Category Archives: Professional Development

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.

Highlights from MCN 2014

I’ve been meaning to write up a recap of my experience at MCN 2014 for some time, but am only now getting around to unearthing my notes and pictures.

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I was one of the conference program co-chairs, along with Morgan Holzer from NYPL, and had spent the better part of 2014 getting ready for this party to start. And one of the biggest takeaways I had was that I find it harder to be in the moment when I’ve had a hand in setting up the program. Like the host at a party worrying if the guests are having a good time, I spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth between sessions, poking into workshops, and constantly taking the pulse of the conference to see if there was anything that needed doing. And it felt good to have care of the event in that way, but it was very different than just being there as an attendee. In many ways, this was the perfect bookend to my visit to MW 2012, when I didn’t go to any sessions and just sat in the lobby of the conference hotel for a day. So, what was the 30,000 foot view like?

Conference Highlights

If you want a quick promo for the conference, check out this snazzy highlight video.

For the Record…

MCN has been getting more and more into capturing and disseminating video of presentations and I actually find myself going back to them in ways I didn’t think I would a couple of years ago. The MCN YouTube channel is worth a visit. Papers rarely capture the performative aspects of a public reading, slide decks are usually woefully incomplete, and neither capture the dialogue that occurs. So I’m glad that the investment in video continues to grow and hope you find it useful to your work.

Ignite on-site

The first night Ignite talks have become one of the cornerstones of the MCN conference. They deliver a jolt of energy to the proceedings that is hard to beat. The format is a tough one, and the hardy souls who volunteer to do it are inspirations to us all. Normally, we’ve had to go off-site to find a venue that is set up with a stage, the right AV system, booze, and the ability to accommodate a couple hundred people. Luckily, this year we didn’t have to pile into buses and go to a bar.  One of the most unusual features of the Fairmont Dallas hotel as a conference venue was the Venetian Room. Think early 1970s glitz, and you’ve got it.

The Venetian Room, courtesy of Fairmont Hotels

The Venetian Room, courtesy of Fairmont Hotels

Robert Goulet was the first performer to grace the stage, Sonny and Cher played there, Ike and Tina Turner, etc. And it was right in the building!

The curtain on the Venetian Room stage. Swanky!

The curtain on the Venetian Room stage. Swanky!

So swanky, I bought a tux to go with it.

So swanky, I bought a tux to go with it.

Two presentations really stood out for me. Max Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art (you should follow him on Twitter if you don’t already) delivered a no-holds-barred talk on how art museum directors think. It was full of insight into the issues directors are faced with, and especially cutting in regard to how they view digital technologies and staff who want to innovate. If you’ve wondered “What does my director really think about?” check it out.

Greb Albers from the Getty had the unenviable job of batting cleanup (going last for you non-baseball fans) and not only gave a great performance, but gave the conference it’s first (and most inspirational) meme. For the rest of the conference, I heard people exhorting each other to “be tugboats”. Watch the talk, you’ll get it.

The Keynote

 Lance Weiler, filmaker, writer, teacher, and incredibly promiscuous collaborator gave a great, provoking keynote on storytelling and technology, drawn almost entirely from his own impressive body of work. If you haven’t seen works like Bear 71, you really should. Incredible stuff. The whole talk is worth a watch.

One of the most interesting parts of his talk was the “Five Times Why” exercise he made all 400 people do. Everyone was given cards, pencils and told to find a partner they didn’t know. They would then ask them the question “Why are you here?” five times, record each answer and then write a summary of why that person had come. Then they’d switch roles. It was a great ice breaker! As an unintended bonus, we collected all the cards and spent part of the last day coding the responses. Some very interesting insights will help us with next year’s conference.

The Layer of Chaos and the joy of HOMAGO

One of the things I like most about museum technology events is that they tend to be HOMAGO kinds of affairs.If you’re not familiar with the term, HOMAGO stands for Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, and is an experiential learning theory expounded by Mimi Ito, and popular in digital media and learning circles. It’s social, peer-oriented, and interest-driven. HOMAGO is generally used in youth experience contexts to describe the ways they make sense out of the constantly evolving sea of new ways to be and create that digital media present. I think that same spirit underlies both the formal *and* informal making opportunities that MCN provides to attendees. Our demographic may be a bit older, but the phenomenon feels the same to me.

The energy in the workshops was great to see. People learned to use microontrollers and sensors and actually make physical stuff.

The Arduino workshop

The Arduino workshop

The conference workshops certainly had that spirit, but the Layer of Chaos, MCN’s three year-old collaboration with New Mexico Highlands University and the Parachute Factory makerspace, really embodies that spirit and runs with it. Part artist residency, part drop-in program, part adult fun night, the Layer of Chaos has it all. Great peer-to-peer opportunities to engage with new technologies, lots of alcohol-aided socializing, and can-do experimentation that is a great creative lubricant. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for Minneapolis this November. This year’s theme, the MuseTech Shipwreck, was partly my fault, so I got the task of welcoming attendees to the opening of the Layer of Chaos. There were interactive light and sound installations, an visitor-operated barrel of rum (you had to hit a target with retrofitted light guns fr old consoles) and a dancing skeleton made from a pico projector, ultrasonic humidifier and a bunch of drinking straws.

The High and the Low Tech

William Gibson wrote that “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” And that was in evidence at MCN. There were the obligatory high tech devices, like the Beam telepresence robot I got to test drive around the Exhibit Hall. But there were also great examples of low tech solutions. Google Cardboard, their “turn your Android phone into a 1970s Viewmaster” was a surprisingly successful product. Even with an iPhone, I was able to enjoy most of the experience, and get a sense of the kinds of things we can expect to see from the Google Cultural Institute Lab in Paris.

Look, ma! I'm a robot!

Look, ma! I’m a robot!

Google cardboard. The advance mechanism (only works w Android phones) is just a washer and a magnet.  Genius!

Google cardboard. The advance mechanism (only works w Android phones) is just a washer and a magnet. Genius!

It’s the future in here!

The MCN 2014 Scholars. What an inspiring group!

The MCN 2014 Scholars. What an inspiring group!

 Most random moment

I was in the Exhibit Hall and turned around to see Leo, Douglas, Loic, and Don talking. Nothing unusual there, except Don was actually in France, not Dallas, and was using a telepresence robot to hang out with us. That kinda stuff happens at MCN. You should come this year. It’ll be a blast!

3 folks in Dallas, one in France

3 folks in Dallas, one in France

Childhood as a state of mind, not an age

What a Summer it has been! And how little blogging has happened. Nina Simon has said to me several times that, for her, regular blogging has been a great boon and a huge albatross around her neck. Keeping to a regular schedule is both a terrible mistress and a vital time for reflection. Without that prompt, it’s all too easy to spend no time reflecting at all. And when you fall off the blog wagon, it’s hard to get back on. So, up we go…

Gavin, talking about our Maker Lounge.

Gavin, talking about our Maker Lounge.

Earlier this Summer, my colleague Gavin Andrews and I attended a workshop on the Documentation Studio at Wheelock College—a project/venue that spun out of Harvard’s Making Learning Visible work around using Reggio Emilia-inspired documentation (a variety of media) to support learning and collaboration among educators in schools and informal settings. The goal was to look at Reggio-inspired educational practices, particularly documentation, and see how they might be applied beyond the traditional Reggio target audience of preliterate (0-5) learners.

I’ve long been interested in the Reggio Emilia model. There’s something that rings very true to me about the value of learners documenting their own learning as a way of demonstrating and crystalling that learning. My lovely and talented wife worked for many years with the folks at Project Zero at Harvard to test Reggio-inspired methods at the high school level, and in the projects she and her students undertook I could see parallels to what we were trying to do with museum audiences.

Another interesting reflection of Reggio ideas in museum thinking can be seen in Lori Phillips’ construction of open authority, particularly in the spectrum of open authority, where museums and their audiences co-create participatory interpretations. Rather than having us doing all the creating and them doing the learning, we do it together and both do both. I like the sound of that!
In addition to being the most superbly-facilitated professional development event I’ve ever experienced, it was *full* of brain food. Some of the notes from my notebook give a flavor of the event:

“Documentation is not a practice so much as a mindset – Documentation ≠ what happened. It’s your point of view of what happened.”

“Documentation is more about communication than expression.”

“How could visitors leave their own document/descripiton of their process, plus a protocol for documentation? Can it extend beyond their visit? How can they take it home/school?”

“What is the role of  the curator in this kind of interaction space?”

“How do you make documentation help w collaborative practice beyond the visit?”

Heady, tough stuff… At the end of a very fruitful half day of dicsussion and sharing with school teachers and museum educators who work with children, I asked the question I’d been aching to ask all day, “How does all this apply when your audience is not just children, but everyone?” Of course, there was no easy answer, but as I thought more about it, it occured to me that I defined childhod in my mind as a temporary state, and one that, once passed, was inaccessible thereafter. You either were a child or were not, and therefore things geared for children were somehow distinct from things designed for the rest of us. Something about this bugged me, since I knew that everyone in the room had once been a child. And it spawned a question in my mind.

What if you looked at childhood as a state of mind? 

One thing that separates adults from children is that children have a hard time imagining what it must be like to be an adult, whereas adults can remember what it was like when they were children. Childhood is, to some extent, available to us all. I’m sure all us former children can recall bits of what it was like when the world was newer and more mysterious, and we constantly encountered new things. So, my question to you, dear friends and colleagues is this: Could we as designers of learning experiences figure out ways to bring that state of being to the forefront and turn all our audience into children-learners? What might that look like? Any examples of people doing it already?

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.

Waiting for Eileen

As follow up to my post on our storytelling session at AAM, here’s the first of the stories that were told.

Waiting for Eileen by Judy Rand

 

It was SO cold that winter. Drafty apartment. Wind blowing in from the bay.

             

Time to light the heater.

The open-flame gas heater.

 

I had a diagram from the gas company: “How to Light Your Old Heater.”

 

 It doesn’t look anything like MY old heater.

Turn valve A to B.
Wait, there is no B. There’s some loopdeloop thing here.
Push down on lever C. I don’t see a C.

I know GAS is going to come RUSHING out of this pipe at me—here? Here? !!!

 

This isn’t gonna work.
If I light this match, I’ll blow us all up.

And by us, I meant…me.

Two-bedroom apartment, but I was living alone.
Just me and my secret.
Nobody at work knew it, but I. Was shy.

Too shy to knock on a neighbor’s door to ask for help.

I was terrified of parties.
When I go….IF I go…to a party, I hide in the bathroom.
(Luckily, I don’t get invited to many.)

I look at the heater.

                   (What could I do?)

I put my parka on.

 

And I wait.
I am waiting for Eileen.

***********

Eileen was a science writer who lived two hours north, in San Francisco.
She’d come down for meetings at the aquarium. We worked together.
When meetings ran late, she’d stay over at my place. (Why not? I had a spare room.)

 

Eileen was amazing. She knew how to fix things. She knew how things work. She fixed my kitchen faucet. She fixed my clock!

 

She LOVED figuring things out. (Best of all: I wouldn’t even have to ask.)

 

“Gee, it’s getting cold,” she said when she arrived that evening. “Would you like me to light the heater?”

 

                                  Yes! Thank you! I am so grateful.

 

I sound like an idiot, right?Actually, I’m pretty good at my job.
I’m not shy at work. I have great ideas. I’m a PASSIONATE visitor advocate. I speak right up. And I have to!

“It’s this new TEAM,” I tell Eileen.

The Designer and I don’t see eye-to-eye.

I want visitors to FEEL the ocean.
What’s it really LIKE down there?

 

- The Designer’s  in a whole ‘nother world.
Circles, systems, networks. Stuff you can’t see.
He keeps shooting down my ideas.

- The Fish Person is quiet. Very quiet.
Fish people are like that. They go diving in the kelp forest, it’s quiet.
Nobody talking.
They’re like that in meetings. Nobody talking.
(What are they thinking?)

The 3 of us are deadlocked. We can’t agree.

 

 “Too bad there’s no way to fix that,says Eileen. “A workshop maybe.”

 

WORKSHOP! I’ve got one next week!

Not about teams. About visitors’ learning.

But maybe I can bring back some proof.
Convince these guys to see things my way.

***********

 

I fly off to DC.

Dr. Bernice McCarthy. Learning Styles in Museums, at the Smithsonian.
(I know it’s probably gonna be participatory. That’s the new thing.
                                          That’s OK. I’m gonna sit in the back and take notes.)

 

Bernice jumps right in.

There are 4 learning styles, says Bernice. They’re actually steps, or stages, on a learning cycle that all of us go through when we learn something new.
But each of us has our own favorite place we like to dwell on the cycle.

 

Each person has their own favorite learning style.

#1s   Imaginative Learners

(1s are immersive. They seek personal relevance.
They’re people people, says Bernice.)

#2s   Analytic Learners want the facts.

Lots of curators are #2s, Bernice tells us.

 

#3s are Common Sense Learners.

They ask “How does it work?”
They’re the engineers of the world, says Bernice.
(Sounds like my friend Eileen!)

 

  #4s, the Dynamic Learners

ask “What if I try it?” They like to jump in and do it.

 

Bernice divides us into groups.

#1s over here.      #2s here.     #3s there.      #4s—yep, already there.

 

Each team’s going to come up with an exhibit scheme.

 I look at my worksheet: points on a graph. I’m a 1.

Imaginative. Yes. Immersive. Yes.

Wait a minute…did she say “People People?”

 

I look at the #1s. The People People.

They’re waving to me, warmly.
This is going to be awful.

Three minutes in, I am happier than I have ever been.

 

The #1s love every idea I have. I get them, they get me.
These people are brilliant! (Where did they come from?)

 

Bernice calls “Time!” Each group presents. “How did it feel?” she asks.
Everyone from every group says “Amazing. Great! Not like my team back home.”

Then Bernice scrambles us. This time we’re mixed.

1,2,3,4.  1,2,3,4.   1,2,3,4.

“Same activity,” she says. “Come up with an exhibit scheme.”

 

Three minutes in—crap! This is just like my team back home!

 

Crazy Designer Person killing my ideas. SHE wants cladistics.
Systems! Stuff you can’t see. I do my best to keep it real.

Bernice calls “Time! “How did it feel?” she asks.
Everyone from every group says “A LOT more conflict. Just like my team back home.”

 

Then each group presents its scheme.
They’re better.Markedly better.
                                More vibrant in every way.

Bernice says it’s proof.
When a 1 works with a 3…when a 2 works with a 4…your opposite learning styles ensure the strongest results.Your strongest collaborator is your opposite number.

 

If, Bernice says, you can manage not to kill each other.

 

Ohhhh. Oh!
Is that why my Designer drives me crazy? (I must drive him crazy too.)
                        We’re opposite numbers?
But wait. Eileen is a 3—I’m sure of it! I love Eileen!

 

WHAT IF…what if…the next time the Designer comes up with a crazy idea,
a how-does-it-work idea, I look at him….and imagine it’s Eileen.
Imagine Eileen’s head on Designer Person’s body.

 

This could work!

What we’d do together WOULD be better if we didn’t kill each other.

 

This one idea—‘opposite learning styles’—changes my work-life. Forever.

**********

 

BACK HOME Friday, the apartment’s warm.  
Team meeting is good.  

 

One problem.
I’ve been invited to a party.

The Fish People party.
It’s going to be quiet.
Everybody standing there holding their beers. Noooobody talking. They’re waiting for their one talkative guy—John O’Sullivan—to arrive.
Shark collector, big, fun-loving guy. Got a story for everyone.
Until John-O gets there, it’s going to be QUIET.
(Makes it hard for me to hide.)

End of the year. I have to go.
I drag myself over to Gil’s house. (Yes, a Fish Person named Gil. This is a true story.)

 

Gil answers the door. He looks morose.
“Gil, what’s wrong?” I ask, stepping inside.
“John-O can’t make it,” Gil says. (Oh no!)
                                                             Everyone’s quiet.

 

I’m ready to retreat—but then I feel this strange….warmth…come over me.
Like I felt surrounded by my #1s.

 

I say to myself, “You. Are. A. PEOPLE person.”
“Gil needs warmth. Help Gil out.”

 

I start telling Gil a penguin story. (It’s funny.)
I see Freya smile. And Peter.
The party warms up. I tell another story.

 

And THAT moment changes my life-life. Forever.
I DO care about people—not just visitors.
I DO have love to share.
I don’t have to hide in the bathroom, scared.

Thanks for coming to the party. It’s great to see you all here.

© Judy Rand, 2014

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!

Unpacking MW2014 – Part Two

Part One of this post dealt with some of the kinds of people movement in the field this year.  This post will deal with one of the most exciting developments I’ve seen in years, the proliferation of grassroots efforts to educate, connect, and energize the field.

I gave a brown bag talk at Baltimore Museum of Art before the conference on  “What skills will it take to survive in the 21st century museum and the how the heck is one supposed to get them while holding down a day job?”. What it really turned into was a long, roundtable discussion on how BMA works, what needs staff had for tools and processes and their hope that the perfect tools existed out there somewhere. I raised a few eyebrows, given my title, when I advocated that they refrain from email when a phone call or just walking over to a colleague’s desk would suffice. Ditto for suggesting a good project manager is more cost effective in the long run than any project managment package out there (Forgive me, Basecamp! I love you to bits and use you daily, but…).

You might think the talk was a bummer, but it was a lively talk, folks were engaged, and despite my inability to recommend any magic bullets, I think it was a valuable event, because they got to hear each other in ways that they mightn’t in their day-to-day work lives. They taught each other all kinds of things I couldn’t have, and together as a group they surfaced a lot of issues that are good to work on. I look forward to hearing how they fare.

The Computer Club model
I have these kinds of discusions a lot nowadays, which is odd. If you’d asked me three years what I saw myself doing, “Talking about informal professional development” wouldn’t have been a top answer. Yet, in my current role at PEM, it has come to occupy a lot my energy and thought. With the prolifereation of tools and platforms, it’s not surprising that most museum staff don’t feel able to make informed chices about how they might use them, or even whether to use them at all. For those us charged with using those platforms and tools to reach our museums’ audiences, and engage new ones, it makes for a neat dilemma. And one of the best ways I’ve seen to address it comes from the Imperial War Museum in London, where Carolyn Royston and Co. have started a low barrier-to-entry professional development program they call Computer Club. Read all about it here or check out this interview Suse Cairns did with Carolyn all about Computer Club.

Cool, or what? Image courtesy of Carolyn Royston

Here at PEM, we’ve taken that model and adapted it to fit our particular needs. We started with a specific social media emphasis, because we’d just launched a blog and there was an institutional imperiative to increase staff participation in PEM’s social media efforts. Since then, we’ve hosted a half dozen or so on topics like:

  • Social Media 101: What are social media and why does PEM care?
  • Our blog and blogging: What makes a good PEM blog post?
  • Twitter for Professionals
  • Facebook: How to interact with PEM on Facebook and spread the love
  • Digital Imaging: How to take better pictures with your phone

To say that there’s pent-up demand wouldbe a bit of an unerstatement. We routinely get 20-25 people from across the institution. And just like I saw in Baltimore, they came from across the museum, from entry-level to senior folks. Why isn’t everybody doing this? Developing and normalizing this kind of highly targeted peer-to-peer learning has great potential both to spread skills and energize staff. Microcredentialing or badging systems are hot stuff these days, and I’ve always been a bit of skeptic until now because I couldn’t see how you make the value case for it. In this case, though, it’s dead easy to see. Want to build a culture of learning? Here’s a way that’s low-overhead, staff-driven, and responsive to your needs. With just a little bit of input from your HR department, you could make a program where learners get recognized for attending, and those microcredentials figure into the annual review process. Must work on that…

The Drinking Continues
When I suggested having a Drinking About Museums: MW edition, some wag replied “Isn’t a conference just one big #drinkingaboutmuseums? Well, yes. Certainly, DAM started off as a desire to capture some of that “late night at the conference bar” magic. But it has also become more than that. It’s a bona fide international phenomenon, with chapters popping up all over, getting together, and sharing their passion for museums, meeting new colleagues and joining a larger, global community. Whether you’re a student thinknig about a museum career, someone working in a GLAM, or just a museum lover, it’s a great way to connect, learn, and grow.

So, we had an event at MW and  got a bunch of about 30 DAM movers and shakers together. It was enormously gratifying to see all these folks who had started their own groups all in one place. The Godfather of DAM, Mr. Koven J. Smith, came up to me in the middle of it and said his typically understated way, “Look at this. We made something good.” And I have to agree.

 

DAM:MW Hall of Fame. There’s Koven and me in the back row, as is mete and right.

If you haven’t been to one, go. And if there isn’t one in your town, start one. And if you’re going to AAM2014, there’ll be *two* DAMs, so be warned!

The Italian Jobs – Sveglia Museo and Invasioni Digitali
Innovation happens all over, and this year, Italy is a hotbed of grassroots efforts to increase Italian museums’ connections to audiences using social media. Sveglia Museo is “an experimental project to help Italian museums achieve a better communication with their audience: the goal is to get them talking and tweeting with each other. The idea is to ask for advice from digital communication managers of foreign museums in order to “wake up” Italian museums, online and on social networks.” They’ve already generated a tremendous amount of buzz online, both for their ambition (getting government agencies with no budgets to take on more work is no mean feat!) and for their clever appeal to a global community of practice to help them. I wish them well, and so should you. It’s a worthy model.

The other Italian initiative is Invasioni Digitali or “Digital Invasions” Digital Invasions “are mobs of people who support museums and cultural heritage by ‘invading’ them and then documenting the experience on blogs and social media. Each ‘invasion’ is meant to create new forms of conversation about arts and culture, and to transform the cultural heritage into something that is ‘open, welcoming and innovative.'”  It’s like Flash Mobs meet Drinking About Museums, with a service component. Genius stuff… If you know a museum or heritage site that’s laboring in obscurity, or could benefit from an injection of interest from a digitally savvy audience, then this model is for you.  At our last Museums Showoff,  one of the speakers gave an impassioned defense of her museum nd ended with an open invitation to come visit. Maybe instead of a visit, an invasion is needed!

Stefania (l) and Marianna (r) with PEM Press Officer and blogstress Dinah Cardin and me

And while I’m (profesionally) crushing on the Italian initiatives, they are by no means the only ones out there. Mar Dixon has launched an impressive number of Twitter campaigns around museum themes like #MuseumWeek and #MuseumSelfie. In fact, some enterprising soul could probably compile a Tumblr of these kinds of grassroots inititives and win the undying affection of museum social media managers the world over, myself included. Hint, hint…

The last part of this series will touch on issues that came up in my sessions around evaluation and access, and the maturation of the field.