Tag: Chucalissa

Co-Creation: The Messiness of Being Relevant

This past Saturday temperatures in Memphis were in the upper 90s to insure a pretty light turn out for our regular Volunteer Day activities at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa – especially since we advertised a focus for the month on outdoor landscaping and gardening.  In the end, we had a great day.

CarmelloRachel

Carmello Burks and Rachel Clark planting the Butterfly Garden.

First, Rachel Clark from my Applied Archaeology and Museums class this past semester had proposed that we install a butterfly garden in the area that in Chucalissa’s pre-NAGPRA days housed the display of human remains excavated from the site. Over the past few weeks Rachel and I discussed the sensitive logistics for the proposed installation.  The garden could not intrude below the ground surface in any way, given the very real possibility of remaining human burials in the vicinity.  We also discussed installing a panel on a nearby kiosk to explain why the human burials were no longer exhibited at Chucalissa.  A butterfly garden and informational display on the importance of NAGPRA and respecting the lives of those who built the 1000 year-old Native American earthwork complex seemed fitting and in line with the wishes of site development expressed by contemporary Native Americans of the Midsouth.

Second, on Saturday we also made arrangements for an Eagle Scout Project that will replace a dilapidated bridge along our nature trail.  Eagle Scout projects are always a negotiated process, matching our museums’ needs with the ability, interest, and motivation of the individual Scout in tandem with Eagle project criteria.  The bridge was in desperate need of replacement and the Scout chose the project from a half-dozen possibilities.

RG-and-Rev

Reverand George Royal and Mr. Robert Gurley working on the Urban Garden this past Saturday

Third, on Saturday members of the Westwood Neighborhood Association were out to tend the urban garden they planted for the third consecutive year.  The idea for the garden came from an offhand comment by a community member during a focus group on exhibit hall upgrades for our museum.  One community member, the recently deceased Mr. Ralph Thompson, noted that the prehistoric agriculture exhibit at Chucalissa reminded him of traditional foods grown in his youth.  He lamented the lack of a suitable public space for such a garden today.  We immediately noted that we had 40 acres of protected space to consider for an urban garden, and the project took off.  The garden is a source of pride for many community members.  The participants this past Saturday, Mr. Robert Gurley and Rev. George Royal told me about how good it is for the body and soul just to get out in the sun and do physical labor.  The urban garden produced a bountiful harvest in the past two years shared throughout the community.

Three sisters

Freedom Prep Students creating hills for the Three Sisters Garden on Earth Day in April.

Fourth, I was itching to spend the day out in the heat and humidity.  I am one of those folks where the temperature and humidity never get too high.  I spent the morning weeding in our Three Sisters garden, planted in individual hills typical of Native American cultures in the late prehistoric period.  The plan for the garden was originally designed by Carrie Havrilla as a Green Internship project at the University of Memphis.  This year we planted the garden as an April Earth Day activity with community members and families taking responsibility for individual hills.  Fifteen students from Freedom Prep Academy, a local charter school, also participated in sculpting the hills and planting the corn, beans, and squash.

family three sisters

A young sister preparing the Three Sisters Garden on Earth Day

On Saturday afternoon I looked out on the open space of the prehistoric earthwork complex and thought about the three new gardens and bridge replacement.  None of the projects were part of our strategic plan except that we seek to be an institution that is relevant to community needs and provides co-creative experiences.  In all four of the projects the “public” whether Boy Scouts, students of all ages, or community members are creating projects of their choosing in a space that is publicly owned and administered.  All of the projects fall well within the scope of our institutional mission and the expressed interests of our community stakeholders.  I reflected how this co-creation process is messy, nonlinear, but highly relevant to expressed community interests.  The process also flows directly from one of my favorite quotes in the New Museum by John Cotton Dana, written nearly 100 years ago: “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs.”

 

 

The Experience of Museum Advocacy

PatriciaHarrisPatricia Harris is a recent graduate of the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis (UM).  She also served for two years as a Graduate Assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  For her Graduate Thesis Project at the UM she assessed a three-year museum advocacy project in greater Memphis, Tennessee, US.  At the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Meetings this past month in Seattle, Patricia was featured in the session Effective Advocacy in Your Community: Learn How! where she spoke about her advocacy project.  Below is a summary of her presentation.

Measuring Advocacy Effectiveness in Memphis Museums

by Patricia Harris

My thesis project at the University of Memphis explored advocacy practices in Memphis area museums, as well as the broader concept of museum advocacy.  My personal advocacy experience began in 2012 in the Museum Practices seminar, one of the core courses in the University’s Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program. From 2011-2013, students in the Museums Practices seminar initiated the creation of Advocacy Inventories with eleven Memphis and mid-south museums. These inventories are taken from Speak Up For Museums: The AAM Guide to Advocacy. Based on the initial inventories, the Museum Practices students made advocacy recommendations for the institutions, conducted follow-up surveys on advocacy practices, and created educational/economic impact statements for each museum.

The advocacy projects carried out by the students with the museums are important for two reasons.  First, the process introduced the students as emerging museum professionals to advocacy. If the museum field desires to continue and sustain advocacy as a practice, new generations of museum professionals must be active participants in advocacy work from the beginning. Second, the projects also introduced museums to advocacy work. Many museums, especially smaller institutions, are unaware of how to do advocacy, and in some cases, unaware of the concept.

Of the eleven museums that completed initial advocacy reports with students from the class, only three institutions participated for all three of the years. So, while it is important to understand the advocacy done by these three institutions, perhaps more significant is why the other eight museums did not, or could not, take part in advocacy work.

The Museum Practices students were providing a variety of resources, and were quite literally willing to do free advocacy work for the institution. Why did some museums not take part? Did they feel advocacy wasn’t important? Did they simply not have the time? Or did they not have the interest? Were the resources being provided not relevant for the size and/or type of the institution?

When speaking about advocacy we are quick to share what went right.  Stories of success are extremely important, but perhaps acknowledging and understanding why things went wrong or why things never even got off the ground is vital to truly institutionalizing advocacy in the museum field.  In so doing, we learn and we can better fine-tune our advocacy resources to encompass more institutions.

The take-away from this project is that we still need to advocate for advocacy. Presumably, you’re all here because you believe in advocacy and what it can do for your institution and your community. In just one metropolis like Memphis, eight out of eleven museums aren’t there yet. Why aren’t they being reached?

It is up to the other three museums out of that eleven to show the hows and whys of advocacy. During graduate school I was a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. We fall into the small museum category with only three full-time museum staff and four part-time graduate assistants – which I know is still much more than many places have. Just in the past three years Chucalissa has sent a graduate student to Museum Advocacy Day each year, participated in “Invite your Legislator to Your Museum Day,” hosted four NCCC AmeriCorps teams (we received Sponsor of the Year award in 2013), and completed economic/educational impact statements now featured on the American Alliance of Museum’s website.  The results of these activities also helped leverage funding from the University of Memphis to support our Museum. I say all of this not to brag, even though I am proud of our work, but to emphasize the importance of grassroots advocacy. The AAM points out that advocacy is not just about making “asks” for money and resources from the federal government, but instead is more about building relationships. Though we often think of this “relationship” as the bond between a museum and it’s elected officials, perhaps museum advocacy needs to start with relationships between museums.

For example, as we’ve seen a small institution with limited staff and resources may not feel that advocacy is the right endeavor for them. Though, if a fellow small museum in their community or the next town over is successfully making strides for advocacy and touting its value, the museum may feel more comfortable and supported in beginning their own advocacy efforts. For smaller museums, it is hard to make that trip to Washington DC for Museum Advocacy Day, or to attend a national conference like this, or even feel that such a large organization’s resources like the AAM are right for them. Thus, sharing advocacy resources and knowledge with other museums in your community may be key to getting those other eight interested and participating. A great example of this is of course museum studies classes at the local university.

State or regional conferences are a great place to share these resources and build relationships. The information in advocacy sessions at state or regional conferences is locally sourced, and comes from museums or colleagues you probably already know.

Advocacy can be intimidating and will take effort by you and your staff to implement at your institution. But the reward is great. You’re not only advocating for your museum, but you are advocating for your community, your city, your field, and yourself. If you don’t think you’re important enough to advocate for, why would anyone else? Building advocacy locally and at the ground level through partnerships and relationships with other museums can be the key to your success.  Remember our voice is strongest together.

 

Contact Patricia at pcharris@memphis.edu

What if No One Comes to the Party?

AFV

2013 Art for Voice creator Penny Dodds (left) with participants

This semester I am teaching one of my favorite classes of all time – Applied Archaeology and Museums.  The course is in part a glomming together of much of what I hold dear in cultural heritage studies.  Students come to appreciate that archaeology is more than just digging up stuff and that museums are more than places to look at things and be given definitive explanations – but not touch or otherwise engage.  The course description goes like this:

The course explores the intersection of Applied Archaeology and Museums through the representations of cultural heritage in a broad array of public venues.   Topics that comprise the exploration include repatriation, cultural patrimony, cultural resource management, civic engagement, rights and responsibilities of stakeholders, public involvement in museum representations, performance, education, culture and memory.  The course is applied in focus.  Students will be challenged to transform concepts contained in readings to real-time applications through class projects and written assignments.

Here is a copy of the syllabus if interested.

One of the class readings this past week was from the book Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair and others (reviewed here).  The article “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations” by Kathleen McLean presents the case for greater visitor engagement in the museum exhibit/program creation process.  I cleverly, by my estimation, presented a Powerpoint slide with a quote from McLean’s article:

It’s not as radical as it might sound.  Increasingly, museums are employing visitor research and evaluation to better understand how their programs and exhibitions affect their end-users. (p.72)

McLean, K.  2011.  Whose Questions, Whose Conversations? In Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by B. Adair, B. Filene and L. Koloski, pp. pp. 34-43. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.

and a nearly 100 year-old quote from John Cotton Dana:

Museum purposes and methods change daily, as do all other community enterprises in these days.  Therefore, do not try to develop a museum after a plan. Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs. (p. 38)

Dana, John Cotton.  1917. The New Museum, Elm Tree Press.

My intent was to show that it is not “radical” at all to engage the community in such discussions, but the idea has been around for 100 years.

In their reading journals, two students raised interesting questions about McLean’s article:

Jordan Goss, an undergraduate with an interest in anthropology and geoarchaeology wrote:

Since I have not gotten the chance to physically carry out the concept of Applied Archaeology just yet, I’m not sure if this is an appropriate question or simply meaningless.  But what would happen if you wish to create ways for the public to participate in museum activities yet the public refuses?

Allison Hennie a PhD student with a background in architecture, anthropology and museum studies wrote:

As part of the Museum Studies Certificate Program, there seem to be never-ending supply of readings about how museums need to change. So, why haven’t things changed yet? Are museums forcing engagement or do all visitors really want to engage?

Both excellent observations.  The student responses bring to mind a couple of my own experiences at the C.H. Nash Museum.  Our “Hands-on Archaeology Lab” contains artifacts and exhibits to provide a highly tactile visitor experience.  As well, through regular programs, and on request we also offer visitors the opportunity to throw darts with an atlatl.  Most visitors are thrilled with these opportunities.  Others just want to pay their admission and be left alone to wonder the exhibit hall and the earthwork complex.  “No” they politely respond – they don’t want to go into our lab or throw darts.

But here too is a reality.  No one at our Museum ever asked any visitor if they wanted us to create a hands-on archaeology lab or develop an atlatl program.  Our staff created the activities on our own initiative and basically, we guessed right.  Both are very popular activities and provide an excellent opportunity to engage and educate around our mission.

We are now take a different approach before creating exhibits and programs.  We hold focus groups and conduct surveys with our existing and intended visitors to see what they want us to create.  I do not think this means becoming all things to all people.  In answering the above questions posed by Jordan and Allison, as public servants, we must be proactive in finding the appropriate level and type of visitor engagement that is consistent with our mission.  As Dana noted in 1917, that is often simply a matter of asking the community of their needs – not having cultural heritage staffs attempt to second guess those needs.

As a small Museum we have incredible opportunities to fill a variety of public need niches.  For example, in our Art for Voice program last summer, we had several families with autistic children who participated and wished for more offerings suitable for their special needs.  This morning I came across an Archaeologists for Autism Facebook group that aims to support greater inclusion of special needs children in cultural heritage programs.  This seems an excellent example of how our museum can engage with our public in a way envisioned by John Cotton Dana in 1917 and Kathleen McLean in the 21st Century.

How do you answer the questions posed by Jordan and Allison?

Why I Blog About Archaeology

rails to trailsSo Doug, over at Doug’s Archaeology, launched a blogging carnival leading up to the Blogging in Archaeology session at the Society for American Archaeology 2014 meetings in Austin.  The idea is that Doug will pose a question each month, folks will blog away on their own blogs in response.  Doug will then summarize the individual posts at the end of the month, and post the set of links.  The carnival and SAA session have the Twitter hashtag #blogarch.

So, if you are up to writing a response to the monthly question on your own blog send the link to Doug’s Archaeology and/or email him (drocksmacqueen@gmail.com) the link.  Sounds like party!

Doug posed two questions for this month to which I respond below:

Why did you start to blog?

I wrote my first archaeology blog post four years ago (next week) that included in part:

In early November of 2009, I participated in a session at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference held in Mobile, Alabama.  The session focused on taking Archaeology into the Community.  The papers addressed diversity of issues including a traveling ArchaeoBus, site visitor programs, archaeology fairs, museum exhibit development, Native American representation, archaeology in the classrooms, and more.  The session was a blast!  I learned a lot was able to meet folks with an interest in what I think of as applied archaeology and engaged scholarship – basically a reciprocal and symbiotic relationship between us as museum/archaeology folks and the communities who through their tax dollars are our employers.

Besides exposure to innovative and creative ideas, a couple of other things stood out to me about the session.  First, ours was the only session at the Conference that directly addressed archaeology or museums as educational resources for the broader community.   Second, the first speaker at the session, Nancy Hawkins Outreach Director at the Louisiana Division of Archaeology and a 20-year plus advocate for Public Outreach, commented that it was nice to see “the choir” assembled – noting the small but loyal cadre of advocates for the mission.

However, coming away from the Conference, I am optimistic that there are quite a few more singers in the choir in the Southeast United States.  One important idea was that the session participants stay in dialogue, reach out to others, and continue the conversation.  This blog is meant to be a part of that process.

So that was four years ago.

And the second question Doug posed, Why do you keep on blogging?

Just recently, I was quite surprised that my college chose my blogging as the basis for a “Faculty Spotlight” story, that read in part:

Dr. Robert Connolly, Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department and the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa launched his blog Archaeology Museums and Outreach about four years ago. . . . The posts include interviews with cultural heritage professionals, reports on innovative research projects, book reviews, and more. Connolly notes that the post that received the most hits and reblogs was the recent “Thoughts on How to Get a Museum Job.”

In evaluating his blogging efforts, Connolly says “I am really somewhat lazy about promoting the blog. Primarily, I focus on a specific niche of the cultural heritage student or professional interested in public engagement. If you Google my blog title, you will not find another blog with that focus. So I definitely fill a niche and the interest continues to grow. Unique hits per post range from as few as 500 to many as 3000 per week.”

Connolly also believes that blogs are more accepted in academic circles today. He points to The London School of Economics and Political Science as one of the leaders in academic blogs. He also cites Paul Mullins’ blog Archaeology and Material Culture as an example of a blog with well researched and referenced posts. Mullins, chair of the Anthropology Department at IUPU and the President of the Society for Historic Archaeology is a strong advocate for considering alternative academic products as legitimate scholarship.

Archaeology, Museums and Outreach also provides Connolly with numerous networking and professional opportunities. “I have published three peer reviewed articles from invitations by editors who asked me to expand a concept I presented in my blog. The blog also brings national and even international exposure for the C.H. Nash Museum. A benefit of blogging that I enjoy a great deal is developing “colleagues” who I will likely never meet in person or even speak to on the phone. For example, I regularly engage with a vibrant network of museum professionals in Australia, one of whom has reviewed my article drafts prior to publication.”

Connolly acknowledges that reading and writing blogs can be a huge time drain and produce little. But ultimately, he sees a bright future for such user-generated content. This semester he is teaching an Undergraduate Honors Forum titled “Wikipedia as a Research Tool.” Like blogs, he is convinced that Wikipedia has a place in academia. “In my Museum Practices graduate seminar, we spend about 45 minutes of one class period discussing the ethics of repatriation using the Elgin Marbles as a case study. I had been using a brief chapter from an archaeological text as background reading for the students. A couple of years ago, I went to the Wikipedia page for the Elgin Marbles. I found a balanced and up-to-date 5000-word article with over 100 references that approached the discussion from multiple perspectives. I realized that for the purposes of a single class case study discussion, I knew of no better single resource than the Wikipedia entry.”

Connolly notes that the aspect of Wikipedia that most surprises the students in his current Honors Forum is the rigorous editing and referencing process in creating Wikipedia pages. “One aspect of user-generated content that I enjoy the most is the need for critical assessment of the printed word. We did an exercise on the first day of class this fall where the students were able to see that the Wikipedia entry on a particular topic was actually better researched and more reliable than a report on the same topic in the Smithsonian Institutions Contributions to Anthropology. We continue to move in a direction where the venue of presentation does not always determine the worth of the written word, rather the scholarship on which the text is based. Blogs and other forms of user-generated content clearly have a place in that discussion.”

That’s it for me in a rather large nutshell.  Ultimately it comes down to the exchange of ideas.  If I think about the most stimulating and interesting information I come across on a regular basis, the starting point, whether a research update, innovative approach to programming, a book review or whatever often is in the form of a blog post.  I enjoy participating in that process.

Thoughts on How to Get a Museum Job

Professionalism

Fitting for Labor Day here in the United States is a post about employment in the cultural heritage sector, specifically, museums.  Users of LinkedIn and various LISTSERVs often post discussions lamenting the lack of jobs in the Museum sector and the glut of students graduating from Museum Studies Programs.  In response, I often comment that although the employment picture is not rosy, there are steps job applicants can take to enhance their possibility for employment in the museum or cultural heritage industry.

Please note, 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.

As a starting point, today the employment picture is not particularly good for most job sectors.  The profession I left over 25 years ago as an industrial machinist now has a 26% unemployment rate.  Unemployment rates for telemarketers is 23% and actors is 28%.  On the low end of the spectrum astronomers, biomedical engineers, judges, and nurse practitioners all have less than 1% unemployment (see here for data).  For technical occupations in museums, the unemployment rate is reported at 5% in one source and 1.8% in another, both below the current U.S.  average of 7.4%.  I am not interested in defending the methods for computing unemployment rates – a controversial issue to be certain.  But the data show there is variation in rates of unemployment among job sectors and the museum industry appears better off than most.

Given these data, my experience as an employer of museum professionals, as an educator in a museum studies program, and observing internet employment boards leads me to conclude there are jobs out there – though not as many and of the types and geographic locations suitable to all.  However, I believe there are steps to better prepare oneself for the limited number of employment opportunities in museums.

First and foremost, the time to start thinking about getting a Museum job is not upon graduation with degree in hand, but before walking into the classroom on the first day.  An excellent framework to think of this process is laid out in The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide: From Student to a Career.  Don’t despair of the Anthropology in the title – the approach is the essence of the volume.  The book covers the critical importance of creating a skills portfolio, internships, volunteerism, and professionalism – all issues that must be considered long before applying for the first job.   A Life In Museums: Managing Your Museum Career from the American Alliance of Museums is also very insightful with a similar coverage of topics, though a bit light on resources.  Museum Careers: Fit, Readiness and Development is a free download from Virginia Association of Museums that has some basic Q & A info to help determine the type of museum work for which a person is best suited.  These are three examples written by professionals on how to get a job in the Museum sector.  If you are seeking employment or will someday seek employment in the cultural heritage sector, and you are reading this blog post but have not read the above resources, you should go over to amazon.com and order the first two titles immediately.

If you seek employment in a small to medium-sized organization that make up 75% of the museums in the U.S. today, you will be one of just a handful of employees.  If there is single consistent response to the LISTSERV questions on education and experience needed for the first job in a museum, the mantra is experience trumps degrees.  Therefore, a skills portfolio, published and conference papers, internship projects, and so forth can be the tipping point.

What have you done?  This question is critical and a point of departure I have with some folks when discussing paid vs unpaid internships.  Internships are the opportunity for hands-on training and experience.  Internships and volunteer positions should be negotiated agreements among all parties.  If one has a career interest in collections and has a choice between an unpaid internship assisting with condition reports and learning PastPerfect software vs a paid internship to arrange publicity for the opening of a blockbuster exhibit, which is the better deal?  Upon graduation when applying for jobs in collections, the resume line will read either a three-month position assisting with collections inventory and condition reports or arranging publicity.  .  . paid or unpaid will not be relevant.  A common response is that all internships should be paid.  Ideally, yes.  For small to medium museums with shrinking budgets, in the 2013 economy, that option is often not possible.

Flexibility is also key.  If you intend to work in a museum, and unless you live in a large metropolitan area like Washington DC or London, you may need to relocate.  This fact should not be surprising.  If you live in a city with 50 or fewer museum jobs, you might snag one of them eventually, but you will likely need to be mobile for the first few years.  Relocation is a commonly accepted fact for those with graduate degrees seeking jobs in academic institutions.  I raise this point as I am often surprised by the number of folks who seem surprised by this reality.

Flexibility in career choice within a museum is also key.  For example of the over 5000 respondents to the American Alliance of Museums 2012 Salary Survey, less than 1% were conservators yet nearly 12% were educators.  Assuming no bias based on job title in survey response, there are far fewer museum jobs for conservators than educators.  Knowing this fact the day before you take your first class is a valuable insight.

Careers, especially today, are processes and not events.  I am 61 years old.  I got my “dream job” at the age of 55.  That dream job resulted from my previous experience working in heavy industry, archaeological excavations, teaching, managing nonprofits and a few other things – all of which I enjoyed.  I have been perplexed on more than one occasion when unemployed graduates turned down a museum position offer because it was not their “dream job.”

In summary, yes, getting a job in a museum today is not easy.  And yes, academic institutions are into recruitment in a big way to bolster their sagging finances.  However, the student is responsible from separating the hype from the reality.  Know what you are getting into. I advise students that cultural heritage institutions will continue to be viable and vital institutions in the future.  However that future involves less thinking outside the box but expanding the boundaries of the box.  The Center for the Future of Museums and the Institute of Museum and Library Services host many reports and studies to contextualize the future employment in the cultural heritage sector.  Knowing this information is crucial the first day of class so that a student can tailor their academic career to suit the existing and future job market.

Finally, if you are looking for an unpaid 150-hour internship based in prehistoric collections research, educational programming, or community outreach that will provide all you need to then write a conference and/or published paper, we have a limited number of internships available at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.  Drop me a note at rcnnolly(a)memphis.edu to discuss.

Not Hating or Loving, but Empowering With Museums

Parque Litico

Parque Litico, Museo Arqueológico de Ancash, Huaraz, Peru

James Durston, the senior editor for travel at CNN recently wrote the op-ed Why I Hate Museums.  The piece generated a polarized reaction similar to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s 2011 trashing of Anthropology and Spike TV’s American Digger.  In a minority, are the reasoned responses that recognize Mr. Durston’s thoughts do not come out of thin air.  There is a basis for his concerns. When Durston’s fictive or real docents command “No photos” and “No food” I am reminded of my granddaughter’s loud admonishment by a guard at a Memphis art museum that a 10-year old cannot stand by herself in a gallery but must have an adult within a few feet – not for her protection but for the protection of the art.   As a blue-collar kid who first visited an art museum during my freshman year of high school, I tried to put myself in my granddaughter’s shoes on this formative lesson for her about how museums work.

Durston’s op-ed also sparked some fantastic discussions.  Dana Allen-Griel’s Engaging Museum post is an excellent example.  In responding to Durston’s critique on uninteresting and uninformative labels, she concludes “For those who simply want to view and reflect, you’ve already got “Vase: Iran; circa 15th century.” For everyone else, let’s work TOGETHER to make museums a little more “wow.”

Another good reference point for discussing Mr. Durston’s op-ed is from John Cotton Dana’s nearly 100-year-old publication The New Museum.  Dana writes:

Museum purposes and methods change daily, as do all other community enterprises in these days.  Therefore, do not try to develop a museum after a plan. Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs. (p. 38)

Below, I discuss implementing Allen-Griel’s “wow” factor and Dana’s community needs that often are a simple and low or no cost addition that address Mr. Durston’s concerns.

I am curious what Mr. Durston might think of one of my favorite museums – The Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa.  I first blogged about the Museum a couple of years ago and last year posted an interview with the Museum Director.  In Mr. Durston’s op-ed he asked “Where’s the relevance?”  The Pearl Button Museum is the very essence of relevance for Muscatine, Iowa.  If you want to understand Muscatine’s past, present, and future, you will not find a better place.  The Museum is a participatory institution, not because you can rack pearl buttons as was done 100 years ago or leave messages on the memory board.  The Museum is participatory because the entire community’s collective memory and experience compose the very fiber of the institution.

From Muscatine, you can drive about 100 miles up river to Dubuque, Iowa and visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.  Here I suspect Durston’s comment holds that “Kids do seem to have a good time when pushing buttons, pulling levers and magnetizing soap bubbles (right up until they stop having a great time and turn into wailing bundles of hair and tears only a little more bored than the parents).”  I have been to this Museum once and doubt I will return.  The new section is squeaky clean with an aquarium and educational water playland for children.  I watched kids totally transfixed by the four-foot-long albino catfish.  But what I remember most about the visit were the large and presumably expensive digital touch tables that were all out-of-order.  The old section of the museum was, well the old section with lots of unconnected stuff without a coherent story.  I don’t recollect any docents or guides – just lots of families seeming to have a good time.

The next time I am driving down the Great River Road, I will stop in Muscatine, but will probably by-pass the Dubuque Museum.  I suspect lots of other folks will do the reverse.  That does not make either museum good or bad – just different.  This difference means that not all museums are equal and by design they will attract different visitors.

I thought about this difference several years ago in another setting.  A graduate student in my Native People’s class was to create a banner exhibit on prehistoric plant use in our newly established hands-on archaeology lab at the C.H. Nash Museum.  The student proposal was a 2 x 6 ft banner exhibit that contained a few images, hundreds of words in an 18 pt. font, with the bottom six inches composed of bibliographic references in a 14 pt. font.  The archaeology lab is geared to a 6th grade level.  The proposed banner layout was not going to work.  However, the student compiled very useful information, some of which would interest to  perhaps 2% of our visitors.  This incident allowed us to begin thinking about our exhibits differently.  We considered how a single concept like prehistoric plant use might be presented in multiple formats to different interest levels throughout the museum.  We took the original concept and created a revised banner of about 100 words along with images and other interactive materials for the archaeology lab.  We created a separate banner in our main hall that contained an abbreviated version of the original without the bibliography.  We planned for the bibliographic references to be accessible through a QR code or web link.  Finally, we planned to include information from the original panel into audio tour stations along our nature trail that includes many of the plant species discussed in the exhibit.  The audio tour can be drilled down at each stop for more information.  Might Mr. Durston consider such an approach as accommodating those wanting only the most basic label  information and visitors seeking considerably more relevant detail?

A final example that addresses a concern expressed by Mr. Durston is from my recent visit to the Museo Arqueológico de Ancash in Huaraz, Peru.  The Museum’s outdoor Parque Litico contains a large collection of Recuay Monoliths from Chavin de Huantar.  I toured the Museum with Peruvian archaeologist and PIARA Co-Director Elizabeth Cruzado  Carranza.  We discussed the representations in the Recuay Monoliths, but noted the museum had little interpretive information or labels about the pieces.  Although the outdoor setting contained benches to relax and view the stone carvings, I, and I suspect Mr. Durston, would find the exhibit lacking in contextual information.  At the same time, Elizabeth and I acknowledged the aesthetics of keeping the garden uncluttered of signage.  During our visit, we quickly hit on several solutions ranging from a single page handout with basic information on each monolith, a small multi-page guide, QR code links to a web page, or a smart phone audio tour.  All of the solutions can be cost-effective products created by interns or students.

In summary, Mr. Durston’s op-ed piece should not be dismissed as the grumblings of a curmudgeon museum hater.  In my experience, I have voiced many of the same issues as expressed in Durston’s op-ed piece.  However, I find at least two differences in Mr. Durston and my approach.  First, I accept that I will not enjoy all museums.  There is not one correct way to exhibit works of art, historic documents, or other cultural materials.  I appreciate that there are stuffy traditional mausoleum-like institutions and then there is my favorite art museum, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.  I appreciate that someone else might write “there are all of these experimental art centers, and then there is my favorite art museum, the tried, true, and traditional Met.”  Second, as a museum director and professor in museum studies, I have the opportunity to explore and educate students who are the next generation of museum professionals on the “wow” advocated by Dana Allen-Griel and the community needs raised by John Cotton Dana.

For these reasons, I do not necessarily love museums, but I do see the potential of museums as essential educational and empowerment tools in the preservation and presentation of cultural heritage.

Community Engagement and Open Authority

afv

For the past month the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa held Art for Voice camps.  The one-week sessions were age-graded and free of charge.  Each group contained a good mix of students representative of the different neighborhoods, racial and economic backgrounds of Memphis.  A concern in the original stage of the Camp planning was to stay within the Museum’s Mission Statement.  We did not want the Camp simply to be an activity to increase visitation. Instead, the Camp activities drew on the collections curated at the Museum as educational and creative resources. The Camp directly aligned with our mission as a participatory experience for area residents.

This past Saturday, Art for Voice Camp creator Penny Dodds and I had a conversation evaluating this “pilot” program and to consider the next steps.  Several important themes emerged in our conversation.

Opening Authority –  A critical part of the Camp activities involved our curated collections and existing programs.  Besides a drum circle and throwing darts with atlatls, campers viewed Museum exhibits from the Native American and African American traditional cultures of the area.  Based on these experiences, the campers decided the types of objects they wished to use as models to create their artworks.  The campers selected suitable objects from our Hands-on Archaeology lab and materials drawn by our Collections Manager from the Museum’s curated educational collections.

Although not web-based, these processes are in line with Lori Philips initial discussions of open authority in museums and her more recent article published in Curator.  The campers worked with cultural materials of their choosing.  With guidance from both a collections manager and artist, the campers ultimately made their own interpretive and creative decisions.  As I watched the Camp compilation video where the young artists explained the process, I was reminded of the “aha” moment I had some 20 years ago when validating a 5th grade girl’s interpretation of Poverty Point headless figurines.  That is, yes there is a difference between the no touching and static early 1960s introduction to museums of my youth and our 2013 campers throwing darts with atlatls and handling artifacts.  But more importantly, the 2013 campers were not just expected to come up with the correct answer or perform the correct action to be rewarded.  Rather, they engaged in a process where multiple truths and possibilities are considered, along the lines of Parker Palmer’s Interactive Model of the Great Thing.

Leadership Development in Museums – None of the principal players in the Art for Voice Camp were regular staff members of the C.H. Nash Museum.  Penny, the Camp’s initial creator, led the experience.  But by the last week of the Camp, the leadership expanded.  Two of the high school students who participated in either the first or second week of the Camp, participated in weeks three, four, and five by assisting with the younger aged sessions.  In fact, their transition from campers to leaders was critical to accommodate overflow campers originally placed on a waiting list.  As well, two parents of the campers provided their expertise to the sessions by leading drumming circles, sharing their knowledge of traditional medicinal plants growing along the nature trail that campers explored, and general mentoring.  The Museum’s summer intern, Lindsey Pender lent her video editing ability and photographic skills to the project.  When Penny and I discussed the next steps yesterday afternoon, we recognized that we started with one camp “leader” but ended the session with five identified “leaders” who are anxious to expand on the pilot program.

Of importance as well, the youth campers were given authority during the Camp to lead on decisions about free-time learning activities.  For example, during one week of the Camp, the participants composed a musical composition that they performed for their parents at the end of the day using the Museum’s plethora of percussion instruments.

Empowerment –  The Art for Voice camp brought a very public opportunity for empowerment to the fore at our Museum.  As an institution of the University of Memphis, we are quite mindful and intentional to empower our interns and graduate assistants.  In the past several years, we aggressively moved to empower volunteers incorporating an explicitly participatory museum model into our mission.  The Art for Voice Camp, by its very nature, required the proactive empowerment of the participants.  Given the parameters of the Camp, participants were required to process, think through, and create from within.

Third Place – All of the above feeds into the Third Place concept on which I posted before.   Unfortunately, much of the Third Place discussion in museums gets stalled in a rather dogmatic application of Oldenburg’s original concept.  As Natalye Tate concludes in a recent synthesis “. . . the Third Place as Oldenburg envisioned is not necessarily an appropriate programming tool for museums, does not contend that it should be ignored.  Understanding the elemental nature of the Third Place offers museum practitioners a toolkit to pull from and adapt to their various sets of resources, needs and environments.”

In our conversation on Saturday, Penny noted that she had been mindful throughout the process to solicit input from the Camp participants and their parents for ideas on using the Museum in the future as a space for more projects based in curated collections, exhibits, and the 40-acre natural environment.

If one moves beyond an obsession ala the Seinfeld episode The Pitch that a Third Place has to be about nothing, but that it can be about multiple somethings, at Chucalissa we find that many of the attributes that might be ascribed to a Third Place are now in place.  In addition to the general conviviality of our picnic grounds and hiking trails, our ability to creatively incorporate volunteers, art camps, host community meetings, Black History month events, training sessions for Literacy Midsouth, and a community garden – all contain elements of the Third Place and remains within the limits of our mission statement.  At the same time while expanding the opportunities for our more traditional interpretive functions, we bring more of our community voices to the same table in dialog.  This process is in direct alignment with the International Council of Museum’s definition of museum as:

a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

How do you envision museum’s opening authority and co-creative processes?

The Relevance of Cultural Heritage Professionals

A few months ago I posted a Museum Practices seminar student, Leila Hamdan’s response to the following question:

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 arguedthat “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 as 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?

Since that time, I have asked these questions of my students more often in both formal and informal settings.  I believe that the ability to articulate the relevance of cultural heritage professionals to the issues facing our country today is critically important.   The essay below is a portion of the written comprehensive exam answer to my questions for University of Memphis Anthropology Graduate Student Mallory Bader.  For her practicum project in Anthropology, Mallory coordinated last fall’s AmeriCorps Team project at the C.H. Nash Museum.  As well, for the past two years, she served as a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum.  And I should add, today Mallory successfully passed her written and oral comprehensive exams for her M.A. degree in Anthropology at the University of Memphis.  Below is Mallory’s answer to the above question:

MBader1by Mallory Bader

Our world is rapidly changing due to globalization and modernization. Cities are shifting, economies are collapsing, and violence threatens us daily. Citizens often question the value of museums and the government entities that support them such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  It is often said that museums are places for the elite, making these taxpayer-funded organizations doing a wealth transfer.  However, I would argue that this is not true.  Museums have historically been viewed as places for the elite, but that model is shifting towards a new museum that is more participatory and engaging.  Additionally, museums offer many services to the public that do not benefit only the elite or wealthy citizens, such as educating youth and protecting natural resources.  As an emerging museum professional, my work in museums is not a wealth transfer and the benefits that John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars are immense and real.

The shift of demographics in America has been reflected in museums.  The United States is now a majority-minority population and is becoming more diverse daily. In museums, people of color and low socio-economic status have not always felt welcome due to the stigma of museums as places for the elite. However, many programs have been instituted that are shifting the visitation of museums. The Center for the Future of Museums publishes a state of museums article that details the various ways museums are reaching out to increasingly diverse audiences.  Museums are adding front-line staff that speak multiple languages, offering free or reduced admission to visitors receiving public assistance, conducting outreach into areas that have historically not been museum visitors, and many other things.  This is one way that museums are not simply enjoyed by people of higher income.

As an emerging museum education professional, my job is to educate youth and adults on a variety of topics. Similar to a teacher, I must provide an engaging and stimulating learning environment that builds on core curriculum standards.  As a museum educator, I feel that my job is a public servants job, just like a teacher would be. In addition, I would argue that other museum professionals such as collections managers are also public servants by protecting the natural and cultural resources of our nation.

Although at this time, I do not know where my career will end up in museums, I can say with certainty that my position is not just another example of this wealth transfer.  At Chucalissa, I have provided quality educational programming to thousands of students in my two years at the museum. John and Josephine Q. Public directly benefit from this through having students graduate more prepared, more engaged, and ready to enter the workforce.  In addition, I have assisted with community outreach projects that help with community development projects that make Memphis a better and healthier place to live.  My future career in museums is not set, but my plans include projects similar to the ones I have conducted at Chucalissa. In addition, my long-term goal is to operate a science museum that focuses on providing STEM education to underserved students.  This will help to provide a better prepared workforce in our world that is increasingly reliant on technology. My partner in this project has a PhD in Materials Chemistry from CU-Boulder. Together, we have applied to the National Science Foundation for a Graduate School Innovation Challenge to present a model of service learning and outreach for STEM education through museums.

Both she and I have been committed to justifying our positions as researchers at taxpayer funded institutions by engaging in outreach during our careers.   These are the various ways in which my position and research within museums are benefiting John and Josephine Q. Public

Mallory can be contacted at mbader(at)memphis.edu

Exploring Alternative Volunteer Opportunities

AmeriCorps

Participants in the Emerging Leadership’s Service on Saturday volunteer program at the University of Memphis

I have thought a good bit about volunteering lately, in part because of the evolution in how this process works at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  I posted before about our Museum’s irregular staff that includes a range of volunteers, student interns, and community service participants.  In the past year we saw a stagnation in our traditional once-a-month type volunteer program but a radical growth in the other components of our “irregular staff” category.  For example, our traditional Volunteer Saturdays now have a more modest attendance than two years ago.  At the same time, in 2012 the real hours contributed at Chucalissa by the total of these irregular staff continued to increase (@8500) and exceeded that of the regular staff (@8000).

The entry for volunteering at Wikipedia provides some insights on the shift we are seeing.  The entry notes that volunteering:

is generally considered an altruistic activity and is intended to promote good or improve human quality of life. In return, this activity produces a feeling of self-worth and respect; however, there is no financial gain. Volunteering is also renowned for skill development, socialization, and fun. It is also intended to make contacts for possible employment. Many volunteers are specifically trained in the areas they work . . .

What I like about this entry is that the very essence of the action is focused on the volunteer and not the agency.  That is, in the case of museums the institution is meeting the need and providing a service for the volunteer.  Intuitively, that understanding seems to flip the traditional concept of volunteers as those providing the service.  However, the institution being the provider in the service relationship is the essence of the Participatory Museum.  This understanding is stated in the opening paragraph in a recent article on volunteers:

To begin, we start with a question: If there were an opportunity for an unlimited number of paid staff at museums would we still recruit volunteers to assist in collections work? In this paper we answer that question with a resounding yes. In fact, we suggest that with increased paid staff, the quantity of volunteers should increase as well. We base this assessment in recognizing the shift of museums from being collections driven to centering on the visitor experience (Anderson 2004:2-5), an educational approach that is constructivist (Hein 2006:347-349) and that acknowledges the role of free-choice learning (Falk and Dierking 2002).  (R.P. Connolly & N.B. Tate, 2011,Volunteers and Collections as Viewed from the Museum Mission Statement. Collections, 7(3), p. 325-346)

The flipping of roles makes the museum responsible for addressing the public needs whose cultural heritage the museum presents and preserves.  In this capacity, it becomes incumbant upon the museum to provide opportunities for volunteering that align with how the public organize their volunteering capacity.

Besides the traditional, consider a few of  the other types of volunteers we now serve at the C.H. Nash Museum:

  • Avocational Organizations – I previously posted about the work of Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society.  Also, for nearly ten years the Southwind Garden Club has planted seasonal floral arrangements at the museum.  In a two-year effort, the Club created an arboretum at the site with plans for expansion in the coming months.  Over a similar period, the Friends of Chucalissa provided integral support in coordinating special events and fundraising for the Museum.  Particularly as the public pursuit of informal lifelong learning continues to grow, avocational and social groups will expand their outreach for volunteering opportunities.
  • Scout Youth Groups – Through both regular volunteer service activities and program requirements, Boy and Girl Scout groups have built, painted, or maintained a variety of facilities, both large and small at our Museum.  We maintain a regular list of possible projects for these groups to choose from.  As youth discretionary time becomes more structured with a host of competing activities, we might expect that youth groups will continue as a primary outlet to experience volunteering in the formative years.
  • Community Service Learning –  Through programs such as the University of Memphis Emerging Leaders, area high schools, alternative spring breaks, students at all levels take part in curriculum-based volunteer activities that last for anywhere from 2 hours to several days in length.  This type of volunteering proved instrumental in creating our medicinal plant sanctuary, landscaping at the Museum, exhibit creation, and in community outreach/cleanup projects.  Community service/learning continues to increase both informally and through formal educational curriculum with no evidence of reaching a plateau anytime soon.

The above examples can be less predictable than recruiting the traditional volunteer docent who will show up like clockwork every other Tuesday and Saturday.  However, in the same way that to remain relevant to the public that we serve, museums are shifting more to family programs in response to the reduction in the school “field trip” experience, we must also provide new and creative volunteer opportunities that are relevant to the public needs.

Without a doubt, the most exciting conferences I have attended for the past two years are the Volunteer Tennessee Annual Meetings that explores many of these possibilities.  I will post about one of my favorites, the The Corporation for National and Community Service, separately.

What innovations have you incorporated into your volunteer programs? 

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

Laura

Recently, Nina Simon summarized the posts of several bloggers on the lack of ethnic diversity in the arts.  This past week she posted On White Privilege and Museums that explores museums as venues of white privilege.  Comments responding to the latter post are plentiful (over 30) and range across a broad spectrum from support to rejection with opinions divided more-or-less akin to a bell-shaped curve.

An important tool for approaching diversity in museums rests in Simon’s model of the co-creative projects she discusses in The Participatory Museum.  Simon (2010:187) writes the purpose of a co-creative community project is “To give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; to provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; and to help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals.” This nuts and bolts approach was addressed in a recent guest post on Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog – Tools for Partnering With Community Members.  This post elicited three brief comments in response.  Using amount of feedback as a gauge, the discussion of more methodological approaches for community engagement are of less interest in the museum community than a more theoretical discussion on white privilege.

As a museum director, I am influenced by my discipline of applied anthropology.  Writing in the Epilogue to Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied AnthropologyErve Chambers (2004:194) notes “What is important to recognize here is that what makes this work applied is not the knowledge itself, which certainly can be relevant to the interests of others, but the act of engagement with others who are trying to make decisions related to particular heritage resources.”  This approach is completely aligned to Simon’s co-creative processes.  Elsewhere, I liken this approach as moving those represented in museums from the role of actors on the stage to directors of the performance.

Though scholars considered the inherent problems in viewing museums as elite institutions since before the publication of John Cotton Dana‘s New Museum early in the 20th Century, addressing the concern today remains a substantive discussion in museum studies.  I am convinced that a strategic long-term commitment to incrementally operationalize and institutionalize steps that consistently address diversity and representation in museums remains critical to demonstrating the relevance and sustainability of cultural heritage venues.  Without such a commitment, we should not expect the public to treat us as anything other than modern-day carpetbaggers.

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa the past five years presented revealing experiences as our cultural heritage venue governed by the University of Memphis launched an outreach program to the residents of the 95% African-American community in which the facility is located.  The back story of that process is covered here.  Some of the key observations we made from this five-year expereince include:

  • We learned about the place of the informal economic institution and community matriarch/caretaker known as the “candy lady” from the high school students who created an exhibit on the cultural heritage of their community at the C.H. Nash Museum in 2010.  The youth spoke with ease and knowledge of these women and their institutional role in the community.  Neither JSTOR, the first three pages of a Google search, or Wikipedia provide any reference to the role of a community candy lady.  This simple experience, and others like it from the summer of 2010, demonstrated that if we do not fully engage community as equal partners and/or co-creators in museum exhibits, the museum staff simply does not have access to the information to tell the story.
  • In the spring of 2012 we held a series of focus groups to obtain stakeholder input on the redesign of our main hall exhibits.  One of the focus groups was with residents who live in the community surrounding the museum.  In the focus group, the residents expressed a modest interest in the exhibit upgrade but were particularly drawn to the current Native American traditional food exhibits.  The residents reflected on the traditional foods of their youth and regretted that the community did not have a space for a public urban garden to grow these crops today.  Our museum complex has 40 acres of open space, including an unused garden area, so the match was obvious.  The community now has a public urban garden, that doubles as a museum exhibit, and provides programming opportunities.  The lesson learned is that had our staff brainstormed at length on community engagement, I doubt we would have hit on this need and opportunity of a public urban garden planted, tended, and harvested by the neighborhood residents.  In Experience Service Learning, Robert Kronick et al. (2011:23) write that the service relationship is where one “listens to the concerns of the group or person, lets the “other” define the situation, and responds by trying to meet that need. In listening and learning, receiving and giving, the service-learning relationship is horizontal, lateral, parallel. It is not hierarchical.”
  • To the extent we have been successful in year five of our community outreach efforts, we were required to complete the first four.  That is, had we not gone through outreach projects in years one through four we could not have gotten to year five.  This understanding is integral to building long-term sustainable and relevant outreach efforts at diversification.
  • And finally, persistence is key, as well it should be.  Just because a museum has an epiphany and sees the light on community engagement, there is no reason for the long ignored community to view the efforts with anything more than suspicion.  I vividly recall the first community meeting I attended where we academics proclaimed our interest in outreach.  One community leader stated “Don’t tell me what the University of Memphis is going to do for my community.  The last time you were here for two years doing your research and all we got was a map on the wall.”

Both Simon’s discussion of co-creative experiences and Chambers concept of applied engagement are relevant in creating a mission driven perspective of service to the entire public with a true opportunity to address diversity and whiteness in museums.  This approach is wholly in line with the International Council of Museum’s definition of museums as “. . . institutions in the service of society and of its development” (ICOM 2004:222).

I will end here with a plug for an upcoming issue (this spring or summer) of Museums and Social Issues edited by Elizabeth Bollwerk, Natalye Tate and myself.  The issue titled “Open(ing) Authority Through Community Engagement” contains a set of case studies on this very topic.

What steps does your institution take to be relevant to the diverse public that you serve?

 

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