essential these experiences are for adults. I’m happy to be reminded of this, and to reconnect with a version of myself that is energetic, idealistic, imaginative, and eager to know my own and others’ inner experiences.


Eshelman, D., Fulcher, C. E., Garcia, B., Harris, A. & Silverman, L. H. (2016, May). Going Beyond: Empowering Visitors’ Transcendent Experiences. Panel session at American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting, Washington, DC.

Dignity & museum labor

Recently, I came across this frank and courageous blog post and I was riveted. I read it multiple times.

Then, this week, I had the good fortune of participating in my first AAM Annual Meeting and I was heartened by the number of conversations centering on museums and labor practices. But I find myself stuck on Miri’s blog post and wondering- … cultural competency, equitable hiring, empathetic practice … Don’t they all start with paying people what they’re worth and/or giving them enough time off to take care of themselves?

I’ve worked in a number of workplaces of varying quality covering a range of fields. A few were rife with bullying and aggression and were flagrantly emotionally unsafe. These issues aside, the most dignified workplaces were the ones that paid fairly for the time and effort put in—even if other conditions were not ideal.

Miri’s blog post points out that advocating self-care rather than addressing structural issues within a workplace is rather feeble. Opportunities like leaving early, attending staff lunches, and participating in staff wellness activities are also common employer strategies for allowing staff to engage in self-care and rest. But how meaningful are afternoons off or workday wellness initiatives if they actually add to staff stress by reducing the time available to complete assignments or by requiring work to be taken home? These strategies might be more proactive than simply telling your employees to engage in self-care on their own time, but they are still mere Band-Aids for unsustainable practice.

Museums pay full price for services such as accounting, IT, and construction; yet they frequently look for ways to cut costs (either by paying as little as possible or by extracting as much time as possible) with respect to artistic and cultural services—the very disciplines that they purport to value and celebrate. Why? Because these are the folks who have little choice but to accept less, or give more for the same amount.

More money (or less unpaid overtime) does in fact make a difficult situation more bearable. While museums are phenomenally important to society, they are not, for example, hospital emergency rooms; in other words, they need not exist in constant crisis. They (should) have the luxury of putting their staff before their collections, and even their audiences—but it requires honest reflection about value.

Scarcity of money or time within museum positions could have serious impacts on diversity as well. Many museum jobs are only viable for applicants with higher-earning significant others, economically privileged backgrounds, and minimal financial obligations or commitments outside work.

What would it be like if resources were allocated and projects were planned in a way that ensured sustainable and dignified workplaces? Audiences might lose in the short-term, but communities might gain so much more by being served by strong, stable museum staffs.

These changes would be difficult for sure—and I don’t pretend to know just how difficult—but I’d like to begin a conversation. If these ideas resonate with you, please reach out to chat further. I hope that the growing conversation around museums and racial and economic justice can explore some of these issues in more detail. The recent changes in overtime rules offer an interesting starting point for some of these conversations.

Museums as opportunity makers

The past couple of months have been extremely busy for me. I’ve definitely neglected the blog. But despite this, I’ve managed to keep up a fairly regular schedule of cultural activities and museum visits. My ongoing “museum anthropology” work feels really important, not just for professional development purposes, but because it’s an investment in my personal development, including my mental health and wellbeing.


I took this photograph during a recent visit to The Phillips Collection. The prompt was something like “What are you doing to invest in yourself?

Back in early March, I was so fortunate to have the chance to attend the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards honoring phenomenally courageous women taking great risks to address urgent contemporary issues. Later the same month, I attended a much more low key but equally thought-provoking and inspiring panel discussion at the Alexandria Black History Museum on the subject of integrating art into historic sites. And last week, I attended a tour of the mysterious and amazing Dupont Underground with the Emerging Arts Leaders DC group.

Being surrounding by these opportunities in Washington, D.C. and feeling comfortable and welcome enough to take advantage of them is an incredible gift – and the realization has me thinking about how important it is for museums to understand their role as “opportunity makers” for their communities, and the immense responsibility this entails.

Museum visits really are like investments – both in you, the visitor, and in the institution, which provides something of value in exchange for your time, openness, and collaboration. All members of the community, even those who have never visited, should be considered stakeholders—potential partners with something to offer.

Social equity and access are fundamental mandates for community institutions such as parks and libraries. Museums, in theory, are held to the same standards, but frequently fall short, often choosing to focus on their narrow subject specializations and to prioritize collections over people. In theory, all museums want to provide great opportunities—experiences involving beauty, growth, healing, and intellectual engagement—for all members of their community. However, many seem content to simply attract and retain their “default” audiences, visitors who easily see value for themselves in the museum’s offerings.

According to Gretchen Jennings’ concept of an “empathetic museum,” museums that want to be genuinely visitor-centered, responsive, and connected to all aspects of community must develop a culture of empathy—a strong foundation of empathetic and inclusive practice where all community members see clear personal relevance and feel esteem within the museum (see this post on Museum Commons).

To this end, museums as opportunity makers should actively seek to create diverse opportunities for their communities that are perceived as deeply valuable, welcoming, and accessible. All museums, no matter their subject matter, mission, or collection, can work towards this.

As I’ve suggested before, museums, institutionally, have a special asset that traditional social service institutions do not. Museums don’t have to treat their users solely as clients (a unidirectional service relationship). They can actually work in partnership with users, with both parties bettering the other. This has been one of the great joys of my career change from human services to cultural services. And I think this distinction has enormous potential for transformative museum practice that offers genuinely valuable opportunities for all.

The museum’s ‘ask’: 2015 in review

Happy New Year! The dawning of 2016 marks 15 months of Museums with impact. Evaluating and reflecting on my first full year of blogging, I return to my original goals for the blog, articulated in the following mission and vision:


To facilitate an inclusive, collaborative platform for museum workers, human services workers, educators, students, writers (and hopefully many others) to discuss, celebrate, and build possibilities for creating empowering museum experiences.


A supportive forum where you can share your successes, challenges, and ideas relating to social service endeavors in the museum, and maybe even develop some collaborative projects.

While the blog hasn’t spawned any large-scale collaborative projects (yet), it has inspired opportunities for community-building and professional dialogue that have exceeded my wildest dreams, and made me feel truly excited about the abundant energy around leveraging culture to help people and communities.

In addition to the incredible adventures that I have had visiting museums, participating in programs, and meeting great people, I have received several emails from people reaching out to discuss ideas and collaborate in small ways. I’m so delighted and grateful that the blog has helped me to connect with new people and ideas. Thank you so much to those who reached out; I hope we can stay in touch in the New Year.

In looking back (and forward), I recall favorite posts from this and other blogs, reflect on recent museum visits, and try to coalesce the big ideas that are percolating for me in 2016.

These were my favorite Museums with impact posts—the posts that still excite me and raise unanswered questions that I hope to continue exploring:

The following were my favorite blog posts of 2014/2015 from other blogs:

Looking at these posts, I seem to be moving into 2016 curious about what museums are asking of their visitors and how these experiences might be empowering, inclusive, empathetic, therapeutic, and community-building.

What might some of these ‘asks’ look like?

  • To play freely like a child?
  • To submit to healthy experiences of discomfort, ambiguity, and doubt?
  • To self-examine and share the findings as part of a larger story?
  • To be ‘complicit’ in a unique experience?
  • To be self-efficacious?

Recently, my husband and I visited the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, NY. Gage was a women’s rights and social justice activist who fought for causes including woman suffrage and equality, separation of church and state, and violence against women. This museum strongly epitomizes the idea of a demanding yet supportive (and highly validating) cultural and community space (see photos below).

This recent Twitter conversation is going to be one of my guiding ideas this year as I pursue the importance of the individual person’s story (to the museum).

Imagine a place where you could go to feel totally and completely welcome and valued—as a partner, to feel challenged but efficacious, to feel sparked and excited, and to feel awe and a numinous connection. Could that place be a museum?

The key questions, at least for me right now, are how and what do we ask of visitors and how do we leave the answer open to develop in a way that serves individual and community needs, and is visitor-driven. And what do we also ask of ourselves as institutions in terms of actively serving communities in crisis, modelling congruent values in museum labor practice, and ensuring museums are accessible and welcoming multi-purpose spaces?

A cultural landmark is removed, a community reacts

A few months ago, I wrote this post celebrating the charming grassroots curatorial project thriving on a sidewalk along Duke Street (across from Landmark Mall) in Alexandria, Virginia. I called it the ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree, not because its free-form curation was confined to a Christmas theme (in fact, the decorations changed periodically to reflect the season and were frequently multi-themed), but because it reminded me of my childhood Christmas trees: eclectic, vibrantly disorganized, and organically co-created. The tree was part of my cultural landscape, something that made me feel connected to my neighborhood.

This evening, my husband and I were driving to dinner and were stunned to see that the tree, once growing through the sidewalk and adorned with a random assortment of eye-catching ephemera, had been removed. In its place was a community memorial with notes, candles, even a framed photograph. Comments on Reddit (RIP Duke Street Tree) suggest the tree was likely removed by the City in response to complaints about the tree beginning to encroach on traffic.

The strength of feeling aroused by the removal of this mundane yet wonderful community cultural landmark is humorously heartwarming, and reminds me that grassroots cultural projects are truly valued and celebrated. The knowledge that one or more people were decorating and protecting that tree clearly gave others the feeling that something in their community was being cared for and nurtured (see the notes written on the sign). My husband recalled that the construction project from a week or two ago had navigated around the tree, the workers apparently sensing that it warranted protection and veneration.

Now the tree is gone and the impassioned outrage (expressed on Reddit and in our car on the ride home from dinner) is all at once sad, sweet, and a little ridiculous, but it’s also an encouraging sign for those who hope that art, culture, and place can build community in unexpected ways and that valuable projects can begin not just within cultural institutions, but at a community level (and perhaps grow with support from the institutions).

One reason why art is amazing—and essential to our wellbeing

“The artist is really interested in how …”

If you frequent tours of art museums and galleries you will have heard this phrase used by staff and docents to introduce an artist’s intense preoccupation with an unconventional or unexpected way of seeing, examining, or representing the world.

For example, “The artist is really interested in how the traditional museum curatorial process can be used to comprehend a vast fictional earth”—is how I might have described the focus of Rachel Guardiola’s work currently on display at Arlington Arts Center, which I saw last week.

Is it fair to say that making art is a little like embracing an obsession in the most beautiful and productive way? If so, the art museum/gallery might have another relatively untapped asset in their social programming toolbox.

Deep interest (and the intrinsic motivation that accompanies it) can be powerfully absorbing, calming, and helpfully distracting. Similarly, proximity to this kind of intellectual devotion—especially where the outward manifestation is often beautiful and arresting and exists for its own sake—is probably also good for us for the following reasons:

  • Something about the deep interest that develops into art feels egalitarian and inclusive and maybe helps art-making become more accessible.
  • The explicit connections between an interest and a final product celebrate not just outcome, but experimentation and process. The celebration of process honors curiosity and questioning.
  • Willingness to share an interest with the world requires extraordinary courage. Art-making is an act of confidence and generosity.
  • Knowing that people are working to turn their questions and curiosities into objects of beauty, incisiveness, and humor is comforting. It means that art and culture are valued and protected in the world.

Where do museums and galleries come into this? Perhaps we could include more in our interpretation about what a body of work means to its creator, and open this topic in a way that invites further discussion. What deep fascinations or obsessions does the art spring from? What are the vital driving forces of the work? The question ‘What are you fascinated by?’ could be a great prompt for a public program (art-making or otherwise).

Even imagined content of this nature can be incredibly powerful. The label pictured below is one of many quotes on display at the reopened Renwick Gallery’s debut exhibition, Wonder, which tries to go deeper into the possible ‘process’ of each work, to imagine the artist’s experience, and (in this particular case) to hint at the wonderfully obsessive experience of pursuing something great.


Perhaps, instead of feeling dismay when we hear a visitor say “I could have done that,” we might feel excited. It could be great if we were revealing enough about the “interest behind the art,” that our visitors felt similarly empowered to pursue their own passions.