This week’s inspiring reads: Why we collect

Museum Reads header image

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!

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.


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.


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.


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?’




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.