This Week’s Reads: School with a Twist

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I’m not ready for ‘back to school’ quite yet, but I am back from vacation, so I guess that’s close enough. Hidden in among the piles of mail and email that were waiting upon my return were some fun reads on education and the continuing search for balancing traditional academics with lifelong learning skills, everywhere from the classroom to the playground to the museum.

Also on my current reading pile: Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance and the latest issue of the Journal of Museum Education

What’s on your list of back-to-school reads?

What do you hope to do new or differently this year, in your classroom, gallery, studio, or teaching practice?

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Indulging the inner kindergartener at the Eric Carle Museum earlier this summer.

 

In A Stunning Show of Bipartisan Support, The State’s Arts Funding is Fully Restored

I’m really proud of the number of people from all over the cultural community who made the impact of the arts known, and very grateful to the Massachusetts legislature for overturning the veto.

The Evolving Critic

Massachusetts State House. Photo by Flickr user Daniel Mennerich. Used under the Creative Commons License.
Following up on my post about Governor Charlie Baker’s veto to cut the arts and culture budget by more than 50%, on Sunday July 31st, both the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Senate voted to override Baker’s veto.

Thanks to the leadership at MassCreative and to the thousands of artists and activists who urged their senators and representatives to restore funding to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts can now continue to create jobs in the arts, revitalize main streets and invest in cultural institutions who in turn, pump millions of dollars into the state’s economy.

The unanimous vote in the Senate and a 156-2 vote in the House shows bipartisan support and demonstrate that the arts are here to stay. According to MassCreative, more than 12,000 messages were sent in support…

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This Week’s Reads: Peering into the Future

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Innovation is a buzzword, but the actual act of envisioning a new future and acting on it remains exciting, however overused the word might be. Here are a few cool reads to make your brain stretch, including a few ideas to make you feel good about the potential futures of humanity:

“A Peek inside the Moonshot Factory Operating Manual” about the offshoot of Google that’s focused on developing ‘moonshot’ ideas into tangible futuristic reality.

MISC Magazine’s “The Future According to Women” asks numerous influential women about the visions of the future they see and organizes their responses thematically. (I’m still reading this one, but so far it’s an interesting compilation.)

And in a cross-over from my creative-writing world to my museums/educational/advocacy one, “The New Utopians” and, “The Political Dimensions of Solarpunk.” (This latter one is long and not entirely positive, but has some interesting points to make.)

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This week’s inspiring reads: Why we collect

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Even virtual collections count, apparently! There have been roughly a hundred articles already about museum responses to Pokemon in the galleries, but how is the appeal of ‘gotta catch ’em all’ much different from the other kinds of collecting we do? Shouldn’t museums understand that gathering impulse?

The Secret Sauce of Pokemon Go: Big Data – Barry over on Moosha Moosha Mooshme talks about the gamification of big data and why the appeal of Pokemon Go is more than just the AR camera.

Object Lessons: The New Museum Explores Why We Keep Things – From the New York Times, an exhibit review on “a remarkable series of object lessons about what it means to “keep.”” The NYT is also interested in your collecting stories: “Tell us how you began collecting, how your collection has evolved over the years, and any other interesting details (like how others have reacted to your collection). Your response may be featured in an upcoming story.”

Direct Care of Collections – AAM’s new white paper on ethical standards for direct care, to help in discussions of deaccessioning, etc.

If this isn’t enough on collections for you, keep your eyes out for NEMA’s New England Museums Now, new issue coming out next week with a regional benchmarking survey, articles on open storage in historic houses, updates to abandoned property laws, discussions on accessibility and authenticity, digitizing your collections, and more!

Imagining Museum Education in 2040

A few months ago, the Center for the Future of Museums posted a challenge: what might preK-12 education look like in 2040 if museums got involved in new and more thorough ways than we do now? Instead of asking for statements or essays, they wanted stories: imagine the future, and tell us a good yarn.

So seventy-eight of us did. The winners’ stories are all fascinating, and I recommend you have a look here. I’m also pleased to be able to say that my entry won an honorable mention, and is posted on the “Vibrant Learning” microsite here. The lovely folks at CFM have granted me permission to post my story in its entirety here as well.

I picked the Harvard Museum of Natural History as my ‘future-awesome’ location because it was a place I spent a fair amount of time as an undergrad, but I’ve never worked there, so it’s a good balance of familiar but not overly so. (Plus they’ve done some really neat events encouraging artists and students to ‘hack the museum’ by creating interesting overlays, installations, and interventions, so I figured they’d be game.)

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Heterodontosaurus, photo from the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Romer Hall

It Was Supposed to Be Dinosaurs
by Meg Winikates

 

Senator Ariel Kwan
1705 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC
February 15, 2040

Dear Senator Kwan,

As your constituent, I write today to urge you to vote for the reauthorization and increased funding for the Family Learning Leave Act. I also thank you for your continued support of the Institute of Museums and Library Services, especially as it was museums and libraries who spearheaded the initial passage of the Act.

I hope that based on your previous record, you already intend to vote in favor, but I would like to share the lasting impact this bill has had on my family and so many families like mine. Enclosed you will find a selection from the learner’s self-assessment report I wrote during my daughter’s Kindergarten Collaborative three years ago, and an interview from my subsequent Artist’s Spotlight this past autumn. Were it not for Learning Leave, I would never have been able to take the time away from my retail job to support my daughter’s education. Having the opportunity to connect, to explore, and to create together has given me a better understanding of how she learns and what her options for the future are. Thanks to our museum experiences, my daughter is now in an accelerated Creative Science program, and I gained inspiration and contacts which have allowed me to grow my own independent business.

Thank you for your attention and support for this vital program.

Regards,
Hannah Lopez
Parent, Artist, Businesswoman, Museum Supporter
[encl.]

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Harvard Museums of Science and Culture: Kindergarten Collaborative
Adult Learner’s Self-Assessment Journal, Day 3

Today was the best day yet of my ‘grown-ups go to school’ adventure. Lucy has, of course, spent the last two days beyond excited. She has been absolutely bubbling to show me all the places in the museums that she loves, and it’s been amazing to see how seriously she takes her job as a ‘guide’ for me, the museum newcomer.  Today I really got to appreciate the way my shy baby has learned to work with the other children, and how responsive the education team is to their curiosity and enthusiasm. It’s clear they have some specific educational goals in mind, so it’s not the free-for-all that it would be if I tried to run a class of five- and six- year-olds, but with one adult for every four or five kids, the educators really do know how to listen and guide the conversation without cutting off or shutting down the little ones.

Today, for instance, was the start of ‘dinosaur days.’ I guess they’d spent some time in the dinosaur galleries before now, but mostly were exploring other things; rocks, I think, and teeth? Lucy will surely tell me in great detail if I ask. But today was dinosaurs, and the kids split themselves up into small groups, gravitating to a fossil, cast, sculpture, or diorama, already used to peppering the educator stationed nearby with questions, almost before the kids stopped moving.

Then the educators pulled out this spray-on-glove stuff, apparently the same kind that their conservators use in the lab, and spritzed all our hands and let us touch the fossils. The stuff’s so thin, you could feel every bump and grain, like the gloves weren’t there at all, but apparently it keeps all the sweat and oils from your hands off the delicate bits. Crazy, but just so cool. (I actually got up the guts to ask one of the educators later where the glove-spray came from, and she looked really proud of me. I guess they are serious about the grown-ups being there to learn too. Turns out it was first developed for medical work, which makes sense.)

So there we were, touching the fossils, and one of the kids in Lucy’s group asked how they found the fossils, which meant we all got to troop outside to the lawn to try out the ground penetrating radar machine. With five year olds. Looking for the ‘modern fossils’ in plaster that the museum had buried in the front lawn. Once we got *very* dirty uncovering them with shovels and trowels and measuring tapes, we then went at the plaster with real chisels, hammers, and brushes. I don’t know what that educator would have done if the kid hadn’t asked that question, but I hope she would have managed to get us out there eventually somehow, or some poor college student would’ve spent a whole afternoon of their work-study burying fake fossils for nothing. And all of that was before lunch time. I know some of the kids in Lucy’s group; they’re a hyper, easily distracted bunch of kids most of the time (especially right before lunch). But they were really engaged, and I admit as a mom it was awesome to see my normally quiet little girl take charge of an excavation. “No, Momma, you have to make a drawing before you pull it out of the ground!” and, “No, my momma should do the drawing because she’s an artist!”

Sweet, given that my drawing abilities are limited to making costume patterns, but it’s always nice to feel like you’re your kid’s hero.

After lunch it was back to the original room, this time to look at the Pteranodon. It’s hard to believe something encased in rock could ever fly, which I totally get, so Lucy and her buddies were understandably skeptical. Only Lucy and her pal Karen were completely unconvinced by the video of the scientists’ animated model, though, which means they were the ones that split off from the group to go into the PhysLab (“FizzFizzFizz, like ideas in your head, Momma, that’s why it’s called that!”) to test out wing designs.

We made wings of paper, string, and straws, and tested them in the wind tunnel. We each picked our favorite, put it in the scanner, and got to add the finished computer model to a digital animal body to animate and watch it ‘fly.’ Lucy was very serious about hers; she actually wanted to recreate the scientists’ Pteranodon for herself, but I admit I got a little silly with mine, and made a dragon.

I never was the science one in the family, after all.

I half-expected to get in trouble for not taking the ‘assignment’ seriously, but instead, it was like I’d made the PhysLab overseer’s day. She handed me an exhibit brochure for a fantastical creatures show at one of the other university museums, and when I told her that my side gig was fantasy costuming, I ended up with info on 3D printing wearables, a costume design exhibit announcement for a museum across town, and a shiny new Searcher ID card.

I’d heard there was some kind of library-card-for-museums thing, but between work and family and all, not the sort of thing I’ve had time to go looking for on my own. It’s fancier than the library card I had as a kid; you add some personal details to your profile, interests and stuff, and it gives you suggestions on where to go and who to talk to for answers. Plus it gets you in free if you’re working on a research project. So I could go see that costume design exhibit on research for my own designs, and talk to a curator or a designer, and borrow study materials, all on the strength of this card that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been messing around with dragon designs on the computer at the museum to make my daughter laugh.

So yeah, definitely the best day of my learning leave yet. I think I’m as excited as Lucy to go back to “school” tomorrow.

= = = = = = =

“Wings, Webs, and Wishes: An interview with Hannah Lopez” by Ginny Evans
Harvard Museums of Science and Culture newsletter

This month’s Artist Spotlight is costumer Hannah Lopez, who has been the brains and hands behind this spring’s highly anticipated Paleontology Parade performances. Lopez’s temporary home is HMSC’s PhysLab, where she was finishing printing the latest dinosaur-skull headpiece for enthusiastic decoration by her ‘apprentice’ — daughter Lucy, age 8.

When asked why she wanted to meet in the PhysLab, Lopez laughs.

“Because it pretty much started here, with designing dragon wings.” Behind her, Lucy scoffs into her glitter paint; it’s clear she’s been part of telling this story enough to say,

“Dinosaurs, mom, it was supposed to be dinosaurs.”

“Yes it was, but mine were dragons, and it was a good thing they were, too.” Lopez’s eyes light up as she talks about the chance encounter with fellow fantasy-fan and HMSC staff, Maya McCormack.

“She wouldn’t let me leave the lab until I’d finished my Searcher profile.  Those first couple of resources she pointed me to, they were great for bringing my inspiration back. It’s so easy to get lost in the day to day details. But somewhere in there, in watching Lucy fall in love with science here at the museum, and in taking the time to follow up on the connections Maya made, getting close to those fabrics in the teaching collection, it made me want to do something big. Bigger than the kids’ Halloween costumes and Renaissance Faire garb I’d been doing in little bits. And once I had the bug, I just didn’t stop.  If that Searcher card had been a credit card, I’d have reached my limit ages ago.”  Lopez laughs.

“Lucky for me it doesn’t work that way. It’s like getting lost on the internet, but better, because it’s this whole web of people and things and ideas that you can reach in person, and some of the time it turns out they’re looking for you, too.”

The discussion turns to the binder of costume designs in front of us and the nearly-finished pieces on her worktable nearby, since it seems dinosaurs have won the day, at least this time.

“Getting the artist residency here, it felt like the right thing to do,” Lopez agrees. “I wanted to do something collaborative, something that showed what Lucy and I both learned when we were first here, and to keep that excitement going.  So we’ve been having troops of kids of all ages in here to help with personalizing their costumes, and making comments on the designs for the professional actors.  I think the final effect will be just on the right side of hilarious and brilliant.”

Opening next week, Paleontology Parades will be a series of theatrical skits that bring various stories in the museum to life, incorporating both professional actors and the schoolchildren they’ve been working with, including Lucy and her classmates in the Creative Science program. The acting troupe, the Wishing Wells, are another contact Lopez made through the Searcher program, when it recently expanded to include performing arts organizations.

“Working with Jason and the team from Wishing Wells has been a lot of fun. I can’t wait to put the last scales and feathers in place and watch it all light up.”

And what’s next for Lopez (and her apprentice)? They give identical grins.

“Well, to celebrate, we thought we’d go find a new museum to explore.”

I am not a zombie, but I do love brains.

Every now and then, a blog named Brain Popcorn needs a post about fun, entertaining, and awesome brains.

Actual Science Stuff

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This 3D interactive lets you explore the ‘neighborhoods’ where certain word associations live.

National Geographic Education blog does it again! Check out their post exploring new brain science, including a ‘brain atlas’ that maps out where the meanings of words are stored in your brain and some of the questions it raises for further study.

Then, make your own 3D paper brain map with a free downloadable paper craft from soilshop.

The Artsy Stuff

The artist J Sayuri makes watercolor paintings of brain cross-sections from many species (mostly mammalian).

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Stuff and Nonsense

Anyone need a thinking cap?

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Downloadable crochet pattern from CandyPopCreations on Etsy, link above.

Fill your brains with books

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Brain bookends on Uncommon Goods, link above.

Needs more memory.

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Somewhere, the Enterprise NCC-1701 computer is saying “Working…” Link above.

Steampunk to Starships: Workshop Summary

Last week I was lucky to work with a great team of folks to talk about using pop culture in the museum world: its successes, pitfalls, opportunities, and risks. The workshop was organized through the auspices of the New England Museum Association, and we were hosted by the fantastic staff of the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, MA.

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The bike path along the Charles River in Waltham runs right along the front of CRMII

The workshop covered a lot; not just the whys and hows of integrating pop culture, but also discussing the rewards of taking risks, identifying partners in collaborative projects, and case studies in exhibit and festival design. We also got into some good and meaty topics right at the end of the day, which I’m looking forward to continuing when we do a follow up session at the NEMA conference this November.

Why Use a Pop-Culture Hook?

Mission is key, but pop culture (or anything else with a devoted following of fans) can be a great hook to bring in new audiences, or to give your current visitors a way to connect with your collections and mission differently.

There are a lot of different ways to use pop culture tie-ins, depending on the level of time, money, and staff energy that you have available. Listed below are some of the examples I used in my presentation (and a few I didn’t manage to include):

Exhibits (High investment of time, budget, and staff)

Exhibit ‘overlays’ or interventions (moderate to low investment of time, budget, and staff, depending on if your staff is doing the intervening or if you’re working with outside artists, students, etc.)

Activity Guides (moderate to low investment)

Special Events and Programs (moderate to high investment, depending on the size of the event)

In all of these examples (though least of all exhibits, which usually are their own draw), timeliness is an important factor. It’s really easy to hop onto a wave too late, or to leave insufficient time to work with the other departments in your museum to get on their project calendars for design, marketing, or fabrication. For instance, I once wrote a really cool activity guide tying the Peabody Essex Museum collections to locations and events in Middle Earth around the time the first Hobbit movie was coming out, but it coincided with a massive workload for the creative services team at the museum, who were swamped by an upcoming exhibit and had no time to design the guide. Thus, it never materialized.

This is outside my institution’s comfort zone. Why take the risk?

Exhibit designer Margaret Middleton (@magmidd) led us all in a series of exercises to help identify our own sense of risk-taking.  Were we risk-takers or risk-averse? Were we risk-enablers for others in our institutions? What topics could be considered low-risk or high-risk for a program or exhibition? In a different context, would the risk level be different?

She also strongly suggested that ‘risk’ is the wrong end of the stick. While being aware of potential hazards (and taking steps to mitigate them) is important, Margaret suggested that we should reframe these opportunities as ‘potential rewards’ instead of risks. What happens if you let a seven year old use real, sharp tools? What  happens if you host that conversation on voting rights in modern America? What’s the harm in tweeting an article about climate change if your museum has an upcoming show about the Arctic & Antarctic? How much negativity are you ready for, and how will you deal with it? Can you point to all your decisions being mission-driven, and if so, what’s the risk, really?

One important opportunity in both risk-taking and risk-mitigation is to invite outside voices into the museum process, as advisors, local or content experts, and enablers. Margaret offered up this worksheet as a way to identify who can help fill the holes in your project development team.

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Workshop participants test their Coat Hanger Catapults (because everyone needs a good catapult activity, it ties in to so many themes!)

This sounds exciting, but where do I even start? My collection is huge and pop culture’s even bigger.

This is where calling on your friends and family, coworkers, local librarians and booksellers, and the internet can help. Everyone has a passion, which usually comes with insider knowledge: book and movie release dates (helpful with the timeliness factor aforementioned), connections to specific communities like book groups, crafting circles, or fan conventions, etc.

You can start with some of the topics listed in the slideshow above under “geekstorming activity” as well. Some are specific and time-sensitive (Hamilton is the hot new thing on Broadway that’s getting attention from lots of previously-non-theater-goers), others are more general (board and video-games are perpetual favorites as a broad topic). Then use this worksheet (geekstorming template) as a visual way to tie the objects or strengths of your institution, plus people in your circles who might be able to help you, to specific topics.

Case Studies and Take-Aways of Exhibits and Festivals

In the afternoon, museum consultant Emily Robertson told us about her work with the Star Wars: Science Meets the Imagination exhibition produced by the Museum of Science, Boston, and Nick and Jillian Perry, the founding artists of Emporium 32, spoke with Bob Perry of CRMII about the triumphs and pitfalls of running a large town festival with niche appeal, the Watch City steampunk festival.

Emily’s major takeaways from the development of a huge project like Science Meets the Imagination were as follows:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. You never know who’s going to say yes.
  2. Keep your mission in mind. The educational goals are what’s important, and what will defend against the nay-sayers.
  3. Listen to the fans (but plan for non-fans as well!).

Nick, Jillian, and Bob offered up this advice for planning festival-type events:

  1. Expect that your audience and returns will build over a series of years; plan for it. Don’t expect immediate success.
  2. Work with the community you want involved throughout the year, not just when you want them to turn up/volunteer at your event. Host meetups, offer other ways for them to greet and engage with each other and your institution.
  3. Recognize that a big festival event is a huge time commitment; plan for having staff or a paid outside coordinator; volunteer coordinators can be great, but not always as reliable as you want.

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Emily Robertson talks about bringing hovercraft, droids, and hyperspace to real life at the Museum of Science.

Further Topics for Discussion

Right at the end of the day we touched on some interesting topics to hopefully explore further at the NEMA Conference in November. Here are a couple of questions to consider, and I’d love your input in the comments below!

  • A lot of ‘pop culture’ (including past classics that are still popular) is very mainstream/white/Eurocentric/majority-dominated. How can museums help widen the discussion and give space to other voices and stories while using more familiar pop culture as a hook to bring people in?
  • “High” vs. “low” culture: is this still a thing? What are the arguments we can use with our curators/board & trustees/unconvinced coworkers that prove all art is in dialogue and that pop culture is worth the perceived ‘risk?’