Tag Archives: writing

“My dear Henry Junior”

On writing to the audience
In my years of working in museums I’ve gotten quite a few letters from members of the public looking for information. They run the gamut from students doing school projects to complaints and praise about exhibitions to downright strange. I’ve gotten letters from elderly shut-ins, prisoners, and folks looking for confirmation for their elaborately described theories about aliens in Egypt or the Knights Templar. I try to respond to all but the most bizarre, but especially those written by children. The impact of personal contact may impossible to quantify, but it keeps me grounded. You never know what acts are going to make a difference.

One of the other things I love about working in museums is the endlessly fascinating stuff you find in the course of research. I recently rediscovered one of my all time favorites. It is a letter written in 1920 by George A. Reisner, a famous Egyptologist to the nine year old son of a friend. And since the Universe seems to have a sense of humor, that young American boy who was interested in ancient Egypt was called Henry Junior, just like Indiana Jones.

Like Indy, he also didn’t go by his given name. Seventy years later, I had the honor of working with him briefly, mounting a retrospective exhibition of his career, a career as illustrious and as dangerous as Indy’s, though with fewer supernatural entanglements. I didn’t encounter this letter until after Henry Bradford Washburn, Jr., “Brad” to the world, had left the museum he had founded, some twenty years after he officially retired. I don’t know what effect it had on him and his career choices, but looking at his life’s work, it’s hard to imagine that this letter didn’t play a part in luring Brad out into the wide wild world.

So, without further ado,


 Harvard Camp,
Pyramids P.O., Cairo.
April 22, 1920.

My dear Henry Junior,

You will pardon my not answering your letter sooner.  It came to me at Gebel Barkal in the Sudan when I was struggling so hard to get “some curios” for the Boston Museum that I had to chuck all my private letters in a heap to be answered when I got back to the Pyramids Camp.  Day before yesterday, I arrived here after a four days trip from about a thousand miles up the Nile and after resting yesterday I am now clearing up the heap of letters I brought down with me.

I wish I could be of some help to you in your plans for making a pyramid; but antiquities nowadays are very hard to get and difficult to send to America.  Moreover I have none of my own.  You see there have been so many funny stories told about archaeologists who had private collections or who let their families have private collections and I hate so to be laughed at that I never dared own any antiquities.  However I will send a note of your needs to an American acquaintance of mine in Cairo and will ask him if he can help you. His name is Mr. Blanchard.  I do not know whether he can do anything, but if he can he will.

If you want to see what the pyramids look like from the doorway of my office where I am writing this note, you go to the Boston Museum, ask for Mr. Story and request him to show you the painting of my camp by Mr. J. Lindon Smith.  It is a very good picture indeed which Mr. Lindon Smith gave me for a present and it is now in my office in the museum in Boston.

I will tell you something about camels.  You sit on a very curious saddle made of crossed pieces of wood with a leather seat and a sheepskin with the wool on thrown over the whole.  It is not very comfortable.  There are no stirrups in real camel saddle but only a piece of wood like a chair leg which sticks up in front of the saddle and you wind one leg around that pi and put the other leg over it to hold it fast.  That keeps you from falling off.  You do not fall off when the camel trots but on a long journey when the camel only walks people go to sleep and then perhaps they wake up on the ground with a jolt.  A camel is not a very nice beast for he hates everybody and everything and never seems happy except when he is free of all harness and gingerly picking leaves off a thorn bush with his long leathery lips.  The Arabs say if you let a camel put his nose in your tent, he will bring the rest of himself in and lie down on your bed.  So beware of camels.  And when you draw one always make a line across his legs so that he can not come alive and annoy you. That is magic and magic as old as the pyramids.  I dare say your father will tell you there is no magic but then he has always lived in a house.  Nowadays people who live in houses never find out about magic.  That is why I do not like living in a house myself.  It is too lonely.

Give my salâms to your father,
Your sincerely,
[Signed] G. A. Reisner


The power of passion

"Portrait of George Andrew Reisner" by Unknown - The World's Work, 1922: Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

“Portrait of George Andrew Reisner” by Unknown – The World’s Work, 1922: Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

The letter is obviously written in response to a lost letter from Henry Junior asking about help on building his own pyramid, getting some trinkets, and camels. I am enchanted by Reisner’s response because he doesn’t try to push archaeology at the boy, but makes abundantly clear the joy of living a life doing what he relished. I love this letter so much! It is so obviously written for a child, but without any of the condescension you might expect to find, particularly from a busy, industrious field archaeologist like Reisner, who by 1920 had been Director of the Harvard/Museum of Fine Arts Expedition excavating in the great necropolis of Giza for twenty years, a position he held until his death in 1942.

The letter is a perfect example of the sentiment voiced in a quote often attributed to the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

It’s a little master class in communicating with a lay audience. In one page, the letter paints a moving portrait of the rigors of life in the field. It frames a thorny ethical issue in terms a nine year old could grasp without being polemic or doctrinaire. Reisner’s description of the Arab saying about camels explains without passing judgement or engaging in cultural comparison. And the end of the letter, where one of the pioneers of scientific field archaeology, a man noted for his intellectual rigor and carefulness, talks about magic and the loneliness of living in houses? It still kills me every time I read it. The colleagues at the MFA who first showed me the letter told me that Reisner was still remembered for the fact that though he was curator of Egyptology for decades he would go years without ever setting foot in the Museum, let alone his office.

I like to imagine the 53 year old Reisner, by then a stout, solid looking academic, sitting in his office in Giza. He’s smoking his pipe, thumping away on his manual typewriter, looking out the door at the enormous blocks at the base of the pyramid, trying to think of the right things to write. What will speak to a young boy? How to answer his request for trinkets in a way that impresses upon him the issues surrounding the antiquities trade? How to capture the joy of doing what you love without sounding too preachy (Henry Sr. was dean of the Episcopal Theological School)?

And he types, and puffs, and types more until he’s at the bottom of the page, signs it and adds it to the pile of outgoing correspondence. And probably forgets about it. And sometime later, a child in Cambridge who’s probably never seen a camel reads the letter. And keeps it, eventually giving it to the museum Reisner worked so long for. I don’t know if Henry Junior ever did go ask for Mr. Story to show him the painting of Harvard Camp, but I’d like to think he did, and saw the office with the empty desk and unused chair and remembered how people who lived in houses forgot about magic.

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.

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.

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.

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!

CODE│WORDS: An experiment in online discourse and publishing

by Ed Rodley

CC BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user djandyw.com

CC BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user djandyw.com

So, another long silence. February was the month of the endless head cold, and tons of stuff going on at Peabody Essex Museum.  The March shows will be opening soon! But, I haven’t been completely idle.  There have been secret plans afoot, which are finally cooked enough to announce. The big one is an experiment in online discourse and publishing that Rob Stein, Suse Cairns, and I have been discussing for a couple of months.  Let me tell you a bit about it, and see if it sounds interesting to you.

As you already know, 2013 was a pretty fruitful year for museum blog conversations. I was very grateful for both the quantity and quality of the discourse that happened, and how much of it seems to have influenced discourse in the broader museum community. Conference sessions and other publications continue to flow out of conversations that started as blog posts. By default, these tended to be reactionary, driven by current affairs and mass media. To step it up a notch for 2014, here’s an idea for an experiment that might do just that, and possibly pay further dividends down the road.

Suse Cairns (she of museum geek and Museopunks) and I have been talking about collaborating on a book for some time, once her PhD work wound down.  Both of us are interested in the intersection of the digital and museums and figured we’d find fertile ground there, but we hadn’t really gotten much further than that.  Late last year, Rob Stein wrote a comment to a Dallas newspaper article about visitors and smartphones that Suse and I both thought deserved a wider audience, so I asked him to consider reworking it as a guest post on my blog. However, Rob being Rob, he had a larger vision than just a one-off blog post.

“How about this instead?” he asked us,  “What if a group of museum blogs tackled a set of interrelated issues at the same time, with an eye toward some kind of publication being the final product? The process itself would be an interesting experiment, and the outcome – some hopefully substantial discourse and new knowledge – could be a real benefit to the field.” The basic idea was to strategically identify some interesting issues, divide up the issues among a group of collaborators, and  then tackle them sequentially, developing them simultaneously and collaboratively, so that we could heavily cross-link between them to create a more coherent narrative than the usual call and response of blogging. To this, we added the idea of using the blog posts *and* their associated commentary as the basis for revised essays that could be collected and published as an edited volume later. The conversations around the initial posts would thus become part of the final essays.

So we had a bunch of Google hangouts to hash out what this strange hybrid might look like and how it should function. Here’s what we came up with.

I stink at getting Hangout screenshots.

I stink at getting Hangout screenshots.

The project in a nutshell

CODE | WORDS as we originally conceived it comprises three primary phases:

  • Phase I is an open, online discussion via a shared Google document, where we set up the initial parameters for discussion, topics, and framework for the project.

  • Phase II will be a focussed blogging project in April-May 2014, which will initially be located on Medium and later archived. During a six-week period, 12 authors will post 2,000 word essays on related topics we chose in Phase I. You, the interested public, will discuss these essays and help the authors reflect on the issues they raise. In addition, a number of selected respondents will write 1,000 word responses to the initial essay. We think this approach will allow the project both depth and considered commentary, as well as responsiveness and the capacity to adapt the discussion to new questions that arise.

  • Finally, Phase III will (hopefully) include a published book that draws together the ideas from the blog posts and commentary, and develops them into formal, considered essays.

This will doubtless change somewhat, once we get down to sorting out the details with the authors, but at this point, this is what we think is going to happen.

How it came about:

We needed first and foremost to identify commentators/ thinkers willing and able to participate in a kinda strange-sounding nameless project. It was clear it needed a codename, because they make everything cooler! Thus was born CODE│WORDS : Technology and theory in the museum (working title). We wanted people who might challenge us and each other, and bring different ways of looking at things, whether from different countries, or different types of museums. We looked through our Twitter feeds and LinkedIn connections and quickly assembled a list of people we thought would bring a variety of interesting perspectives to the project, and we asked them. Stunningly enough, virtually everyone we asked said yes and the CODE | WORDS crew grew to include:

  • Seb Chan, Smithsonian Institution, USA  @sebchan
  • Susan Chun, Cultural Heritage Consulting, USA  @schun
  • Mike Edson, Smithsonian Institution, USA @mpedson
  • Beth Harris, Khan Academy, USA  @bethrharris
  • Courtney Johnston, Dowse Art Museum, NZ  @auchmill
  • Sarah Kenderdine, National Institute for Experimental Arts, COFA, UNSW, HK/AUS
  • Luis Marcelo Mendes, Museum Consultant, BR  @lumamendes
  • Mike Murawski, Portland Art Museum, USA  @murawski27
  • Nick Poole, Collections Trust, UK  @nickpoole1
  • John Russick, Chicago History Museum, USA
  • Merete Sanderhoff, Statens Museum for Kunst, DK @msanderhoff
  • Koven Smith, Kinetic Museums, USA @5easypieces
  • Thomas Soderqvist, Medical Musieon, DK @museionist
  • Beck Tench, Museum of Life and Science, USA @10ch
  • Marthe de Vette, Van Gogh Museum, NL
  • Bruce Wyman, Museum Consultant, USA  @bwyman
  • Steven Zucker, Khan Academy, USA  @drszucker

We wanted to collaboratively identify a series of topics around the impacts of digital technologies on museums that are most interesting to us, most useful for the development of the field, and/or most in need of poking at. That’s where we are right now, sorting out which topics to tackle.

Originally, we thought we’d use people’s existing blogs to make use of their built-in audiences, but for the sake of continuity and critical mass, we decided to try out Medium as our platform. Their commenting feature is kinda interesting in that it lets you pick a paragraph to attach your comment to, rather than just tacking it onto the end of a 2,000 word post. I’ve been meaning to give Medium a whirl for awhile, and am looking forward to seeing how it works out.

The next step in the coming weeks is to collaboratively work on topics in such a way that they naturally build on each other and can be heavily cross-linked. We do this already, but in a more reactionary manner. This experiment would be an opportunity to be more strategic about it, and hopefully more successful in building a larger hypernarrative.

We want to create an online community of interest on Medium around these essays and try to practice being as inclusive as possible. One of the benefits of Medium is that other authors can write their own posts and tag them so that they can hopefully join the scrum. Our current plan is to launch in April, and to release 12 essays over a six week period, to keep interest as high as possible and hopefully build a community of commentators who would respond to more than just one essay – or even contribute their own. That’s where you come in, gentle readers, so strap in and get ready for a few tons of museumy goodness to drop on you soon. Seriously, though. The success of this experiment depends on us engaging as broad as community as possible to join us in the work. Otherwise it’s just another edited volumeWe want you to share your expertise, your ideas, your experiences with us, and a global audience of interested peers. If you have never written a blog post before, or just want to dip your toe into a digital discussion, this could be a great way to start and test the waters.

Obviously, we want to document the process and results, if this model winds up having any utility. A logical place to disseminate finding will be at conferences. A bunch of us will be at Museums and the Web and AAM, and I’ll be trying to convene groups to hang out during the conferences. Stay tuned and let me know if you’ll be in Baltimore or Seattle. On our current timeline, we’ll be done with the initial essays by June, so MCN in November should be a good distance from which to look back on the process and reflect on lessons learned for the initial phases.

Once we have finished the initial round of essays, their authors will take them and the commentary they engendered, and use both to write new essays. Rob, Suse, and I will try to convince a publisher to release the resulting collection as a digital/physical publication. If you represent a publisher and want to talk more about CODE | WORDS, email me! 

If all goes well, then we’ll celebrate doing something cool and useful.

Once we’re ready to go, we’ll announce the URL and let the games begin! So stay tuned!

On interviews and editors

Sorry for a two-headed post, but two ideas were fighting with each other and got all tangled up in each other’s business. They are related, at least in my mind, so bear with me…


Today was a very exciting day! We are working on a project with the Dutch kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen, of Strandbeest fame. Strandbeest! And since Theo was in Salem for the first time, we set aside part of the day to interview him about his initial impressions.

Setting up in East India Marine Hall with Chip and Corbett.

Setting up in East India Marine Hall with Chip and Corbett.

The curator, AV producer, and I sat down to come up with a list of interview questions that I would ask, since I’d done it before. Interviewing is one of those skills I picked up along the way by working with some really great interviewers over the years. It’s not easy to both maintain a conversational poise with someone, while remaining completely silent. So much of the infromation we use to gauge how a conversation is going comes from those small grunts and nods, and “Mm hmm”s that signal “I’m paying attention!” and “Yes, I hear you.” to the person talking. You have to learn to use your smile and eyes and body language (without getting in the way of the camera) to add those cues.

It’s also hard to focus on all that and keep your mind focused on the big picture. When you’re coaxing answers out of an interviewee, you get into a flow, questions lead to new questions, and it’s easy wander into very interesting, irrelevant territory.  So our division of labor for the shoot consisted of me doing the talking, Chip doing the shooting, and Trevor, the curator, keeping watch that the big picture goals for his project were met. If he had questions, he could feed them to me, and I could ask Theo. I missed something important, he could add that to the list. I’ve worn both hats, sometimes at the same time, and I definitely prefer not doing both. There’s an interesting parallel between this and writing and editing.

… and Editors

"Every Word Counts", Susan TImberlake's shiny new blog

“Every Word Counts”, Susan TImberlake’s shiny new blog

My former colleague  and good friend Susan Timberlake has just started a blog on museum writing and interpretation called “Every Word Counts” which you should subscribe to if you do any kind of writing. Susan’s one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with in 20+ years, and even after five years I still miss not having her in arm’s reach when I have a problem trying to say what I actually mean. If you’ve never worked with a good editor I pity you.

When I’m in the process of writing something, I find it hard to pull myself back up out of the words and paragraphs and remember what was the point of it all. Editing my own work becomes really difficult, and doing something like writing exhibit labels, where every single word counts, it can be excruciating. Ah, but when there’s an editor! Such a difference! All the fudge words I used, the sentences that don’t quite lead from one to the next, and the awkward phrasings get caught and marked up. Her probing questions and relentless focus on clarity would invariably lift the quality of my writing out of the slough it would normally wallow in. I quoted Orwell in a post some time ago about writing, who claimed that all writers were by nature lazy. I am guilty of that, as Susan could doubtless tell you. But it’s hard, too, to be defendant, judge and jury of your own work. I know lots of people hate having their work in progress read by others, but it is so much more efficient when it comes to crafting tight, hard prose.

So, if you’re interested in writing in a museum context, I imagine you’ll find Susan’s blog a useful one. The posts currently up are a mixture of case studies, examples of rewrites, and insights on writing and interpretation. I look forward to seeing what else she comes up with!


Ice Cube & AFP: What makes for successful narrators?

We’re getting ready to host LACMA’s California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way”
exhibition in the Spring, so we’ve just begun talking about our interpretive strategies and exhibition design. As I started screening the videos that were produced for the exhibition I was reminded of one of my favorite museum advertising campaigns; Pacific Standard Time’s use of the rapper Ice Cube.

Ice Cube and the Eames

image linked from kootation.com

It’s more than just a nice ad. To appreciate it, you have to watch his celebration of Charles and Ray Eames. It’s only 2:16. Watch it now, OK?


In two minutes, he gives you a sense of his connection to California, art, architecture, and design. He drops the little bomb that he studied architectural drafting, so he knows something about the subject, and he’s able to draw parallels between what he does and what the Eames were doing, bringing in mashups and sampling. It’s authentic, it provides an interesting insight into both the Eames and Ice Cube, and it’s enjoyable as hell to watch. “That’s going green 1949 style, bitch! Believe it!” Priceless… Watch it again if you want.

Beth Lisick and Alexander Calder

After annoying everybody in the office with insistent calls to come into my office and watch it, I started trying to unpack why I liked it so much, and recalled an earlier piece that I think I like even more. To go along with a Calder show they did back in 2006, SFMOMA commissioned Bay Area spoken word artist Beth Lisick to do a short piece on Calder for their podcast series. This one’s short, too, and both a brilliant work in its own right and great, intimate take on Calder that isn’t didactic in the slightest, yet manages to work a lot of content into only a couple of minutes. Start at around 13:02 and enjoy an imagined evening with Beth Lisick and Alexander Calder.

Podcast with teeny, iPod-sized images
Podcast with just audio

I liked this so much the first time I heard it that I bugged a rather bemused Peter Samis to pleeeeaaaaase give a copy of that clip. It stayed in heavy rotation in the spoken word list on my iPod for several years. The concept, the writing, her delivery, even the background music, all worked to tell a tight little story, full of emotion. I can’t imagine what the first meeting must’ve been like when they read the script. “You’re ordering Chinese food and asking Alexander Calder if he wants to put on sweatpants? Umm….OK.” But it works so well to bring Calder to life for a couple of minutes, to humanize the great artist and turn him back into a person who might’ve come home one night, tired and hungry, and had someone waiting at home for him to tell her about his day.

After this segue, I realized that instead of being two things I liked, they might share some attributes that would be worth analyzing to see what common threads link them. I thought back to all the other celebrity media appearances I’d seen or heard that I liked, from breathy Jessica Tandy voiceovers, to Jeremy Irons’ smooth pronunciation of “Wenudjebauendjed” in an Egyptian archaeology show. And I only came up with one more example that really stood out as particularly inspired.

Amanda F**king Palmer (AFP) and Edgar Degas

from boston.com

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston did an exhibition called “Degas and the Nude” a couple of years ago, and had local singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer narrate the audiotour. It’s an inspired choice. Unfortunately, the MFA’s tours are only available on-site (boo!) for a rental fee so I can’t share any of the performance with you. I reviewed the exhibition back when it opened, and Palmer wrote about her take on being an audiotour narrator in a long post that is NSFW towards the end.

The choice of Palmer might seem odd at first blush. What does a punk cabaret singer have to share about a French Impressionist painter? Quite a lot, it turns out, because Palmer was an artist’s model in her student days, so she knows a lot about being nude in front of an artist, and the relationship between artist and subject. Take my word for it, it was a great tour.

So what do these three very different interlocutors do that works so well?

They bridge the gulf between audience and expert
One thing I think all three do an excellent job of doing, is placing the narrator in the position of helping the audience approach the subject. Unlike a subject matter expert like a curator, or another expert in the same domain, they stand in between the completely uninitiated and the cognoscenti, and provide a scaffold for us to learn more and move closer to the subject. Ice Cube knows a bit, but not a lot. He contrasts the Eames’ House with McMansions. Palmer isn’t a painter, but she modeled for them. Lisick places herself in the position of someone living with Calder who’s heard all the stories, but doesn’t seem to be part of the Surrealist world.

They bring interesting expertise of their own
Both Ice Cube and Amanda Palmer have actual credentials that allow them to have a different relationship to the subject matter than the audience. Ice Cube may have only studied architectural drafting for a short time, but it’s enough. When he’s talking about prefab wall sections and off-the-shelf windows, you can feel his appreciation for the Eames. When Palmer talks about nude modeling, you can almost hear the hours of standing still, and carry that into the paintings and imagine the process of their creation.

They personalize the subject matter
Back in the day when I worked on audiotours, one of the things I hated about using celebrity narrators was that they were being used for their name recognition, their voice and nothing else. Nothing of the performer came out in the performance. These three pieces all provide the audience with not only insight into the subject matter, but insight into the performer as well. It’s like two for the price of one!

They’re not just reading lines
It’s obvious, but it has to be said. I’ve been through a spate of unfortunate museum videos recently, where some well-meaning curator or director delivers lines like, “We’re very excited to welcome you to…” in a solemn monotone to kick off a video. Painful stuff. Successful narrators can deliver crappy lines and make them engaging. Crappy narrators can kill the best written script. A great narrator with a great script, like the ones above? Magic!

Got any other examples like these? Send ’em my way!