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.”

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Visitors play in The Pool [Reflect] by Jen Lewin

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.

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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:

Mission

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.

Vision

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).

Local history sites and belonging

My relationship with the town or city where I choose to live at a given moment matters to me deeply. I want to have routines, places for quiet contemplation, favorite restaurants, places to take out-of-town visitors; a regular farmers market is always nice. I also want to experience the history of a place.

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to do this when my husband and I spent a Saturday afternoon walking around Old Town Alexandria. It was one of those first few days when the sun came out in force, but the temperature was still crisp and the ground, still snowy. I suggested that we visit a local museum or historic site, perhaps the Friendship Firehouse Museum because I was intrigued by the word ‘friendship’ in its title.

The Friendship Firehouse Museum tells the story of the Friendship Fire Company, established in 1774 as Alexandria’s first volunteer firefighting organization. It was a good choice for my husband and me because it appealed to our divergent interests. My husband, the engineer, enjoyed seeing the historic firefighting equipment and learning how it worked. And I liked learning about the quirky culture of the Company, particularly the members’ endearing idolization of George Washington and fondness for collecting objects that related to him.

Initially, I wasn’t inspired to write about the Friendship Firehouse Museum on the blog. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how my visit related to museums and social service. A week later, however, I was describing my visit to a co-worker from my area and the conversation quickly opened up into a larger discussion of place and history. To know something about my area’s history gave me a foothold in the conversation and a sense of pleasure, belonging, and social connection.

Later, I checked in on Tom Mayes’ fantastic ‘Why Do Old Places Matter?’ blog series on Preservation Leadership Forum Blog. Tom’s posts about ‘Continuity’ and ‘Community’ stood out as most helpful, describing the importance of old places in aiding our sense of continuity of time and place, and our collective experience of community.

For me, the wonderful collision of local history, continuity, and community is epitomized by a past visit to the Museum of Brisbane (my then-local history museum). During my visit to exhibit, The River, I learned about the history of the Walter Taylor Bridge, a bridge I frequented during my commute at that time, and which therefore felt significant to my life. Apparently, the Bridge towers once functioned as accommodation for toll collectors. Family, domesticity, and day-to-day life were once contained within the structure of the Bridge, and the sight of hanging laundry apparently once entertained passing motorists. Though this history doesn’t sound terribly exciting, I had often wondered about this funny bridge with its thick pylons and many windows. So this new knowledge delighted me and gave me a sense of my own place in Brisbane’s history.

Given the ability of old places to passively accomplish these important ends, what might be the possibilities for more active programs and initiatives to address particular social needs and serve particular groups within the community—using these resources?

A quick look at upcoming programs at Friendship Firehouse Museum suggests great uses of the resource of ‘place.’ The Museum offers related walking tours, thereby connecting firefighting history to the larger community and its geography. It also offers upcoming Mother’s and Father’s Day Open Houses where children can enjoy a special visit with the celebrated parent and receive a complimentary family portrait.

Since local history museums and sites provide a valuable source of memory for communities (perhaps particularly so for older members) they are potentially useful resources for reminiscing. I am reminded of one of my master’s thesis case studies, the Hurstville City Museum & Gallery reminiscing program, which uses local history objects to prompt sharing and personal recollections among groups of older adults.

Additionally, local history, especially when it is casually embedded in everyday life (such as a leisurely Saturday afternoon walk), is a great hook for people who don’t typically frequent museums—i.e. my husband.

That said, sites will not comprehensively serve the community simply by existing. The Incluseum recently published a confronting and incredibly important post by researcher, Emily Dawson. In it, Dawson reports on her research into exclusion and the reproduction of disadvantage within the museum. The post got me thinking about the importance of increased scholarship on and visibility for the more marginalized histories within each story.

Local history sites are in the position to say: You are a part of this community and so this is for you. However, to be effective in fostering genuine inclusion and belonging, they will likely need to bear this promise out through action that, as Dawson suggests, makes all feel considered and welcome.

When I worked in disability support, I remember being told that my job involved more than assisting clients to participate in the community; it involved helping them find ways to contribute to community. I think the question of how to invite contributions is an interesting one for local history sites. It represents a challenge in terms of how to open a seemingly limited story into an experience that genuinely involves all people. In a way, sites such as the Friendship Firehouse Museum have social potentials similar to the public library; they are safe places for people to find community. So I think it’s worth considering how to continue meeting this challenge, and I welcome any thoughts or ideas.

Museum empowerment and stand-up comedy: connections from museum blogging

A few months ago, I read an innovative post by Dana Mitroff Silvers on her blog, Design Thinking for Museums. I was inspired by Dana’s creativity in connecting the seemingly dissimilar disciplines of museums and improv comedy.

The piece got me wondering about other museum-comedy parallels. I immediately thought of my college friend, Ryan Stanisz: hardworking writer; abrasively funny observer of human behavior; skilled stand-up, improv, and sketch comedian. I asked Ryan to reflect on the possible tenets of comedy; I would then consider their connections to what I have learned and explored while blogging and reading other blogs over the past couple of months.

Museums and comedy are surprisingly congruent. They share similar fundamental goals of engaging and connecting with people and ideas, empathizing with diverse and shared experiences, and reflecting on what is culturally meaningful. They both aim to provide enjoyment and happiness. Perhaps they also share a common experience of struggle.

Ryan chose to focus on stand-up comedy. And since his comments spoke to ideas of empowerment, adaptation, tenacity, and self-leadership, I decided they were relevant to the blog’s mission. Typically, I write about how museums might empower visitors, but in this post, I consider how they might inspire and uplift themselves as institutions…

Ryan’s tenets and related comments are italicized.

I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for five years. But the truth is, I’ve only really been DOING IT for two years. The other three years just involved me occasionally going to an open mic or a show, and the other half the time, just talking about it. I was in love with the idea of being a comedian before I was one – and while I’m not a star by any stretch of the imagination, I love it now, I do it often, and I’m passionate about the work. And most importantly, I don’t feel like I’m being dishonest when I tell someone I do stand-up. This is the first time I’ve been asked to lay out some general tenets I apply to stand-up comedy, but it’s by no means complete, and I’m sure it varies for everyone. Anyhow, this is the type of stuff that keeps me motivated and keeps me honest.  

1. Be realistic with one’s self. Along the way, there are some pretty simple questions you have to keep asking yourself.

Are you being funny? If the jokes aren’t hitting – maybe you need a new approach, maybe you need to abandon the joke all together. Some comics might give you advice, but hold off on adopting someone else’s notes. You need to develop your own internal locus of what is and isn’t funny. Just like my ideas presented in this blog, don’t necessarily take them as Bible truth, always be questioning.

Is there something getting in the way of you working on material, and getting out in front of people? Everyone’s got to work and everyone’s got to eat – but if you’re not getting up at shows, you’re not getting better – and you’re definitely not meeting other people in the comedy world …

Museum connections

Ask yourself the tough questions; reflect. In museum evaluation terms, Ryan seems to describe the process of reflection. Stephanie Downey discussed ‘reflection’ in an Intentional Museum post, explaining that it can be easy to overlook this important process in the continual cycle of action. Museum professionals, however, must be willing to ask tough questions, examine the meaning of data, and provide a critical ‘insider perspective’ (Stephanie Downey, Intentional Museum). Your instincts matter—when it comes to making people laugh, or sharing our collective culture.

Reflect, but also act. Stand-up comedians learn by doing and don’t wait until they’re ‘perfect.’ How might this apply to museums? Paul Orselli’s post about museum responsiveness and recent #museumsrespondtoferguson conversations on Twitter have highlighted, for me, the importance of balancing fear with timely action (see my post, ‘On Fear, and Imperfection’).

2. Be your authentic self, and don’t be afraid to evolve.

Even if you’re awkward or depraved – be genuine and be yourself. This is such a stupidly simple concept, and it was the hardest thing for me to learn. Learn who you are and do just that, otherwise, you’ll be playing a character forever and you won’t be able to grow or discover with an audience. It’s fascinating to listen to Louis CK or Patton Oswalt over the years – because their careers and their families have changed so dramatically. They’re still themselves, but they don’t necessarily speak to things in the same way. Comics who play a shtick, a lot of times, lose out on that opportunity to develop a relationship with the crowd and they put themselves into a corner (their shows feel more muted, more choreographed, and less fun). There are a number of exceptions – Stephen Colbert for instance was aggressive in his attempt to stay current and relevant– Colbert commented on issues of the day, and as the Republican Party evolved over nine years, so did Colbert.

Museum connection

Understand what you have to offer and stand by it. Through my visit to Glenstone and my resulting post, I learned the value of a museum with a strong vision and a compellingly firm self-concept.

Be yourself. As a frequent museum visitor, I also learned, as Ryan suggests, that when the creator is genuine, the audience’s experience is enormously enhanced. My most powerful visitor experiences undoubtedly took place in institutions that were connected to their authentic selves, aware of their unique assets, and open to developing real relationships with their visitors (such as the Torpedo Factory Art Center, pictured below).

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3. Work hard, especially when no one’s watching.

No one cares that you do stand-up – your family might find it fun, but you have to want to do it. And when you decide you want it, you have to work on it constantly. Success is slow – people all around you will get on shows as your schedule starts to slow down, but keep working! Life is tiring, and it’s tempting to want to go home right after work, but your jokes have no way of developing otherwise. Also, don’t forget to record and listen to yourself. Sometimes the laugh you thought you got for your bit was more about the intonation than the wording, or a response to someone’s weird laugh – be mindful and honest about what was actually funny. And as you work, be mindful of the future. Are you building other skills to leverage the abilities you already have? You can write a good joke – but it’d be awesome if you also knew how to tell a story.

Museum connections

Keep moving forward; the future is already here. Ryan’s comments about consistent progress and mindfulness about the future reminded me of Colleen Dilenschneider’s post, ‘Why Talking about the Future of Museums may be Holding Museums Back.’ Colleen argued that museums who use ‘future’ language to describe present needs and trends are likely to get left behind or adopt the false belief that they are innovative. Remembering that the future is already here and striving to build new resources to leverage current ones seem relevant to both stand-up and museums.

Be intentional. Ryan’s comment about being honest about why something is successful struck me as deeply relevant to museums. I recalled a recent post by Randi Korn on Intentional Museum, which argued that intentionality is essential for museums hoping to ‘make a difference in the quality of people’s lives’ (Randi’s definition of ‘impact’). So knowing why you are doing something and why it works is not just good for you, but great for your audience.

4. Keep a positive sense of self.

This is probably one of the most over-looked tenets among a lot of comics in my opinion and it’s probably because keeping positive doesn’t necessarily translate into career success…. Take steps to improve your self-image – eat healthy, exercise, keep to a consistent sleep schedule, and when necessary, talk to someone. Working on your baggage isn’t going to make you any less compelling or funny.  

You need to believe that you’re funny in order to do this.

Museum connection

Believe that you can be essential to your community, and make it so. In my second post, I discussed an inspirational visit to the Art Museum of the America’s F Street Gallery where my guide’s warmth and enthusiasm and sincere passion for the museum’s work quickly convinced me of the museum’s value and importance. I suggest museums should not only maintain a positive sense of self, but also ensure that this positive image becomes a core institutional value that is consistently conveyed to visitors through all aspects of the museum operation.

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This sign in the National Building Museum denotes the adjacent classroom, but also reinforces and celebrates (at least, for me) the museum’s core business of education.

5. Appreciate the flops as much as the successes.

Learn from failures – if a bit doesn’t work after a month of workshopping it, abandon it. If a joke works great – hold on to it for dear life.

Museum connection

Be honest about what works and what doesn’t. Be willing to let go of something that isn’t working—even if you love it. In museum evaluation terms, Ryan seems to describe Randi Korn’s concept of ‘alignment,’ which involves aligning actions with desired outcomes despite our sometimes emotional resistance to letting go of unsuccessful programs (Randi Korn, Intentional Museum).

6. Learn to accept feedback with grace.

Everyone’s a critic – don’t respond back to someone’s critique in a state of rage or panic. You might just burn a bridge or two (ruining future show or partnership opportunities) – and at the end of the day it comes down to your own locus of what’s funny or not. If you told a joke that you liked, and it was well received– you’re not obligated to defend yourself if someone was offended or didn’t laugh. It’s likely, someone will disagree – and that’s just part of life. In a similar vein, take compliments with stride – and don’t let an audience member decide for you when a bit is finished.

Museum connection

Don’t be defensive. My personal belief is that museums should welcome the opportunity to engage with criticism. And likewise, I believe that critiquing a museum’s programs or exhibitions is a valid way to engage. That said, you can’t please everyone; as a visitor, I like it when a museum is confident and unapologetic about their approach.

All connections are potential opportunities. The more I read and blog, the more I realize that a museum’s potential partners and collaborators are everywhere. They may be parents (see Jeanne Vergeront’s post about involving parents), or children (see my post about multi-age programs), or the museum’s most avid visitors (see my post about museum ‘fans’).

7. Never let a heckler ruin your show.

Sometimes a drunk person is just going to ruin a show, and there’s nothing you can do about it – so just finish your set with some grace…

Museum connection

Fortunately, museums do not face hecklers in the traditional sense. However, as museums become increasingly involved in digital endeavors, I wonder whether they will need to develop strategies for dealing with people who engage in inappropriate or disparaging ways. Perhaps those that have experience working in museums and new media might like to weigh in here.


FullSizeRenderRyan is a comedian and writer living in New York City. As a stand up, Ryan has performed at various venues around town, from New York Comedy Club to The Creek and the Cave. He is also a longtime member of the indie improv troupe, Tickle Party. He writes and performs sketch comedy for ‘Latino Dance Troupe,’ and hosts a monthly sketch show called ‘Express Lane’ – a show written and produced in ten days.  Follow him on Twitter @RyeBreadHere


Blog posts quoted

Dilenschneider, C. (2014, August 13). Why Talking about the Future of Museums may be Holding Museums Back. [Blog post]. Know Your Own Bone.

Downey, S. (2014, November 24). Reflection 22: On Reflection. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

Korn, R. (2015, January 14). 2015 Intentional Practice Series. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

Korn, R. (2014, October 30). Reflection 20: Alignment and the Complexities of Intentional Practice. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

Can museum shops confer wellbeing?

A few weeks ago, my father-in-law asked if I’d ever considered writing about museum shops. I was a bit startled because, honestly, the idea had never occurred to me (and probably never would have). Because my blog explores ways that museums can uplift visitors and communities, I was compelled to focus my father-in-law’s proposal into the following question: Can museum shops confer wellbeing?

So I began to reflect on my experiences in museum shops. And each time I visited a museum, I made time to visit the shop. I began to appreciate the way that effective museum shops extend and enrich the wellbeing-enhancing aspects of the museum experience. Here are some preliminary thoughts (which I hope to build on in future posts).

Museum shops can extend the museum experience of wonder, imagination, and intrigue. The perfect example here (from my experience) is the Spy Museum shop, which, in my opinion, actually comes quite close to rivaling the exhibits. When I visited the museum in 2012, I became completely absorbed by the shop’s extensive selection of books, appropriately curated to deepen and extend content from the exhibits.

Museum shops can contribute towards the museum’s social mission and commitment to community. The gift shop at Logan Art Gallery (a regional gallery in Australia where I used to volunteer) is completely integrated into the museum itself with most of the merchandise displayed in cabinets under and alongside the front desk. The store sells local creations (jewelry, scarves, cards, ceramics) thereby supporting local artists and raising their profile within the community.

Shop merchandise can inspire playfulness and imagination, and extend the experience to others outside the museum. The fun Wizard of Oz products at the National Museum of American History’s shop offer an opportunity for playfulness and sharing beyond the museum; during a recent visit, my mum purchased Wizard-of-Oz-themed socks (pictured below) as souvenirs for her sisters.

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Shops can celebrate museum collections and immerse visitors in beauty. The shop at the National Gallery of Art (entrance pictured below) is a good example of the way that a museum shop can help to celebrate the museum’s collection, and re-ignite visitors’ memories of favorite works or displays.

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Museum shops are valuable because they allow visitors to carry the unique qualities of the museum outside the museum walls—and into the wider world. They bring social continuity to the museum experience, allowing visitors to seek out new discoveries, claim tangible mementos, and share the experience with friends and family through playful gifts. They also offer respite from the formality and restrictiveness of the gallery space; visitors can touch, hold, try on, and share.

Do you believe that museum shops can advance a museum’s mission? Do they have a role in the social service museum? Finally, can a museum increase its impact through its shop?

The changing conversations of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series

If you’ve ever seen Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (as I did recently) or stumbled upon the recently popular Tumblr page, What They See, you may have entertained the idea of museum objects as living entities with voices, opinions, and physical vantage points.

If so, you are well situated to appreciate one of the key curatorial principles of The Phillips Collection, explained as follows by founder, Duncan Phillips: ‘I bring together congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time’ (quoted here on Experiment Station). The practice of acquainting diverse artworks with one another to allow new relationships to emerge is a ‘hallmark’ of the museum, Gallery Educator, Ellen Stedtefeld, elaborated in the post.

During a recent visit to the Phillips with fellow museum blogger, Caitlin Kearney (check out her blog, Museum A Week), I was struck by the value of this approach for displaying works with powerful and enduring social relevance—such as permanent collection favorite, The Migration Series (1940-41) by Jacob Lawrence.

Lawrence’s The Migration Series chronicles the large-scale northward migration of southern African Americans between the two world wars; the 60 panel series is divided between The Phillips Collection (which holds the odd-numbered works) and the Museum of Modern Art (which holds the even-numbered works) (see website).

As Dr. Celeste-Marie Bernier (African American Studies scholar) highlighted for me during a related lecture earlier in 2014, The Migration Series acts, in some ways, as historical record and memorial. Through this helpful lens, I see the series as a key artistic contribution towards greater social justice and historical empathy.

This visit was my third time viewing Lawrence’s Migration Series. Over this fourteen-month period of visiting the Phillips, exhibitions and displays have come and gone and The Migration Series has moved upstairs. So I have essentially seen three different iterations of Duncan Phillips’ ‘congenial spirits’ approach to displaying these works; that is, I have seen the series in three different relational and conversational contexts.

When I visited in December 2013, The Migration Series was being displayed ‘in conversation’ with Pakistani Voices, a body of work created through outreach workshops in Pakistan in which artists, students, educators, and museum professionals collaboratively developed artworks inspired by The Migration Series, and in a similar spirit of visual storytelling (see website).

When Lawrence’s panels were allowed to converse and connect with Pakistani Voices, the works took on a kind of universal and intercultural quality. They appeared more as distinct entities and less as a series as they empathized across physical space and culture. They assumed an educative role, with traces of Lawrence’s forthright, bold use of color and shape evident among the Pakistani Voices’ works. The conversations between these two series brought to mind shared human experience.

When I returned to the museum in November 2014, The Migration Series had moved to another floor alongside several exhibits including A Tribute to Anita Reiner, an exhibition honoring and showcasing the efforts of intrepid art collector, Anita Reiner. This time, I saw Lawrence’s works as a more clearly defined set, telling a powerfully cohesive story. Thinking back on The Migration Series in conversation with Ms Reiner’s eclectic, passionate, and open-minded collecting style evokes ideas about ‘the artist’ including the importance of supporting artists and the valuable role of arts supporters such as Ms Reiner. Retroactively reflecting on these possible connections is an interesting and valuable process.

Last week, I was fortunate to see The Migration Series presented alongside a selection from another of Lawrence’s series, a small exhibition titled Struggle…from the History of the American People. The Struggle series is aesthetically distinct from The Migration Series, something that immediately intrigued me and sparked interesting later discussion with Caitlin. Seeing these two distinct sets of works (by the same artist) in conversation with one another highlighted Lawrence’s versatility and intentionality. Consequently, the aesthetic qualities of The Migration Series seemed more deliberate and impactful, with a very authoritative narrative voice.

Have you seen The Migration Series in conversation with a different work or exhibition from the ones that I detail here? How did you experience Jacob Lawrence’s powerful storytelling when brought into conversation with a work or collection from a different artist, time, place, or style?

Have you ever noticed works or objects conversing within a gallery space, either during your visit or upon later reflection? Did these conversations influence your experience and your learning?

Based on my own experiences, I am curious about the role of Duncan Phillips’ curatorial approach for works with strong social relevance. Seeing the way that Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series interacted with diverse works (including some of his own) provided new ways of seeing and understanding the social importance of the works—i.e. for advancing intercultural understanding, for promoting the artist and the important social role of art, and for better understanding the artist’s aesthetic intentions.

An upcoming exhibition at MoMA, One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North, will reunite all 60 works in the series. After their long separation (and their time spent in the company of other works), I imagine they will have a lot to say to one another—and to their audience.

from The Migration Series - Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence – “Panel no. 13: The crops were left to dry and rot. There was no one to tend them.” © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York