Co-Creation in Mentoring

Adapted from The Courage to Teach (1998:102) by Parker Palmer

In the past couple of years co-creation has become a buzzword for a rather imprecise range of activities from simple collaboration to truly reciprocal processes.  In the Introduction to Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset  Elizabeth Bollwerk and I argue that co-creation

“. . . does not mean working for the community based on what a museum perceives are a community’s needs. Instead co-creation means working with the community to address the needs as expressed by the community itself.”

To apply the concept of co-creation to mentoring, simply substitute “mentee” for “community” in the above quote.  A co-creative perspective best describes my approach to mentoring.

The other day I began reading On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old by Parker Palmer.  The title sums up the volume’s focus.  Palmer includes a substantive mentorship discussion in the book.  As well, he articulates an approach to mentorship to which I completely align.  He writes (2018:33):

Every spring, commencement speakers take the stage across the country to tell the graduates, “Our hopes for the future are in your hands.” . . . It’s unfair to lay all responsibility for the future on the younger generation. . .  it’s not true that the young alone are in charge of what comes next.  We – young and old together – hold the future in our hands.  If our common life is to become more compassionate, creative, and just, it will take an intergenerational effort . . . let’s change the metaphor and invite young adults to join the orchestra.  As we sit together, we can help them learn to play their instruments – while they help us learn the music of the merging world, which they hear more clearly than we do.

Flowing from the above, here are two relevant points in how I approach mentorship:

  • The mentor and the mentee are in a reciprocal learning relationship beyond the mechanics of the mentoring process.  I find that the mutual expenditure of time and effort by the mentor and the mentee is a miniscule part of the reciprocity.  Instead, as with Palmer’s orchestra metaphor, both the mentor and mentee learn from their mutually shared wisdom and skills.  This point is the very essence of the diagram pictured above, adapted from Palmer’s The Courage to Teach.  In a teacher/student or mentor/mentee relationship, everyone can access the Great Thing.
  • A true co-creative approach mandates that the expressed needs of the mentee be at the heart of the relationship.  The mentor responsibility is not to create a clone of themselves or what aligns with the interests of their academic department.

Below, I offer several mentorship examples I experienced that illustrate these points.

Emily Neal and Scott Hadley were interns at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in 2010.  They created a hands-on activity using educational collections of stone tool artifacts.  In the first couple of minutes of this video, Emily and Scott talk about what they learned in creating the activity.  What I remember most from the eight-year old experience was, to use Palmer’s metaphor, “learning the music of the emerging world” that they represented.  In the activity created by Emily and Scott, they explained how stone tool styles changed over the thousands of years of prehistory.  Typically, when I explain stylistic changes, I rely either on battleship curves (popularized by James Ford in archaeology over 50 years ago) or talk about automotive stylistic changes through time.  Emily and Scott used the stylistic changes of video gaming devices over a several year period, something that the 10-15 year old target audience could readily appreciate.  The activity they created contained many similar examples.  Emily and Scott clearly reflected the mindset of the target audience better than my PhD in Anthropology.  I learned a great deal about education in museum settings from Emily and Scott during their internships.  As an aside, I am pleased to see in a recent Facebook post that the stone tool program is still part of the Museum offerings and Emily, now a full-time employee at Chucalissa, leads the activity that she created eight years ago as an intern!

Gabriel Short graduated this year with an Masters in Liberal Studies (MALS), and certificates in Museum Studies and Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership from the University of Memphis.  I met Gabriel in about 2015 when he sought advice on a career in museums.  Gabriel was one of those folks with a million ideas about what he wanted to do in life without a solid plan on anything.  As a result, although he was someone with clear intellectual ability, his lack of focus and mediocre GPA caused his rejection by academic departments to which he applied for graduate studies. He was becoming frustrated.  I met with Gabriel and suggested a different approach.  I suggested that he consider the MALS program – often considered by academic departments as a “less than” degree.  However, for Gabriel, it would allow him the opportunity for considerably greater latitude in constructing his curriculum, explore his research interests, and study abroad for course credit.  Upon his graduation this past spring, Gabriel sent me a note expressing how the MALS program proved ideal for preparing his next career steps.  He is now employed as a data analyst with the University of Memphis Research Foundation.  In working with students such as Gabriel, along with examining my own academic and professional career, I emphasize the need to think long and hard about the necessary steps to prepare for a career.  Too many students end up with graduate degrees that either poorly qualify or over qualify them for their career interests.  I learned that mentoring students on their academic trajectory must be divorced from my own interests in what I think they should pursue, or the recruitment interests of the department to which I am affiliated.

Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza and I first met in 2013 at the bus station in Caraz, in her native Peru where she had come to pick me up to then head up to the small village of Hualcayán. A colleague, Rebecca Bria had invited me to participate in a cultural heritage project in the small 400-person Andean community.  The next year, Eli applied to and was accepted as a graduate student at the University of Memphis.  I hired her as a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa which provided her with a stipend and tuition waiver.    Upon receiving her M.A. from the University of Memphis, Eli was accepted and funded to a PhD program at the Louisiana State University.  Over the past five years, we worked together on several projects in both Hualcayán and the Casma region on Peru’s north coast.  Eli and I published articles and gave presentations based on our mutual work.  For example, here is the Annual Report from the first year’s activities for the Culture and Community in Casma nonprofit we launched.  Since our first meeting based in a student/faculty relationship, today we have moved to function as colleagues.  Since 2013, in my half-dozen trips to Peru, I have learned much about the rich cultural heritage of Eli’s country.

Eli and her family have always expressed tremendous gratitude to my wife and I for providing for her in terms of material and moral comfort during her time as a student in the U.S.  When she received her Masters Degree, members of her family from New York to Lima, Peru came to Memphis for the event.  At a dinner in Eli’s honor, I noted how her family always thanked me for helping Eli, but I wanted to use the occasion to thank them.  I noted that career goals for me included giving back for the benefits I received as a student and also to conduct meaningful work.  Besides the hospitality her family always provides when I am in Peru, I thanked them for entrusting their daughter to our household for two years – pretty much sight unseen.  I thanked them too as in coming to know an work with Eli, I ended the “institutional” part of my professional career in a several year project that met my expressed needs to be engaged in the preservation and presentation of the cultural heritage of underserved peoples.  I more fully learned through working with Eli how it is the student/mentee who provides the opportunity for the professor/mentor to live into their needs as a professional.  I have also come to see in students such as Eli the true collegial component of such relationships.


Now, back to co-creation – in all three of the above examples, the expressed needs of the mentees formed the basis of the engagement – whether in gaining experience through internships, advising on an academic trajectory, or obtaining a graduate degree and launching a local program to preserve and present a vanishing cultural heritage.  At the same time, the expressed needs of the mentor are addressed equally by the very same processes.  Obviously, the mentee and mentor cannot exist independently. I am convinced that in ideal relationships, the mentor and mentee co-create with each other opportunities of equal value to grow more fully into their true selves.

God, Jefferson Sessions, and Sarah Sanders Meet

As it came to pass, God, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders came to meet just outside Heaven’s Pearly Gates.  On the inside were thousands of Hispanic children attending a fiesta.  The conversation between the three adults got somewhat heated.


God: So now, tell me why is it that you chose to separate and imprison these children, made in my image, when their families sought asylum in the United States?


Sessions:   I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes ¹.

Sanders: Yes, it is very biblical to enforce the law²

God: Hmm. . . . there is no law that requires immigrant families to be separated. The decision to charge everyone crossing the border with illegal entry — and the decision to charge asylum seekers in criminal court rather than waiting to see if they qualify for asylum — are both decisions the Trump administration has made.³

Sessions: But as Paul commanded, we must obey our government decisions . . .

God: Hold it right there.  First off, your cherry picking scripture.  Why do you cite Paul, a mere mortal, but ignore my own written word and command. As y’all are fond of saying in your neck of the woods “That dog won’t hunt.”

Sessions: But . . .

God: No buts about it.  Sarah, let me ask you, in your vacation bible school years ago, what did you learn that I told Moses?

Sanders: I can’t comment on . . .

God: Well I can.  I told him to go to the Pharaoh and tell him that I am running the show and that he is to let my people go (Exodus 3).  The Pharaoh could either do it my way, or suffer the consequences.  I did not care about the laws or decisions of the Pharaoh.

Sessions: But, Paul said . . .

God: Look Jeff, you need to take some time off this summer for some remedial study of my Word.  I am tired of folks deciding what they are going to do, then trying to find some scriptural justification.  Instead, my followers need to read the scripture to determine what their actions should be.

Session: But Lord, Paul said . . .

God: Jeff, give it a break.  I am tired of hearing about Paul.  In the same letter to the Romans Paul also said: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:9-10).  You are completely missing the point on this anyway. But, let’s go back to what I have to say about all of this and forget about your convenient use of Paul.  Do you not remember how in Leviticus (19:34) I said “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”  How can I be any more clear?  I have often sent my people to live as foreigners in new lands.  Look at Abraham or Jacob and his family who I sent out to escape the famine in their country.  How are you so certain I have not sent these Hispanic families to the United States to escape the same oppression?

Sessions: But Lord, we must have order and . . .

God:  Listen sonny – again, I have said  “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodous 22:21).  As my son is fond of saying “Whoever has ears, let them hear” Matthew (11:15).

Sessions: But Lord, the law . . .

God: Once again, the law!!!  Did you not read the legal scholar who questioned my son about what is written in the law?  Your 2000 year old legal equivalent correctly responded that the law stated:  “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27-28).

Sanders: But Lord, who really is my neighbor?

God: Girlfriend, you don’t want to go down that road.  Do you not remember the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke:30-38)?  I mean you even name hospitals after this guy.  But another story my son told is also relevant here:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46).

So my question to you, Jeff and Sarah, are you goats or sheep?

Sanders: I never thought of it that way before . . .

Sessions: I just did not know . . .

God: Well now you do.

And with that God went inside to join the fiesta with the children.


Other Voices & A New Direction

Two years ago I posted how I disliked when blogs just went away without any explanation.  I noted that with my pending retirement, my six-year blogging experience with Archaeology, Community & Outreach would change, but I was not certain of the direction.

In the last two years I wrote a few posts as I transitioned to being “institutionally” retired.  I wrapped up lots of loose ends, finished my formal responsibilities in higher education, and became more immersed in my favorite city in the world, New Orleans, Louisiana – home for the duration.  In the past year I also faced health challenges with a cancer diagnosis and a recent heart attack.  With all of that more-or-less under control, and thinking through my next phase of existence, I am recasting this blog and my general digital presence.

First, Archaeology, Museums & Outreach is gone (but archived) and now replaced by Other Voices: Life, the River, and Beyond.  Similar to a podcast I launched some 15 years ago called Archaeology Overlooked, and my more recent interest in the concept of co-creation, I intend for Other Voices to explore the offerings of those often ignored.  So what do I plan to explore?  Not constrained by anything other than my interests, the potential scope is broad.  Consider:

  • As a social activist for more than a half a century, I am keenly interested in the polarization and demonization of the “other” in the world today.  I learned as a high school senior in Brother Myron’s Problems of Democracy class that I have a responsibility to not only speak but act in seeking a remedy to the ruinous road we now travel.
  • In 1970 I was as an English Lit major.  The written word has remained integral to my life.  From my home on the southern end of the Mississippi River, when I google the term “literary New Orleans” I come upon George Washington Cable, Grace King, Lafcadio Hearn, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Francis Parkinson Keyes, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, John Kennedy Toole, Anne Rice, and others, but never two of my favorite writers – Robert Tallant and Mary King O’Donnell.  Tallant’s Mrs. Candy series of novels and O’Donnell’s Those Other People, all written in the 1940s, are compelling portraits of the local and colorful working class of New Orleans.  I intend to resurrect these types of “other” voices in the story of my city.
  • My colleague Ana Rea and I have embarked on a project to explore the mentor/mentee relationship.  Both raised in blue collar families and the first generation educated beyond high school, mentoring is something that each of us found critical in our lives both within and outside of academia.  We see how higher education often continues to fail in the responsibility to the “other” who do not fit the cookie cutter student mold.
  • Although I consider my formal work in museums and those professional organizations to be on the back burner, I will continue to write about and advocate for co-creative approaches to community engagement in the preservation and presentation of “other voices” cultural heritage.  I remain active in research projects on the north coast of Peru.
  • And I am certain I will have to talk about my favorite place within the city of New Orleans – our backyard kingdom of herbs, vegetables and fruit trees!

I am not certain how the above all ties together into anything terribly coherent, but  . . .

So that is where I intend to take the next iteration of my digital footprint.  If any of the above is of interest to you, stick around.  More to come!



Street Art as a Third Place Museum Experience

Over the past several years I posted final exam essays of students from my Museum Practices graduate seminars, written as responses to my challenge to justify their aspirations to work as museum professionals in today’s world.  Another section of the final exam allows students to choose and respond to a set of questions from an IMLS publication.  The question sets range the gamut of Museum Practices.  One student, Samira Rahbe Chambers, chose the question set addressing Museums as Third Places.  Her response is thought-provoking in considering street art performance as a Third Place practice for museums – a fresh and innovative approach.  Below is her essay.   


Museums as Third Places

by Samira Rahbe Chambers

The potential for museums to serve as Third Places has been an interest of mine over the last year as I tried to reconcile my admiration for street art and my involvement in the museum business. It became clear to me that the street served as a sort of Third Place for street artists where they could produce their art and viewers were able to consume art in a way that was very different from museums. Some of these differences include: the street is free, there is no entrance fee; you can be as loud as you wish, there is no museum staff hushing you; you can take photographs, even using your flash; you can touch the art, and even collaborate with it. Perhaps the starkest difference between viewing art on the street and viewing art in the museum is that there is no one influencing your reaction to the work; you happen upon the piece and are free to consider the work however you wish. There are no labels, there is no authoritarian stamp that “this is art,” and there is no pressure to pretend you understand or like the piece. It has been my hope in participating in the museum studies program at the University of Memphis that, as I enter the museum field, I may participate in the realization of museums as Third Places.

The Future of Museums and Libraries pose three questions to consider when imagining museums as Third Places: One, what are the social purposes of museums and libraries? Two, how will these [social purposes] be met in the future? Third, will communities continue to need physical gathering spaces or will virtual communities grow ever more important? For this discussion, I will refer to Robert Janes’s “Museum and Irrelevance,” Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, Robert Connolly and Elizabeth Bollwerk’s Positioning your Museum as a Critical Community Asset, and Nina Simon’s “Participatory Design and the Future of Museums.” In order to address the last two questions, answering the first, what the museum’s purpose is, needs to be done.

Janes argues that museums “provide answers to a fundamental question, ‘What does it mean to be a human being?’” (18) and he further states that, “At their very best, museums present the richness and diversity of life, and keep reflection and dialogue alive for their visitors…museums [have]..the obligation to probe our humanness and, in assuming this responsibility, museums are unique and valuable social institutions that have no suitable replacement,” (18). In other words, on a basic level, the function of museums it to help humans understand what it actually means to be human. Museums engage this conversation by looking into the past to understand where we’ve come from and how we have and haven’t changed. Also, museums help us understand our humanness by participating in contemporary dialogues of identity, gender, race, religion, class, and health. The topics museums address are controversial and must be handled delicately. It is for this reason that museum must realize themselves as Third Places and provide a safe environment to have these hard conversations.

To understand more of what a Third Place is and how museums can identify as one it is necessary to dig deeper into Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. I read Oldenburg’s book this past summer and cannot stress the significant implications his thoughts have for the future of museums. First, a Third Place can come in different forms. While Oldenburg lists some examples of Third Places in the title of his book, the primary identification of a Third Place is that it offers neutral ground where all feel comfortable. These places must be accessible and accommodating. Furthermore, these places do not “reduce a human being to a mere customer,” (18) but instead, approach people holistically engaging and appreciating all dimensionalities of their visitors. Lastly, Oldenburg proposes that in Third Places, “…joy and acceptance reign over anxiety and alienation,” (37) and that, “…what distinguishes the third place is that decency and good cheer consistently prevail” (84). While I admire and agree with Oldenburg’s ideals of a Third Place, I do not know if all museums can be called one, for there are several museums that maintain an air of elitism, viewing visitors as dollar signs, and who engage in only one-sided dialogue or ignore difficult conversations all together. Ultimately, I argue that Janes and Oldenburg’s thoughts can be understood as the purpose of museums.

Yet, how can museums fulfill its social purpose to provide a safe space where humans can come to question and understand their own basic human condition. To answer this question, it is helpful to consider Connolly and Bollwerk’s textbook. Positioning your Museum as a Critical Community Asset opens with a quote from John Cotton Dana: “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs,” (1). It is in this basic statement that museums can understand how they can serve as Third Places. It is only through engaging with the community the museum serves that it will be able to find out what kinds of conversations visitors wish to engage in and how those conversations may be best handled and treated. Furthermore, the concept of co-creation is the basis of Connolly and Bollwerk’s work and can help museums see that their community is a co-participator in the mission of the museum which shifts visitors from dollar signs to essential meaning makers. Also, Bollwerk and Sarah Miller discuss two topics, open authority and advocacy, that can help museums to fulfill the role as Third Place. It is through “de-authortizing” the museum that visitors find that their own voices are important and that they can possess different opinions from the museum and still be accepted. Also, concerning advocacy, it is in spaces that people feel represented, spoken-up for, and enabled that they will feel safe. If the museum does not advocate for its own services or the safety of its community, no one will want to engage with it.

Lastly, in considering whether the museum as Third Place can exist virtually or needs a physical building, Nina Simon’s “Participatory Design and the Future of Museums” is helpful. Simon argues that museums can learn from participatory websites whose accuracy and scope grows the more people use and contribute to it. In this way, museums, to engage and learn from its community, should consider more participatory and co-creative methods. While Simon asks readers to consider “the Web as a history museum” (18), it is also helpful to consider the museum as a web presence. In class, we looked at Google’s Museum Views program, which may become a popular way people experience museums in the future. We do not need to be scared of this possibility, but rather, we should be excited about what this means for the growth of museums. Museums can be a Third Place both physically and virtually allowing visitors who come through their doors or log onto their website to be engaged in a way that aligns with Third Place politics. For example, by allowing people to participate in the museum’s life and dialogue both in person and on the web, the museum enhances their accessibly and allows for more people to benefit from their services. Just because conversations are being had on the web will not take away from or extinguish conversations that happen at the physical site of the museum.

In conclusion, museums can be a hub for human interaction, growth, and delight both virtually and in person. The museum can foster online and on-site relationships strengthening their community and fulfilling their mission statements. It can be scary for museum staff to rethink their purpose as many are worried that if they open up the authority of the museum that they will lose their own personal voice and power. It is best for museum staff to reorient their thoughts to understand that their purpose is not to elevate their own voice but rather elevate the voices of others; it should be the museums function to help others find and use their voices. This rethinking of purpose requires humility as we learn to view ourselves as people whose opinions and thoughts are still valid but not necessarily the most important or “right” ones. If there is humility present, museums will easily become Third Places where everyone feels important but never the most important, for if we view our own opinion or authority as the most important, then we rob others the chance to understand and vocalize what it means to them to be human.

Museums as Participatory Institutions

For the past few years, half of the final exam in my Museum Practices graduate seminar in the Museum Studies Program at the University of Memphis consists of responding to the following:

Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer? What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars that fund your research/position?

This year, Paige Brevick, a graduate student in Egyptology and the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program wrote a compelling response that incorporates some of the ongoing discussions of museologists today, specifically based on her experiences on the staff of the Museum of Biblical History in Collierville, Tennesse, U.S.  Here is her essay:

The stereotype of museums as hoarders of wealth, both economically and intellectually, is an outdated myth in desperate need of revision.  While museums may have historically catered to the elite or academic, they have undergone significant reform in recent years to increase the transparency of their collections and develop their resources.  Today, even the most research driven institutions must find innovative ways to entice the public and interact with them through increasingly creative means.[1]  This level of social engagement encourages a dialogue between the public and academic that is rarely seen in other settings.  It is in this way that the museum leaves behind the stereotype of “elitism,” rather, it strives towards the ideal of the “participatory,” where a community may take an active role in all aspects of museum administration.[2]  Tax dollars then do not only fund high-brow research or support unethical wealth transfer.  Instead, the Public’s tax dollars go to fund museums who are increasingly aware of the needs of their communities, and who cultivate environments for learning.

As curator at the Museum of Biblical History, a small museum with limited staff in Collierville, Tennessee, my duties are highly varied.  Not only do I conduct research and work in the gallery, but I am constantly seeking out new ways to engage the public with our exhibitions.  The Museum of Biblical History has served the community for over two decades and has had to adapt to the needs of the changing community over time.  At its onset, the museum hosted lectures on archaeology that were free to the public.  Attending a museum lecture like this would provide John and Josephine Q. Public the opportunity to briefly leave behind the troubles they face in a hopefully inspiring way.  Though not necessarily problem-solving in itself, attending free lectures is a way for the public to better understand what museums in their town have to offer.  Attendance at a lecture like this may be the first step to getting involved in action-oriented projects within the community, as museum programming brings people from different social groups  together.

In an effort to better serve the community of Collierville, the Museum of Biblical History now offers Bible Story Time programming to children once a week.  Local members of the community, including the mayor and firefighters, volunteer to read Bible stories to  children in the museum.  The museum provides two crafts per program, which student participants make in the museum and take home.  Museum staff and volunteers supervise the event, with the support of visiting parents.  This program is provided free of charge.  Though the Publics are going through difficult times with reduced public services, turning to the resources provided by their local museums may alleviate small concerns and provide a degree of routine to their schedule.  Many museums offer similar free programming at least once a month.

Though the Museum of Biblical History is small, it adjusts to meet the needs of the community.  This winter the museum stored its entire Near Eastern artifact collection away, in order to showcase a highly requested display of nativities from around the world.  Even the crèche collection itself is on loan from a community resident.  As an archaeologist, part of me was hesitant to make such a dramatic change in our gallery.  The public, however, had spoken so the show was underway.  I curated the nativity exhibition and watched on opening night as over a hundred people packed into the small museum, doting upon handmade nativities.  The show brought people together to discuss culture, tradition, heritage, art, and the history of Christmas as it is understood from international perspectives.  The Publics tax dollars support experiences like this one.  Their funding encourages not only an appreciation of art and history, but of empathy across cultures, even in the small town of Collierville.

Museums should strive to become beacons of knowledge, and act as windows into other worlds, whether those worlds are a glimpse into an ancient culture or an exhibit featuring local artists.  A museum is not only a safe-haven for research or objects of the past.  If  museums are to remain successful in an economically turbulent environment, they need to continue to focus on making the information they possess accessible to the communities they serve.  The Publics, then, are not transferring their money into a disconnected or wealthy museum entity.  Instead, their tax dollars go back into their own community, creating educated generations for years to come.

[1] AMA, Word of Mouth Marketing, pg. 38-40.

[2] Simon, Nina.  “Chapter 7: Collaborating with Visitors,” In The Participatory Museum.

Thoughts on How to Get A Museum Job, Revisited

About four years ago I wrote a post called Thoughts on How to Get a Museum Job.  It’s time for an update.  The post four years ago was in response to concerns, particularly among emerging museum professionals, about the lack of jobs in the Museum field.  At that time, I noted that although the employment picture was not rosy, there were steps job applicants could take to enhance their possibility for employment. Given that the discussion continues four years later, revisiting the subject is worthwhile.  In the original post, I also noted the following caveat and repeat today:

I am aware that there are many individuals who have taken all the steps I list below and remain unemployed.  I accept that as true not just for museums but for many other industries.  My intent in this post is simply to offer examples of what has worked for some folks, not to discount or dismiss the very real concerns of those seeking employment.  Today, I add that addressing discriminatory practices in hiring of emerging museum professionals of color urgently requires the attention and action of all cultural heritage institutions.

2018 Revisit

First, why do I have anything of value to say on this subject?  I have taught graduate students in Museum Studies at the University of Memphis for the past 10 years.  During that time I also served as a museum director.  I watched dozens of graduates of our program make their way into the work world.  I have seen what works and what does not work in that process.  Between the time of my original post on this subject in 2013 and my retirement two years ago, of the 10 graduate students whose committees I chaired, all are currently employed in the cultural heritage sector full-time and one is enrolled in a PhD program.  Based on my experience, I offer the following points and observations.

Preparing for a Career

Based on student request, my experience with graduate students, and comments from other museum professionals, in the Fall Semester of 2017 for my Museum Practices course, one class session and one student project were devoted entirely to career development.  Readings for the class included some of those listed in my 2013 blog post.  The project involved submitting a cover letter and resume for a real-time job currently advertised that the student could envision applying for upon graduation.  The students also submitted essays justifying the content and style of their résumé and cover letter.  Here are some of the results of that exercise:

  • Of the 8 graduate students in the class, none previously had their résumé or cover letter critiqued by a professor or museum professional.  This fact was obvious in the violations of basic norms contained on the submitted drafts.  I add, such violations are typical in most applications I have reviewed for museum positions I hired for over the years.
  • At the start of the class, none of the students subscribed to Listservs (e.g., Museum-L, AAMG-L) that routinely post job announcements.
  • Initially several students objected to my critique of the content and style of their résumés and cover letters arguing for the unique needs of their fields.  This pushback was largely or completely eliminated in discussion, particularly after an online Q & A session with five senior museum professionals from throughout the Southeast US and a second session with a group of alumni of our Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Programs.  The Q & A guests related their direct experiences as both employers and employees in museum hiring processes.
  •  Students found the professional development sessions, readings, and project to be a very (the most?) valuable part of the Museum Practices class.  Although I am not certain what that says about the other 14 weeks of class, clearly emerging museum professionals recognize the need to be prepared to apply for the jobs they will seek upon graduation.

Responding to Industry Needs

Here are some data on the current employment in museums.    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median salary for the category of “Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers” is $47,230 per year with an anticipated growth rate of over 13% through 2026.  My point here is not to quibble over the nuance of the data, but rather to show that the cultural heritage sector in general is growing at a higher rate, than my previous occupation as a machinist, a career decimated by automation over the past 30 years, with a projected decline of -3.1% in the coming year.

I have spent equal amounts of my life in both museums and as a machinist in heavy industry.  I confidently state that both careers require a highly skilled workforce.  The relevance of this comparison has to do with responding to the industry’s needs.  Had the bottom not fallen out of the machinist/tool and die maker profession, I likely would not have gone back to school, earned a PhD, and gone on in academia and museums.  I LOVED the challenge and skill involved in working as a machinist.  However, in 1984 the writing was on the wall that the industry was dying.  I spent my last ten years in heavy industry either laid off or running CNC (computerized) equipment where all I did was a push a button and watch the machine run.  Had I not made a career change, despite my skills and interests, I would have faced continued unemployment and unfulfilled career aspirations.

Here are some relevant points on job availability:

  • With a longstanding interest bolstered in 2000 by the introduction of the CSI television series forensic anthropology programs skyrocketed.  But despite the interest and increased enrollment in the academic programs, only a limited number of positions existed for forensic anthropologists.  My friend and colleague Elizabeth Murray, a board certified forensic anthropologist, was an on-camera scientific consultant for the National Geographic Channel’s Skeleton Crew/Buried Secrets and the Discovery Health Channel’s Skeleton Stories.  In a recent conversation Beth noted that she has tempered her discouragement of students to even consider enrolling in forensic anthropology programs.  However, she notes the limited employment possibilities and the need to diversify when considering the field.  The American Board of Forensic Anthropology notes:  “the highly specialized nature of the field means that there has never been a high demand for the services of a forensic anthropologist. To be competitive, a student interested in forensic anthropology should consider obtaining a broad education in physical/biological anthropology or related fields.”
  • Conservators in museums are analagous to the forensic anthropologists discussed above.  The AAM’s 2012 National Museum Salary Study recorded the responses for 40 conservators, 191 registrars, 432 educators, and 443 curators. Assuming an equal rate of response across all museums jobs that means for every conservator working in museums today there are 5 registrars, 10 educators, and 10 curators.  The number of conservators working in different museums is likely quite a bit less when considering, that large museums such as the Getty have approximately “25 conservators and support staff.”  In other words, like forensic anthropologists, despite a student’s interest in the field, they should have alternative plans prior to becoming an emerging museum professional and seeking employment.

The Need for Flexibility

  • In considering the career of a conservator, I suspect that employment will be more readily found in private industry than in a public or nonprofit museum.  A cursory examination of the website for the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works suggests that many museums today contract directly with independent conservators for their needs.  Engagement with the Institute’s Emerging Conservation Professional’s webpage could clarify this point.  Further, given that according to the AAM survey data the median age of museum conservator’s is over 55 with a median length of employment of 10 years, these data suggest that most museum conservator positions are not entry level and considerable experience, possibly obtained outside the museum is required.
  • Seventy-Five percent of museums in North America are considered “small” museums.  A 2007 survey by the American Association of State and Local History noted several criteria by which small museums are defined.  Chances are that for many emerging museum professionals, a small museum where they will wear multiple hats will be their initial employment.  The same multiple hats may be true at larger museums where an emerging professional is able to get their foot in the door, not necessarily in their chosen speciality, but with an opportunity to ultimately rise through the ranks.  (Anecdotally, I note that despite my years of experience as a machinist, like all other factory employees at the GE Jet Engine plant in Cincinnati, Ohio, I was hired in as “service and support” with my first job assignment cleaning offices before ultimately bidding onto the lucrative machinist positions.

A Career is a Process and not an Event

I recently received an email from a former student who half-apologized that they were no longer working in a museum and now employed in IT development at an architectural firm.  Of course, I was pleased that she was expanding her skill set in her career process.  I worked with the student over a four-year period at the museum I directed and chaired her M.A. Graduate Committee.  When we first met, convinced that forensic anthropology was her future, she chose to start out as an intern inventorying human skeletal material  in our collections where she quickly got her fill of rote osteology work.  As a graduate assistant she took on the task of developing a nature trail and creating brochures for our museum.  She then took on advocacy work, attended two AAM Museum Advocacy Days in Washington DC, presented at several national conferences on same and wrote her Masters Thesis on museum advocacy.  Within a few months of graduating she landed a job as the Development Officer of a medium-sized museum on the East Coast.  And now, she is moving to IT!

As someone with a long and varied job history, I know first-hand the value of multiple experiences along the career path.  An exercise I now have students complete is to list their 10 ideal jobs as they envision them today.  We then discuss how those jobs can often morph into a single position if one views their career as an evolving process.  For myself, I spent the last 10 years prior to retirement in a job that required me to direct a museum, teach on the graduate and undergraduate level, mentor students and other youth, work with archaeological collections, lead in creating a vibrant community outreach program, coordinate new programing and exhibitions at a museum, and participate in a robust professional life with my peers in publishing several edited volumes on museums and communities co-creating together, both in the U.S. and most recently in Peru.  I could not have written a better job description!

The Book of Joy by The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, offers an insight that is suitable to end this post:

Acceptance, it must be pointed out, is the opposite of resignation and defeat.  The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama are two of the most tireless activists for creating a better world for all of its inhabitants, but their activism comes from a deep acceptance of what is.  The Archbishop did not accept the inevitability of apartheid, but he did accept its reality.  (pp. 224)

In the same way, cultural heritage professionals must accept that now is a time of proposed and actual devastating funding cuts by federal, state, and local agencies to cultural heritage preservation and presentation.  Through a range of networks these attacks must be fought.  Further, the exciting role that the emerging museum professionals can play in the future of cultural heritage venues is to recognize and replace the limiting and outmoded systems under which we have operated for the past 100 years.  I believe there are two caveats to this mandate.  First, cultural heritage venues did not get into the dire straits they currently face overnight, and will necessitate a long-term commitment to resolve.  Second, on the 101st Anniversary of the publication of John Cotton Dana’s seminal work The New Museum, we will do well do respond to his mandate to “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs” (1917: 38).  All museums rely on tax dollars, in one form or another, for their very existence as stewards of the public’s cultural heritage.

I am convinced that the future of museums holds many exciting possibilities.  In the same way that the modern public museum replaced the private curiosity cabinets of 19th century antiquities collectors, today pop-up museums, co-creative projects, and virtual presentations provide new opportunities to engage the public in their cultural heritage.  The emerging museum professionals of today are the folks who will drive through this work.  Best wishes on your important work!


The Relevance of Co-Creative Museums

For the past few years, half of the final exam in my Museum Practices graduate seminar in the Museum Studies Program at the University of Memphis consists of responding to the following:

Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer? What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars that fund your research/position?


This year, Amanda Shaffery, a graduate student in History and the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program wrote a compelling response that incorporates some of the ongoing discussions of museologists today, specifically around the issue of co-creation.  Here is her essay:

Over the course of this semester, I have become more cognizant of the role of the museum in the community, and how museums are meant to not only be a place of learning, but a place for community. For this reason, I would argue that John and Josephine Public are not experiencing just another example of wealth transfer, but can receive benefits from the funding of museums and libraries. Museums are not just static centers of research, or at least they should not be, they should be assets to their community.[1] In having, and supporting, effective programming to help the community discuss hard issues, learn from exhibits, and to provide safe and fun places where members of the public can explore their world, museums and libraries are meant to be active participants in the community. This means meeting the needs of people like John and Josephine, not just Mr. and Mrs. Bucksamillion.

The economic crisis and the needs of the public demand that museums and libraries adopt a more co-creative approach. In doing this, they are asserting their positions as vital assets, while helping their communities flourish. This is explicated by the various successful projects discussed within Positioning You Museum As A Critical Community Asset (2017). In each case presented within the work, the museums are faced with how to engage the community to ensure their survival, and make themselves relevant, and each museum does this in a slightly different manner. The C.H. Nash Museum chose to create an urban garden for the community of Southwest Memphis. This not only provided the community with something that they otherwise would not have had an opportunity for surrounded by various safety concerns, but also provided a space for the museum to feature traditional Native American crops.[2] The museum effectively brought one of its exhibits to life, and this would not have otherwise been done without the input of the community, and now the community has a resource for fresh fruits and vegetables.  This may seem like a large-scale project however, there are multiple ways for museums to reach out to their communities, such as free days, children’s’ activities, and internship programs with high schools and local universities. These smaller scale programs facilitate interest in the museum and allow for the community to become apart of it, thus creating a community within a community built around the museum. In addition to taking a co-creative approach, museums should evaluate themselves. Who is coming to the museum? Do they have a diversity of visitors in background and age? Do all visitors spend the same amount of time at the museum? Which exhibits do visitors gravitate to?[3] These questions will help make the museum more receptive to the needs of visitors and therefore the public, thus making the museum not just a place for the wealthy, but for everyone.

Lastly, I would like to address the first part of the question: “Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer?”. On a personal level, the salary I receive, I would not think of as a wealth transfer. Many museums across America, and I would argue the globe, are small museums, dependent on volunteers, with only a handful of regular staff. These are the museums that are reliant on large community events, ticket admissions, and yes John and Josephine’s tax dollars to stay afloat. But these are also the museums that are often the most willing to create programs for the community, and to work hard to give back to the community that supports them. My job at a museum of this caliber will in no way make me a Bucksamillion; I will do it out of my love for museums and my desire to share that with the visitors of the museum. Their tax dollars not only go towards the few, and often relatively modest salaries, of museum employees, but they go to things like fixing broken air conditioners, pest treatments, new curation materials, and the things that the museum needs to function on a daily basis.

In reality the museum cannot exist without John and Josephine, which is precisely why museums should strive for a co-creative and participatory approach, working with the community to better the museum and to better the community. Communities are where the volunteers come from, they are where the visitors come from, and they are the ideal supporters of the museum, for this reason it is the museum’s duty to ensure that people like John and Josephine have a place to go. A place where they can entertain themselves for an hour or more and feel comfortable there. If there is one lesson I have learned this semester it is that museums are not static places for the wealthy or the scholars, they are for all, and for this reason they must support their communities, and people like John and Josephine Q. Public.




[1] Connolly, Robert P., “Museums Engaging with People As A Community Resource”, in Positioning Your Museum As A Critical Community Asset, ed. Robert P. Connolly and Elizabeth Bollwerk, (Rowman and Littlefield, New York: 2017), 121-122.

[2]Connolly, Robert P., 123.

[3]Diamond, Judy and Jessica J. Luke, and David H. Uttal. in Practical Evaluation Guide: Tool for Museums and Other Informal Educational Settings, (AltaMira Press, New York: 2009), 45-91.

Music, Heritage & Remembering

Los Shapis, in the beginning . . .

This post really only states the obvious . . . but tells some of my story.  Many songs or types of music evoke very strong memories of my personal history.

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind

conjures up 1966, my Freshman year at Purcell High School, Cincinnati, Ohio when my homeroom teacher, Marianist Brother Glassmeyer, mixed with the smell of the formaldehyde in that homeroom/Biology lab, proclaimed with great certainty that the line was code for smoking dope.

  • Or hearing Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1 puts me back in the underground tunnels of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, a setting for a scene in the novella (some 90 odd double-spaced pages) I wrote in 1967, gave to another Marianist Brother (unnamed here, cause he still teaches there) for review, who then lost the manuscript.  I tried to reconstruct the story but could never get it down again.
  • Whenever I hear Dylan sing Blue Moon from his Self-Portrait album, I think of my father talking about the old am/fm/shortwave radio in our house and the smell of those tubes heating up when I turned it on.  He was selling the radio away to someone because he said we only listened to “once in a Blue Moon.”  But I had hooked up wires to the antenna and ran it through our kitchen window in hopes of picking up an exotic tongue from far away.

And the list goes on and on and on . . . and the songs I add to my Spotify playlists with creative names like “Good One” or “New One” or “Thanksgiving” or “Sunday Morning” give me the grist to tell story after story of my history.

I fell in love with Huayno music a few years ago while working in the Highlands of Peru a couple of hours from Huaraz.  One compilation available on Spotify of Cholos Andinos contains the well-known song Adiós Pueblo de Ayacucho.  Although very upbeat, the song is one of lament, loss, and new beginnings.  From the opening notes, the song immediately transports me back to the July of 2015 when my colleague, Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza and I spent what I can best describe as a rather idyllic and carefree month of doing data analysis by day and hanging with friends and Godchildren in the evenings and on weekends in the 400 person village of Hualcayán some 10,000 feet above the Mississippi Delta where I now live.

Today Eli gave me a t-shirt of the band Los Shapis, one of Peru’s premier Chicha bands of the 1980s.  I originally came across them from a Spotify suggested link, and was hooked.  The El Aguajal video is vintage 1980s in dress and their “expressive” choreography.  Although I find the tunes very playful, they are filled with stories of loss and struggle of working class migrants to the outskirts of Lima in the 80s and the discrimination they endured.  Two of the founding members continue to tour today.  Over the years, Los Shapis members have starred in movies and at one point even a loosely biographical soap opera.  I had hoped to have a Los Shapis dance contest during our field season this past summer on the North Coast of Peru, but time got too short.  But when I hear the distinctive sound or images of Los Shapis I immediately escape to the congested streets of Lima in which I have roamed with such enjoyment over the past few years.

So, I am seeing a pattern and activity emerge here . . . create a couple hour list of favorite songs . . . play the tracks and do some stream of consciousness writing and watch the personal history emerge.  Sounds like a fun way to spend some afternoons in my newly retired existence!

Service in Cultural Heritage

Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza (center) with students from the Maria Parado de Bellido Nº 88104 school in Nivín, Peru.

This past Sunday, my colleague Gustavo Valencia Tello, invited me to a Father’s Day lunch at his home in Casma, Peru.  I am spending a couple of months in the area this summer as part of a co-creative project organized through Culture and Community in Casma (see this newsletter for more details).  During our lunch, Professor Valencia and I had a wide ranging discussion not just about this summer’s work but also our collaboration that began in July of 2015.  After finishing our meal Professor Valencia raised a question that got me to thinking.  He asked:

“You are from a major university in the United States.  In Casma we do not have a university and in Nivín we only have a very small school.  Why do you keep coming back to Nivín?

At first, I was not certain how to respond.  I thought about how the project is interesting.  I thought about how the project is the most “co-creative” in which I have ever been involved in addressing community needs in a collaborative manner.  But I realized those responses were really after the fact reasons.  After a few seconds of thought, I replied:

“Because you asked us to come.”

We then discussed how one year before our first visit, my colleague Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza and Professor Valencia had communicated on Facebook where he had invited us to come to the small school museum.  (I posted here about that first visit.)  I recalled how when we first arrived in Nivín, after touring the museum, school grounds, and the surrounding archaeological sites, we asked Professor Valencia what we could do to help his project.  He responded with a shopping list of needs.  At the top of the list was museum management texts in Spanish.  (Here is a link to our Annual Report for 2016 that details our completed projects to date.)

We are currently working with the school and community of Nivín to develop a five-year strategic plan that will guide our co-creative work in the future.  Gustavo’s original invitation for Elizabeth and I to visit Nivín has led to very meaningful professional projects for all of us.

The “why did you come” question this past Sunday got me to thinking more.  I thought about my first trip to Peru in the summer of 2013.  That visit was also based on a request for me to come to help start a small museum and cultural heritage center in the village of Hualcayán to supplement archaeological research in that community.  I learned much over the four years I spent on projects in Hualcayán.

My visit to Debbie Buco’s classroom in 1997.

I then thought about other times when I had just shown up after being asked over the years.  I thought about my time as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point World Heritage Site some 15 – 20 years ago.  I often received requests from schools and libraries in Louisiana and Mississippi to just come and visit.  One of the most rewarding requests was when I said yes to Debbie Buco, an elementary school teacher in Baton Rouge (described in this post).

Over the length of my career, without question, the most meaningful professional experiences have always come when I said “yes” to requests to be of service – often after a great deal of initial reluctance on my part.

I fear that we are in a time when such requests for service too often go unheeded.  I am surprised by the reluctance of emerging professionals to share their successful and not so successful experiences with others in form of blogs or public presentations when asked to do so.   I remember how odd it sounded to me during my first field school in 1986 to hear someone with their BA in Anthropology fresh in hand announce as they visited our excavations that he would never again do archaeology for free.  Years ago advisors cautioned me against engaging in service because publications and grants were the name of the game when seeking faculty tenure.  Just recently, the editor of a major peer review journal lamented to me that it was hard to get younger professionals to agree to do peer reviews of articles submitted for publication.

I appreciate too that one cannot, and should not say yes to every request that comes along.

I don’t intend this as a holier than thou piece.  In fact, saying “yes” to requests, whether peer review, sharing experiences, or in a variety of community service opportunities, is really quite self-serving from the “in giving, you receive” perspective.  The simple fact is that by saying “yes” to Professor Valencia a couple of years ago, my colleague Elizabeth and I each have at least another five-year project that will likely prove the most meaningful in both of our careers – Elizabeth as she works to complete her doctoral studies and for me as a post retirement project till I turn 70!  Without question, those aspects of my career that I consider the most significant and meaningful would not have occurred had I not said “yes” to being of service.

What does it mean for a museum director to have a vision?

A really inspiring post on that “vision” thing . . .

Museum Questions

This week’s guest post is by Tracy Truels, Director of Learning and Engagement at Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Tracy has also worked at museums in Houston and New York. In addition to her work in museums, Tracy is a writer of fiction and operas.

The views expressed in this post are Tracy’s own, and do not represent the views of any particular museum.

When art museum directors are hired, the word “vision” shows up consistently in press releases announcing the news. Just in the last few years, examples abound. A search committee member from the Art Institute of Chicago described James Rondeau as the clear choice to fill the role of “an inspired leader whose vision and skill could match our bold aspirations.” Upon the hiring of Mathew Tietelbaum at MFA Boston, the chair of the board described the new director as having “a vision for how art can…

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