Special gifts of the house museum

Recently, blogger, Hannah Lawrence, observed that ‘no matter who you are or what your background, when you are permitted to open grand towering doors you feel a sense of self-indulgent import’ (Exploring with Hannah).

The power of this experience, for me, cannot be overstated. Period architectural grandeur and that incredible experience of opening and passing through a spectacular door is one of my favorite things about visiting a house museum.

Hannah’s comment got me thinking about the unique ways that house museums confer wellbeing on us (as visitors) by eliciting a sense of personal ‘import’—by making us feel special. Maybe they play on our childhood fondness for acting out royal, fairy-tale storylines, or pique our natural curiosity about what it might be like to live among lavish wealth and beauty. Maybe they tap into our simple tendency to romanticize a time or place different from our own.

I think, however, that house museums are more than just palettes for our imaginations and romantic fantasies. A recent visit to Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens gave me the opportunity to cogitate on the source of this experience of ‘specialness.’

The reason why we love opening ‘grand towering doors’ may have something to do with the fact that we are physically penetrating a piece of history. For house museums, the house itself is arguably the gem of the collection, and unlike the other objects in the house (and in the traditional museum), we are permitted to interact with it physically: to push open the door, to walk up and down the stairs, and to hold the banisters. We experience a tactile relationship with history; it’s quite a privilege, and we know it.

The Hillwood Mansion pantry and kitchen was a favorite for both my husband and me. It inspired so much imagination and delight as well as a sense of novelty—the obvious asset of the house museum. And after reading that Marjorie Post’s guests used prized pieces from the collection as actual plateware, I momentarily wished that Hillwood, in its efforts to act as gracious host, had considered continuing Post’s tradition of a functional collection.

However, the lovely moments of ordinariness at Hillwood’s Mansion made the most lasting impression on me. The ‘Snooze Room’ made me feel inexplicably comforted; it felt warm and familial. The placement of the rope barrier meant that I had to crane my neck to see an entire wall of photographs, adding to my sense that I was being treated to the most fleeting (and therefore, special) of peaks into another life.

In the staff dining room, my husband correctly observed that the table looked just like the one from our first apartment together. We enjoyed this simple connection to a vastly different life.

Even the banality of a roped off staircase engendered a childlike curiosity and sense of mystery. What was at the top of those stairs?

This is one of the truly special features of the house museum. It can’t avoid the moments of normality, ordinariness, and everyday life that its historic occupants undoubtedly lived through. These brushes with the ordinary help establish connections and a sense of shared humanity that reach comfortingly across time, culture, economic wealth, and life experience. House museums are places of both exciting difference and reassuring sameness. This striking contrast is less apparent in traditional museums where everything presented typically seeks to entertain, make a point, or expose visitors to something novel.

In the same way that the house museum makes us feel grand and special, we also play an important role in conferring specialness on the house. After all, we are the ones that deem it significant enough to visit, giving it purpose and a reason to continue existing long after its original occupants are gone. In this way, house museums and their visitors share a delightful reciprocity, which, it turns out, is just one of the house museum’s unique gifts.

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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.

Can you have a visitor experience without actually visiting?

Last Sunday, my husband and I had an almost-visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. We took a gorgeous bike ride from Old Town Alexandria along the Mount Vernon Trail to Washington’s picturesque estate.

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Feeling awesome from the bike ride, I then meandered happily through the Mount Vernon gift store and the front of the grounds. I told my husband I was excited to come back another day for a proper visit. It was a great afternoon.

Later, I realized I would be quite content to return again by bike, experience the site, and then ride home again. Basically, my ‘visit’ to Mount Vernon had meant something to me, even though I hadn’t technically visited.

This realization got me wondering how museums fit into the larger fabric of their communities and geographic areas. How might their presence enhance healthy behaviors (such as biking), feelings of connection, and interpersonal relationships? And how can they be a reassuring force in their communities?

Getting people into the museum is a wonderful thing, but so are the forms of subtle engagement that a museum’s simple existence and care for its community can inspire. I recently attended a job interview at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden, and truly loved the experience of walking through the surrounding neighborhood (pictured below) and being in proximity to the Estate’s incredible beauty. Though I didn’t visit the Museum, I definitely experienced it.

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All museums and cultural sites have natural assets. Some of those assets may be fortuitous products of the museum’s surrounding area rather than deliberate virtues of the museum: accessibility via public transport, proximity to natural beauty or tranquility, maybe even—isolation.

Part of this ‘radial’ visitor experience is also deliberate, curated. Museums project ideas and values to their communities; these are felt and experienced by all who come into its radius, even if they don’t take a tour or view an exhibition.

Maybe this subtle form of impact and engagement is a possible first step towards breaking down the museum’s ‘reproduction of disadvantage’ (see Emily Dawson’s work). If community members can feel comfortable and welcome within your museum’s ‘radius,’ maybe they can begin to feel similarly welcome and comfortable within the museum’s walls. Accessible outdoor spaces also provide opportunities to eat, socialize, and connect in a casual, affordable way.

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Should museums give greater consideration to the presentation of their grounds, the proximity of nearby parks and trails, casual access to tables and benches on their grounds (see above image of Library of Congress), or sidewalk access to outdoor panels and exhibits?

In many cases, museums also act as physical historical markers, reminding those in their proximity of big and important ideas. Their mere physical existence sustains our collective memory.

Recently, museum and library thinker, David Carr, gave a lecture at Smithsonian Libraries. Carr spoke about the role of museums and libraries in inspiring individual lives, understanding aspirations, and shaping the ‘story of the self.’ So I wonder—how can museums use their subtle influences to creatively contribute to individual lives?

Do you have a local museum or cultural site that somehow touches your life—that gives you pleasure, reassurance, and a sense of cultural wealth—even if you might never step inside? If so, then you are part of that museum’s impact. And that museum is responsible for contributing a greater richness to your individual life.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

A love letter to the public library

This year, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I have become reacquainted with an old love: the public library.

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After recently starting work as a Museum Assistant at the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, I have become absorbed in research on women’s suffrage and equal rights. This quest has led me (happily) on a tour of my local public libraries. I was delighted to learn that as a resident of Alexandria, Virginia, I was entitled to membership at not only Alexandria libraries, but also Fairfax County and Arlington libraries!

Filled with #librarylove, I decided now was a good time to read The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, an 18-year photographic survey of American public libraries by Robert Dawson with personal reflections from writers and library advocates. (See Dawson’s related blog here.) Dawson’s relationship with the photographs captivated me most, particularly the empathy and curiosity framing each image. I realized that any discussion or exploration of the public library was inherently personal so I began to reflect on my own history.

‘Whenever I found a library, I immediately felt at home.’ Charles Simic ‘A Country Without Libraries’ The Public Library p. 37

As a child growing up in a reasonably small Queensland town, I loved going to my local library. My mental image of its interior is surprisingly focused and includes both the sights and the smells of the place. My parents were sometimes strict about the kinds of movies and television that I could watch (at least in my opinion at the time) and so library books represented a source of free and open information and entertainment, a chance to explore the world uncensored.

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‘ … when people don’t have free access to books, then communities are like radios without batteries.’ Anne Lamott ‘Steinbeck Country’ The Public Library, p. 165

Libraries have been a great resource to me, especially during times of stress or transition. When my husband and I first moved back to Australia a few years ago, the local library provided our first Internet connection, and was therefore instrumental in helping us find our first jobs. Several years later, while I was continually moving between shifts at work and writing my master’s thesis (trying not to lose too many hours in the car), the abundant local libraries in Brisbane were a godsend. The Ashgrove Library became my workspace and second home; its large, breezy terrace provided a peaceful place to write while enjoying nature.

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‘For countless people the public library represents opportunity and hope.’ Robert Dawson ‘Introduction’ The Public Library p. 9

Last year, Ferguson Library offered its space as a refuge from the crisis that erupted following a grand jury decision not to indict police officer, Darren Wilson, in the shooting death of unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown. I think libraries are natural venues for supporting communities in crisis because they are designed to be comfortable and familiar, and to promote a strong sense of public ownership. I’m grateful that they are increasingly willing to take on the challenges of a community service role. I was intrigued to learn (from Dawson’s book) that the San Francisco Main Library employs a full-time social worker to assist library visitors.

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‘Our work demands that we become dreamers, holding onto hope that our society can be better….’ Dorothy Lazard ‘Practicing Seva’ The Public Library p. 105

In the same spirit as my previous post about parks, I’m curious about the lessons that museums can learn from libraries. Of course, museums are their own institutions, and many of the ways in which they diverge from libraries are what help make them special and valuable. However, I still feel that public libraries possess qualities and values that museums could strive to emulate—with positive impacts on their communities. Public libraries are places of refuge, of comfort, and of earnest self-betterment. In short, much of what libraries represent to communities and individuals, museums could too.

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The values of access and equity that epitomize our idea of the public library today did not always reflect reality. This exhibition currently on display at Beatley Central Library tells the story of local African American residents who asserted their right to use their public library through a library sit-in 1939.

 

All photos were taken at the Beatley Central Library in Alexandria, Virginia.

Dawson, R. (2014). The Public Library. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

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