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.


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


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).


Stuff and Nonsense

Anyone need a thinking cap?

crochet brain

Downloadable crochet pattern from CandyPopCreations on Etsy, link above.

Fill your brains with books

brain bookends

Brain bookends on Uncommon Goods, link above.

Needs more memory.


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

A dose of wonder from DC’s museums

Have you been following the tag #5womenartists on social media? The National Museum of Women in the Arts has been running a challenge over instagram et al. to raise awareness of female artists during the month of March, and there have been a lot of neat posts from other museums as well as individuals (including artists themselves). I recommend checking it out if you have time.

When I was in DC at the end of last month for Museums Advocacy Day, I had a little free time, and naturally used it to tour museums (and the Library of Congress, because  librarian’s daughter).

Renwick Gallery (of the Smithsonian American Art Museum): Wonder exhibition review

The Wonder exhibit was a piece of colorful communal paradise on a rainy Sunday. Though I was operating on about four hours of sleep, I was completely enthralled with the show and went through it about 1.5 times because there were several installations I needed to spend just a bit more time with.

Each gallery in the recently restored Renwick was home to one installation, and my favorite thing about this tactic was how thoroughly it changed your experience of the museum from room to room. Patrick Dougherty’s Shindig Stickwork installation made for a mischievous, rambunctious audience experience, as people ducked in and around the swirling stick sculptures, peeking through windows and twirling between them in much the same kind of movement as the twigs themselves. Janet Echelman’s tsunami-inspired net sculpture and its corresponding rug was a much quieter experience, encouraging people to linger as the lights and shadows shifted, to lie down on the floor and just observe. Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus A1 was especially effective in its brilliance against the gray rain hitting the windows behind it; I did pity the guard stationed there who had to keep warning people not to get too close, because that rainbow of thread was as appealing a spider’s web as I’ve ever seen. It was hard to believe it wasn’t itself glowing, just excellent lighting. I admit I was less enthralled than many of the people I saw that day with the room entirely decorated with dead insects, and the sculpture out of tires, while texturally appealing, smelled distinctly of burned rubber and I couldn’t figure out if I was looking at a post-industrial dragon hide or a rejected piece of scenery from Mad Max: Fury Road. That said, the sheer variety of installations on view meant there was something for everyone.

I also found myself taking pictures of a bunch of the labels; not something I usually do unless I’m trying to remember an artist’s name, but the interpretation panels generally and the ‘wonder’ themed quotes they picked were exceptional. I love the idea of defining wonder as ‘a suprise of the soul.’

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National Museum of Women in the Arts review

Firstly, major kudos to the visitor services team. The woman on duty at the front desk actually left her post to give me an extra suggestion and a gallery activity to take along, when I was partway into the galleries. Big points for being helpful and friendly! Said gallery activity was pretty interesting, too; I regretted that I was on my own and had no one with whom to discuss the questions posed for the various highlighted objects.

I had no idea this museum was as big as it is; I did a shamefully poor job on the top floor as I needed to catch my plane back to Boston. I will definitely need to go back. There were works by artists I recognized, and of course dozens upon dozens of works and artists that were new to me. It was a very good day for learning things, and for appreciating the breadth of the collection, from painting to photography to reinterpretations of materials and techniques in craft and design. The Pathmakers exhibit was much more interesting than I expected, in fact (though as with many design shows I found myself wondering for some pieces about where the function had gotten lost along the way to the form).

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The museum has works of art created by women (and often featuring women) since the Renaissance. One of the things which most impressed me, as I suspect the balance was a fine one, was the tone in which the interpretation was presented. Labels, theme panels, etc. did not shy away from talking about the fact that women’s art was traditionally underrepresented in the Western canon, nor that women’s art was often influenced by the materials and roles generally assigned to them, nor that sometimes (especially in the 20th century) women’s art was directly related to political statements about women’s rights. However, these came across as statements of fact without seeming loaded, accusatory, or otherwise negatively charged. In a world that is increasingly emotionally and politically volatile, it was delightful, even restorative, to be somewhere that recognized, remedied, and celebrated instead. It was a great way to end my trip to DC.

Next week I’ll be hitting up historic houses and possibly the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, so stay tuned for some history-themed posts in the near future!

This Week’s Museum Reads: Multi-Sensory Activation

Museum Reads header image

This is your brain on art (and food!):

The most powerfully engaging works of art appeared to trigger brain regions in the frontal cortex that are involved in introspective thought, as well as nearby regions usually directed at more outward matters. The two areas usually don’t activate simultaneously. “That is a very rare state,” Dr. Vessel said. “It resonates in the shape of your mind.”

Storytelling and STEM:


“When you can call a line of code a spell, then you are getting somewhere,” Fruchter said. After all, isn’t computer code basically modern magic?

Fingertips to fossils or the Mona Lisa’s face:

Beyond their beauty, fossils are also physical objects, with heft and depth, contours and textures. These qualities are not easily conveyed across the Internet, which tends to resolve on screens, brightly colored and flat.

Happy National Library Week!

Click for source.

Click for source.

The theme for this year’s National Library Week is “Unlimited Possibilities,” which is an idea I can definitely get behind.

Here are a few bookish things to celebrate libraries big and small, public, academic, and everything in between.

2015 Reading Challenge from PopSugar (much easier to complete if you visit your local library!)

By Perilous Paper on Etsy. Click for prints of this and more adorable book-loving art

By Perilous Paper on Etsy. Click for prints of this and more adorable book-loving art.

A celebration of preserved historic properties with a library spin, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Exploring the chemistry of that awesome book-smell from Brain Pickings and Noodle.

America’s 10 Most Unique Libraries from Huffington Post

Trendswatch and Open Data You Can Use

The future is bright, and full of sugar.  Image courtesy of NASA's image galleries, see link below.

The future is bright, and full of sugar. Image courtesy of NASA’s image galleries, see link below.

Have you been looking through The Center for the Future of Museums’ Trendswatch 2015?  If not, you can find it (and some related articles) right here.  (If you’re not familiar with Trendswatch, the basic idea is that the CFM looks at what’s happening in society on a large scale and predicts how certain trends in technology, attitude, and habits could influence/affect museums and museum-goers.  It has broader implications for education, design, marketing, and service organizations too.)

One of the trends identified is the rising importance/influence/availability of ‘open data’ and the projects that are created using it.  This can mean anything from GovTrack’s database of US Congressional voting records to the Cooper Hewitt’s 3D scans of their mansion, available free for makers and creatives of all sorts to download and tinker with.

In the spirit of Brain Popcorn’s Ideabox, here are some open resources that you can use, and some creative prompts for yourself, your museum, or your classroom:

Inspiring Images

What can you do with museum-quality images?

  • Digital collages, cropping, recoloring, pop-culture parodies, screen wallpapers, custom header for your personal blog
  • Print actual wallpaper, fabric, etc. using a service like Spoonflower or similar
  • Print images for mixed media collage, mod-podge and resin-based crafts like jewelry or glass jar luminaria
  • Costume, set, and character design inspiration for theater classes, writing prompts, and authors’ visual reference files
  • History reports, bulletin boards, and VTS classroom discussions with an overhead projector or poster-sized prints

Where can you find them?  (Some of these links also include 3D models and audio and video files, for bonus remixing options)

The Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler galleries have all their collections online, with images you can use in any non-commercial form, for free.

The Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries have all their collections online, with images you can use in any non-commercial form, for free. Click the image to go to Open F|S!

So Many Numbers…

I mentioned GovTracks earlier, but there are reams of numerical sorts of information out there too.

What can you do with lots of numerical/geographical/etc. data sets?

  • map customized information onto Google Earth or other visualization services (see Gapminder below) (great for conversations about population density, conservation efforts, etc.)
  • track language use on social media (where are certain words or new phrases popular, and what kind of people are using them?)
  • More maps: what do people in each state search most often on the internet?
  • Plan a student advocacy campaign for something your class decides is important.  Who are your legislators and what do they think is important?  Who do you have a chance of convincing based on their records?
Visualizing a timeline/map of electricity use per person, 1700's until the present day, using Gapminder

Visualizing a timeline/map of electricity use per person, 1700’s until the present day, using Gapminder

Where can you find data sets?  Please bear in mind that a lot of these sites aren’t going to have data that’s super interesting to a class of third graders, for instance.  For middle, high school, and college students, not to mention professionals, sure.  But if you have rec’s for kid-friendly data, I’d love to hear them!

This is by no means an exhaustive list, so if you have other great sources of open data, or suggestions for cool projects, please share them in the comments below!

What’s next?

Looking to make a set of data you or your organization has a part of the open data universe?  Check out Open Data Commons for a getting-started guide and important legal information.

As a logical extension of open data, some people are going all the way to ‘open objects,’ such as Jeremy Deller’s Do Touch project, in which objects from a historic collection are brought out to the public in malls, parks, etc, and made available for exploration.  This is a great idea, and it would be great if museums could do more of this! The Active Collections project is all about helping museums identify which objects are truly serving their missions: if they could also identify what could be used as ‘educational collection’ for this kind of purpose, think how inspiring that could be.

Open data is being used for community mapping, app building, advocacy, education, and more.  What are other possible mid- or end-points for this trend?

Rooted in Art: An interview with Joan Backes

IMG_0185_Backes_Bangkok,Thailand Hanging.Leaves300dpi-3

Hanging Leaves: Bangkok Installation, by Joan Backes

I always appreciate the stark and intricate beauty of winter’s bare branches, but there’s something about the curtain of falling leaves at the end of the Atrium at work that’s good for my autumn-loving soul.  Recently, I had an opportunity to interview Branching Out artist Joan Backes for the Peabody Essex Museum’s Connected, to ask about her multinational leaf collection, working in a storybook forest, and more.  You can read her responses here: “Leafing Out with Joan Backes.”

Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf.

— Albert Schweitzer
This will also be my last post for Connected, as after five remarkable years at PEM I am moving on to a new position with the New England Museum Association, starting in February.  All my past Connected posts can be found here, and I’m looking forward to sharing my continuing museum adventures with you as always here on Brain Popcorn.
Though I say a fond farewell to PEM, there's a whole world of interdisciplinary adventures yet to be had! (Mega Mega Planet by Josh Simpson, photo by Allison White)

Though I say a fond farewell to PEM, there’s a whole world of interdisciplinary adventures yet to be had! (Mega Mega Planet by Josh Simpson, photo by Allison White)

Museum Review: Fuller Craft, Brockton MA

This past weekend I took a trip (with my trustiest museum-going companions) to the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA.  It was my first trip there, and my overall impression was very favorable.  The museum has a lovely location overlooking a pond/reservoir, with wooded area around, and the building itself takes advantage of a lot of small courtyards and opportunity for natural light and indoor/outdoor sight lines.  It’s a very appealing space, though with a few drawbacks I’ll get back to later.  It’s a museum that deserves more attendance than it had the day we were there, for certain.

Here are a few highlights from our visit:


From the sculpture-laden courtyard/patio, overlooking the pond. Photo by Meg Winikates.

Game Changers: Fiber Art Masters and Innovators

“Fiber arts” can seem a pretty vague term.  What exactly counts as a ‘fiber?’  In the case of the Fuller’s exhibit, a lot: twigs, roots, aluminum strips and other metals, paper, plastic wire, the more expected silk, cotton, etc, and even leaves and ‘wasp nest fiber.’  It’s a variety that serves the exhibit rather than causing it to be too diffuse: the pairing of traditional techniques with unusual materials balances the use of traditional materials in fresh ways.  Understandably, I have a bias towards artworks that use natural materials (hello, job of 5 years), so a number of the pictures in the gallery below include tree materials, silkworm cocoons, etc. (There’s a full list of participating artists on the exhibition page if you need more information, too.)

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All of us really enjoyed this exhibit: there were surprising moments, impressive examples of craftsmanship, visually engaging pieces, and beautifully textured ones that you just *really* wanted to get your hands on (though of course we all knew better).

Annette Bellamy’s Floating

Alaskan ceramicist and fisher-woman Annette Bellamy had a lovely one-room installation up through 11/2, which was the favorite of at least half of us in the group.  The two dominant pieces in the gallery were Floating and Sinkers, one of which featured a softly twisting and chiming set of ceramic kayaks, the other very pendulous, larger-than-life ceramic sinkers like the weights one finds on fishing lines and nets.  The lighting design in here was particularly nice, too, with the shadows of the kayaks offering the illusion of fish flitting beneath the boats.


The other part of this gallery that I really liked was a set of custom-adapted paddles, each inspired by a particular person or experience: a whale biologist’s paddle was shaped like a fin, a violinist’s like an abstract version of her instrument with curls of musical texture over it, a ‘phosphorescence’ paddle looked like coral and water bubbles, and Emily Dickinson’s featured buttons and lace.  As a gallery/installation, it was nicely designed and very effective.

Permanent Collection

The Fuller’s permanent collection exhibition space tries to do a lot in not a lot of room.  The intro panel mentioned four main thematic elements that guided the selection and groupings of objects, but there wasn’t a lot of room for those themes to be separated or further explained.  The strength of this set of galleries, therefore, was in the ‘eye-catchingness’ of particular objects or groupings, like the gorgeous seed-pod and flower-bulb inspired ceramics below.


Many of the works in this space were highly individual, often humorous, imaginative, and clearly made with a great deal of skill and imagination.  The density of display in some ways is an advantage, as it leads you naturally to compare and connect the pieces you are seeing in a single glance.

A Few Missed Opportunities

A craft museum is all about the work of an artist’s/craftsperson’s hands–the Fuller even emphasizes this idea by incorporating a fingerprint into their logo.  In such a museum, one would therefore generally expect to find interactive or touchable pieces.  With two exceptions, notable because they were the only ones (a book you could examine while wearing gloves and a weaving activity), this was not the case at the Fuller, and it’s a shame.

To be fair, I don’t believe the museum has a large staff or a gigantic budget, and they are certainly pressed for space, since many of their ‘galleries’ are in fact glorified hallways.  However, there were so many points where a small interactive (touchable ceramic tiles with varied glazes or bases, magnet board with re-arrangeable design elements, ring clip of textile varieties, etc.) would have really carried the day, it was a bummer not to see them.  I realize as a person who has spent the last 8 years in very interactive-heavy spaces I have a bias, but kids are not the only ones who are drawn to interactive experiences, and I was not the only one in my party who missed the opportunity to appreciate the art-making process in a more visceral way.

Also, labels with slightly larger font size (and on a few occasions a *little* less text) would be helpful.  I understand a lot of people don’t want to take attention away from the art, but it actually takes more of your attention to squint at a tiny label than to glance at a readable one.

That said, it was a great visit, a fun way to occupy a few hours, a nice quiet destination if you like your museums more meditative, and I recommend you make the trip to Brockton to check it out for yourself if you’re in the New England area.

Ideabox: Bark

ideabox bark

It’s time for more tree-inspired fun from the Ideabox!  This week we’re looking at bark (and by extension, some logs, because it is occasionally hard to get one of these without the other).  As always, the Ideabox features suggestions on how to explore an everyday material in an interdisciplinary way.  Suggestions are always welcome!


Book of bark drawings by Sallie Lowenstein, featured artist in Branching Out, Trees as Art

Clothed in Bark, book of bark drawings by Sallie Lowenstein, featured artist in Branching Out, Trees as Art

Science: Close-Looking and Identification of Bark

There are still beautiful leaves on the trees to help you tell your white oak from your black oak and your sugar maple from your Norway maple, but soon enough a nature walker will need to be paying attention to bark patterns to identify winter’s sleeping trees.  Enter Michael Wojtech‘s book, Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast.  Wojtech is a fascinating person to talk to, and very passionate about encouraging people to simply *notice* more about their environment (especially trees).  He ran a great session at our Branching Out opening day involving making tree and leaf rubbings, and also using sharpies on acetate to trace the patterns of bark from close-up photographs.  People described the experience as inspirational, meditative, relaxing, and addictive, which seems like a pretty good spectrum to me!

My favorite fact I learned from Michael’s book: tree bark patterns can change as a tree ages.  It makes sense, of course–our skin changes, why wouldn’t a tree’s?  But it makes me look at the trees I walk by every day in a whole new way.

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Pear tree journal by Tanja Sova. Click for source

Pear tree journal by Tanja Sova. Click for source

I’m not advocating we all carry trees in our pockets, but the journal above was too adorable not to include.

I’ve already linked to cool books about bark elsewhere in this post, so I won’t belabor the point.  Bark is, however, a great source for writing prompts.  Wordlists about texture, color, scars, age marks, fire damage, insect damage, human damage, intersections between human construction and tree life (growing through a fence, perhaps?)–all of those can lead to powerful and imaginative writings for your students or museum visitors.


Are you teaching a unit on trees and passing up a chance to make edible bark?  If so, you’re missing a grand opportunity for punning and classic snacks (“ants on a log,” anyone? I always preferred my logs ant-less.  Raisins and I have a very off-again-on-again relationship.)

Here are a few tasty-looking variations on the ‘bark’ candy idea, all featuring chocolate, my favorite tree-based food:


Were you the kind of kid that picked up a stick and ran it along fences or trees on your walk through the neighborhood?  Are you a percussionist at heart?  You may be looking for  The Raw Log Amadinda from Elemental Designs, like the one we have in the Art & Nature Center.  There are a lot of fun ways to make rhythm with sticks and downed logs and tree stumps, but the extra resonance and tuning provided by the folks at Elemental Designs make this particular interactive extremely popular!

The Log Amadinda installed in the Art & Nature Center, just before opening

The Log Amadinda installed in the Art & Nature Center, just before opening

Visual Arts

Cedric Pollet's paperback maple photograph

Cedric Pollet’s paperback maple photograph

Bark is a great option for art-making.  Flakes of bark picked up off the ground (never off a living tree, please!) work fantastically as collage material to give texture.  Bark rubbing or tracing (as seen in the Michael Wojtech pictures above) or drawing (as in Sallie Lowenstein‘s work also above) are classic options for the budding naturalist and the artistic sketcher. For sheer visual impact, not to mention color exploration, it’s worth checking out Cedric Pollet‘s Bark book as well.

I’ve never tried printing with bark, but I’m willing to bet that with the right kind of bark, decent paint, and patience, you could come up with some beautiful textures.

And, of course, there is birchbark etching.  This works best if you know exactly what you’re doing when collecting supplies, and if you’re collecting (or purchasing from someone who collects) responsibly so as not to hurt the tree.  Birchbark, when peeled in winter, has a dark innermost layer that peels off with the outer bark, that when scraped away, reveals the lighter bark of summer.  Artist David Moses Bridges is particularly well known around New England for his work with this material.  He uses both traditional implements, such as horseshoe crab tails, and dental tools to achieve the etching effects he wants on his baskets, plaques, and other works.

Moose on birchbark, etching by David Moses Bridges, featured artist in Branching Out

Moose on birchbark, etching by David Moses Bridges, featured artist in Branching Out

And if you’re in a photographic turn of mind, PEM’s “Trees as Art” Instagram contest is running for one more week.  Tag your photos with #TreesAsArt and enter to win a very fun prize pack from the PEM shop.  Details here.

 instagram trees challenge

Find more tree-related Ideabox fun here:
Ideabox: Twigs
Ideabox: Leaves

Or you might want to check out:
Weird and Wonderful Watercolors
Nature in the Neighborhood

Do you have an inspiring way to explore tree bark?  Share it in the comments below!


Inktober, the Big Draw, and why you should pick up a pencil this month

Doodles are good for the brain! Zentangle-style artist trading cards by Meg Winikates

Doodles are good for the brain! Zentangle-style artist trading cards by Meg Winikates

“But I’m not an artist!”

“I haven’t drawn since, like, fourth grade.”

“I so can’t draw.”

Is this you? 

“I just doodle, you know.  Edges of meeting notes, that sort of thing.”

“I never show people my drawings, but I’ve got books of them.”

“My parents still hang my stuff on the fridge, but that’s about it.”

Is this you?

“I love to draw.  I don’t even need an excuse.”

Is this you?

If  you answered yes to any of the above, then October, the month of Inktober and The Big Draw,  is the month for you. (Yes, all of you.)

inktoberWhat is Inktober?  The brainchild of artist Jake Parker, it began in 2009 as a personal challenge: draw every day to improve skills and develop good habits.  Now, it is an international celebration in which thousands of artists, both amateurs and professionals, participate.  According to Parker’s website, the rules are simple:

1) Make a drawing in ink (you can do a pencil under-drawing if you want).

2) Post it on your blog (or tumblr, instagram, twitter, facebook, flickr, Pinterest or just pin it on your wall.)

3) Hashtag it with #inktober

4) Repeat

Note: you can do it daily, or go the half-marathon route and post every other day, or just do the 5K and post once a week. What ever you decide, just be consistent with it. INKtober is about growing and improving and forming positive habits, so the more you’re consistent the better.

That’s it! Now go make something beautiful.

As directions go ‘now go make something beautiful’ is definitely one of my favorites.  Check out the link above for pen reviews, templates for ‘inktober’ branded pages, social media links, and archives from previous years.


And how about The Big Draw?  Billed as “The World’s Biggest Drawing Festival,” it runs for the month of October every year (this year through Nov. 2), and it too is an international celebration of drawing at all skill levels and for any and all purposes.  It began in the UK and each year they have a wide-ranging theme to help event organizers etc. pull together a range of awesome programming.  This year’s theme is “It’s Our World,” and we’re celebrating it at PEM on October 11 at our own Big Draw Festival.  The Big Draw not only celebrates drawing, but works with cultural institutions of all sorts to promote visual literacy and draw attention to drawing’s role in communication and creativity.  They are backed by the charitable organization, The Campaign for Drawing, who have assembled quite an impressive set of resources for teachers, parents, students, event organizers, and more.  (They also have a very active Pinterest board.)

Need more convincing?  Even the Wall Street Journal reports that doodling can improve your memory.

Doodles by Jim Henson, click for source.

Doodles by Jim Henson, click for source.

Plus it’s fun!  If it’s good enough for Jim Henson, it’s good enough for me.

Do you have a habitual doodle?  What about a favorite art-making memory?  Share it in the comments below.