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.

 

“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.

little dancer 2

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.

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.)

rowling quote

 

Authority, Authorship, and Storytelling in Museums

From the library at the Crane Estate, Ipswich. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

From the library at the Crane Estate, Ipswich. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

Earlier this week, Rebecca Herz over on Museum Questions posted an interesting piece in response to the movement for adding more storytelling to museums, wondering if story is as effective as museums wish it to be, and if prioritizing storytelling diminishes the role of museums.  There are already a lot of great comments in the thread there and I encourage you to read the responses; I felt like my reaction needed a little more time and space for thought, so here we are.

In my non-museum life, I am a writer, an English major, and daughter of a librarian and a former theater teacher, so I fall firmly on the side of story. I agree with the power of story to provoke emotion and generate strong memory and help us make connections between things we know and new facets of learning.  I heard Kendall Haven speak and read his book Story Proof, and it made a lot of sense to me.

The questions Rebecca raises are good ones, the most central of which seems to be this: museums are seen as places of authority, and what if the stories we are telling are not the ones people are taking away? what if stories are diluting instead of enhancing what we have to teach?

As someone who reads as many writing resources as museum ones, this concern reminded me vividly of the problem so many authors/creators have with the existence of fandom. An author or poet or TV production team or movie director spends all this effort to create a story and launch it into the world, and every once in a while then throws a fit when people say ‘we love that this is in your story’ and the creator says ‘but that wasn’t there at all! I didn’t want you to find romantic tension between these characters, I wasn’t trying to tell a story about that kind of opression, I was telling this kind of story, not that one.’ (Poets are usually better about this; they understand and intend for people to get more out of a poem than they necessarily put in in the first place. TV writers are notoriously bad about it. If we want museums to have fans/an engaged community, let’s take our cue from poets.)

Steampunked Dr. Seuss: a transformative work found at the Springfield Museums, MA. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

Steampunked Dr. Seuss: a transformative work found at the Springfield Museums, MA. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

Once you put a story out into the world, whether you are an author or a museum, you don’t own it anymore. I heard someone say once, “We are not all watching the same show” or reading the same book.  People will consume the same set of words and images, but how they interpret, absorb, and remember them is influenced inevitably by who they are already and what they bring with them. Trying to control what they take away or turn it into (such as in the varied reactions of people at the Lincoln Museum in Rebecca’s piece) is impossible.

To put it another way: think of a book that hit you just right when you read it, and another that you simply couldn’t appreciate at all the first time; there may be a right time to see a museum exhibit for someone the same way there is a right time to read a book.  When I first read Jane Austen’s  Persuasion, I thought Anne Elliot was a spineless doormat, and boring to boot. I was a teenager. When I re-read that story years later, I fell in love with Anne’s resilience and steadiness, and her belief in second chances. The teenager described in Rebecca’s post who was made so sad by the slave auction diorama that she couldn’t absorb anything else–perhaps she didn’t seek out more information about Lincoln, the Civil War, or civil rights then, but that doesn’t mean she won’t ever take a class on the period in college, or become an activist for social justice in a few years, or a public defender, or an economist.

One cannot tell only one story, and one cannot know how it will affect people, and one cannot fret over it. This is equally important for museums and for authors.

What one can do, in the museum world, is provide scaffolding and a diversity of access points to your story/collections/mission/exhibit. If everyone is hearing a different story, tell a bunch of good ones, complicated ones with multiple narrators and intersecting themes. Lay out your analytical lines for the people who want to follow them, engage with first person narrative from primary sources, supplement with drama and suspense that put your audience in the center of your tricky questions. Get fully on-board the storytelling train and add a theatrical performance to your exhibit, live or recorded.

I spent years as a kid going to the Museum of Science in Boston and vividly remember the theater program Lynn Baum describes in her comments to Rebecca’s original post. The Bog Girl, the cowardice of the Titanic‘s owner (“He did not look back.”), and the possibilities of international space exploration on a mission to Mars (“Don’t eat the samples!”) are burned vividly into my mind, and so are lifelong interests in archaeology (including marine archaeology), Celtic history, geology, and space exploration. To Rebecca’s point about emotion potentially interfering with analysis, I admittedly don’t remember a ton about the specific chemistry of why peat bogs are great for mummification (something about acidity and submersion protecting things from oxidization?), or the exact range of years from which the Bog Girl originated, but I was, and remain, interested in going to other museum exhibits and reading other National Geographic articles and finding other historical fiction that will tell me more about her world.

For that matter, I rarely manage to see a quilt without being reminded of another piece of museum theater I saw on a family trip as a kid, called Quilters, which was all about women’s experiences as frontier settlers (“Sunbonnet Sue getting bitten by a rattlesnake!”). It didn’t make me want to quilt, or settle on the prairie, but it gave me an intense appreciation for the efforts of women who did either or both. Stories may not always have the *intended* effect, or an immediately obvious one, but they always do *something:* inspiration, fascination, curiosity, aversion, imagination, irritation, sorrow. And that something–intended or accidental, analytical or emotional– is still so, so much better than nothing.

What catches your imagination? Detail image of a dressing table, RISD museum. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

What catches your imagination? Detail image of a dressing table, RISD museum. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

Museums are used to being perceived as authorities, to having this role as expert, as treasure vault, as teacher. Letting go of that kind of control is a little nerve-wracking (see all the drama in the last few years over crowd-sourced exhibits and participatory events and people quitting over ‘the death of real curation,’ etc.), and it’s hard.  Maybe museums are not all natural storytellers. It’s probably easier for some museums than others, and some of us might think we’re telling great stories, when we’re actually that guy in the corner of the party who’s as compelling as six-day-old dry toast. (See the aforementioned ‘nothing.’)

Let’s not be toast.  Let’s be a taco buffet, with lots of options for our guests to choose among; soft or hard-shelled, full of protein or mostly toppings, spicy or mild, simple or complex as individual taste demands. Everyone ends up with something that the host can recognize as a taco (exhibit message), and no one goes away hungry (bored). Offer a bounty of stories with lots of ways to get at them (interactives, tours, audio, visuals, touch points, story books, creative response invitations) and enjoy the various voices and viewpoints that result. Make it a potluck taco buffet and invite other tastes/voices in.  In the 21st century, fewer and fewer people want the voice from on high dictating the one story, so let’s tell lots of them instead.

How will you experience 2015?

It’s January, and though my internal clock is still very wired to the scholastic calendar (September will always and forever be the start of a new year to me), budget and program cycles are telling me it’s a fresh start and a chance to do something new and cool for 2015.

What will your guiding words for this year be?  Photo of sculpture from outside the Fuller Craft Museum, photograph by Meg Winikates.

What will your guiding words for this year be? Photo of sculpture from outside the Fuller Craft Museum, photograph by Meg Winikates.

For me, that includes things like planning new exhibits, getting a new set of museum guides up to speed with drop-in programming in the galleries, and coming up with ways to evaluate last year’s changes and figure out where we can be even more responsive to our visitors in both exhibition and program design.  (I’m currently working on ways to get visitors to inspire each other to greater heights of creative play in our Investigate Zone designed for visitors under 5 and their accompanying adults.)

Here are a few cool reads to help you get inspired (personally and professionally) for the new year:

  • Nina Simon over on Museum 2.0 has a neat interview with a member of Museum Hack, thinking about how to reinvigorate the tour experience.
  • Seeking inspiration and a way to keep on track for the new year?  The Artful Parent has suggestions for making a vision board to hang in your home or office.  (This is much prettier than the strings of to-do lists I tape to my apartment door!)  She’s also doing a daily sketchbook project.
  • The Jealous Curator is doing a monthly “Creative Un-Block” challenge: January’s features altering copies of the same image in as many ways and with as many materials/media as one can imagine.

What are you planning for next year?  What grand experiments and adventures are getting your grin a little wider than usual?

Inspiration from ‘The Greats’

Happy New Year to you all from Brain Popcorn!

I hope these first few weeks of 2014 find you well and happy and looking forward to all kinds of new ideas and things to learn and explore in 2014.  Looking back at how I spent some of my Christmas vacation, and forward to some of what’s coming up at the museum, I decided the year’s first post ought to be about inspiration.

picasso inspirationOver the break, I went to the always rewarding Museum of Fine Arts, and spent an uplifting and intimidating 2+ hours in the Sargent watercolors show.  It’s up for a few more days, and if you have the chance to see it and have *any* interest in anything from painting to color theory to cool images from interesting places to travel, it’s more than worth the effort to get there (preferably in the early morning before it’s positively swamped).

Underside of the Rialto Bridge, Venice, by JS Sargent

Underside of the Rialto Bridge, Venice, by JS Sargent

It takes a lot to convince me to buy the catalogue for an art exhibition–pretty as they are, they take up a lot of space and I am seriously short of bookshelves these days.  (Books under the coffee table, in the night stand, on the top shelf of the closet, in my pocketbook, on my desk…)  However, this was a knockout of a show and there was absolutely no question that it was worth it–especially when I can prop the catalogue up near my easel and try some of that ‘learning from the masters’ method of self-pedagogy.  Maybe it will knock a few original compositions loose, too.

In the spirit of art forms that are a little more accessible than insanely intricate paintings of moored sailboats and the graceful facades of Venetian palazzos, however, here is a collection of some of my favorite art activities inspired by some big-name artists:

Mondrian

A perennial favorite for transformative works due to his simplicity, Mondrian has always been a personal favorite of mine as well.  I can’t explain it, because generally squares of primary colors aren’t exactly my taste, but there’s something reassuring about the rules his paintings follow.  (I was a kid who liked coloring inside the lines.)

Here are a few fun examples of people who took Mondrian’s squares to another level (click the pictures for links to the sources):

Mondrian Owl on Artsonia, drawn by a fourth grade student

Mondrian Owl on Artsonia, drawn by a fourth grade student

Mondrian mobile, from a French elementary classroom

Mondrian mobile, from a French elementary classroom

"Mondrian's squares have lost a side!" Triangle paintings from a French elementary classroom

“Mondrian’s squares have lost a side!” Triangle paintings from a French elementary classroom

Klimt

I really love the projects that go from 2D inspirations to 3D transformations.

Inspired by the Tree of Life, 5th grade project

Inspired by the Tree of Life, 5th grade project

Chihuly

Coffee filter 'Macchia' (and a version for older kids on the same site)

Coffee filter ‘Macchia’ (and a version for older kids on the same site)

Sharpie on spiral-cut plastic bottles for the chandelier look

Sharpie on spiral-cut plastic bottles for the chandelier look

 

Also, be sure to check out the assorted very cool inspirational posters over at Masterclass Minis! (see example below)

calder poster

Finally, check back for a second round in “Inspiration from the Greats: Female Artists” coming in a few weeks!