Category Archives: Thinking tools

On (not) writing

Epictetus pondering writing. PD image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
George Orwell, “Why I Write”

 My previous post had a long and tortured gestation period. Though the events in it occurred in early December, it took me two months to actually commit them to paper and then ASCII.  After an initial burst of enthusiasm, where words and images poured out into several incoherent piles, I lost my momentum. It was unfocused, meandering, self-serving, and close enough to my work that “Will publishing this be a career limiting move?” became a real concern. It was easier to just sit on it and stew. Luckily, a friend reminded me of a couple important things about writing that I often forget.

The greater Boston area has also been subjected to more snow than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime – 100 inches/250cm – and snow is still possible until April. In a one month period, my wife Jennifer and our sons missed six days of school due to snow. At the end of this enforced togetherness, we decided it would be a good idea to escape for the weekend. Luckily, we had made plans to visit our friend Anne in New York. We spent a couple of very refreshing days out of our routine. And we talked a lot about writing.

My wife teaches high school English, and Anne teaches English and writing at Fordham. She is also the editor of the new annotated version of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, part of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Virginia Woolf. We talked about reading books, writing books, thinking about writing, teaching writing, and the silliness inherent in the process of getting writing turned into publications.

“You have to write to write. Right?”
Once you’ve written something that’s been published, it seems that people feel compelled to tell you that they, too, have aspirations to write. There’s an idea for a play, a partial manuscript of a novel, or pieces of what will become a memoir, just as soon as… And there it usually ends; before the actual writing is finished. Anne was talking about a person whose unfinished memoir was a regular topic of conversation. We chuckled over how easy it is to forget that talking about it was no substitute for doing it. Then she said, “You have to write to write. Right?” And those words lodged in my brain and banged around inside my head for days. Thinking about it, worrying about it, planning it, don’t help if you don’t actually sit down and do it.

I often get asked how I manage to write and work and the answer usually never satisfies the asker. I’ve written about this here and here and here, and Anne’s answer is still true. You have to write to write. Nina Simon wrote a moving piece at the end of last year about her struggles with how blogging not only never seems to get easier, but that the discourse that her writing generates seems to be declining over time. Fewer comments, less learning for her. And therein lies an important dynamic. Personally, I think if you’re writing for anybody other than yourself, it’ll be a hard, ultimately unsatisying slog. Mia Ridge once said to me “Writing makes me do my thinking properly.” and I have found that to be true so many times over that it’s hard now to even contemplate not writing as part of my practice. I am certainly not immune to the endorphic kick of watching blog stats and getting the gift of an unexpected gem of a comment. But they are icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Writing is a reflective practice. I learn as much in the writing process as I do in the research.

“It’ll practically write itself!”
The other quote is unfortunately mine, and came up when Anne brought up an idea for New Yorker article exploring a famous children’s book’s connection with Modernist writing. It was such a tight, hard idea, I could see the outlines of the piece just listening to her describe her research. And that’s when I said one of those things one should never say to a writer, “It’ll practically write itself!” I burbled. Unfortunately, it never does write itself, does it? It remains unformed until the writer writes it.

She was a good sport about it, naturally, but I was struck by just how enervating that phrase sounds. What was meant to be an affirmation, a “That’s a brilliant idea! It’ll be great!”, instead sounded like a negation of the sweat she was going to have to pour into the work. I had this immediate flashback to working on my Master’s thesis and hearing my advisor time and again tell me, “It’s only a Master’s thesis” whenever I was at a place where it seemed like more work was necessary to flesh out an idea or argument. He meant it as encouragement to finish the work and not let the topic get away from me. But when you’re writing the hardest thing you’ve ever attempted, having someone tell you “That’s not so hard.” doesn’t make the work any easier. Writing is hard work, but that’s no reason to avoid it.

All in all, it was a great trip! Good friends, good food, and good to escape for a bit. Even if it was -25 in Manhattan. Once we were all back in the work/school routine, I kept remembering these two quotes. I’d look at my mess of Art Basel notes, my #museumsresppondtoferguson notes, pictures, and all the other raw materials I habitually gather, and thought “Well, it’s not going to write itself! You have to write to write. Right?” And out it came. I wrote and wrote, and edited and edited. Ideas coalesced, some died. In the end, it’s reads pretty well. It feels true to my experience, and it (hopefully) doesn’t say anything I didn’t want to say.

And so it goes.

Issue: Museums and Social Change

Strandbeest at night

Strandbeest at night

The last three months have been a real emotional roller coaster ride for me in regards to how museums as civic institutions can play a useful role in the larger discussions playing out in the world. This was brought on by two colliding events: Art Basel Miami Beach and  #museumsrespondtoferguson.

[Ferguson protest in downtown St. Louis CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user velo_city]

Ferguson protest in downtown St. Louis
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user velo_city

Art Basel Miami Beach

I was at Miami as part of the team from the Peabody Essex Museum that was staffing the U.S. debut exhibition of Dutch kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, put on in conjunction with Audemars Piguet, the luxury watch manufacturer. I’ve been a fan of Theo’s work for years, and the opportunity to work with him, and to see Strandbeests in their native environment was astonishing. Check them out here or here. They’re even better in person, trust me. I’ve watched pretty much all the videos by now.

I was part of the team interpreting the beests, so I spent four lonnnnng days outside, pushing beests around, and answering questions from a neverending stream of visitors to the exhibition. I don’t get to spend a lot time in the galleries these days and the charge I got out of working with visitors was tonic for the soul. Being “on” all day and into the night was both invigorating and exhausting. I’d get back to the hotel after twelve or fourteen hours, fall into bed, and pass out. And do it all over again the next day. I felt deeply connected to that core museum practice of sharing knowledge and experience with people and helping people make new meaning out of life.

It was also a privilege to be around so many people who loved what they did. I love museum work, unironically and unapologetically. Theo Jansen’s love of his work is immediately obvious and infectious. If you watch any of his interviews, you’ll get a pretty good idea of the man and his unique outlook. And he is totally invested in his art project. Bill Morrison, the filmmaker behind Decasia and The Great Flood, was there shooting Theo for the New York Times, and we got the chance to hang out, which was bonus fun! Check out his video of the event. Our partners from AP were the same. These are serious watch folks, and their love of their subject was palpable. The unexpected highlight of the Fair for me was watching an AP watchmaker disassemble one of their movements and show us just how much attention to detail went into every microscopic piece of their work, even the pieces that the wearer will never see. Being surrounded by other people doing what they love is intoxicating.

A master watchmaker at work is a thing to behold!

A master watchmaker at work is a thing to behold!

 The conspicuous consumption!

So, on the one hand, I felt very engaged in the museum pursuit on a primal level. Work, love, person to person interaction, meaning-making; I was in the zone. And then I’d look around at the Veyron parked in front of the hotel, flanked by a Ferarri and Lambo, while a Bentley went past. I had to look up Veyron too, btw. Jillian Steinhauer from Hyperallergic summed up the dissonace perfectly in this post.  Go read it.

One surreal moment happened while I was pulling a Strandbeest across the street (with a police escort) and stopped to let a Rolls Royce convertible turn in front of me. The celebrity sightings and attendant panting of us mortals, “Serena’s coming!” “Diddy was there last night” was a constant thread. It turns out I am not immune to it at all. I overheard some pragmatic art fair advice, “Only suckers buy at the Fair! Sure, you might make the deal here, but you don’t write the check for at least a couple of weeks. Unless you’re a poser.” I didn’t hear much about contemporary art at all.

 In addition to the market thriving, it turns out that the patriarchy is alive and well. The heels! The amount of cleavage (enhanced and otherwise) and bum I saw was incredible. Granted, there was also the buff young guy on the beach in a tiny Speedo (waving a big latex dildo, btw) but the vast majority of skin on display was female, and it seemed to be on display for the well-heeled men present. At first, I was gobsmacked, then I thought “You’re just being overly provincial. Relax!”, and finally I just felt kinda dirty. I am privileged enough that I don’t have to encounter it so vividly in my daily life, but it’s still there.

And every night in my email and in the news was the drumbeat of Ferguson and Staten Island and the turmoil they engendered. As someone who’s worked their whole life in the cultural sector, and frankly was often quite smug about the social value of museum work, it was a repeated slap in the face. The armored vehicles versus unarmed protesters, the police who were to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from an army, and the systemic violence exposed for all to see.

 
“Social value, huh? How does your museum adresss this?!”
SWAT team, fully assembled CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Jamelle Bouie

SWAT team, fully assembled
CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Jamelle Bouie

Many of my colleagues in the field were grappling with the question of “How can/should/must museums respond to events like Ferguson if they really want to be engaged in the important cultural conversations of the day?” and it’s not an easy question to answer. The traditional avenues that museums utilize, like our national adovcacy group, weren’t much use at all. So the group decided to bypass the established routes and speak directly, as individuals affected by Ferguson and lucky enough to have the means to spread the word. Was it enough? Probably not. Was it more than might otherwise have been said? Definitely. And it wouldn’t have happened without a group of committed people taking time to organize and have hard conversations. So, I want to give much respect to Gretchen, Max, Aletheia and Rose, Mike, Aleia, Porchia, Adrianne, and all the others I’m forgetting who gave their time to create the statement. And, to be clear, I wasn’t much help at the time, aside from amplifying the message they crafted. I take no credit, but I am very grateful to have been able to be part of it.

What did the statement accomplish? AAM hasn’t come out with a forceful statement or suggestions for museums to tackle racial inequality. Thousands of museums haven’t added new exhibitions and programs to their calendars that address Ferguson. So, did the statement fail? I don’t think so. Sometimes just wrestling with the big, ugly, seemingly-intractable problems is restorative and necessary. We are so outcomes-based as a society that I think the really big problems are especially hard for us to grapple with, because it’s hard to see the direct path from here to a better world. And maybe that fixation with outcome gets in the way. I’ve come to believe that it is more important to stand up and speak up against injustice now than to have “the answer”. The conversations that led up to the statement were challenging, provoking even. And I’m glad I was challenged and provoked.

And since then, things have happened…

Grassroots organizing seems to be alive and well

One of the encouraging results of #museumsrespondtoferguson was that Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell initiated a monthly Twitter chat on museums and race. I’m confident that there’ll be some sanctioned or unsanctioned conversations at AAM this year. Rebecca Herz wrote an excellent meditation on ethics in museum practice that touches on a lot of the same issues I’ve been grappling with. It’s well worth a look.  Separate conversations on income inequality and the high price of museum conferences have sprung up as a result of #museumsrespondtoferguson. There was a great debate recently on Twitter between current media darlings MuseumHack and a bunch of New York-based museum professionals over the high prices of their tours, and the larger issue of whether museums’ eagerness to court younger audiences really means only affluent young audiences. These are all good signs. Issues of import are being discussed in public forums instead of behind closed doors or at conference sessions attended by a few dozen of the usual suspects. The questions being raised will doubtless irritate some and offend others. And that’s not a bad thing. The museum endeavor, that direct experience with the sublime, the unbelievable, and the novel, has such tremendous potential to uplift people of all ages and inclinations that it’s worth some discomfort.

Link

I, robot

I wrote a short piece for PEM’s blog on my brief stint as a robot at MCN2014. You can find it here: I, robot.

The importance of side projects

CC BY NC SA 2.0 image by Flickr user contemplative imaging

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of editing for friends and colleagues. And loving it. After years of being on the other end of the chain, now I’m the one trying crawl inside others’ minds and help them say what they meant and not what they wrote. It’s instructive, and very rewarding. And it has very little to do with my day job. Like this blog. Or Drinking About Museums. Or CODE|WORDS. But I think they are more than just outlets for excess creative energy. They’re essential to staying happy and productive.

One of my favorite moments from MCN 2013 was Tina Roth Eisenberg’s keynote address. Tina didn’t talk at all about running a design agency, which is her profession. Instead she talked about all the other things she’s done in the shadows of that, and how they’ve been crucial to her success and more importantly her well-being. Her side projects at that point included the massively-popular Swiss Miss design blog, the Tattly temporary tattoo company, and a coworking space. They’ve been opportunities to experiment, to grow, and become both a better designer and boss.

The museum space is full of salutary examples of side projects. The first one I became aware of was Beck Tench’s Experimonth. Go take a look and you’ll see how she took an idea and grew it into a community and a way to connect to a larger world of ideas than she might’ve run into in North Carolina. And then there is the Twitter-breaking might of Mar Dixon, She of the many hashtags: #MuseumSelfie, #CultureTheme, #AskaCurator. Talk about becoming a global force! Probably my favorite museum-y side project to date has been Suse Cairns’ and Jeff Inscho’s Museopunks podcast. Their conceit of finding the most interesting museum people and recording long interviews with them around broad themes made for great listening and gave them the opportunity to talk to people they might not otherwise ever meet. I was glad to see that Jeff has started another side venture, Tin Can Telephone, and look forward to seeing how it unfolds.

For me, my side projects have been a place to be new things. Five years ago, I would’ve laughed at the suggestions I might become one of the those people who host meetups. Keep a blog going for years? Not likely. I’m more fickle than that. And somehow this thing keeps on. Side projects have allowed me to stretch in different ways. Musetrain, my first joint side project, was also my first experience with the weirdness of online discourse. Bruce Wyman thought it’d be interesting to take inspiration from the Cluetrain Manifesto, and make a museum version. So, Bruce recruited Seb Chan and I to get on the train. We decided to be anonymous, so as not influence people. And that anonymity sparked more debate than any of the points in the manifesto. It was an education in unintended outcomes. Cluetrain has gotten an update recently. Maybe we’ll pick Musetrain up again and see what has withstood the test of time.

CODE|WORDS update
It was just about a year ago that Suse Cairns, Rob Stein and I started talking about an experiment in online discourse and publishing, that eventually became the CODE|WORDS collection on Medium. With the launch of Bridget McKenzie’s “Towards a Sociocratic Museum”, eight of the planned twelve essays have been published, and the project is in the home stretch. Merete Sanderhoff will soon add a great essay on connecting open museum collections with schools. Emily Lytle-Painter is writing about the care and feeding of visitors as more than just disembodied brains. Janet Carding will also be writing from a museum director’s perspective.

It has been a great privilege to work with such an outstanding group of writers and thinkers. The project has had its shares of hiccups, to be sure, but in the end, I hope it’ll turn out to be a useful resource for the field. And maybe we’ll see if we can’t turn it into a book. It has already taught me a lot about the challenges of getting geographically dispersed groups to coalesce. I’ve turned out to be more tenacious than I thought. I’ve discovered that I actually kinda like editing smart people’s work.

Not bad for a side project.

2015 thoughts and plans

January, full of hope and the potential of another new year! I’ve spent a lovely holiday season relaxing with my family and friends and clearing out my head. Now, once more into the breach! I promised myself I’d take a look at my blogging practice and see what role it should play in my life in 2015. Seems I wasn’t alone. Seb Chan did a nice “What I did in 2014 while I wasn’t blogging” that is impressive to say the least. That boy works! And I look forward to hearing more about every item on his list. A more common theme was introspection, mingled with worry. Regan Forrest, one of my favorite Aussie museum bloggers wrote a reflection that’ll sound familiar to anyone who’s ever blogged. And, despite the worry, followed it up with her first post of 2015, doubling down on her committment to blogging. Go, Regan! And even Nina Simon, the hardest working woman in museum blogging, wasn’t immune to the feeling that it not only doesn’t get easier, but in fact gets harder the longer you’re at it. The whole post and comment thread are great, so read it. These three posts helped me to crystallize some the ideas/plans/dreams I have swirling around in my head for 2015. Being more mindful and deliberate about my blogging, in terms of topic, cadence, and substance. Four posts a month for twelve months and better editorial oversight and planning are coming. Being more proactive about following up with conversations that are happening elsewhere. It takes time. And effort. Waiting for the “You have X new comments” email from WordPress was a lot easier. And delivered that lab rat/food pellet reward much more effectively. Giving my attention to the side projects that have nourished me as much as my primary job. CODE|WORDS will soon see it’s eighth essay published, and Musetrain, an old experiment that Bruce Wyman, Seb and I started in 2012 has reawoken. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes. So, onwards into 2015! See you there!

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and related events

In the mad bustle of Art Basel Miami Beach (more on that later, hopefully…) a group of thoughtful friends started discussing the roles of cultural institutions in the wake of police killings in Ferguson, Staten Island, and elsewhere. The following statement is a result of those conversations and hopefully the beginning of longer ones. The question of what our response should be is already unfolding online under the #museumsrespondtoFerguson has tag and elsewhere. What the outcome will be is unknown to any of us, but I agree with the 19th century abolitionist, Theodore Parker, who said,

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

                           Rev. Theodore Parker

**************************************************

The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

 

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

 

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

 

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.

 

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role–as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit–in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

 

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook—that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by…

  • Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
  • Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
  • Checking out Art Museum Teaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson:  Connecting with Resources
  • Sharing additional resources in the comments
  • Asking your professional organization to respond
  • Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum. It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
  • Looking at the website for International Coalition of  Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.

Participating Bloggers and Colleagues

Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons

Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum

Aleia Brown, AleiaBrown.org

Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities

Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching

Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum

Paul Orselli  ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog

Ed Rodley, Thinking About Museums

Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities

Nina Simon, Museum 2.0

Rainey Tisdale, CityStories

Jeanne Vergeront  Museum Notes

Porchia Moore, Cultural Heritage Informatics Librarian, University of South Carolina + regular contributor, Incluseum The Incluseum

Looking for inspirations

It’s getting to be that time, time to head off to the annual Museum Computer Network conference in Dallas. Very exciting! This year’s crop of sessions and workshops looks to be really interesting, with plenty of new voices!

As part of my preparations for the event, I’ve been going over my pre-conference checklist. Outrageous costume for Ignite? Check! List of work conversations I’ll try to cram in around the sessions? Check. Identify the five new people I mean to talk to, and what I want to ask them? Check and check! This year, I also have a more general question. This is where you come in, dear readers.

I was one of the participants in the NAEA Peer2Peer Hangout today on digital mindsets. It was a rocking good time, with some great speakers. You should check it out! Anyway, one of the questions had to do with looking outside the sector for inspirations for digital projects. I talked about Snowfall and Bear 71 as sites I thought did a great job of exploring rich stories with a variety of assets. This question also jibed nicely with a question I’d been rolling around in my head about the next version of PEM’s website. Namely, what does a good museum website look like in 2014? So my question for you is this:

What are your favorite online destinations of 2014, museum or not, and why?