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.

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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.

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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.

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?

Museums, a way in to doubt?

Poet Jane Hirshfield’s hopeful insights into the role of poetry in helping to solve big social problems make a powerful case for the public celebration of uncertainty and nuance in the world.

I didn’t realize until my Memorial Day visits to Freer|Sackler and Hirshhorn Museum that the museum can also be a crucial ‘way in’ to uncertainty, and healthy doubt.

Like Hirshfield’s compelling argument in favor of poetry, museums are texts of doubt and ambiguity, of complexity and abundant gray area. This is one of their greatest strengths, and a possible asset to be leveraged in their emerging quest to contribute to social justice.

Hirshfield says ‘poetry is an antidote to fundamentalism.’ Museums too are particularly adept at offering more questions than answers, and reminding us just how much we haven’t yet considered. This sense of ourselves as social and intellectual ‘works in progress’ is a beautiful thing, and a potential way for museum experiences to help gradually heal social ills.

Doubt, I think, is an important precursor to empathy—which is a hot topic in the museum field today, and a difficult and skillful undertaking, for anyone. Empathy requires both the ability to connect with personal experiences by searching for similarity and shared meaning, and the ability to suspend assumption and be willing to expand or revise an existing understanding of human experience. This latter task requires you to doubt what you already think that you know about human emotion so that you are open to the complexities of someone else’s reality.

Great museum exhibits and programs unsettle our inherent dogmas, shake us down, and confront us with nuance and difference. This is one place where empathy could live and thrive in the museum. How do we, as museum professionals, work with the doubt and incompleteness that exists within all topics—science, art, history—to support healthy, empathetic communities?

‘Poems also create larger fields of possibilities,’ Hirshfield continues. Similarly, a great museum visit conveys a profound sense of incompleteness and therefore, potential. Ordinarily, we associate doubt and uncertainty with anxiety and fear. However, in the relative safety of the museum, experiencing one’s worldview as incomplete and nascent is actually quite therapeutic. It leaves you feeling less constrained.

Sometimes, the museum experience can border on absurd, and this too is helpful because it helps us reimagine notions of ordinariness and normality, and think more broadly.

A museum visit shouldn’t make you feel stupid (see my previous post about empowering exhibitions) nor should it provoke anxiety, but it shouldn’t make you feel infallible either.

Doubt inspires an unsettled and motivated curiosity. I’m reminded of David Carr’s recent remarks at Smithsonian Libraries during which he contended, ‘it is thinking, not “learning,” that makes us different.’ Learning, I think, implies something much more finite that what museums can really offer. Thinking, however, requires only the spark of an idea (or a doubt) and can then become a lifelong process.

For regular people living thoughtful, complex, authentic lives, Carr contends, ‘Knowledge of the museum kind is best when it helps such people over time to be more engaged, more curious, more empathetic, and more reflective; less judgmental; more aware of the fragile; and less afraid of ambiguity.’

Ambiguity is never more ubiquitous or celebrated than in the contemporary art museum (as I was reminded during my recent visit to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). Many people are frustrated by the museum’s apparent refusal to clearly answer the question, ‘What does it mean?’ Yet, visitors are drawn in anyway—by the mystery and by the refreshing contact with something that isn’t necessarily complete or certain.

Even the most seemingly small mental ‘resets’ and moments of intellectual revision or confusion can feel pretty great, and probably work to counteract harmful ‘certainty’ on a larger scale.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is currently showing Peacock Room REMIX, an exhibition by Darren Waterston, which reimagines James McNeill Whistler’s iconic Peacock Room (on display at Freer Gallery of Art) through its centerpiece work, Filthy Lucre. Filthy Lucre recreates the Peacock Room, and depicts it as a kind of decaying palace. Its surprising vibrancy and energy caused me to see the original Peacock Room in a very different light. Suddenly, the original room seemed static, quiet, and slightly dulled, yet also more authentic and real than the almost cartoonish Filthy Lucre. I’m now quite uncertain how I feel about the Peacock Room; what I think, what I feel, and what I imagine have been thrown into revision by the remixed version.

The remixing of ideas in the museum is therefore a valuable source of doubt, and intellectual revision. And museum exhibitions and programs might consider how they can nurture doubt and nuance within their audiences—by reframing concepts (as in the Peacock Room REMIX), by igniting questions, and by appropriately conveying the challenge (and reward) of true empathy.

Burns, C. (2015, May 13). A famous poet explains how great verse can help solve big social problems (and reads you a poem!)The Washington Post. 

Carr, D. (2015, February 26). Questions for an Open Cultural Institution: Thinking Together in Provocative PlacesSmithsonian Libraries.

Historic houses and legacies: letting spaces speak

Have you ever wondered what your historical legacy will be? Maybe you will positively alter the course of history and your possessions, stories, and spaces will be preserved somewhere in a museum or historic house. Maybe, by accident, you will cross paths with a significant moment in history. Likely, you will pass some kind of legacy to your family.

Where do legacies reside? They are found in stories and memories, of course, but they also inhabit physical spaces and objects. How such spaces tell their stories, and how visitors might listen and find personal meaning are potentially useful questions for museums and historic houses that care for these spaces.

I began pondering these questions after recent visits to President Lincoln’s Cottage and Mary McLeod Bethune Council House—historic houses that tell the stories of the prominent social reformers for whom they are named. I wondered about the social service or therapeutic possibilities of spaces that house legacies of social change, such as Lincoln’s or Bethune’s.

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President Lincoln’s Cottage is quite different from a traditional museum, and leaves a lasting impression that is both visceral and intellectual. The rooms are relatively bare and do not contain exhibits in the traditional sense—just a few pieces of period furniture here and there. Instead of objects, they are filled with Lincoln’s ideas, experiences, and stories. These intangible pieces of history fill the spaces as completely as any exhibition would; the rooms don’t feel empty—which is surprising because, in a physical sense, they are.

Photograph by Erik Uecke, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

Photograph by Erik Uecke, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, historic headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women and Bethune’s last D.C. residence, feels closer to a traditional museum, but shares some interesting similarities with the uniquely idea-based interpretive style of President Lincoln’s Cottage. The spaces are intended to evoke Bethune’s spirit, intellect, and obvious charisma, and they do it well.

During a recent lecture at the National Building Museum by design psychology founder, Dr Toby Israel, I learned that the spaces we select and the ways we curate and present them are deeply revealing of who we are. I began to appreciate this lasting ‘essence’ of a person or group as a valuable asset of the historic house.

My biggest takeaway from my historic house visits was the intense relationship between historic spaces, and visitor imagination and empathy. Standing in both of these sites, I did more than simply learn about their historical inhabitants, I experienced their lives, and personalities. I think physical space is important for these experiences. We need to imagine ourselves within the space to begin to empathize with its history.

Within Lincoln’s space, once a haven for Lincoln and his family, I sensed his earnestness, his limitations, his anxiety and frequent exhaustion. I idealized him less, and liked him more. Within Bethune Council House, I palpably sensed Bethune’s pride, confidence, and optimism. I got the impression she was a person unafraid to participate fully in the world, despite its oftentimes discriminatory attitudes towards her race and gender. Her inspiring presence danced self-assuredly in every room.

My visit to Bethune Council House made me realize that historic spaces might serve as identity blueprints because they tell us so much about their owners and users—both who they were and how they represented themselves in the world. My guide did an incredible job of drawing my attention to the significance of certain spaces and objects in the House. The scene below captures the importance of the House piano (not the original), its striking presence in the space, and its important role in promoting Bethune’s concern for equality internationally (see the flags).

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Her imagined office space (pictured below) highlights her struggle to represent herself as capable and strong, yet feminine—a difficult (but necessary) line to walk at the time for someone with Bethune’s aspirations, according to my guide.

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This conference table (see below) also tells an important story about how Bethune might have imagined her work: She was doing serious work for African American women and that required a serious conference table. To stand by this piece of history, which may have once given Bethune confidence, was affirming and empowering.

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Historic spaces might also remind us of social and political constraint and thereby engender a sense of pragmatic empathy for historical figures. (Lincoln and Bethune were both limited by their spheres of influence and had to choose their battles.) Historic spaces also bring us a little closer to the greatness within ourselves as we sense the strategy and ingenuity behind successful social change. So these experiences might build empathy and creativity, and re-invigorate our idealistic side.

Of course, when we visit museums such as Bethune Council House or Lincoln’s Cottage, we are experiencing selective interpretations of their lives rather than authentic, unbiased realities. We cannot actually step back in time and chat with Bethune by her real grand piano, or hang out with Lincoln on his porch. But we can occupy spaces they once occupied, and see where this leads us. Maybe we can know something about ourselves, at least through our own intellectual experience. Potential for personal growth and a renewed sense of wellbeing may reside here, in this unusual, and valuable experience.

Both Bethune Council House and Lincoln’s Cottage do an admirable job of stepping back and letting the spaces speak. Historic houses (and the intangible social assets that they house) seem like important social and community resources, even potential building blocks for innovative social programs. These institutions and their resources might make valuable sites for therapeutic programs. I am reminded of Lois Silverman’s work on the Museums as Therapeutic Agents (MATA) Collaborative project. The project included a tour of the historic Wylie House for people with life-threatening illness (and their partners) and encouraged participants to self-reflect, draw helpful historical parallels, and appreciate universal human challenge (Silverman, 2002).

Perhaps historic houses could use their legacies to support young people through special tours and workshops, or to reconnect people living with dementia with their sense of self through casual visits and discussions. Maybe they would be useful resources for programs for helping professionals (doctors, social workers) aimed at refreshing participants and averting professional burnout.

These are merely ideas for consideration, and discussion. Successful programs of this kind would likely require close collaborations with community organizations and social service professionals, potentially creating new opportunities for maintaining institutions’ contemporary relevance and community value.

Do you see any valuable connections between public history, legacies, and therapeutic and social programs? I think there’s something here. After all, why do we look to history if not to avoid repeating it, to be inspired, to feel comfort and a sense of shared experience, and to think critically about its applications to our own lives?

Photograph by Erica Abbey, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

Photograph by Erica Abbey, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

 

Silverman, L. H. (2002). The therapeutic potential of museums as pathways to inclusion. In R. Sandell (Ed.), Museums, society, inequality (pp. 69-83). New York, NY: Routledge.

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

 

On fear, and imperfection

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The ideas of fear and fearlessness have been quietly turning over in my mind for some time. I think they are relevant to writing, museums, and social change, and so I hope they are relevant here too.

I recently discovered this article by Leanne Regalla via Boost Blog Traffic (thanks to a tweet by writer, Amy Butcher); Regalla suggested that developing empathy for your audience and understanding your readers’ basic drivers (for example, their desires and fears) are critical to successful blogging (Leanne Regalla, Boost Blog Traffic).

This got me thinking about the blogging experience and about those of you who read the blog, supporting my nascent development as a writer and museum thinker. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my own drivers, and in particular, my motivations for writing the blog. In fact, the questions ‘Why write?’ and ‘For whom?’ have been steeping in quiet unrest in my mind since a minor episode of ‘writer’s brattiness’ that occurred on Thanksgiving.

My post about personal responses had been ready to go since early that week, but I had been sitting on it because, although I liked the ideas it contained, I was dissatisfied with the way that it flowed. My fears about the post were reinforced when my husband (the blog’s informal editor) read the post on Thanksgiving morning and reviewed it with a lukewarm, ‘It’s good.’ Oh. No.

When my husband registered my obvious disappointment, he explained that he simply did not feel a personal connection to the subject matter. He correctly pointed out that I had probably influenced his judgment by saying that I wasn’t particularly crazy about the post. Hmmm ok, but the post is about personal connections, and actually, I kind of like the post; I’m just not sure others will.

I made some edits and published the post anyway. However, on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, I had a bit of a controlled tantrum—the kind where your behavior is civil and restrained, but you just won’t let a subject drop until you’ve exhausted yourself and your unfortunate audience. Should I have posted something I wasn’t completely thrilled with? In general, was I improving as a blogger?

Returning briefly to the idea of fundamental motivators, I think many of us who aspire to be creative and socially engaged have a quiet fear of not progressing and moving forward, and of failing to contribute the way we want to.

When I worked in human services, I helped shoulder other people’s vulnerabilities and although I had to give a lot of myself (energy, empathy, and general goodness) to do that successfully, I never had to expose my own inner world and my fears. I never had to ‘create’ anything that could potentially offend, fall flat, or simply be perceived as irrelevant. This is a new and occasionally frightening experience for me, which I suspect affects not only writers, but also museum folk (and artists) who frequently ‘create’ and ‘risk’ as stewards of culture and learning.

So given these fears, the question of ‘Why write?’ is important. The most compelling reason for me to write is to learn about museum work and to contribute, if I can, to a dialogue about culture and wellbeing. Despite the fact that I do not position myself as any kind of expert, I find I still need to approach the blog with a little fearlessness. The fear of being ‘wrong’ and of not improving, if allowed to flourish, could become large enough to derail the more important goal of learning about the museum field and contributing a social service perspective.

One thing I like about the genre of blogging is that a single contribution need not offer a definitive answer on a topic; it can simply be the beginning (or the middle) of an ongoing conversation. Wanting something to be ‘perfect’ before risking ourselves by sharing it is an understandable concern; however, I am glad that, on Thanksgiving, I favored imperfection over not sharing.

Recent museum-related posts from other bloggers have got me pondering the issue of perfectionism in museum work. Yesterday, on his blog ExhibiTricks, Paul Orselli asked ‘How Can Museums Respond Faster’ to issues of social concern such as recent events in Ferguson and New York . Commenter, Margaret, suggested that fear and the uncompromising desire for objectivity can hinder responsiveness (see Margaret’s comment).

Robert Weisberg, in his account of this year’s Museum Computer Network (MCN) conference, commented on the need for speed and agility rather than perfection when advancing museum technology (Robert Weisberg, Museum Digital Publishing Bliki).

The cost of ‘perfection’ and the successful management of fear and risk in writing and in socially-conscious museum work are something for me to chew on as I continue to create and risk in the hopes of sharing ideas and learning how I might contribute to the museum field.

Fellow bloggers and occasionally-insecure writers, educators, and curators please weigh in. Your imperfect, ‘in-progress’ ideas and reflections are greatly valued.

Museums, who are your fans? And how can you make them your partners?

Recently, I realized I have been guilty of museum favoritism.

Almost every day, I become more aware of the diverse and plentiful cultural offerings in the Washington, D.C. area. Frequently, people ask if I have heard of a particular museum or gallery and I happily say, ‘No, but it’s going on my list.’ This ever-expanding list reminds me that I have barely scratched the proverbial surface of local museum visiting possibility.

Why then—with so many unchecked boxes—do I repeatedly visit (and often write about) the same institutions? Firstly, time and energy are not unlimited (even for someone with my flexible schedule) so I am drawn to what intrigues me most. Ease of access is also a factor that nudges me towards the familiar, a constraint imposed by my poor map-reading and GPS-following skills. But another component is clearly the fact that certain museums’ exhibitions and public programs speak to my personal drives for growth and unique experience.

A few days ago, during a thought-provoking visit to the AMA | Art Museum of the Americas’ latest F Street Gallery exhibition, What We Have Within, I began to appreciate my value as an increasingly dedicated and regular visitor to this particular museum. Chatting with my inspiring guide, Exhibit Coordinator, Fabian Goncalves, I noticed (as I had during my first visit) the compelling interests and values that I share with this institution, namely the importance of telling real stories and giving voice to social concerns. I began to wonder, am I a resource to this and other museums whose mission and values I particularly embrace?

Strategically speaking, how should museums approach and respond to visitors who (for lack of a better word) love what the museum does? Do museums know what they’re ‘selling,’ or better yet, what visitors are ‘buying’? Obviously, the answer depends partly on the type of visitor; people visit museums for numerous reasons and with limitless possible outcomes or takeaways. Visitor differences aside, I want to propose the idea of museum ‘fans,’ and then ask the question, ‘Museums, do you know who your fans are—and why?’

A Google search of ‘museum visitors as fans’ turned up mostly articles relating to museums and sports/popular culture and a few intriguing results for ‘fan museums.’ However, I did find this evaluation case study of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture by evaluation firm, Randi Korn & Associates. The case study identified ‘fans’ as one of the three visitor groups of the museum, using the term to describe the most passionate, enthusiastic group (Randi Korn & Associates, 2012).

Since moving to the US and spending time living with my in-laws, I have been exposed to the fascinating phenomenon of baseball fan culture. I think it’s a wonderful example of the kind of thriving community that can grow from a shared passion, and I now have a new appreciation for the value of professional sports in contributing to community wellbeing and vitality. Fans, it seems, are truly the life and soul of baseball culture, contributing energy and character, and distinctly shaping the experience. Fans often use the phrase ‘our team,’ a linguistic choice that clearly reflects a sense of belonging and stewardship towards the team. I’m not sure exactly how an ‘our museum’ analogy would translate, but it’s an interesting notion. Certainly, understanding and cultivating visitors’ emotional investment in a museum could be a mutually rewarding enterprise.

Many museum membership programs strive to engage their more avid visitors with special opportunities to be involved in the museum’s cultural life. Similarly, crowdfunding projects, visitor-curated or crowdsourced displays, and active social media platforms offer passionate museum visitors the chance to contribute and collaborate. Who are museums attracting with these endeavors? What are participants’ hopes and motivations for participating? And how do these projects fit within the institution’s larger strategy and mission?

Recently, a visitor to the blog from local advertising agency, Brightline Interactive, introduced me to the concept of experiential marketing, which, as I understand it, aims to immerse consumers in a brand through inviting active participation and involvement. Since then, I have been pondering the possible connections between this concept and museum learning and mission engagement. For example, what are the possibilities for active involvement and immersion of ‘fans’ in a museum’s mission and brand?

If we think of fans as institutional resources (much like the collections, staff, and museum building), then what might be their possible roles? Fans may be potentially valuable members of a museum’s social network because they are able to spread a museum or exhibit’s message, raise awareness for issues of concern to the museum, and generally generate attention, for example, on social media (see below).

Although museums may struggle with the practical obstacles of connecting directly with passionate individuals, making the effort to seize small opportunities to acknowledge and celebrate visitors’ exciting connections and shared understandings could be valuable. For example, during my most recent visit to the AMA, my guide, Fabian, expressed his enjoyment of my visit, explaining that these experiences are valuable to him, as he knows they are to me also. This comment made me feel valued and connected to the museum.

As is often the case for me (being an emerging museum professional), this post is largely comprised of questions rather than answers. I sincerely hope that those with greater expertise in marketing, social networks, and museum branding will weigh in with relevant resources, thoughts, and critiques. I am also interested in the question of terminology. Is ‘fan’ an appropriate word here, or does a better option exist? Is the concept valid to begin with?

I wish to propose the following final question as food for thought:

What is the particular value of fans to museums that seek to engage in social work?

A recent post by Zac Stocks on the incluseum really highlighted for me the value of building community networks and creating strong self-sustaining systems of stakeholders when pursuing museum social work. Museums might consider looking to those users and visitors who share their vision in an effort to create enduring foundations for social change. 

What are your favorite cultural institutions and why? What could you contribute to these institutions? … I look forward to continuing my own museum pilgrimage (a term borrowed from Alli Burness), finding many more favorites, and sharing my stories and experiences with you.

 

Reference

Randi Korn & Associates, Inc. (2012). An audience research study for a natural history museum: Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle, WA. Retrieved from http://www.randikorn.com/resources/burke-visitor-experience.php

At home in the museum

Recently, I have been thinking about domesticity and ritual in the museum and their therapeutic value in this context.

When I think about the therapeutic potentials of the museum, I typically think about the beautiful artwork, the evocative objects and histories, and the magnificent spaces. But what about the potential for museums to act as ‘homes’—as sources of ritual, familiarity, and comfort?

I felt the first stirrings of poignant curiosity on this subject during my recent visit to the National Building Museum. Having little organic interest in architecture or urban planning, I expected to like (but not love) the museum. I also expected, perhaps narrow-mindedly, to learn a lot, but to feel very little.

I think the visit was particularly moving because of where I am in my life right now—newly married, but also recently transplanted and therefore lacking stability or a community that I feel a part of. Though I am gradually building a life for myself here in D.C., the topic of ‘home’ is nonetheless a powerful, emotive one for me right now.

The Building Museum was a potent reminder to me of the universal relevance of home and community. The discussion of dollhouses in the exhibition, House & Home, swept me back to my childhood, reminding me why I feel such enduring affection for these idyllic representations of home life. The experience induced a conflicted sense of comfort and longing, with a hint of nostalgia.

Another exhibition at the Building Museum titled Investigating Where We Live highlighted how museums can shine a spotlight on ordinary lives, rendering their beauty. This sharp, insightful exhibition was curated by local teens during an annual summer program. The students’ thoughtful exploration of D.C. neighborhoods made me feel simultaneously homesick for laidback, livable Brisbane (my most recent home) and excited to forge a place in the vibrant D.C. area.

I am intrigued by the way that similar experiences often (appear to) collide in time. On the day following my visit the Building Museum, I had the opportunity to see Urban Bungalow, the new exhibit at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery. This quietly lovely show curated by fiber artist, Jennifer Lindsay, invites the participating artists to ‘envision the gallery as a home (and as a work of art),’ according to the exhibition page. The exhibition features an assortment of home-inspired pieces including furniture, jewelry, ceramics, and textiles. The collection is simultaneously eclectic and harmonious, further reinforcing, at least for me, the warmth of a home.

What I noticed (and what the exhibition page also alludes to) is the power of the gallery space to transform and elevate domestic routines into comforting and healing rituals. The displays evoked memories of both my past and present lives. I was reminded of my childhood and my parents’ fondness for Japanese-style décor, including (during my early years) a Japanese table where we would kneel to eat dinner each night. The exhibition made me realize that everyday life is artful and that art inheres in everyday life.

Themes of domesticity and ritual lend themselves well to public programs that promote wellbeing, connectedness, and personal expression. For example, Urban Bungalow features a Sashiko Embroidery workshop and a Hand Spinning workshop—both offering creative, DIY experiences. Whether we are cooking, gardening, knitting … we naturally find immense satisfaction and empowerment in creating something that has both beauty and utility.

When I think about museums as ‘homes’ I am struck by how valuable they could be to people who are currently disadvantaged, vulnerable, or socially isolated. Collections that explore ordinary and domestic life seem to be perfect for programs that affirm individual experience such as ‘Personal Response’ tours (see Williams, 2010), reminiscing sessions, and community-curated exhibitions. They may also offer useful resources for extending the comfort of the museum through outreach—for example to hospitals, day centers, and other community service organizations. For these kinds of endeavors to be successful, museums will have to think empathetically (see the work of Gretchen Jennings) about the needs and life experiences of their participants so they can use museum resources in ways that genuinely engage and represent their communities, make them feel at home, and properly utilize their talents.

To readers:

I would love to hear more about the routines and rituals that bring you comfort. Have you experienced similar moments of comfort in the museum when you connected with something familiar—maybe something lost—or something wished for?

Tomorrow, I plan to put aside my anxieties (or at least try to) in celebration of the domestic. For me, this will hopefully involve (in a yet-to-be-determined order) going for a run, making dinner for me and my husband, and sitting down with a book and a cup of tea.

For a beautifully-written personal perspective on domestic ritual and its connections to health, healing, and family, see this piece by writer, Donna Trussell [@donnatrussell] via The Washington Post.

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The social rest space at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery reinforces comfort and creativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Williams, R. (2010). Honoring the personal response: A strategy for serving the public hunger for connection. Journal of Museum Education, 35(1), 93-101. doi: 10.1179/jme.2010.35.1.93

When museums believe wholeheartedly in their contribution

A few days ago, I visited the final day of Investing in Women and Girls, an exhibition presented by the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Art Museum of the Americas (AMA).

The exhibition featured 30 finalist entries from the Colors of Life photo contest organized in collaboration with The World Bank Art Program. It was held in the F Street Gallery, an off-site exhibition space located in the OAS’s F street building. Actively advancing the museum’s overt social justice mission, the photographs celebrate and affirm the achievements of women and girls, and advocate for advancing women’s social and economic rights.

The exhibition was accessible only by appointment so at 2pm on Friday, I arrived at the OAS ready to see the exhibition. My failure to confirm the required meeting spot in advance caused some confusion at the front desk. Luckily, the friendly reception staff called ahead to the museum and confirmed that I should wait in the lobby for the museum staff person.

This awkward start to my visitor experience was quickly redeemed by the warmth and genuine enthusiasm of the museum staff member, Fabian, who arrived promptly and took me through security to the gallery. He apologized for the security screening causing a less-than-ideal prologue to my visit, which instantly put me more at ease.

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Fabian and I agreed that OAS staff are fortunate to have the gallery brightening their workspace.

As he showed me around, he spoke enthusiastically about the exhibition and pointed out his favorite artwork. He explained that the artists would ultimately sell their works and donate the proceeds to various charities, allowing the project to make a very real social impact. He also chatted with me about my background and museum career aspirations.

The ‘likeableness’ of this museum experience continues to resonate with me days later. What stays with me is the impression that the museum and its staff believe wholeheartedly in the museum’s social mission and are warmly and unassumingly proud of the museum’s work. (My visit later the same day to the main AMA building further confirmed my impression of the museum as a sincere, proud, and humble institution.)

In her recent post on Intentional Museum, museum blogger, Amanda Krantz, talks about the value of raising awareness through even small changes in visitor attitudes and knowledge.

I suggest museums may be in a unique position to raise awareness in subtle and visceral ways that contribute to the ‘baby steps’ of understanding that Krantz talks about (Amanda Krantz, Intentional Museum). The understanding need not always be intellectual, but can be emotional and intuitive—in this case, perhaps a greater appreciation for the abilities of women and girls, or (for female visitors), a sense of social empathy.

As we’re seeing from the Ice Bucket Challenge, part of raising awareness about a cause is getting people personally engaged in some way. Thanks to the enthusiasm of my guide, I came out of the AMA exhibition feeling a true sense of possibility—both for myself as a woman, and for the exhibition’s imagined future of a more just world.

So how might museums engender a sense of excitement about their social service work and a sincere belief in its value? Perhaps creating this kind of institutional culture is one thing while conveying it to the visiting public is another challenge. Or does one naturally lead to the other?

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I happily accepted Fabian’s invitation to write a message to Colors of Life founder, Amalia Pizzardi, in the guest book.

After my visit, I can’t help feeling that museum staff are a valuable resource for ‘selling’ the social work of the museum. I wonder how museum leaders can help staff feel invested in that work—so that visitors feel invested too.