Write with me! Creative writing for museum professionals

wild mind

I’ve been making something of a habit in my life as a poet/author of writing in museums, leading workshops on writing in museums, and writing about writing in museums. Now I’m leading a free webinar through the New England Museum Association (membership or geographic location in New England not required!) for museum professionals on how taking a creative break in your museum space can re-energize your daily practice.

WHEN:  Wednesday, May 31, 2017, Noon – 1 pm EST
WHAT: Recharge, Reimagine, and Write! Accessing Your Creativity to See Your Museum Differently
WHO:  Meg Winikates, Author/Poet and Museum Educator
FORMAT: Free Webinar

Many of us came to work at museums because we find them inspiring. But in the day-to-day operation of a museum, not to mention the pressures of outside factors and current events, it’s all too easy to fall into patterns, to stop seeing what makes our places special, and to stop feeding that inspirational, creative element of our museum practice.

Join poet, author, and museum educator Meg Winikates (also member of the NEMA staff!) to explore ways to see elements of your museum’s collection in a newly creative light, by writing an ekphrastic poem. Ekphrasis, or the creation of one kind of art inspired by another kind of art, is a natural fit for museums and museum professionals. Discover different methods of creating an ekphrastic piece, how it might translate to your job, and how to encourage similar experiences for your colleagues and your visitors.

This session is for all types of museums and all types of museum professionals. Grab your lunch and bring your imagination!

You can RSVP for the webinar here.

 

Poetry Constructions

A Throwback Thursday favorite for National Poetry Month!

Brain Popcorn

Poetry works its way into many of my postsNational Poetry Month is one of my favorite times of year, and every year I find something new to get excited about.

This year it’s building blocks and poetry.  Not in the form of stanzas, rhyme schemes or metaphors, but creative ways to inspire, actual physical ways to randomize words, create sequences of ideas, and give poetry a visual heft that matches its presumptive mental and emotional ones.

Shape poems

ee cummings 'i carry your heart' as laid out in Festisite ee cummings ‘i carry your heart’ as laid out in Festisite

I’m not a huge fan of concrete poetry in general, because I’m not always convinced by the whole form/function connection when it comes to text.  However, if you’re looking for a new way to *present* a poem and hand written calligraphy is not your top choice, you might want to try Festisite, which has a handful of pre-selected…

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Calling Museum Educators: Share your brains!

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MERfolk at Museums Advocacy Day 2017: member Lotte Lent, board president Brooke DiGiovanni Evans, and myself. (Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office looks out over a Calder in the atrium, lucky her!)

As a board member for the Museum Education Roundtable, I get to hear about some of the very coolest stuff happening in the world of museums, especially since I’m on the editorial team that works on upcoming issues of the Journal of Museum Education.

My MER colleagues are amazing, and we’re looking for some new folks to help fill out our board! If you’re interested in nominating yourself or someone else, you still have a bit of time to do so: board nominations are due by March 31. You can find out more here. (Our new website launches very soon, so please have patience with the old one, we promise it’s about to be 900% better.)

We’re also looking for short articles that offer new ideas in answer to challenges we all face, from getting teachers to use the pre- or post-visit materials we offer, to figuring out how to evaluate programs, to confronting our own biases and assumptions as educators to be better programmers, exhibit designers, and guides. The call for article ideas is open now, and of course if you have a big idea for an article or theme idea for a journal issue, you can always check out our general call for submissions here. If you’re interested in submitting for the “Familiar Challenges/New Ideas” issue, please submit your idea by March 31. (If your idea fits the theme, the actual writing deadline is later, so you do have time!)

And if you have ideas that are not necessarily education-related, or there’s a museum book you want to review, or a case study in volunteer management you want to share, etc., I am always happy to talk article ideas with you for New England Museums Now, NEMA’s online journal. The open call for submissions for NEMN is here.

 

48 Uses of Dragon’s Blood

I love it when science and myth have one of those wacky intersections. Who said ‘you know all those stories about dragons’ blood? Maybe we should check that out? Let’s write a grant!’

Nat Geo Education Blog

SCIENCE

Mythology is rich with tales of dragons and the magical properties of their blood. Well, a new study indicates that the blood of the Komodo dragon is, in fact, loaded with proteins that could be used as antibiotics. Giant dragon versus superbug. (The Economist)

Why are antibiotics so important these days?

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Komodo dragons are the largest lizards on Earth, reaching lengths of 3 meters (10 feet) and weighing up to 70 kilograms (150 pounds).
Photograph by Stefano Unterthiner, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

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“Little Dancer” as Oracle? Experiencing Museum Sage

One of the most energizing things about my job is getting to go on site visits to museums all over New England. Sometimes it’s for a workshop or a behind-the-scenes tour, sometimes for networking events or exhibit openings, and sometimes it’s just for a field trip with my coworkers.  Usually it’s somewhere I haven’t been before, but even when I have, as with our most recent field trip to the Harvard Art Museums, there’s always something new to satisfy my curiosity.

This time, it was a personalized museum-based oracular experience, led by Rainey Tisdale and Matt Kirchman, both trained guides in the Museum Sage technique. Each guide took a pair of us on an experience that’s part game of chance, part guided meditation through the museum galleries.

My colleague was brave enough to go first, so I got to enjoy watching her select random tiles from a bag held by our guide Matt, the numbers on which corresponded to the floor, room, and location of a random but specific artwork.  While doing so, she was supposed to be thinking hard on her question about her life, which, we were directed, could be anything from ‘what color should I paint my living room?’ to a more serious relationship or career dilemma.

We escorted her (with her eyes closed) to ‘her piece’ and then Matt led her through a conversation (with notes taken by me as the companion-observer) about how the artwork related to her question, which she could choose to share or not. She did not, but I figured it would be fun to see how the conversation changed if I did when it was my turn.

Part of the experience is the sensory overload and dislocation of being guided blindly through the galleries. Fortunately, I did not have to go over any stairs with my eyes closed, because that would have ended poorly. It’s strange enough, circling the hallways on the second floor of the Harvard Art Museums, feeling the empty air of the courtyard to one side, and the gaps in the air from gallery entrances and staircases on the other side. It makes one feel quite insubstantial and unsure of whether there’s solid floor beneath one’s feet.

When Matt bid me open my eyes, I was standing in front of Degas’ Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, a piece I have loved since childhood. Obviously, my first reaction was one of inarticulate but heartfelt joy and relief, especially since my colleague had been initially negatively taken aback by the piece she’d ended up with as her artistic oracle.

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I like looking at and interpreting artworks. I like doing the same for literature (particularly poetry, which is meant to leave space for the reader to find herself within it). And I lived in Salem, Massachusetts for five years, so I have a reasonably high respect and tolerance for the ‘hoobie-joobie’ and arcane. So I was primed for the Museum Sage experience, and despite a few reservations about looking really silly, I did end up enjoying myself immensely.  I also believe that the kinds of questions Matt asked as the guide would make it an easy experience for museum visitors of any familiarity or comfort level. And since one starts with that gut reaction – joy, confusion, comfort, familiarity, shock – there are no opportunities for ‘wrong’ answers, then or following.

The basic questions that led me through looking at the artwork were as follows:

  1. What are your first emotional reactions? What are your eyes drawn to first, what do you notice? [comfort, familiarity, her poise and dreaminess]
  2. Describe the artwork in front of you as if you were trying to get someone on the other end of a phone or someone without sight to be able to picture your piece. [young girl, perhaps twelve, bronze statue about 2.5 feet high on a pedestal about 2.5 feet high, with a satin ribbon and netted skirt. Her leotard straps are slightly off her shoulders and she’s standing in 4th position, one foot out in front of her, with her weight on her back foot, hands clasped loosely behind her, hair in a braid, chin raised, eyes distant]
  3. Is there anything about the construction of the piece (color, material, size, shape) that relates to or reflects on your life question? [the way she holds herself, the contrast of the flexibility and softness of her ribbon and tutu with strength of the bronze that forms her body]
  4. Would you be willing to share your question? [how best to be making space for my creative pursuits in an increasingly complicated and busy schedule]
  5. What advice do you feel this artwork is giving you in answer to your question? [readiness for movement, the calm before the leap, the discipline it takes to get good at an artform you love and look like it takes no work at all, the importance of taking a moment to yourself before jumping back into the fray]
  6. Finally, when all other conversation seems to have died down, go look at the label and read it.  Does reading the title & label offer up any additional insights?

And in addition, as I was answering those questions, Matt was following up with active listening, adding in from time to time with questions like “I’m hearing you say ‘comfort’ a lot, does that apply in any way to your question?” or offering up a different point of view so one can look at the artwork, and the question, slightly differently.

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So while I can see why some people compare it to using the museum like a deck of tarot cards, I think it’s actually better (and less potentially creepy), because while in tarot someone else reads the cards for you, in this case you’re using the artwork like an outside focus for your own thoughts. It’s kind of brilliant, if you feel like exposing the way your brain works to whomever you’re sharing the experience with.

And at the end, you have clarity (hopefully) or at least new determination about whatever your life question was, as well as a deeper understanding of an artwork and a whole new layer of associations to add to whatever you already did or didn’t know about that piece. I could have had difficulty with Little Dancer, knowing it so well already, for instance, but instead I simply have a new way to think about her, and can now consider her a visible, beautiful reminder of my personal creative goals.

Keep looking forward. Practice. Don’t let them see you sweat. Take your private moment when you can get it. Exercise discipline in pursuit of your craft. Relax, and when you’re ready, leap.

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In front of Degas’ Little Dancer, working on my (very rusty) ballet forms.

As a museum educator, I think this kind of experience can be a really useful tool to get people to interact with the museum in a new way, whether they’re constant museum goers or ‘newbies.’ It takes nothing but a bit of openness and a bit of observation on the participant’s part, and creation of a safe and conversational space on the guide’s part.  After the field trip we spent a while talking to Matt and Rainey about how they envision using this technique in museums; it’s not easily scale-able to larger groups, and there’s no obvious existing business model to fit into. That being said, it’s interesting to consider offering this as an experience as a member perk or as a gift experience for people who are at a “questing” time of life; new parents, new high-school or college graduates, career-changers, the about-to-be or recently retired.  (Although really, who isn’t at a questing time of life?) I’m guessing that in some situations the ‘game’ aspects would or could be enhanced, and in others the more meditative side would prevail. (Selecting your artwork through fortune cookies? Those folding paper fortune tellers everyone makes in fourth grade? A sketching or writing component for those who are uncomfortable speaking their reflections aloud?) Either way, I will be interested to see where this method of museum experiential intervention goes.

More?

  • If you want to hear more about Museum Sage, check out Season 3, Episode 2 of the Museum People podcast, where NEMA’s Dan Yaeger interviews Museum Sage founder Laurie Phillips.
  • Looking to go check out Little Dancer for yourself? There’s a fun guide to get you started from The Met here. (And there’s a musical inspired by the statue that I wish I’d seen described here.) Can’t get to a museum with a version easily? The MFA Boston has some amazing detail images of their copy here.

Museums Using Megaphones

It’s almost Museums Advocacy Day, and soon I’ll be heading to DC for my second year of speaking up for museums, historical organizations, aquaria and zoos in the halls of Capitol Hill.

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It’s exciting to know that all 50 states have museum advocates representing them this year, for the first time ever, and that there are also about 100 more advocates coming to the event this year than last. We’ll be talking about the importance of the NEA, NEH, and IMLS, of course, but museums are energized about more than funding. We’ll be talking about education, STEM initiatives, conservation and research, diversity and equality initiatives, and museum contributions to health and human services.

It’s also heartening to see that museums, which due to their preservation and conservation mindsets are often slow to act, are actively standing up for their missions, which include more than preservation: they are about education, about being welcoming community spaces, about offering the realities of the past and present up to scrutiny for the present and future. Today, for example, is the Day of Facts on Twitter (#DayofFacts), inspired by the concern raised by the stifling and disappearance of information on various government-controlled social media channels and White House webpages. Hundreds of museums, libraries, and archives are tweeting facts from their collections and expertise that are relevant to current events. This event is aimed at highlighting museums’ trustworthiness as stewards of authentic objects and experiences without being overtly political, though as the Chicago Sun Times notes, “Telling the truth is now a political act.” (Be sure to watch The Field Museum’s video linked in that article. I admit I got a little choked up, because I’m a very sensitive museum-geek.)

Other museums are also standing up in more political ways, taking a stand in opposition to the policies and statements currently coming from the White House, particularly those regarding immigration, education, and the environment. The Davis Museum at Wellesley College (Hillary Clinton’s alma mater) removed or shrouded all the objects in their museum which were made or donated by immigrants (and put their labels up for free download should other museums wish to do the same). The twitter account @MuseumsResist, with its companion for libraries @LibrariesResist, is offering up links and resources regularly for education and cultural sector professionals who want to be involved. It’s important to note that while there seems to be a groundswell right now, there are some museum professionals and museum organizations that have been participating in activism for a while, notably those associated with MuseumHue and #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson. Those folks deserve a lot of credit for leading the way and showing others in the field possible paths for discussion, response, and resistance.

And when the DC Museums Advocacy Day is over, I’ll be far from done, as Maine, Connecticut, and Massachusetts all have advocacy days for museums, the arts and humanities coming up in March, so stay tuned!

Further Reading:

 

 

 

 

You, Too, Can Be a Space Archaeologist!

This is the best thing I’ve read all day. Of course, my brain went first to Daniel Jackson of Stargate SG-1, but he’d be the first to say that this is a fantastic use of satellite technology.

Go forth and save our history, intrepid space archaeologists!

Nat Geo Education Blog

SCIENCE

A new online tool from a Nat Geo explorer enables anyone with Internet access to search satellite images for ancient ruins. (Nat Geo News)

Learn a little about space archaeology.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Discussion Ideas

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