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.

Catch me on Voices of the Past