Tag Archives: Catherine Hughes

It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn

Already a dork at age 13. But, a dork in spacesuit FTW!

It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn

I kinda fell into museum work, which is odd, since I’d worked in museums since I was 11. I’d had a bunch of front of house positions; guard, guide, gift shop, garage; all the entry level jobs.  But despite that, I never really thought of museum work as something I’d pursue as a career. No, thanks. I was gonna go to college to be an astronaut. Instead, I dropped out my senior year, and after a brief, disastrous stint in retail, and needing to pay the rent, wound up back at the Museum, working the Information Desk. Until one day, I had the lunch that changed everything.

It was a busy day, the cafeteria was packed and there was no place to sit. I was an hourly grunt, on a timed 30 minute break, and my clock was running. I saw a coworker of mine eating with another woman I recognized as an employee, but didn’t know. She was one of the fancy office people we didn’t mingle with. They were sitting at a table with three seats, so I invited myself to their lunch and listened to the woman complain about how overworked and understaffed her department was. She worked in the Exhibits department, where they apparently made exhibits. Now I had known this intellectually, I’m sure, but it had never really sunk in til then. People got paid to make the exhibits people came to museums to look at.  Huh! So, I spent the next several months being aggressively friendly, until she hired me as her assistant. Thus began what I’d consider my Museum career.

When I started working in the Exhibits department, I was the youngest person there out of about 30 people, and I was the least educated. I was intimidated. They were smart. They had decades of experience. They were well-educated. The office people had Masters and Doctorates. The shop staff were cabinet makers, not carpenters, a distinction you would fail to make only once. And then there was me. I was very lucky, luckier than most. I had a boss who was a mentor in the truest sense of the word, though I didn’t know any better. I thought that’s what all bosses did, right? Train you up, sharpen your skills and point you at opportunities to gain new ones. I worked on big shows, based almost entirely on my bosses faith that I could do it. So I did it. But throughout it all, I had this persistent dread that I’d be found out one day. Somebody would say, “Rodley! What are *you* doing here!? You don’t belong here!” I did great stuff, worked on amazing projects, travelled the world, and still never felt worthy, because I didn’t think I knew what I was supposed to know, what everybody else already knew (I thought).

And what changed was when we started getting heavily into evaluation. Sitting in the galleries, actually watching visitors using stuff was a revelation! I didn’t know what would happen, but neither did the old timers, though some of them were sure that it was all a huge waste of time, and an affront to their expertise, cuz they knew. But we made better exhibits because of that. And the experience of being cool with not knowing was liberating. I didn’t know, but I was gonna find out. And I was learning things that my elders didn’t know for a change. I could go toe to toe with them on decisions about projects in a way I couldn’t before. Our dynamic changed. And my story of myself started to change.

The thing I wish they’d told me when I started in museums was that it’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn that will make or break you as a professional. I thought that the old model of learning still applied, you know? You went to school, you learned stuff, and that carried you through your career until you retired. Only I watched some of the most senior people in my department, people with long, deep resumes of accomplishments, transform themselves from legends into pariahs, the folks you tried hard to work around to get something done, precisely because they weren’t willing to learn, or they thought that the pile of knowledge they’d accumulated should be sufficient. And by the time they retired, most people didn’t even know that they’d once been heroes. They’d become the people everybody hoped would retire soon. And I didn’t want to become that guy.

Being ok with not knowing, but being willing to learn is kinda scary, like those anxiety dreams where you’re at work and you’ve forgotten to wear pants, or like standing up in front of several hundred of your peers and sharing your deeply held feelings of unworthiness. But scary shouldn’t hold you back. I’ve gotten very good at telling myself “Not knowing *is* scary, always. Now get over it and do it anyway.” And I really believe that mindset is like a mental muscle; the more you exercise it, the better it gets, and the more you can do with it. That realization has become the cornerstone of my professional practice, and is largely responsible for me being where I am now, which is a place where I often don’t know what is the right thing to do and have to figure it out as I go along. And that’s OK.

It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn.

Telling Stories about Storytelling @ AAM 2014

One of the highlights of my AAM 2014 experience (and the source of the most dread), was the storytelling panel that Seattle-based exhibit planner Judy Rand and I organized. AAM included a “storytelling” format this year in the call for proposals, and we thought it’d be interesting to put together a session that wasn’t the usual “people sitting behind a table talking while the slides went by” kind of presentation. Judy suggested we explore the power of storytelling based on the model of The Moth Radio Hour. I suggested the theme of “The thing I wished they’d told me when I started in museums” and we were off!
A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating... and a rug and plant.

A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating… and a rug and plant.

Over the next few months, we expanded our roster of speakers to include Catherine Hughes, Director of Interpretation at the Connor Prairie Museum and Nina Simon, the Executive Director from the Museum of Art and Science in Santa Cruz. Catherine’s an actress, Nina’s a former slam poet, and we knew they’d rise to the challenge of telling compelling stories within pretty rigid time limits. Judy and I, both more writers than speakers, had more to worry about. Coming up with a way to tell a compelling story is very different than writing a compelling story. Writing for the ear is, for me, much harder than writing for the eye. I don’t think I ever spent as much time practicing a conference presentation, cutting and tightening, as I did for the eight minutes I was alone in front of a room full of my peers telling my story.
The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine

The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine

In the end, depsite the angst it caused me, it was a great session. The stories we heard were amazing. Judy told us of her intense shyness in public and of the revelation of taking a personality test and finding out that it classified her a “people person.” Catherine described her love of museum work as an addiction and drew out a number of very funny, if slightly disturbing, analogies between her career path and an addict’s. Trust me, it was good. Nina told the story of her struggles as a new museum director and what it means to really be an activist instead of just talking about it.
Judy sharing her story with the audience.

Judy sharing her story with the audience.

When we asked the 200-odd people in the room to pair up and tell each other a 2-minute story, the noise level was deafening. Instead of having the usual question and answer session at the end, we invited audience members to come and share their stories with the audience. It was great.  Here are the handouts we made:

Our Storytelling Resources handout

Our 2-minute storytelling activity handout

I wrote about my own story over at PEM’s blog, and that prompted me to get this recollection down, and to include Judy’s and Catherine’s stories as well, in future posts.

Now back to editing CODE|WORDS essays and trying to write my own!

Immersive theatre, part two

As follow-up to my post on theatre, I finally rescheduled a Google+ Hangout to try to unpack Sleep No More and look forward to exploring it with other attendees.

I also got an exciting email from my old friend and former colleague Catherine Hughes. Catherine started the Museum of Science’s Science Theater department back in the day, and is now the Project Director of Meet the Past at the Atlanta History Center in Georgia. Her book, Museum Theatre: Communicating with Visitors Through Drama, is a good place to learn about museum theatre in general. Here’s the scoop from Atlanta, which she kindly allowed me to post,

 I read your piece on immersive theatre and thought I’d share the most recent project I’ve directed, a fully participatory play called Four Days of Fury, which opens tonight. We’ve gotten lots of good feedback (see this and this) so far from the press opening. Fingers crossed, regular audience will feel the same. It feels like we’ve managed to do something new for a museum.

We’ve sold out each performance and are attracting a far more diverse group and having these incredible dialogues following each show. People are talking about difficult issues, race and fear, in an open forum with strangers! We’ve had the head of the Georgia Council for Humanities and the director of the Office of Cultural Affairs for Atlanta attend. We have three shows today and then next weekend. Whew. We are emailing a post-show survey to all who give us their email (we’re asking everyone) for the evaluation. Fingers crossed we get more than the usual 5% response.

So, stay tuned for details!