Museums Using Megaphones

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

 

 

 

 

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.]

= = = = = = =

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.”

Media literacy, election years, and museums

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The Massachusetts museum advocates outside Senator Warren’s office, Museums Advocacy Day 2016

Last week was #MuseumsAdvocacy2016, hosted by the American Alliance of Museums down in DC. It was several days of training, talking about museum issues, sharing big ideas, meeting up with old friends and making new ones, and talking to legislators and their staffers about everything from STEM education to charitable giving tax deductions. It was about 250 people participating in the ardent practice of democracy, and it was awesome.

And this week was Super Tuesday. (More ardent practice of democracy, for good or ill. I got to the polls 5 minutes after they opened, because when I was little, my parents took me voting with them like it was an adventure. Still is, mostly because I understand the stakes better now.)

Most people say the ads and the terrible behavior of both candidates and supporters are the worst part of election years. While that’s often true, this year I also marked with sadness President Obama’s last State of the Union.  If you missed it, for whatever reason, I do encourage you to check it out, because it was one of his better examples of hopeful oratory. I’ve linked to the White House above because they’ve got a bunch of the quotes, infographics, and other extras that were included in the enhanced livestream, which make for good nuggets around which to build a discussion, should you happen to be teaching civics, graphic design, or media literacy this week. (Please teach some media literacy this week.)

Media literacy has been a long-held interest of mine: an essay I wrote about it was part of the web resources for PEM’s Eye Spy: Playing With Perception exhibit, and elements of those same visual/critical thinking skills ideas also worked themselves into the teacher guide I wrote for middle and high-school based on the same exhibit. In an election year like this one is shaping up to be, where paying attention to the kinds of language candidates use gives you a lot of information about who they are and what they’re trying to do with their platforms, it’s important for educators in both classrooms and museums to step up their game around teaching those critical skills. Otherwise, who’s to notice when one candidate gets an overwhelming amount of media attention for no critically apparent reason?

That’s why I was pleased to find out recently that the Newseum launched a new resource for educators and students centered around the history, roles, and responsibilities of the press, with lesson plans, curriculum links, and activities for both the classroom and trips to the museum itself. I didn’t make it to the Newseum on this most recent trip to DC, but I enjoyed it when I was there several years ago, and it’s on my list for another look next time. (I’ll have reviews of the places I did visit in the next post or two.)

Here are a few recent ‘museums in the news’ articles to get you started, in case you want something other than election coverage to read:

 

 

This Week’s Museum Reads: Multi-Sensory Activation

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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.

Selfies, Speed Dating, and Museum Ethics

program goalsRelevant. Engaging. Fun. Viral. Entertaining. Educational. Hip. Innovative. Creative.

A daunting set of words to have as goals for any museum program or exhibition. Museums all over are looking for ways to tap into the trends of the day to help reach those goals, and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they slip up; so what is it that makes for a successful event or engagement opportunity, and what are the commonalities among things that are likely to fall flat at best, and land you in the mud at worst?

The scene is complicated by entities like the highly popular Museum Hack, a team of outsiders that creates (with the permission of the host organization) museum experiences that ‘disrupt’ the usual expectations of a museum tour. They have raised a few eyebrows among museum professionals, but have also received a warm welcome for bringing a fresh set of experiential ideas to widespread attention. That said, what seems to be ‘okay’ on a Museum Hack experience can seem problematic when attempted by museums themselves.

Let’s look at a couple of recent examples:

“Science Meets Speed Dating” at the American Museum of Natural History, from the Wall Street Journal

This sounds, from this article, like a really successful event. They took an easily recognizable style of event, the concept of which is clear even if you’ve never been to a speed-dating evening, and gave it a twist to suit their context. I know that in my past museum jobs evaluations showed that ‘meeting the expert’ events, be they artists, scientists, authors, whatever, were always a big draw, and this capitalizes on that pull to create a really entertaining evening. I can imagine contexts in which speed dating would not work so well as a framework–Speed Debate with the Founding Fathers? Maybe not. Still, there was content to back up the concept here, and it shows.

“Kimono Wednesday” at the MFA

There’s been a lot of  ink spent on the protests surrounding this event already, and I’m including the links below of some of the interesting reads. I’m more interested in looking at the program structure than debating the larger issues.  The original intent of the kimono-selfie-prompt was not malicious, but it certainly seems to have suffered from an insufficiency of forethought. It was also (quite properly, in my opinion) criticized for lack of context. The discussion around culture-as-costume seems to only be getting louder (again, quite properly imho); in Canada a music festival just banned the wearing of First-Nations-inspired headgear, for instance. In that environment, promoting an opportunity for self-promotion through kimono-selfies seems oblivious, not to mention a tad dated/derivative. As one insightful person I spoke with put it, “Once they’re selling selfie-sticks in Walgreen’s, it’s over.”

That said, the fact that the museum immediately changed gears, added context, and is assembling a symposium to discuss issues of cultural sensitivity and appropriation is admirable. Listening to the people in your space is important. That they continue to voice their upset is a mark more of the level of frustration and voicelessness felt by certain segments of the population than it is a reflection on the museum’s actions. The MFA is in the same boat as the presidential candidates at this week’s Netroots Nation event; they happen to have provided a stage for people who haven’t had one. That the MFA is planning on leaving open that space and continuing the discussion is great.

“MFA recasts kimono days after complaints of stereotyping” at the Boston Globe

“Confused thinking behind the protests at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts” on Hyperallergic

“MFA’s kimono controversy should spark deeper conversation” at the Boston Globe

Flag Creation and the ‘Hate vs. Heritage’ Argument

Participatory spaces in museums, facilitated and non, are a growing staple of museum engagement.  In an activity inspired by Bastille day, one museum educator ran up against some unexpected uncomfortableness when some visitors chose to re-create versions of the Confederate flag to hang on the activity wall–and had to face questions of editing, engagement, and ethics in deciding whether or not to take the flags down:

“When do we edit participation?” at Museum Questions

Thinking, again, about this as a program design, there’s not a lot to criticize here. Could some of the issue been averted by having an educator in the space? Possibly, but possibly not. Could more or different signage have helped? Again, possibly, or possibly not. It’s a problematic balance between access and resources; sometimes the staff just doesn’t exist to keep spaces like this staffed. I would argue that audience participation is always enriched by the chance to interact with a museum educator. (This is where I am not putting my thoughts on how all museum staff, regardless of department or background, should spend a certain amount of time per month on the exhibit floor, because that’s a whole different post waiting to happen.)

Should museums have a stated policy their staff can refer to about the things they will or will not accept as ‘leave-behinds’ for display? That would probably help. After all, most museums will remove random scribbles and profanity from their comment books; if the National Park Service has refused to let their concessionaires sell merchandise with the Confederate flag on it, that’s enough back-up for me.

There is a place for conversations about heritage, symbolism, and the visual language of oppression, but it’s not the unfacilitated kids’ art zone. Everyone deserves to feel comfortable and welcome in that kind of space; let the difficult conversations happen where there are no safety scissors around.

So tell me what you think: why are selfies as prompted by Museum Hack ‘okay’ (if they are)? What other kinds of gallery-disruption do you favor or dislike? What would you do if someone left a Confederate flag (or other controversial image) in your art zone? When is a kinetic experience learning and when is it a ploy?

This Week’s Museum Reads: Curiosity

Museum Reads header imageAs a child, I was informed that ‘dull’ and ‘boring’ were swear words. Anything could be interesting if you looked at it long enough, asked enough questions, and any time you had free could be easily filled by more looking, listening, imagining, and investigating. (“Are we there yet?” was similarly disallowed, but “where are we?” was allowed as often as we liked, so long as we were willing to track our road trip route on a map.)  Consequently, I’ve spent my life always looking for the next new and interesting thing, and somehow I always find something.

A few interesting reads on the topic of curiosity:

Graphic made by Meg Winikates on Canva.com

Graphic made by Meg Winikates on Canva.com

Other Brain Popcorn posts you may enjoy: