Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Back to the future?: A refresher course in the basics of exhibit development could save your museum's next project

Photo by Brian Forrest of MOCA, via LA Times
 Culture Monster  blog
Continuing the tradition of putting in my two cents about the latest happenings in the museum world, I offer a few observations on the enormous mural gaffe committed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles late last week. For those of you unfamiliar with MOCA LA's blunder, here is a brief synopsis.

MOCA commissioned an Italian street artist named Blu to paint a mural on the external wall of their Geffen Contemporary building as part of a larger street art exhibition set to open next April. The museum's Director, Jeffrey Deitch (who comes from the art gallery world, but has no real museum experience), signed off on the project and left town for an international art fair in Miami. Blu proceeded to paint giant rows of military-style coffins draped in dollar bills, an obvious commentary on the war and capitalism. Upon Deitch's return, Blu's mural was determined to be "inappropriate" and was completely whitewashed. Now, some are crying censorship since MOCA sits adjacent to a monument honoring Japanese-American soldiers and near a Veterans Affairs building.

One cannot help but wonder at what point things went wrong in planning this project. Was anyone asking good questions? In addition to writing this blog, I teach in the Museum Studies department at Walsh University, and it occurs to me that if MOCA had followed a few basic rules of exhibit development they might have avoided this entire mess. Let us lay out a couple of key issues to discuss before planning and mounting your next exhibition.

1. Be sure you know exactly what you are exhibiting. This is as true with artists as it is with artifacts. Many  are culturally significant, others are worthless imitations. Some objects and subjects are provocative, while others are openly offensive. Some things are worth saying, showing, installing, and risking, while others are just a public relations nightmare not worth the effort. Unfortunately, in MOCA's case it seems no one did enough homework to be sure where on the avant-garde spectrum their new mural would fall. Oops.

2. Know thine audience. Remember, your core constituency may be different from your general audience. For example, your programs may cater to connoisseurs of high art, hipsters, and artists, but if your museum resides in a neighborhood frequented by active military service men and women, veterans, their families, as well as others working closely with them, and you are planning an outdoor mural, these folks are members of your audience as well. Consider carefully the message you will convey, and of course it is not only what you say, but how you say it that matters in the end.

3. Make sure you have a clear contract. If your contract is vague on several points, do not be surprised  when the exhibition you envisioned is not the one you end up mounting. Institutions lending artifacts or traveling exhibits may be free to pull high profile artifacts from the show without warning, and artists may assume they have a blank canvas and a blank check unless your contract clearly states otherwise.

4. Collaboration builds community. Some museums do a great job of reaching out to neighboring organizations and the surrounding community, others seem to think they bring something so special to the neighborhood that they do not need local input. I have no idea how often MOCA LA collaborates with its neighbors, but I know that asking the community for ideas about a mural specifically mounted as part of a project meant to inject street art into the community makes a lot of sense. Obviously, there was a disconnect with the community somewhere in this initiative.
Jessica shows off the exhibit design concept board, which
highlights the ways she plans to engage her audience. 

Each of these four concepts was integral to the Exhibition Development and Design course I taught this past semester. My students learned that serving your mission, audience, and community at-large are keys to a successful exhibition. Whether you are a small historical society, or an eminent art museum, the basic tenets apply. If museums strive for more than just headlines and shock-value, if they want to be valued, respected, and relevant, then projects and programs need to be carefully conceived and even more carefully carried out.

As museum professionals, we are responsible for the future legacy of our organizations. In a political environment where the application of public funding must be justified and measured against a greater economic good, we must balance risk and reward with an eye towards that shared future. Going back to school on some basic program development guidelines seems like a simple way to keep chaos at bay, and ensure that our impact is both memorable and positive.

MOCA's unfortunate mural episode serves as a cautionary tale for all museums. What on the surface looks innovative and engaging, may end up doing more harm than good if best practices and important details are overlooked. Be sure your team has covered all the bases before the paintbrush hits the wall.

Here is a link to the LA TImes' story on MOCA's mural blunder.
Museum of Contemporary Art commissions, then paints over, artwork - latimes.com

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Guest Post: Megan McQuillen reviews the National First Ladies Library's exhibit "Heroes of the Presidential Medal of Freedom"

Megan McQuillen contributes the third essay in a series of four guest blog posts written by the students in my Exhibition Development and Design class at Walsh University. This semester my students are learning about the elements and principles museums employ in creating successful exhibits and valuable visitor experiences. Each student is presenting her own perspective on an exhibit, book, or experience, which she found compelling.

Megan McQuillen, shown here with the design board 
she produced as part of her final exhibit project, is a 
aenior in the Museum Studies Program at Walsh University.
A Review of "Heroes of the Presidential Medal of Freedom" at the National First Ladies Library

On November 12, I had the opportunity to visit the newest exhibit at the National First Ladies Library (NFLL), “Heroes of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” The exhibit had just opened on November 11 and would be featuring fourteen female recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including four First Ladies. I have visited the NFLL many times and had a basic idea of how the exhibit would be laid out, but my expectations for the kinds of objects on display, and how they would be displayed were very high.

President Bill Clinton, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, and President Jimmy Carter
Image courtesy of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library
I arrived for my tour a little early and had the chance to watch a video put together by the NFLL’s education department about the exhibit. The video outlined the women featured in the exhibit and what they did to earn the Medal of Freedom. The video also gave a brief history of the medal and the qualifications necessary to receive it. This information was very helpful for visitors who may have never heard of the Medal of Freedom, but also for guests, like myself, who had heard of it, but did not know very much about it. The rest of the video I was not too fond of though. It went into much detail about each of the recipients featured in the exhibit, giving information that would later be repeated in the tour, or that was available in the exhibit program. Another downside to the video is that it is only played for guests who arrive early enough to see it. If visitors come with only enough time to see the exhibit, they will not get the opportunity to learn about the history of the medal and the qualifications for receiving it. 

The tour started promptly at 1:30 and was given by one of the NFLL’s many trained docents. She opened up by explaining a history of the building and how the NFLL came to be, and then took the visitors around to explain about the items in each of the cases. As mentioned, my expectations were to see all kinds of objects, which had once belonged to the recipients, but instead I saw a lot of dresses and plaques. As I walked around it seemed that everything on display was either a plaque that was given to one of the women for her work with a particular cause, or a nice dress worn by one of the women. 

Betty Ford, Image Courtesy Ford Presidential Library
One particular example of this was the items on display belonging to former First Lady Betty Ford. For her support of the Equal Rights Amendment, her raising awareness of breast cancer (she suffered from it and would be one of the first women to ever openly speak out about it), as well as her help in starting the Betty Ford Clinic to help women receive treatment for alcohol and substance abuse problems, she was awarded a Medal of Freedom in 1991. Items of hers on display included plaques recognizing her many achievements as a supporter of the ERA and for breast cancer awareness, but also included a pink and white gown she wore for a state dinner. The gown was certainly beautiful, but it seemed to have almost nothing to do with the exhibit itself other than giving visitors a glimpse of Mrs. Ford’s fashion sense.

After our docent explained about the exhibit, I had some time to browse on my own and look more closely at each object. Posted around the gallery were pictures of each of the featured women with the reasons why they were chosen to receive a Medal of Freedom, and excerpts from the speech given by the President at their award ceremony. I found this particularly interesting and helpful. These excerpts gave the Presidents’ perspective on the many achievements made by these women and how they will continue to affect Americans in the future. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was one of these women. Her work on behalf of the developmentally challenged allowed them to receive more help and acceptance in society. She would also help establish the Special Olympics, which that today gives mentally challenged children and adults the same competitive opportunities as everyone else.

As I continued to browse through the exhibit, I was a little disappointed, but at the same time impressed, by the signage on the objects. Most of the signage posted gave information on the year an object or dress was made, who made it, and to whom it once belonged. I thought that some of the signs could have elaborated more, giving additional information, but at the same time, I was impressed because the information was enough for visitors to glance and read and move on. The brief labels kept human traffic from getting jammed up around some objects, and if visitors had more questions, they could certainly ask the docent who would answer them, or ask someone else at the museum for the answer.

The layout of the exhibit was particularly nice and very accommodating. The NFLL’s Education and Research Center’s exhibit gallery is fairly small and has five permanent display cases that were made specifically for them. The cases are each large enough to fit several of the objects and dresses in each. Because of their size, it could be very easy to “overstuff” the case with items to see, but this was definitely not the case. Each case was filled with enough items to allow visitors plenty of room to see everything without feeling overcrowded and without missing objects because they were hidden from view. The layout of these cases also provided plenty of room for visitors who may be confined by wheelchairs, walkers or strollers to see everything on display without interrupting others’ experiences.

Altogether, I thought the exhibit was excellent. It contained enough information through the video, the program, and/or the docent that all the visitors would be well informed and educated on the importance of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the women who received it. While I was disappointed by some of the random objects on display, they still contributed to an overall good experience for me and other visitors like me, who enjoy seeing gowns and how styles have changed over the years. I think my favorite part of the entire exhibit was a love letter from “Secret Agent 33” (aka Ronald Reagan) to his wife Nancy that told her how much he missed her and asked her to “lock herself in the closet” and he would let her out when he got home. While this seemed to be one of those random objects, it was cute for all the hopeless romantics out there, and also made the Reagans seem more human and less of a political couple, as they and other First couples are so often depicted. Most importantly though, I think the National First Ladies Library did an excellent job of exhibiting important women in American history who beat the odds and worked hard to prove that as women they could make a difference in the world.

The National First Ladies Library is located in Canton, Ohio at 205 and 331 Market Ave. South. The Education and Research Center is located in an 1895 bank building and serves as the main office, archives and library of the NFLL. It also has an exhibition hall, which displays temporary exhibits rotating about every six months. “Heroes of the Presidential Medal of Freedom will be on display until September 9, 2011. Visitors begin their tour in the Education and Research Center where they receive guided tours by trained docents on the current exhibits. After about a half hour in the Education and Research Center, visitors are taken to the Saxton-McKinley home, located one block south of the Education and Research Center. In the Saxton-McKinley home, guests are greeted by a docent dressed as one of the First Ladies and given a tour. The house was the family home of former First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley, built by her maternal grandparents in the 1840s. The Victorian mansion would also serve as the McKinleys’ home for about 28 years, while William McKinley served in Congress.

Visitors may take guided tours of the National First Ladies Library Tuesday through Saturday between 9 am and 4 pm. The museum is also open on Sundays from June-August. For more information, or to book a tour, interested visitors can call 330-452-0876 or visit their website www.firstladies.org.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Guest Post: Jessica Shoemaker reviews Nina Simon's "The Participatory Museum"

Jessica Shoemaker contributes the second essay in a series of four guest blog posts written by the students in my Exhibition Development and Design class at Walsh University. This semester my students are learning about the elements and principles museums employ in creating successful exhibits and valuable visitor experiences. As we draw nearer to the end of this fall term, each of my students will present her own perspective on an exhibit, book, or experience that resonates with her.

Guest Post by: Jessica Shoemaker
A Review of Nina Simon' s book, The Participatory Museum

The modern museum is focused around the visitor experience, especially pertaining to why they visit a museum, what draws them there, and how to get them to return.  In her book, The Participatory MuseumNina Simon discusses the methods in which participation can be used to create a profound experience for the visitors. Several important aspects of the participatory experience discussed in the book include principles of participation, visitors as contributors, social objects, evaluating participatory projects, and managing and sustaining participation. Simon uses examples and case studies to illustrate her points on different aspects of successful participatory experiences.

Simon begins by presenting three fundamental theories regarding participation. She suggests that the museum should be “audience centered,” while “visitors construct their own meaning from cultural experiences,” and “users’ voices can inform and invigorate both project design and public-facing programs,” (ii). It is essential for a modern museum to use these theories to appeal to audiences of today. Visitors are at the heart of the museum experience, and can bring a unique perspective to a museum program if given the opportunity. These theories are effective methods that should be developed by many museums today. 

The first chapter, “Principles of Participation,” includes information on how participation works and what an institution should do in order to create thriving experiences for the visitors. Simon mentions “many museums are fixated on creators,” (12) but this only applies to a small percentage of museum visitors. Most visitors go to the museum but choose not to participate in the activities. She uses the example of the Denver Art Museum (DAM) exhibition The Psychedelic Experience featuring rock music posters. Side Trip was an “interactive space” that accompanied the rock music poster exhibition and featured an activity that allowed visitors to create their own posters. They were given transparencies to create their own design, and the constraints of the transparencies were integral to the success of the activity.

As well as encouraging participation, the museum needs to ensure that their contribution is worthwhile to the visitor. She states, “Staff members need to offer participants something fundamental: personal fulfillment,” (18). Revealing the importance of ensuring a valuable experience for visitors is a necessary inclusion and Simon did not disappoint. She claims, “First, the institution should clearly explain how and when visitors will be rewarded for participating. Second, it should thank visitors immediately for participating, even if their content will now go into a holding pattern. And third, the staff should develop some workable process to display, integrate, or distribute the participatory content—and ideally, inform participants when their work is shared,” (19-20). Guaranteeing the task is worthwhile to a visitor is essential in their participation. If they feel that their time is going to be wasted on something that doesn’t do any good, then chances are they are not going to participate. Adding the incentive of a little thank you gift from the museum store is helpful too. People enjoy receiving free stuff even if it is just a pencil. Making the participatory activity a social experience is another effective method of creating a deeper meaning for the visitor as Simon described.

This first chapter describes how participation works and what methods can be used in order to create successful and meaningful experiences for visitors, which they will remember for years to come. Simon effectively lays down the basics for the rest of her book on how to develop and expand the audience participation outcome.

“Visitors as Contributors” is an important concept, which Simon addresses throughout her book. Simon believes it is necessary to have an exhibition that solely relies on visitor contributions. I do not believe this is essential. People can be unpredictable and Simon has already stated that only a small percentage of the visitors actually participate in the activities held by the museum. Simon states, “Visitors contribute to institutions by helping the staff test ideas or develop new projects…Visitors contribute feedback in the form of verbal and written comments…personal objects and creative works for crowd-sourced exhibits and collection projects. Opinions and stories on comment boards… Memories and photographs in reflective spaces on the Web,” (203). She suggests there are three approaches to contributory projects: “Necessary contribution, in which the success of the project relies on visitors’ active participation. Supplemental contribution, in which visitors’ participation enhances an institutional project. Educational contribution, in which the act of contributing provides visitors with skills or experiences that are mission-relevant,” (207). 
Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum.
Santa Cruz, CA: Museum 2.0, 2010.

Simon discusses the need to keep the participatory experiences simple. She used the example of an exhibition where visitors were asked to place memories into a bottle for display. This exhibit relied entirely on visitor contributions and it was very successful and memorable. Nina Simon seems to take the stance that necessary contribution is the best form of participation for visitors. I have to disagree with her on this aspect. Although I believe contribution is a significant feature of a visitor’s experience, they can still receive a meaningful experience if they participate in a less dramatic way.

Social objects are beneficial to attracting visitors to a museum. Popular social objects include the Hope Diamond and Balto the dog. They bring in crowds of people and create a shared experience and dialogue between strangers. Simon stated, “Social objects are the engines of socially networked experiences, the content around which conversation happens,” (127). Simon discusses the benefits of social objects. They are icebreakers and allow people to talk to one another while focusing on the object. She said, “Most social objects are Personal, Active, Provocative, [and] Relational,” (129). Simon discusses what each of these entail, giving examples of each as she goes along.

It is important to include social objects in participation because they are often what draws people to a museum and inspires visitors to share the experiences that led them to the museum. There is a point that Simon missed when discussing the importance of social objects. Although there are many positive aspects of social objects, they can be distracting when it comes to the rest of the collection. Visitors may skip over other exhibitions to find the object they are looking for. People also become very upset if the object needs to be taken off of display.

Evaluation is necessary in determining if a participatory activity was successful and worth the time to recreate. Simon declares there are specific techniques in evaluating the projects, “Participatory projects are about both process and product. Participatory projects are not just for participants. Participatory projects often benefit from incremental and adaptive measurement techniques. Sometimes, it is beneficial to make the evaluative process participatory in itself,” (302). She suggests methods for developing evaluation techniques. Establishing effective evaluation techniques is a necessary step for concluding a participatory project.

Managing and sustaining participation is just as important as creating and implementing the project. If a great project is created but there is poor management, the project will not receive the attention that is deserved. Managing a participatory project can have its problems as Nina Simon mentions. It takes a great deal of the staff’s time, which a museum may not have available to allot to the task. It is helpful to read this chapter when beginning participatory projects. Not every museum may know how to present these kinds of projects to the staff, or how to implement them. Simon mentions that most of the projects discussed throughout the book were only one time experiences. She tries to convey how museums can change to having successful projects over an extended period of time.

The Participatory Museum is a great learning tool for museum professionals when they are trying to find way in which to better connect with their audience. Nina Simon’s book is a comprehensive tool for establishing participatory experiences, connecting with the visitors, and inspiring people to participate. However, she should have included strategies on how to keep the visitors coming back after their successful experience. Overall, the book is successful and I recommend that museum professionals strive to read it. The book has a great deal of information that can assist in creating new experiences for visitors. Simon’s examples, drawn from a variety of museums and projects, aided in her discussion.

I agree that successful modern museums are visitor-focused. Museums should try to engage visitors in activities, so they feel like they are contributing and developing a deeper understanding of the exhibit. However, I do not believe that participatory exhibits need to be the only kind displayed. Visitors need to play different roles during their experiences, as the listener and as the contributor. The same way people of the twenty-first century became bored with going to a museum to read and learn; they will eventually tire of always being asked to participate. This could lead to moving away from the mission of the museum and closer into edutainment. Regardless of whether one concurs with her completely, the book is an effective guide on the participatory experience. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Guest Post: Anita Burton reviews Soul Soldiers at the Western Reserve Historical Society

This week I am pleased to share the first of four guest blog posts written by the students in my Exhibition Development and Design class at Walsh University. This semester my students are learning about the elements and principles museums employ in creating successful exhibits and valuable visitor experiences. As we draw nearer to the end of this fall term, each of my students will present her own perspective on an exhibit, book, or experience that resonates with her.

Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era

Guest Post by: Anita Burton
Last weekend I was able to go to the Western Reserve Historical Society to see an exhibit they are currently featuring called Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era. This traveling exhibit was developed by Pittsburgh’s John Heinz History Center, and its Cleveland appearance is sponsored by the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Soul Soldiers is about African American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, while their friends and family members were fighting their own battle during the Civil Rights movement. The African American soldiers were called "soul soldiers" because they brought their souls to war with them and brought “soul” to the war, a phrase that can have many different meanings. I was drawn to the exhibit initially because it has to do with the Vietnam War, which as morbid as it may seem is one of my favorite eras in history. 

I had my own expectations upon entering the exhibit as most visitors do, something both Nina Simon and John Falk discuss in their recent books. I knew I was going to see artifacts and pictures pertaining to the war in Vietnam and the African American soldiers who were fighting in it. Of course, I did see both photographs and artifacts in the exhibit, but I got a lot more along with it. From the music of the time, to the issues African Americans faced while fighting for their own rights here in the United States, the exhibit covered multiple aspects of the Vietnam War from an African American perspective. The exhibit also included some social objects, which were very meaningful objects, and audio/visual tools that helped to drive the meaning home to the visitor.

As all visitors do, when I arrived I also had expectations of my enjoyment of the exhibit. I knew I would like it, just because of the subject of the exhibit. Object wise, I figured on seeing the typical photographs and artifacts, possibly uniforms, or even diaries written while fighting. As far as content or the information included, I am not sure what I expected, but I got a lot more then one might have initially thought. The exhibit talked about everything pertaining to the Vietnam War and the African American perspective. The very beginning starts off with information about Vietnam and the history of the war itself. It gave just the basics for those who do not know much about the war or the country. It then moved into a quick background on the Civil Rights movement, again to give those without much knowledge on these events a basis for viewing some of the other parts of the exhibit. 

Image courtesy of the Western Reserve
Historical Society
As you move on through the exhibit you see how some African Americans were drafted-- it even showed some of the draft posters that targeted African Americans specifically. The exhibit then went on to cover African Americans fighting in Vietnam, and how they dealt with the aftermath of the war. It talked about the ways the black soldiers communicated. They had this form of communicating with their hands that was described by some as their own form of sign language. The soldiers could meet up with friends they had not seen in a while and tell them everything their unit had been through without saying a word to each other. Finally, at the very end, the exhibit even included some artwork done by some of the veteran Soul Soldiers. I felt the exhibit did a good job of detailing facts about the war and the struggles the African American soldiers went through. Too many times we only see the white aspect of the war.

I felt that there were a couple good social objects featured in the exhibit. These were the ones that particularly caught my attention and caused me to think. One was a carving done by a Vietnamese woman and presented to one of the soldiers. It was a figure of two fists. While this may not seem like much, once you put it into context it makes a great deal of sense. Yes, it was a statue depicting two fists, but this was the symbol for black pride. It was used during the civil rights movement for African Americans to show their strength and pride. This carving was given to a soldier, who was a commanding officer of some units, and it became a kind of good luck charm. The label next to this statue said that it was placed somewhere where all had access to it, and before leaving to go on any mission every man in the unit touched it. It was a symbol of luck and even prayer for these soldiers. 

One of the other pieces I personally found to be very expressive was a piece of art created by one of the African American veterans. This particular piece was called “Crossfire” by William M. Myles. The painting showed an African American man in the midst of war with bullets going in every direction, and he himself getting hit many times. Bullets hit him and caused him to bleed red, white and blue blood. This image struck me as very moving, and again could start many conversations as to the significance behind the different parts of the artwork. For being a smaller exhibit, they had a good deal of what can be considered social objects-- objects that can start discussion on touchy subjects, such as both the civil rights movement and Vietnam War.

Also included in the exhibit, which I thought was a good touch, were the audio/visual parts of the exhibit. Today it seems like everyone wants to listen and watch, as if nobody wants to read information; they want it read to them. At the very beginning of the exhibit is a video that sums up the subject and gives you a little bit of a background on what you are going to be seeing in throughout the exhibit. This video was very well put together and informative. There were two places where you could hear the personal accounts of different soldiers talking about how they got drafted, and one also talked about his part in the civil rights movement. Another audio portion of the exhibit was the station that included about twenty or so songs written and performed by black artists and also talked about the war. Some were popular songs, others were very rare, but visitors could listen, and the lyrics were available as well. Since I personally love music, especially from that era, I was drawn to it. I sat for a few minutes listening to some of the different songs and briefly reading some of the lyrics to songs that had a lot of meaning. I felt the audio/visual parts of the exhibit did their job in drawing in the visitors, but did not overpower the objects and photographs placed throughout the exhibit.

The Soul Soldiers exhibit was very well put together and I greatly enjoyed it. It did a good job depicting the Vietnam War through an African American soldier’s perspective and helped to show what they went through, having to deal with fighting a war overseas and also fighting for their own rights at home. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of information included and the detail put into the exhibit. The social objects and audio/visual portions of the exhibit helped to capture the visitor’s attention and start conversation among visitors. In all, I very much enjoyed my visit to Soul Soldiers exhibit and would recommend it to many. 

Soul Soldiers is on view at the Western Reserve Historical Society now through November, 27th, 2010. For more information, visit the museum online at www.wrhs.org.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Treasures of Heaven at the Cleveland Museum of Art: A magical mystery tour of shared tradition

The Crippled and Sick Cured at the Tomb of Saint Nicholas, 
1425. Gentile da Fabriano. Image courtesy of the Board 
of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
I majored in Anthropology in college mainly because I was inspired by the swashbuckling adventures of Hollywood archaeologists like Indiana Jones, who circled the globe in search of powerful treasures to add his museum's collection. I double-majored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies because I was inexorably drawn to the beauty and strangeness of the art and architecture of those ages. What I did not know when I began studying archaeology was that most of it is about moving dirt from one place to another in an effort to gain insight into cultures that have long since passed from our collective memory, and it rarely involves treasure. Likewise, when I entered my medieval art history studies I did not yet understand that for a largely illiterate population living in a dark and painful world, art was more than mere decoration, it was a pictured pathway to the divine.

This weekend The Cleveland Museum of Art opens Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe. This new exhibition gives us a precious glimpse of a culture we have left behind, and a sense of the mystery that was once at the center of a powerful Christian faith. Treasures of Heaven features dazzling gold, silver, and jewel-encrusted objects from some of the finest museum collections in the United States and Europe, supplemented by impressive marble altarpieces, and delicate parchment manuscripts depicting the lives of the saints. Still, there is something dark hiding beneath the shiny surface.

The richly toned galleries, flow from one room to the next through graceful arches, and interpretive texts appear on gothic crest-like panels crowned with delicate rosettes. These were lovely touches, but they are not what moved me. What was it then? What made me stop and contemplate the fate of those pilgrims who traveled on foot hundreds of miles, or even farther, to behold these precious objects? It was the bones.
Reliquary with Tooth of Saint John the Baptist, 
1375-1400; 900s-1000s.  Photograph by Robert 
Hashimoto. Reproduction, courtesy of The Art 
Institute of Chicago.

Throughout these serene and sterile museum spaces were beautiful vessels discretely containing, or audaciously framing the grisly remains of human beings. You may argue that these relics were (are?) not the remains of just anyone, but those of venerated saints. Still it is not saintliness, but basic human curiosity that drives the visitor to get a closer look at the pieces of dead people in the room. The same desire compelling rubber-neckers to slow down and ogle an accident on the other side of the highway, finds me staring quizzically at an ancient tooth encased in rock crystal, my mind racing with child-like questions.

How could someone wrench that tooth from a dearly departed saint's mouth? Is it really from John the Baptist, or just some poor bell-ringer who slipped on the belfry stairs? How big was the "True Cross" if bits and pieces of it were sprinkled throughout Europe in countless reliquaries and amulets? So many silent questions voiced by my inner child. One nagging thought escaped in an uncontrollable shudder while viewing an assemblage of silk-wrapped relics. How terrible must life have been in this pre-scientific age for people to go to such great, gory lengths to capture and touch the divine?

Panel-Shaped Reliquary of the 
True Cross, 

The Cleveland 

Museum of Art.

The Anthropologist in me felt something else as I toured the galleries today, something our increasingly xenophobic world could use a little more of, a sense of universality, of oneness. It was in the golden faces of saints, masks of the dead, which in many ways parallel artifacts from the great Mesoamerican civilizations. It resonated in the perpetuation of sacred remains for healing and protection. The richly illuminated texts preserving histories of the faithful shared traits with Mayan codices, Egyptian papyri, Islamic, Hebrew, and Hindu manuscripts. I remember my schoolgirl revulsion upon learning that many prehistoric people buried their dead ancestors beneath the floors of their homes, keeping them close for protection. Other cultures carried the dead around in bundles, or marched their remains out for feasts and festivals. Out of context these practices seemed ghoulish and bizarre. In Treasures of Heaven we see the roots of our modern culture laid plain as gloriously and wondrously, if not uniquely, bizarre.

Often in our modern culture, pundits attempt to reduce complex issues to 15-second sound bites. Things are parsed out for us as black or white, left or right, ours or theirs, one or the other. In this exhibit art history has its rebuttal. We are like them, and they are us. These medieval traditions and treasures demonstrate our forbears' belief in the mysteries of faith and their pursuit of magical solutions to physical problems and daily strife.

Reliquary Head of Saint Eustace, c. 1210.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
A banner adjacent to the entry of the last gallery presents a grayed image of a once bright illumination, toned-down from its full vibrancy it suggests the mystery is fading. The reliquaries and bones of the saints are followed in the final gallery by Martin Luther's sermons declaring the heretical theater of the veneration of these relics. As the Age of Enlightenment approached, the provenance and religious role of relics was questioned by reformers like Luther and Erasmus, asking the same skeptical questions I did in the previous galleries.

Here we encounter the essence and realities of faith. Even in this age of cutting-edge science, diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, and others cause persistent pain, suffering, and loss. The reality of our own mortality forces rational minds to confront the desire for a magical talisman that can drive the demons away and make it all better. People today look for healing in the hands of envangelical ministers and buy snake oil from late-night infomercials. We are skeptical, but we keep the faith, just in case. In Treasures of Heaven we come face to face with ourselves and discover we are not so different from the pilgrims, or the pagans.

An esteemed exhibit designer once told me that authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, going on to suggest that visitors do not care if an object is real, as long as it is cool. The impressive exhibition Treasures of Heaven at the Cleveland Museum of Art flies in the face of this logic. For centuries people have journeyed great distances to see these objects, and I think in this case they are worth the trip.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Walsh University Museum Studies student blogs feature observations on museums, exhibit development projects

Megan, Anita, Jessica, and Monica show off their space
station modules made of candy, pretzels, and peanut butter.
Incredibly, next Monday I will distribute a midterm exam to my Exhibition Development and Design class at Walsh University, and the following week is fall break, officially marking the halfway point of this semester already!

Last May, I was asked by the head of the Walsh University Museum Studies Program to teach a new class in exhibit design. Although developing this class-- researching, planning, and writing it all from scratch-- has been a persistent challenge for me, it has also been a valuable learning experience and a very rewarding opportunity to work with young people just entering the museum field.  

In the second half of this semester, my students will be writing guest posts on MuseoBlogger, sharing their own perspectives on exhibit-related topics of interest to them. While I look forward to featuring their posts here on my blog, I encourage you to follow my students' museum blogs. Each of these young women has her own blog updated weekly with observations on the topics presented in our class lectures and readings, and notes on her progress toward developing an exhibit concept, visitor experience, and design story for the term project. You can find my students' blogs using the following links.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Michael Rush to present "The War of the Rose: A Cautionary Tale" at Appalachian State

While catching up on some museum news this evening I came upon a press release from Appalachian State University announcing an upcoming lecture, "The War of the Rose: A Cautionary Tale" by Michael Rush, the former director of Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum. In 2009, the University attempted to liquidate the Rose's exceptional art collection to help Brandeis weather the financial firestorm in which it found itself. From the initial announcement of the University's plan, Michael Rush fought the proposal and worked to defend the Rose.

The unprecedented attempt by a university to harvest its museum's collection (valued by experts at $350 million) as a cash cow, touched off an incredible backlash from professionals in the fine art and museum worlds. Since the beginning of the Brandeis-Rose saga in 2009, other museums have floated plans to monetize their collections as untapped wells of fiscal stability amidst the unstable economic climate, and most have received a chilly response from the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Association of Museums and similar organizations for whom professional standards are more than mere guidelines.

I wish I could make it to "App" State next week to attend Michael Rush's lecture, as I think it would be enlightening to hear from someone who lived through the worst kind of fiscal crisis, and yet maintained his position of professional integrity on behalf of his museum, its collection, and its patrons, ultimately costing him his job.

Rarely in today's world do we find those who fight the good fight, come what may, because it is the right the thing to do. Even when the alternative is intolerable, far too many of our leaders back down from a challenge, turn away from the path of integrity, and sacrifice their ethics to strike a distasteful accord with powerful, opposing factions. I know nothing of Dr. Rush's personality, but I do know that the Rose Art Museum is still open on Brandeis' campus. Though Michael Rush is no longer its director, I am sure that the museum's existence today is due in no small part to his insistence on its survival in the face of incredible odds, and I will count him among our profession's champions for his work to save the Rose.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Are you a future freelancer? Thoughts for museum staffers considering consulting

Nora, who turns four on Friday, in front of
the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Tonight I realized that it has been exactly four years since my last day as a full-time museum staff member. It was a Friday afternoon four years ago when I left my office for the last time, fully intending to return the following Monday morning. After all, my daughter was not due for another month, and I still had plenty of time left before taking permanent maternity leave to finalize details for the installation of a traveling exhibit, tidy up my files, clean off my desk, and launch my consulting gig. All fine plans, except my daughter decided to arrive a month early. September 15th, 2006 turned out to be the unexpected end of my tenure at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and the first step on my new career path.

Before becoming a part-time consultant to museums four years ago, I held staff positions ranging from gallery interpreter to curator, and art educator to director of exhibits, serving in these and other roles at four museums and two professional galleries. I have rarely met a museum colleague who didn't have a colorful story about the long and winding road that led them to their current position, and I know firsthand that many external factors play a huge role in shaping that path. Due to the economic climate in recent years, and the subsequent down-sizing of museum personnel, I have also had many conversations with museum professionals considering a leap into consulting as an alternative to positions on-staff. Here on the anniversary of my break with the regular-paycheck museum job, I thought it might be helpful to share a few things I have learned in my tenure on both sides of the staff room door for anyone considering a move from a staff position into consulting.

  1. Put all of that experience you gained in hours upon hours of strategic planning at your museum to work for you. Take a rainy weekend and walk yourself through the process using your career as the organization in need of a new plan. What is your mission? What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in five years, and how will you get there? Do a little SWOT analysis before taking a leap into an uncharted consulting venture. Develop a business plan and get an expert's opinion, before putting it into practice.
  2. You probably already know that paychecks can be somewhat less than regular as a consultant, often coming in cycles of feast and famine. However, if you apply the understanding you have of the ebb and flow of museum initiatives, exhibits, budgets, and visitors throughout the year, you may be able to better predict when you there is a good chance of winning a project and when you will need to make your paychecks stretch.
  3. Finding consulting work is much easier when you have an established network of museum colleagues around you. If you have recently moved across the country, or even across the state, you may find it harder to keep in touch with your professional network for job leads and more costly to travel to initial meetings where potential projects are being discussed. Haven't moved yet, but you are planning to do so? Ask current colleagues if they have contacts in your new city, and if they would be willing to introduce you.
  4. Everything seems to cost more when it comes out of your own paycheck. From parking and client lunches, to conference registration and professional membership fees, the out-of-pocket expenses can really add up and hurt your bottom-line. Although at first it may seem savvy to take colleagues out to lunch to announce your new venture and begin dialogue about potential partnerships, picking up the tab will quickly put a strain on your bank account. One solution? Meet for coffee instead. A couple of venti caramel macchiatos and lemon squares at Starbucks won't be cheap, but they will run you a lot less than lunch at a white-tablecloth bistro downtown.
  5. Finally, please invest in a decent business card. Do not assume that in this world of social media saturation and environmentally-friendly e-communication, you can do without a traditional business card. You cannot. Hire someone to design a nice logo for you, and have them lay out both a business card and letterhead, then get them printed on nice paper stock. Ask for image copies in digital format to attach to emails. If you are not sure how long your experiment in consulting will last, only print a small quantity at first, but be certain that if you don't take your business seriously enough to print cards, others will not take it seriously either.
There are many pros and cons in choosing to work for yourself and consulting in the profession you enjoy. Every individual's situation is unique. If you experienced a layoff, have been unsuccessful finding a full-time position, and are seeking another option, putting your experience to work as a consultant may be a viable alternative for you. As a result of these tough economic times, many museums have had to cut staff to the bare-bones, losing valuable intellectual capital in the process. There may be museums who need you and your experience, but can't afford 2000 hours per year plus benefits. On the other hand, if you currently hold an over-worked-under-paid position in a museum and are longing for the freedom you think consulting may offer, carefully consider your business plan and personal economics before handing in your resignation and hanging out your shingle.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Voices of the Past video netcast interview on museums and social media

I am pleased to announce that the video netcast of the interview I gave Voices of the Past back in July has now been posted. Tune in to the program below to learn about ways museums can employ social media to expand their sphere of influence and engage new audiences.

A special note of thanks to Jeffery Guin, host of the Voices of the Past program for inviting me to participate, and to Bethany Frank for doing such a great job of leading me through the interview and sculpting it into a cohesive story with her thoughtful editing.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Cleveland Museum of Art has chosen a new director

Click on the link below to read the article by The Plain Dealer's art critic, Steven Litt, detailing the Museum's choice to lead their institution through the completion of their ongoing expansion and renovation in 2013, and towards its centennial celebration in 2016.

David Franklin of the National Gallery of Canada named director of the Cleveland Museum of Art
Published: Thursday, August 26, 2010, 10:00 PM     Updated: Thursday, August 26, 2010, 10:11 PM

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Keeping it real: observations from a kid-centered visit to the Natural History Museum

Outside with Charles Herndon' s Venus from the Ice Fields
I spent the better part of four hours today at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History with my two young daughters. After breakfast I let my not quite two year-old determine the day's adventure. Given a choice between the Zoo, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and CMNH, her answer was "dinosaurs," so off we went. As is often the case, I was struck by several things about the way my children explored, consumed, and internalized experiences, information, and exhibits during their visit.

First off, you should know that I worked at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for over four years, so I am very familiar with the museum, its programs, and collections. Also, because the museum is our family favorite, my children have been attending regularly quite literally since they were born. This makes them something nearing age-appropriate experts on the different areas and exhibits at the museum. That said, the girls still delight in picking their journey through the galleries, encountering new finds and old favorites along the way.

Today, as usual, I let them choose our route through the museum, starting in Kahn Hall with the traveling exhibition Wild Music: Sounds and Songs of Life. This was our first visit to the temporary exhibit, so we were eager to try out the many interactive experiences offered inside. OBSERVATION #1: My kids aren't keen on headphones. I cannot be sure whether this lack of enthusiasm was due to their ages (almost 2 and almost 4), their comfort level with headsets sized for adults, or their frustration with the fact that I couldn't simultaneously hear what they were hearing and therefore couldn't share in their experience. Unlike my children, I recognize the convenience of employing headphones in a large exhibit filled with auditory experiences and the important role they play in reducing ambient noise. However, to all of you exhibit designers out there, remember that wherever you offer one set of headphones, you limit the collaborative group experience and hinder connections between visitors.

I must add that the individual headphone sets in Wild Music were offset by the number of group-friendly listening stations where sound was piped through external speakers. There was even a free-standing jam room where loud sounds could be freely explored and enjoyed by anyone willing to brave the noise.

From Wild Music we traveled downstairs to the Discovery Center where my kids always enjoy hands-on experiences related to content presented throughout the museum. The girls each have their own favorite games, activities, and stations in the "Disco Center," but I was delighted to see that they gravitated toward a few new activities first. OBSERVATION #2: My kids like to play the same games at the museum as they play at home, just in a different context. In the center of one of the child-sized tables was a clear plastic tub filled with common, everyday objects buried in "strata" made of different colored beans, grains, and ground corn cobs. The tub was the centerpiece of an activity illustrating the principles of stratigraphy, historic deposition, and archaeological discovery. Cards were stationed around the table inviting children (and adults) to conduct an "I spy" type scavenger hunt for objects buried in the tub, asking them to determine which objects were the oldest, and even encouraging them to draw conclusions from the items they observed. My kids loved this game! We regularly play "I spy" in the car, and my eldest daughter's favorite library books are from the I Spy series. Since the staff very thoughtfully used photos of the objects on the cards instead of a list of words, both of my nonreaders were able to participate equally in the hunt.

Another new activity stationed nearby the archaeology tub was a pottery reconstruction puzzle. Two foam plates were covered in some unknown durable coating (I couldn't figure out what it was, but it worked well), then painted to look like terra cotta. One plate was the sample form, and the other was broken into potsherds, which children could reassemble to reconstruct the "ancient" vessel. Both of my girls are puzzle nuts, so this activity was almost as popular with them as the pre-existing dinosaur and human body puzzles they enjoy on every visit to the Disco Center. I love puzzles too, and this simple activity was proof positive that you don't have to spend a lot of money to create a fun and valuable learning opportunity. Be creative!

When we finished playing in the Discovery Center, it was time for lunch, so we headed to The Blue Planet Cafe. OBSERVATION #3: Moms are happiest when there are healthy choices on the menu for everyone in the family. I'm pleased to report that not only was the food in the museum's cafe tasty and pretty healthy, but it was also very reasonably priced and amply portioned for sharing. I bought lunch for all three of us for less than $10. Not too shabby, and when when mama's happy... Well, you know the rest.

Old Bear at the entrance to the Perkins Wildlife Center & Woods Garden.
The second half of our visit involved visiting the natural history museum hot spots, namely the dinosaur hall and the outdoor wildlife center. Like most other toddlers and preschoolers, my daughters are big fans of cuddly little animals, and extinct megafauna, so these two areas of the museum are guaranteed winners. Generally, just strolling past the eagles, bobcats, and raccoons on our way back to the otter pond is enough to start them squealing with excitement. Unfortunately, we hit the animals at nap time today, so many of the more charismatic wildlife residents were tucked away in corners snoozing. Fortunately, the dinosaurs in the hall of prehistoric life always show up, and of course today was no exception.

Artfully mounted Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops horridus fossil casts appear engaged in a battle for the ages and dominate the center of the hall. These guys are show-stoppers, and on most of our visits a couple of spins around the perimeter provide ample stimulation without much interpretation, but today was different. OBSERVATION #4: My preschooler is now really interested in computer interactives. Touchscreens located at staggered positions around the T. rex display have been there since it was installed two years ago, but Nora never paid any real attention to them, until today. Perhaps now, after a year of preschool, and less than a month from her fourth birthday, she is ready to be more in control of how she consumes information in the exhibits? Or, perhaps she's only just grown tall enough to see the screen on her own. Whatever the reason, she couldn't get enough of diving a little deeper into the details. There was only one problem, all of the juicy details needed to be read aloud to her, as she is still a couple of years away from reading them on her own.

Are you developing an interactive program for your next exhibit? Consider adding a game-track for preschoolers and early readers, replacing written text with audio and pictures. After all, why go to the trouble and expense of producing a computer program full of type, when you could just add another text panel for a fraction of the cost? Get the most bang for your bucks; make sure your interactive is truly interactive, and also appropriate for multiple age groups.

It's common knowledge that if you want to gain valuable insight about how your programs and exhibits are (or are not) reaching your visitors you should walk the floors with a couple members of your target audience. Sure it's common knowledge, but with endless meetings, special projects, and new initiatives, it is hard to make it a common practice. Do your museum a favor and schedule some time this week to tag along on a tour, or take a casual stroll through the galleries. You may be surprised at what you observe and learn in those halls you have walked so many times before.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Voices of the Past audio podcast: the role of museums on the social web

As promised, here is a link to the audio podcast of the Voices of the Past  interview I did last month. Voices of the Past advocates for heritage resources via new media and the web. Bethany Frank interviewed me about how I use social media to advocate for museums and cultural organizations, and what I do to help them reach out and engage audiences in new and meaningful ways. Tune in to learn more about how your museum can build its online presence and make the most of your social media efforts.

Currently, only the audio version of the interview is available online, but when the webcast goes live I will provide a link.

Warning: tonight I am heartsick, and I'm climbing a soapbox

Although not specifically related to museums in any way, you may file this post under observations on our current cultural landscape. Forgive me my soapbox, I've grown accustomed to employing it when I feel like the world has gone completely crazy.

Heartsick. That's what I am. Heartsick about this entire “Ground Zero mosque” situation, its contrived political importance and the senselessness of turning the Muslim equivalent of a YMCA into an ugly national debate.

Lately, I am reminded of the first time I stood at the gates of the monument at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. I was 15 and couldn't shake the overwhelming feeling of guilt and shame born of knowing that people who looked like me had committed a brutal massacre on that ground simply because they could not understand someone else's way of life. Instead, the white cavalry chose to see the Lakota only as other than themselves, un-American, ungodly, and undeserving of sympathy, or respect. Wounded Knee was a desolate, haunting place. It was horrible. I have never forgotten how heartsick I was that day, and I believe I am a better person for it.

Today, I am sorry that people who think they share my faith are seeing our Muslim neighbors as "others," spreading hatred instead of compassion and understanding. Truly these people do not know my God. I am sorry that along with losing their common sense, many Americans have lost any sense of the history of the terrible atrocities committed against marginalized peoples in the past, how each act began with small, but purposeful steps toward setting these groups apart from the powerful majority. The examples are too numerous, the parallels so obvious, and yet many of our citizens have been stirred up by so-called leaders and are choosing to ignore the sad legacy of intolerance, racism, and hatred. They are choosing not to remember. It has been said that when a totalitarian government comes into power the historians are always the first ones to disappear, now I know why.

Tonight, I pray for the safety and well-being of my Muslim friends and their families. I also pray for the rest of my fellow Americans, that we may come to deserve the birthright of freedom our forbears paid for with their own blood-- the same freedom that our men and women in uniform are fighting and dying to protect. As a child at a Christian church camp I stood hand in hand around a flagpole with other little girls and boys who looked like me, and together we sang, "Long may our land be bright with freedom's holy light, protect us by thy might, great God our king." Our fathers' God, author of liberty, please let it be so for all Americans.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rock Hall receives $5M endowment gift from NYC foundation

In yesterday's Plain Dealer, John Soeder reported on the five million dollar gift from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation based in New York City. The funds, raised through concerts by hall of fame musicians given in New York City last fall, are intended to begin a endowment for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum located in downtown Cleveland. Since its opening in 1995, the museum has operated without an endowment.

Use the link below to read the full article and learn more about the Museum's new endowment.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum creates $5 million endowment with proceeds from all-star concerts

Monday, August 16, 2010

MuseoBlogger gets a makeover

For any regular readers out there who check in today and think you've landed on the wrong site, this is still the same MuseoBlogger, just with a fresh new face. The last time I updated the overall look of this blog was well over a year ago, when Blogger's template designs were very basic and difficult to personalize. Now, with the release of their new template designer, I was able to customize the color scheme and imagery to something I found more compelling than the tired teal and green format I had before. Besides, like so many other women out there, frankly I was bored with looking at the same old thing every day. I wanted to dress the MuseoBlogger site in something new so, I found this really cool photo of an exotic decorative object and used it to inspire a new palette and give this site a makeover. I hope you like it.

Coming soon, my article on hospitals and the role of fine arts in promoting wellness. Also, links to a web interview I did last month with Voices of the Past Heritage Media should appear here on MuseoBlogger in the near future.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Need some tips for embracing social media? Check out Jeff Guin's blog

Last Friday night I attended the Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinee's Dinner in Canton, Ohio, and as it turned out, one of the guests at our table was a woman who serves as the volunteer director of a nonprofit that teaches traffic safety to children. We talked at length about her organization, entirely run by volunteers, and their desire to embrace the wave of new media to better promote ongoing programming and reach an ever-changing audience of parents and their young children. She had already reached out to a local college for an intern to help them handle day-to-day posting beginning this fall. We discussed the merits of this initial set-up, along with some pitfalls to avoid, and by the end of our conversation she seemed encouraged by the potential of developing a well-conceived social media plan, and ready to embark on that task.

Launching a social media initiative can be as nerve-wracking as any other new and unfamiliar program undertaken by a lean organization of well-meaning, but unconfident staff. This particular nonprofit leader had done her homework and needed only a few pointers to reassure her that she and her organization were on the right track. Regardless of whether your staff are full-time professionals, or part-time volunteers, the proper amount of preliminary planning will make a huge difference in the roll-out of your social media campaign. So, where to begin?

Several months ago Jeff Guin tackled this very issue in his blog for Voices of the Past Heritage Media, specifically addressing the needs of heritage organizations. Jeff's post from March 31, 2010, Social Media Planning for Heritage Organizations: Differentiating Goals, Objectives & Tactics, is an excellent primer for those who are considering swimming in the social media pool. If your organization has yet to undertake the seemingly daunting task of developing a social media plan, or you have tried social media, but are frustrated by the difficult task of measuring your success, check out Jeff's article for a common sense approach to planning the application of 21st century media in your PR portfolio.

Catch me on Voices of the Past