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Another forum on museums and civic discourse

Today subscribers to the listserv H-PUBLIC received the following invitation. Read all the way to the end to see how you can join in what proves to be an interesting discussion!

FORUM: What difference can museums make by engaging the public in civic dialogue?

This is a second question around the Winter 2008 issue of The Public Historian journal. The issue explores the topic of “Sites of Conscience: Opening Historic Sites for Civic Dialogue.” Editor Randolph Bergstrom writes in his forward, “At sites in the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, museums are inviting the public into conversation about contemporary civic concerns, linking remembrance with current issues to affirm and build civic voice and critical democratic engagement.”

The Public Historian and H-Public would like to know what you think!

“What difference can a museum make by offering spaces for civic engagement and/or dialogue for addressing contemporary issues?”

Along with the guest editors, we are inviting commentary and conversation about the articles and ideas in this issue. We hope that H-Publicans will join in by:

* sending a message to H-Public ( Tell us whether you agree or disagree that museum can make a difference by offering spaces for civic engagement for addressing contemporary issues. Have you seen or can you see these types of discussions happening in your community? Share with us about examples from your experience. This is a question for everyone interested in public history – students
as well as professional practitioners!

* staying tuned for blog reports from the National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference in Louisville, Kentucky next week, where there will be a session devoted to discussing the special issue of The Public Historian and the questions it raises. (If you’re planning to be at the conference, the session is #27, held on Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m.)

Through the conference, the listserv, and the blog, we are hoping to create a more extended conversation around this stimulating collection of articles – so please feel free to join in! A link to the conference blog will go out to H-Public subscribers on each of the four days of the conference.


Visit the table of contents of the “Sites of Conscience” issue.


“Sites of Conscience: Opening Historic Sites for Civic Dialogue”

Sites of Conscience are historic places that foster public dialogue on pressing contemporary issues in historical perspective. This foreword to a collection of essays from members of the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience highlights diverse approaches to opening historic sites for civic dialogue. The collection explores the challenges sites around the world face to hosting public conversation on difficult subjects in their different political contexts, and some of the strategies they have used to address those challenges. The foreword reflects on the perspectives international examples provide for U.S. museums that seek to serve as Sites of Conscience.

Liz Sevcenko and Maggie Russell-Ciardi

In 1999, a group of historic site directors from around the world came together to explore how their museums could serve as new centers for democracy in action. Directors from the National Trust of Britain and the National Park Service in the United States shared their experience preserving sites like the Workhouse and the Martin Luther King National Historic Site–places that confronted the failures of their long-standing democracies, and how citizens fought to improve them. Others were activists who had only recently struggled to deliver their countries from violent repression, like directors of the District Six Museum in South Africa and Memoria Abierta in Argentina, and who believed that remembering sites of both abuse and resistance were critical in the transition to democracy. From these wildly different perspectives, the group emerged with a common commitment:

“We hold in common the belief that it is the obligation of historic sites to assist the public in drawing connections between the history of our sites and its contemporary implications. We view stimulating dialogue on pressing social issues and promoting democratic and humanitarian values as a primary function.”

With this statement, the diverse group challenged themselves and museums around the world to take responsibility for promoting public engagement in the contemporary civic issues that matter to them most– that is, promoting the democratic process. They called themselves the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience. Since that meeting, these and hundreds of other museums around the world have joined the Coalition’s ongoing dialogue about how to put its founding statement into practice.

To explore the role of historic sites in building democracy, it’s important to define the processes we think comprise it. In recent years, increasing numbers of institutions in the museum field in the United States have advanced the idea that museums should serve as centers for “civic dialogue” and “civic engagement.” There is no consensus about what these terms mean, but several institutions have put forth their own definitions and issued challenges to the field to recognize the importance of these kinds of initiatives and explore what they can represent in various local contexts…

(You can read the full text of the Foreword online.)

If you’re not a member of H-PUBLIC, you can join through the H-PUBLIC home page. Simply click “Subscribe!” at the top of the left-hand column.

Museums and Civic Discourse

Last Saturday, I was fortunate to attend the “Museums and Civic Discourse” symposium at John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley. The room was packed with some West Coast and national leaders in the field–really some amazing women there (and a few men, too). The symposium sought to imagine what civic discourse in museums might look like, as well as brainstorm ways that museums can advance civic discourse beyond their walls. The day also was a celebration of the publication of the museums and civic discourse issue of Museums and Social Issues.

Some of the issues the symposium raised for me:

  • What do spaces of civic engagement look like, and with what kinds of institutions should we be collaborating?
  • What do museum civic engagement and advocacy look like in an age of culture wars?
  • How do we build conversations and discussions into civic discourse?
  • How can I get more museum folks on board with social media?

Note: Some of what I write about below was raised during the symposium, while some of it came to me afterward; the details of who said what are now mixed up in my mind. Apologies if I’m not always giving credit where it’s due–corrections are welcome.

What do spaces of civic engagement look like, and with what kinds of institutions should we be collaborating?

These spaces are unlikely to look like traditional exhibits, especially those you see in older natural history and art institutions (first-generation museums) and push-button exhibitions (second-generation museums). They may look something like science centers or children’s museums (third-generation museums). These spaces must allow for interactivity, encourage curiosity, reward discovery, and facilitate problem solving.

These places don’t necessarily look like auditoriums, although a panel/forum discussion might begin in an auditorium and move into spaces more conducive for small-group, face-to-face discussion.

These places are comfortable, familiar and/or stimulating, and, in a best-case scenario, free of charge for community members to access. They will be on public transportation routes as well as have plenty of parking for cars and/or bikes. In other words, we want to remove any psychological hurdles to attendance: “It’s too hard to find parking in that part of town,” “I don’t have a car to get there,” “I can’t afford that museum’s admission fee,” etc.

For more information on what these spaces should look like, check out Herman Miller’s research on “places to teach, learn, and grow.” The company lists six must-haves for up-to-date learning spaces:

These spaces may also be outside of museum buildings completely–for example science cafés, where a “casual meeting place, plain language, and inclusive conversation create a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere for people with no science background.”

We may find ourselves reaching out to constituencies we never really imagined. Do you run a science museum? Do you have an exhibit on AIDS or STDs? Have you reached out to the local African-American church? AIDS is a major concern in African-American communities, and data published this week shows that STDs are a growing epidemic among African-American teen girls. Years ago, when I was a reporter in Long Beach, California, I remember a nurse telling me about the presentations she did in African-American churches about HIV transmission and AIDS treatment options. Why shouldn’t science museums, or museums focused on African-American culture and community, get involved in this kind of advocacy?

It’s also possible, of course, to encourage conversations within museum spaces–and then partner with organizations (like churches) to continue the conversations off-site. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a faux diner where visitors can “order” seafood and get immediate feedback on their choices via video. Visitors can also tuck the aquarium’s tiny brochures about sustainable seafood into their wallets so they know what not to order the next time they’re dining out. The little cards are useful, but when I purge my wallet, I’m likely to toss it because my wallet is already thick enough. So how then does an institution continue to reinforce a message about sustainable eating? Institutions wanting to spread information about sustainable eating should partner with local supermarkets to get the word out to community members. For example, my local supermarket chain, Nugget Market, labels the fish at their butcher counters with red, yellow, or green labels to indicate each fish’s sustainability as seafood. Why not go further? Encourage the supermarket to label all its meats and dairy products in that manner: Which product manufacturing processes are the most polluting? Which kinds of food production consume the greatest number of resources? Extend this labeling to fruits and vegetables, and you’ll even reach vegetarians like me. :)

Depending on your particular issue or institutional mission, partnerships (both traditionally likely and unlikely) might include working with:

  • churches
  • supermarkets
  • malls
  • managers of indoor public spaces (such as those found throughout San Francisco)
  • public transit
  • local bands and symphony groups
  • local environmental justice activists
  • commercial entities related to your mission/issue (e.g. partnering with a local utility on an environmentally-themed forum and campaign)
  • universities
  • school districts (think beyond the obvious: try to reach new audiences on kindergarten enrollment days, or at open house and back to school night)
  • pet stores
  • radio stations
  • restaurants and bars (think themed “science pub quiz” with prizes)
  • furniture dealers (get them to donate flexible furniture for your new stimulating discursive spaces)
  • local sports franchises
  • . . .and so many more organizations

We also need to ask ourselves what it is about our museum spaces that makes visitors uncomfortable–what is keeping them from speaking to other visitors? There’s not a whole lot we can do right away with American cultural mores that keep strangers from speaking freely with one another, but we can try to chip away at visitor reticence by ensuring all visitors feel relatively at ease. (Of course, we can also put visitors ill at ease in order to get them talking–I’m thinking in particular of the “Colored” or “Whites Only” doorways through which visitors must pass in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Field to Factory exhibition.)

This process of understanding what puts visitors at ease involves not only surveying visitors and undertaking observations of visitor behavior, but also placing ourselves in spaces that make us uncomfortable. For example, a few years back, I visited the Trinity Broadcasting Network headquarters in Southern California. My husband, cousin, and I had decided to visit on the day after Christmas because we’d always wondered what was going on in that building with the big “Happy Birthday Jesus!” sign on the roof. From the moment we entered, there was so much about the decor, the commercial spaces, and all kinds of details about the building that made us uncomfortable to be present in that space; there was no way we were going to engage with other visitors. What was supposed to convey to TBN’s intended audience a lesson about the gospel of wealth (the gilded banisters, the paintings and sculptures that adorned the place) only spoke to us of corruption, of money that was sent by working-class folks to pay for
“ministries” but that instead was invested in garish buildings.

What details of your museum might visitors find off-putting if not suspicious? Again, the point is not to make your visitors feel entirely comfortable–some of the best learning takes place because we are uncomfortable–but rather to identify those points where you can remove obstacles to engagement for visitors who are not in your core constituency.

What do museum civic engagement and advocacy look like in an age of culture wars?

One person participating in the final large-group discussion expressed her concern that she doesn’t want to dialogue in her scientific institution with creationists or racists. Nina Simon paraphrases this comment as “I don’t want my institution to be a place where it is safe for THOSE people to air THEIR beliefs.” I think Nina is spot-on. While I can in some ways understand the impulses from which this speaker’s sentiment arises, I also feel we can’t bar the doors of our institutions from “those people.” Can we moderate the discussion a bit? Certainly. Can we discourage racism and ignorance? Yes–and serving as a forum for civic discourse is one way of discouraging such beliefs and practices.

That said, we have to pick our battles. Museums, of course, are perfectly within their rights to serve as forums for discourse only on subjects that fall squarely within the museum’s mission. And sometimes it is difficult–if not impossible–to talk with people who refuse to open their minds to other possibilities. But we can’t lump all “those people” together into one camp, because we need to take a different approach to discourse with each of them. For example, take talking with creationists or racists. My experience in talking with creationists is that they feel they have enough pseudoscientific research to support their claims–or, rather, to refute the claims of evolutionary biologists, and thus can be difficult to engage in meaningful, mind-changing conversations. Racists, on the other hand–and here I’m talking about your everyday ignorant racist, not people who participate in organized hate groups–may not have thought through why they hold the opinions they do, or they may express particular beliefs they feel are grounded in reality but which are actually easily refuted by more level-headed folks.

Sometimes we need to come at an issue from an alternative angle, perhaps by conversing at the intersection of two issues. Take creationism and racism, for example. In talking with a creationist, I might push her to more fully explain her beliefs, and in so doing, I might discover that some of what she believes is rooted in racism. (See this interesting article on how both evolution and creationism have been used to promote racist beliefs and behaviors.) Would I accuse her outright of being a racist? No. But in leading the conversation down that path, she might better understand why–beyond its obvious false statements of “fact”–I find her belief system troubling. And maybe that would make her reconsider her position. (My guess is also that some of your harder-core racists–e.g. white Christian nationalists–are also creationists, which raises a whole bunch of other issues.)

But just because these conversations could take place doesn’t necessarily mean museums need to be facilitating them. And certainly not all museum staff participating (as institutional representatives or more casually on their own time) in such discourses are keen enough facilitators to handle such hot-button issues.

I believe that museums can and should take on such issues. Too often these complex issues become black-and-white in the public eye. Evolution vs. intelligent design. Racism vs. antiracism. When these issues are presented as dichotomies, we feel compelled to pick a side and fight for it tooth and nail. But if we ask new (or at least new-to-our-audience) questions that don’t let people settle comfortably on one side of another, then we open up avenues for discourse. I can see a museum hosting a forum with the title “Is creationism racist? Is evolution?” And the answer to both of those is “at times, deployed in certain ways, yes.” But it can be deeply discomfiting to hear that your side of an issue has been compromised morally or ethically. It forces you situate yourself more thoughtfully. You might, over the course of an evening, move from “I believe evolution is the only way to explain life on earth” to “I believe evolution is an excellent explanatory mechanism for life on earth, but we need to be careful how we explain its workings because there are huge cultural ramifications to this discussion, especially concerning human evolution.”

I think museums also can provide facilitation to these discussions–we can help people rediscover (or learn for the first time) how to have conversations, how to be listeners and be listened to, how to talk civilly with people whose opinions they find distasteful or offensive. After all, haven’t we already been challenging and correcting people’s beliefs through exhibit signage and interactives? Let’s make those challenges collective and connective by transforming them into civic discourse.

How do we build conversations and discussions into civic discourse?

I guess I’m not sure how much museums can tackle “civic discourse” head on, other than by providing space and hosting/modeling good discussions. We need to provide inspiration and space for people to start the conversations that will snowball into larger civic discourse. At the symposium on Saturday there was some discussion at lunch as to what constitutes discourse vs. discussion vs. conversation. I don’t have an answer (yet), but we can’t wait for museums to figure that out before we dive into the realm of civic discourse.

Here are some sample forums I think museums might host in a variety of formats and spaces (online and off), as well as some ideas for community-based research projects museums might facilitate, particularly if they have scientists on staff:

  • What would we do as a community if our city ran out of oil? What contingencies should we put in place? For what actions should we be lobbying local and regional government bodies? (Thanks to Nina Simon for her references to the serious game World without Oil.)
  • In an era of high-stakes testing, how can we be sure our children discover the joy of learning?
  • Do we redevelop our downtown area for the wealthier people we hope will live there once construction is finished, or for the working-class people who already live there? For example, at the redeveloped mall, do we put in a supermarket (since there’s no grocery store downtown) and a Target or do we anchor the mall with Nordstorm and Saks?
  • What’s the best neighborhood in which to site a much-needed but unattractive and potentially polluting industrial process/plant?
  • Why are asthma rates rising among children in our urban area, and how do we remediate this trend?
  • What are the best ways–in terms of ease, feasibility, and cost–to reduce our city’s carbon footprint by x thousand/hundred thousand/million tons? (What are we willing to give up? What big and little changes are we ready to make? What are we willing to pay? And what are our next steps?)
  • Where does our community get its food? Is this the most sustainable and widely affordable method of procuring sustenance?

When does conversation become elevated to the level of discourse? When it engages diverse constituencies in a common discussion about important issues with the goal of defining specific steps to take as community members or recommendations to make to community leaders.

How can I get more museum folks on board with social media?

What’s your institution’s plan for engaging visitors online? Now that the InterConnections Report has concluded that “Internet users are more likely than non-users to visit museums and public libraries and to visit them more frequently, particularly in the case of museums” (22), there’s no excuse for not engaging with Internet users because these netizens are already more likely to visit a museum than people who don’t use the Internet. Interesting content online–content to which visitors can contribute as well as learn–is only going to help your museum raise its visitor numbers and its profile in your community.

What’s keeping your museum staff from embracing key online social networking platforms? Technophobia? Lack of conviction that these tools work? A dearth of time? My personal experiences tell me that even a small, focused investment of time into social media provides a good rate of return.

I think it’s very important not to overlook online spaces when we’re thinking about how to encourage and facilitate discourse. Social media, when used properly and in partnership with key influencers, can be exceptionally powerful in all kinds of ways. I’ll write more soon on how to identify appropriate social media platforms for achieving different institutional goals, how to develop a social media campaign, and how to measure and evaluate the results of that campaign.

On museum internships

A few months back, in my role as an assistant professor of public history, I took over the coordination of the internship program for my academic department.  I’m learning very quickly why it merits a course release or two; the job calls on me to play matchmaker between internship supervisors and interns, check in with all parties occasionally, request reports from the students, and, in consultation with supervisors, assign grades at the end of the semester.

While I don’t think it’s particularly helpful in building my tenure case, it is worthwhile and important work, for three primary reasons: internships increase the skills and cultural savvy of emerging museum professionals, facilitate collaboration across institutions and organizations, and democratize knowledge.

Increasing the skills and cultural savvy of emerging professionals

Traditionally, both interns and mentors have recognized skills enhancement as the most obvious benefit of internships. Classroom learning only goes so far; to understand actual museum practice, one has to write an actual grant proposal, develop an exhibit under real resource constraints, coordinate the myriad details of family night programs, or stabilize crumbling ephemera.

Internships, however, offer additional benefits to the broader museum field.

Internships can dissuade as well as inspire. They can help to “weed out” students who might initially be enthusiastic about one aspect of museology (or the field more generally) but who really, for whatever reason, don’t have the interest in or aptitude for a particular kind of work. Both interns and mentors have frequently lauded this aspect of internships to me, as it can save both emerging professionals and institutions numerous headaches and heartaches.

When planned well by the hosting institutions, internships also can serve as an introduction to the culture of the field. The best interns remain aware of the conversations going on around them, and the most thoughtful institutions allow them to listen in on discussions that take place in conference rooms, hallways, and the exhibit floor. This entry into museum culture can be managed deliberately, but more likely it will be accomplished through osmosis, with the intern picking up on the major challenges facing the museum and the field, the relationship of visitor demographics to exhibition content and programming, the typical working environment of a museum, staff and administrative perspectives on donors and foundations, and the expectations the public has of nonprofit service.

Facilitating collaboration

Internships can allow busy staff to collaborate through a joint internship. The vast majority of interns require a good deal of instruction and supervision in the first weeks or months. Organizations can share this commitment of time and resources by co-mentoring an intern. So, for example, today I met with the director of a desperately understaffed historical museum complex, and I proposed working together on a grant-writing internship.  I’ve been wanting to dig into local museum collections, both for my own research and to put together an exhibit. A grant-writing intern could work with both me and the museum to research grant opportunities for local history research, exhibition development, and digital dissemination. Perhaps I’ll get some funding for a student assistant to help with a digital humanities project arising from the research, and the museum could get funds for artifact conservation. The grant-writing intern will hone her research skills, learn about humanities funding, and develop her writing in a new genre.

Think about all the variations in which one mentor could take the lead on content knowledge and the other on skill development! Here are some possibilities:

  • University, archives, and museum: Under partial supervision from a professor, a graduate student could undertake archival research on the Chinese experience in late nineteenth-century California, then learn about artifact conservation by working with a museum’s collection of Chinese domestic artifacts from that era and place.
  • Archives and museum: Two interns work on the same project, one at the archives and one at the museum, with the goal of producing a vitrine-sized exhibit showcasing some aspect of the Chinese experience in California.
  • Museum and graphic design agency: An intern receives supervision in part from the curator who has just finished writing the first draft of the labels for an exhibition of the Chinese experience in California. The curator pulls from the collection ephemera that exemplify the aesthetic of 1890s San Francisco. The intern works with the agency’s art director to capture this aesthetic while designing posters, a brochure, and a digital or print exhibition catalog.

Joint internships may allow for surprising discoveries. If not planned carefully, a joint internship could become contentious, with the intern confusing conflicting policies and practices between the two organizations. However, if the mentors articulate expectations at the outset, each organization could learn much from the other. If we approach the internship with the idea that museums can be think tanks, and we give an exceptional intern sufficient space for intellectual reflection and discussion with mentors and others in the organization, there are countless opportunities for new syntheses of philosophy and practice.

For example, imagine a collaboration between a history museum and a science center.  Many smaller history museums have not yet integrated hands-on or participatory activities into their exhibits, often because they cannot allow visitors to handle artifacts and their exhibition budgets can’t support the production of replicas. (And even then, replicas might not be particularly interactive.) At the same time, many visitors have come to expect interactive elements in museums, particularly if they have brought children to the museum. The intern might be asked to answer the question, “How can our history museum’s next exhibition integrate meaningful, interactive and participatory elements that conform to current best practices in informal learning?” Perhaps the city or a neighboring town has a science center or children’s museum that boasts an exhibit developer or education specialist who has become an expert at crafting ingenius interactives on a small budget. The science center could provide the intern with background on the pedagogy of third-generation science centers, which the intern could then use to inform an exhibit showcasing the museum’s collection of medical technologies and tools. The science center could later borrow some of the museum’s historic tools to provide some historical context to its own exhibit on the human body.

Democratizing knowledge through internships

I have written elsewhere how one of my core beliefs is that knowledge should be democratized—that is, it ought to be accessible to, and usable by, a broad public audience. Internships can play a major role in the democratization of knowledge by and through an institution. Let’s look at how this process works for both interns and institutions.

Internship programs can provide training that is unavailable in formal educational settings. This is particularly true if your interns live in a region, like mine, where there aren’t many museum studies programs. According to the Smithsonian’s Museum Studies Training Directory, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are completely devoid of such programs; Nevada offers one undergrad minor in museum studies; and Utah has one certificate in museum practice. My own institution offers a Master’s of Applied Historical Research, but it’s definitely more public history than museum studies. If a student geographically bound to Idaho by family or work is interested in curatorial practice, and especially artifact conservation, she’s going to have a difficult time finding hands-on training. The Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that

There are only a few graduate programs in museum conservation techniques in the United States. Competition for entry to these programs is keen; to qualify, a student must have a background in chemistry, archaeology or studio art, and art history, as well as work experience. For some programs, knowledge of a foreign language also is helpful.

As far as I know, there is only one curator in the largest metropolitan area in my state—and possibly in the entire state—with up-to-date skills in conserving historical artifacts; she learned on the job in part from someone who has now retired, and in part through reading widely and asking questions of far-flung colleagues. She bolstered her skills with an online certificate program from an East Coast university. Fortunately for me and our students, she is a generous soul. Her knowledge, and her willingness to mentor interns, makes it possible for interns moored to Idaho to learn crucial curatorial skills.

Internship programs can give museums even greater insight into their communities. Let’s face it: no matter how much a museum engages with its community, there’s always some demographic that has not yet reached audience saturation—or perhaps it lacks any representation within the museum’s exhibitions and programs at all.  Accordingly, when we’re talking about democratizing knowledge about museums, as well as about the knowledge contained within museums, intern diversity becomes particularly beneficial. In my own community of Boise, this might mean looking beyond the typical interns—largely white, middle- and upper-working-class class students—to, say, the community of refugees, as the city is a refugee resettlement site. Think:

  • How might starting a high school intern or Explainer-style program that enthusiastically encourages the participation of refugees from, say, Bhutan, Iraq, Burundi, and Somalia enrich the museum’s understanding of its constituent communities?
  • How might these young people benefit from connecting with a longstanding community institution that showcases local art, history, and culture?
  • How might these students be a bridge to communities that are otherwise difficult for museums to reach?
  • How might they facilitate the museum’s acquisition of artifacts and media that document the lifeways of Idaho’s newest residents?
  • How might they help the museum translate its exhibition content into additional languages?
  • How might their communities benefit from the intercultural civic discourse that museums have become so good at facilitating over the past decade?

Internship programs can push mentors to learn new skills alongside their interns. Encouraging an intern to read in depth about the latest developments in one aspect of the field, and then discussing the intern’s findings, can expand mentors’ own understanding. Interns can help mentors build not only their knowledge, but their skills. Assigning a largely self-directed intern to create an online exhibition using Omeka; to make an argument for and sketch of the organization of a new visitor-tracking database; or to program a browser-based mobile app can be an opportunity for supervisors to stretch their own technological comfort zone.

And you?

What innovative or interesting internships have you observed or participated in? What made them work well?


Want help with your intern program or professional development plans? I can help.

Taking Risks in Museums

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Think back to a time when you took a risk that succeeded. Now reflect on a time when you tried something and it bombed. What did you or others do differently in the first instance and the second? How did you recover from your failure in the second instance, and what would you do differently if you had another chance?

These are some of the questions posed to participants at the Risk and Reality Helzel Symposium at John F. Kennedy University on Saturday. In the audience were people who have decades of expertise working for nonprofits or in education, as well as a large number of emerging museum professionals, many of them enrolled in JFKU’s graduate program in museum studies (where I teach part-time).

The symposium featured Robert Garfinkle of the Science Museum of Minnesota and Jonathan Katz of Cinnabar, with moderation by museum guru Gail Anderson.

Katz outlined his “Seven Rules of Risk”:

1. Pick your battles. Know your priorities.
2. Be prepared. Use scenario planning.
3. Get outside support.
4. Make decisions. Present the best option to decision-makers rather than three choices.
5. Defend your position and your people.
6. Get client buy-in. Make them think your ideas were actually their ideas.
7. It’s not personal.

For Katz, managing risk means being informed and decisive.

Robert Garfinkle clearly thought differently about risk. Garfinkle headed the team that designed the provocative but very well-received exhibition Race: Are We So Different? Garfinkle, who is white, talked at great length about the institutional, and sometimes personal, risks he faced in collaborating on Race. Among these is the whiteness of the museum’s staff, which may have led to the staff lacking credibility to talk about the social and cultural dimensions of race–as the staff would be speaking from a position of white privilege. For Garfinkle, then, managing risk means having conversations. In his case, it meant going to the communities being represented in the exhibition, listening to their concerns and ideas, and using those ideas responsibly without violating their trust.

Garfinkle said the museum knew it had succeeded if the exhibition was attacked from both sides of the political spectrum. If you take on big things, Garfinkle explained to the students present, you’re going to get attacked. And that, he added, is how you know you’re on the right track.

Near the end of the day, Anderson asked us to write down a personal definition of risk. Garfinkle’s talk, along with my own experiences in the university classroom, led me to define risk as an opportunity to change minds. I think most of the people in the room left the symposium feeling more confident about taking risks and speaking truth to power in large and small ways.

We also penned long lists of tools to help us manage risk on a personal level, in our institutions, and in the museum field. Among my favorites were mentoring, social media networking, confidants in other fields, time and space to retreat and reflect (in solitude or with others), diversifying the field, transparency within an institution, and engaging in civic discourse.

For more, check out Kristen Olson’s post and the comments it drew at the Western Museums Association blog.

Of course, we weren’t the first ones to have considered risk in museums–far from it. A couple weeks ago, UNESCO offered a workshop for museum professionals working in the war zone that is Afghanistan, and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions recently published a report on library, archive, and museum collaborations (PDF) with a special section on risk management.

Sarah Rhodes reports that Shelley Bernstein, chief of technology at the Brooklyn Museum recently emphasized the importance of taking risks in digital media.

The American Association of Museums also has published a resource page on how museums can “find calm in a crisis.” The page offers links to resources on job loss, downsizing, management in tough times, fundraising, and other relevant topics.

For an interesting perspective on the risks and rewards inherent in experimenting with museums, check out the writing of museum futurist Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums. Check out in particular her post Questioning Assumptions, which takes a look at some common beliefs about museums and the risks and rewards that might result from moving beyond them.

The AAM resource page and Merritt’s post form an interesting dialogue, asking what assumptions and beliefs we need to reassess in the midst of an economic crisis. What are our core values, and how much can we risk in the name of survival?

Is the current economic climate providing you with opportunities–or challenges–to take risks that you wouldn’t ordinarily take? How do you weigh personal risk against institutional risk?

What can museums learn from the decline of American newspapers?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Those of you who know me well know that my husband is an all-around, old-time, self-described “newspaperman.”  He’s done writing, editing, photography, graphic design, web design, telepimping (coordinating a newspaper’s classified-ad and voicemail-based dating service), and anything having to do with “putting the paper to bed”—that is, getting it to the printer.  And in fact, we met ten years ago when I was (briefly) a reporter and he was production manager of a thriving community newspaper.  So there’s a special place in my heart for the American newspaper, and especially the small, independent, scrappy community newspaper.

But there’s also a place in my heart for—and a good deal of my brain dedicated to—museums of all stripes.  And since both museums and newspapers are community institutions that aim to inform, advise, and entertain, there are some lessons—cautionary tales, really—museums can learn from the death spiral of newspapers.  Much of what I say here is basic business common sense, but the decline of the newspaper industry gives us an opportunity to check in with our institutions and brainstorm new opportunities.  Here, then, is my advice:

1. Even in a new media age, don’t water down your original product. For newspapers, the crumbling of their product began several years ago with newspapers trimming the width of their pages, and then the decline snowballed with fewer comic strips and stock listings, consolidation of sections (e.g. business with regional or metropolitan sections), then the removal of certain sections on some days of the week (e.g. no more features sections—bye-bye, Home & Garden—on Tuesdays).  It’s been a death spiral: advertising declined; printing and paper costs rose; newspapers decreased in breadth and depth (literally and metaphorically); people unsubscribed; advertisers saw smaller circulation numbers and pulled their ads; repeat cycle.  Now, whether this product needs to be delivered on paper is debatable, but newspapers needed to find a way to get their content—in whatever form—in front of people without decreasing its quantity or quality.  Don’t let the apparent value of your product decline, even if that product morphs into a new medium.  Remember, “rich media” doesn’t guarantee an enriching experience.

For museums, this means thinking not just about mission, but about what products exactly your primary audience enjoys.  Hands-on exhibits?  Outreach programs?  Tours of a garden or arboretum?  Classes?  Historical reenactment?  In an economic downturn, museum visitorship frequently increases.  Which of these programs will you expand, and how will you know which to increase?  What opportunities will people have to continue their experience and learning after their visit?  As you ask yourself what to build upon, consider this reflection on newspapers from the American Journalism Review:

One of the rules of thumb for coping with substitute technology is to narrow your focus to the area that is the least vulnerable to substitution. Michael Porter included it in his list of six strategies in his book “Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance.” The railroads survived the threat from trucks on Interstate highways and airlines by focusing on the one thing they could still do better: moving bulk cargo across long distances.

What service supplied by newspapers is the least vulnerable?

I still believe that a newspaper’s most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution, is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting about public affairs. This influence makes it more attractive to advertisers.

By news, I don’t mean stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts. The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don’t need new information so much as help in processing what’s already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.

Replace “newspapers” and “journalism” with “museums” and “exhibition development,” and you have some new food for thought.

2. Keep your product in front of your customers. Make “getting together” with your customers at regular intervals a habit. (For newspapers, this meant daily subscribers and the occasional Sunday-only subscribers.)  Make your product or service a sensory experience, and join it with others.  Newspaper readers heard the shifting of pages, felt the flutter of air on their faces as they flung a section open at arm’s length, felt ink dry out the skin on their fingertips, smelled that distinctive “newsprint” scent.  Many people associated newspapers with the taste of coffee or orange juice, the comfort of toast, the rocking of the train or subway, the feel of cold bare feet on the driveway.

How is your museum providing a sensory experience?  How are you going beyond vision and hearing as sources of input?  And with what do your visitors associate your museum—by which I mean things they can’t get from your website?  Think about the smell of redwood trees at the trailhead near your museum, the rush of adrenaline at the moment they first step from the Metro escalator onto the Washington, D.C. Mall to find themselves surrounded by Smithsonian museums, the surprisingly pleasing smell of tar once it’s recontextualized via the La Brea Tar Pits, the occasional gross-out factor of scientists dissecting or prepping oozing specimens in a lab within view of the exhibit floor.

If you do want more visitors to your web site, don’t just tell them what goes on at the museum by offering a calendar of events or a summary of exhibits and experiences.  Instead, share your collections.  Give visitors a taste and encourage them to come see the real thing.

3. If you’re a small museum, don’t aim to be too big.  Instead, embrace the local and hyperlocal. The smaller a geographic area your museum serves, the broader the swath of the population it can serve.  Children’s museums and science centers may need to serve several cities, and their clientele usually age out of their offerings.  Remember: your niche need not be demographic; it can be geographic.  A much smaller museum can focus on one city and surrounding towns, yet provide experiences for a more diverse demographic, including, for example, seniors and new moms whose kids aren’t yet old enough to enjoy the museum. Newspapers that have remained competitive serve all readers.  They haven’t just chased the young in hopes of cultivating a new generation of subscribers to the print edition.  In addition, the most successful newspapers had more female readers than male, even though they didn’t see themselves as targeting women consumers.

Is what’s on your exhibition floor of interest to your visitors because it’s generally interesting, or because it’s locally interesting?  Consider opportunities for furthering civic discourse.  If your town has for years been up in arms over what to do with traffic on one of its main thoroughfares, then your institution should be, depending on its type of museum:

  • creating exhibitions with information about traffic engineering and giving visitors opportunities to practice individual and collaborative decision-making.
  • telling the history of the street and how the surrounding neighborhoods have evolved, including collecting stories from current and former residents.
  • hosting public forums or town hall meetings about the street in question.
  • having an arts competition (with (donated) prize breakdowns by age bracket and a special section for professional planners and landscape architects) to craft a new vision of the street in whatever media makes sense (paint, pencil, model, multimedia).

4a. Consider equity of pay and opportunity. At the big newspapers, the investigative reporters and top columnists make a good salary.  Not so much at the smaller papers.  At the (very profitable) community newspaper where I worked in 1999, my starting salary as a journalist was $22,000—and I had an M.A. in English/writing and plenty of clips already to my name—and I didn’t get a day of vacation until I had worked there for a year, and then I only received 5 days each year.  We worked holidays and didn’t have a sick day policy—basically, you went home if you were throwing up in the storage area, er, newsroom.  Our contracts (illegally, I suppose) forbade us from discussing salaries, but I suspect the features editor, who had been there many years, didn’t quite make $40,000.  Mr. MB, who had years of experience but only a high-school education, made upwards of $50,000, and as production manager he received a bonus every time the paper went over a set number of pages because it meant he had to do extra work.  The reporters, who had to write stories to fill the space around the extra ads sold that week, didn’t get any additional pay on the many weeks the newspaper grew.  But you know who was really making buck?  The salespeople.  Some of the display ad folks and at least one of the classified people were rumored to be making six figures.  These folks were investing in additional real estate in Southern California.  Me, I was living with my parents.

Yes, I was the new kid on the block, but I’ve seen this inequity in the ratio of labor to pay in many newspapers.  It’s why young people don’t stick with reporting for community newspapers; they can’t afford it.  Why write articles about parking enforcement for the local paper when I can get another 8-5 job that pays far better, and then blog in the evenings and weekends about stuff I really care about?  No, I’m not writing hard-hitting investigative pieces, but nor was I doing so for my community paper.  So:

4b. If your museum has a lot of turnover in educators and other front-line personnel, ask why. Those kinds of jobs (I’ve had ’em) are repetitive and tend not to pay very well, so there’s a high rate of burnout.  If you can’t afford to pay your educators and other customer-service employees more, find other perks to give them, such as more flexible schedules, a wider choice of health insurance plans, or the opportunity to work on projects that stretch their knowledge and challenge them, such as writing exhibition labels, brainstorming possibilities for grants, and developing new programs.  Even though I didn’t get much of a bump in pay or resources when I moved from education to exhibit development, the new challenges (e.g. producing a hands-on, inquiry-based, 1,200 square-foot exhibit with a materials budget of $100) and opportunities (getting to work with new tools and think in different ways about audiences) meant I was happy to stay on staff.

Today I work with graduate students who have committed themselves to museum careers.  They’re required to work in museums prior to being accepted to the program, they work for museums while they’re in the program, and they get pretty good placements when they graduate.  But they’re entry- to mid-level museum staff in their 20s and 30s (and, less frequently, 40s and 50s and 60s), and they’re tired all. the. time.  They love the missions of their institutions, but they crave challenges beyond their day-to-day duties.  Give them a chance to impress you by dropping an unexpected, interesting challenge in their laps.  You may be repaid handsomely.  One of my students recently wrote to me asking how much credit she should ask for—and how she should ask for it—as the very large museum for which she works plagiarizes from her thesis in the process of revising its business model.  These young folks (by which I mean people my age! 😉 have HUGE ideas to contribute.  I remember being among young museum staffers tossing out really great ideas (IMHO) at staff meetings, only to see the institution take an opposite tack and fail in some significant, programmatic way.  This was particularly true when development people pulled together grant and foundation proposals without consulting front-line educators or program evaluators.

5a. Have multiple revenue streams. Craiglist and decimated classified advertising in most categories that had previously been published in newspapers: items for sale, job postings, people-seeking-people ads, etc.  Although admissions may rise slightly during a recession, economic depressions do make museums think hard about revenue beyond the gala fundraiser, the grant, and children’s birthday parties.  Look at your mission and see what products and services you can provide to your community—and beyond—that meet an unfulfilled need.

Find new streams of revenue instead.  I’ll elaborate on some of these in the next section.

5b. Beg, borrow, and steal alternative business models. Changing your business model doesn’t have to mean compromising your mission; it does mean being more flexible and creative in the ways you finance it.  And it doesn’t mean doing the obvious thing.  For example, many paid-subscription papers are considering moving to an online-only subscription- or advertising-based model, or to online articles supported by micropayments. Yet many of the newspapers that are best weathering the economic storm are actually free weekly, hyperlocal papers.  For example, the newspaper company where my husband and I met had two papers: one was delivered to doorsteps in a high-income zip code within a large city, and the other, offered on newsstands, provided news of interest to downtown politicos and businesspeople.  Advertisers in these publications have a very good idea of who’s reading these papers.

Building on these ideas of niche audiences:

  • Offer free admission to specific target audiences, sponsored (via ads in e-mails, flyers, and on site) by advertisers relevant to the specific audience. (Caution: I’ve seen display ads in senior newspapers.  They can be very depressing and prone to stereotyping.  Select your advertising partners carefully.)
  • If some of your staff have expertise they might offer others in your community, rent them out for a few hours at a time or by the small project at a higher-than-their-usual rate  to businesses, universities, and other nonprofits.  Chances are there’s someone on your staff who knows quite a bit about database management, grant writing, cultivating the lucrative family market, new media, or partnering with other organizations to increase revenue—all high-value skills that are in demand.
  • Organize niche conferences in a field related to your museum’s content or location. Bring in sponsors and charge admission. A hands-on children’s museum might host a conference—complete with keynote speakers and submitted panels—on any number of topics, including engaging gifted children in an era of high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind or making learning accessible, inside the museum and out, to children (or anyone else) with disabilities.  A community-facing art museum might put together a conference on art therapy, and a history museum with a newly discovered artifact related to Abraham Lincoln might host a symposium on Lincoln combined with a conference for Lincoln enthusiasts.  Thanks in part to web platforms that handle registration and billing, conferences don’t have to be a nightmare to organize, especially if everyone in your organization pitches in.  (Check out this testimonial about conferences from NewWest:  “Everything on the Website is free, but we have about 1,000 people who pay $150 or $300 or $500 a year for their NewWest experience. This experience comes through conferences and events, which have been a major revenue source and an excellent promotional vehicle for our site. The conferences are content-driven – programming a conference is in many ways very similar to editing a magazine – and thus we see it as part-and-parcel of the journalistic mission, not a distracting commercial add-on. If anything, people like conferences even more when they spend so much time interacting via a computer screen. Conference attendees are our loyal subscribers, and they pay a lot for our content.”)
  • Create children’s workbooks to accompany your exhibition, but make sure they’re stand-alone, too.  Offer them as paid downloads or in print versions in your museum store.  Many museums already create pre- and post-visit activities for teachers, so why not expand on these and offer them to visitors (and non-visitors!) instead?
  • Make your content available at services like CafePress and Zazzle.  I’ve seen a lot of cool material culture and ephemera I’d love to have printed onto a poster on high-quality paper like the premium posters created with UV-resistant archival inks printed on heavy paper.  Offer links directly from key artifacts to these services, and set up a storefront at each of these services as well.

6. Don’t ignore or dismiss the blogosphere. Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 is packed with fabulous ideas that I’m confident will drive museums over the next decade. Museum Audience Insight offers just what it promises–thoughtful insights on museum visitors. The informatics folks blogging at also point to new developments that can serve as inspiration or case studies for your own museum’s evolution.  PreservationNation keeps museum folks up to date with the latest developments in historic preservation. Signtific is another new source of inspiration on engagement and participation.

What are your thoughts?  What else can museums learn from the decline (or relative success) of newspapers?

The museum is not a classroom

This blog has gone too long without any new posts. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about museums–far from it. But I have been thinking about museums from outside museums, from affiliated–or potentially affiliated–institutions rather than as a practitioner within the museum field.

In my ideal job, I would muse about museums all day long, tinkering in the intersections of exhibits and education, of theory and visits. And I’m very fortunate in that for part of each week for part of the year, I get to teach a history and theory class in a graduate museum studies program. Even better–this year, I’m overseeing the master’s theses, so I get to witness a dozen and a half students–some of them with lots of museum experience, some of them with a bit less–emerge into the profession, their first big academic project under their belts.

The rest of my time, I occupy myself as a teaching consultant at my local university–meaning I help faculty be more thoughtful about their teaching of undergraduates. My days could easily degenerate into a series of canned workshops on grading tests, using the university’s course management system, or lecturing. Such workshops typically draw few people. And at a university with thousands of instructors, it gets pretty disheartening when only three people show up to a workshop.

Instead, at our teaching resources center, we’re taking a different approach. While it is important that faculty know how to write a test (how else can you assess students in a course of 750?), it’s also important that they see one another as resources. Instead of weekly workshops, then, we’re trying something different. Here’s a sampling:

Every Friday during the academic year, between 15 and 30 faculty come to hear their peers talk about innovative strategies they’re trying out in their classrooms. An ecologist recently spoke about how he’s using technological tools to make his 500-student course feel smaller. A geologist talked of how she records four-minute-long videos revisiting a key concept from her lecture, then posts the videos on YouTube. A physician talked of how he uses online simulations in the continuing education of doctors throughout the state.

We publish a monthly newsletter, The Electronic Envelope, that brings faculty up-to-date with not only what we’re doing at the teaching resources center, but also alerts them to the hot issues in pedagogical discussions today. Many of our faculty are very much caught up in research agendas, and they don’t have time to keep up with the latest and greatest in undergraduate instructional practice. So we write short articles–almost like blog posts–on such issues as reading among Gen Y students, digital literacies of students and faculty, and strategies for improving visual literacy.

We offer quarterly More Thoughtful Teaching (MTT) symposia, each comprising three hours of presentations, workshops, and conversations. Each MTT takes a different form and supports a different strand of undergraduate instructional practice. Our most recent MTT focused, for example, on fear and anxiety among faculty and students. We had the director of the university’s student mental health center give a talk on student mental health, and then over lunch we sat at themed tables to discuss anxieties we and our students feel over such subjects as technology, copyright and intellectual property, and evaluating students and courses. The theme of the event was inspired by this passage anatomy and cell biology Professor Tom Marino of Temple University wrote in 2000:

“I knew why I liked the safe humanistic classroom now. It was the classroom I have always wanted but was afraid to try. Yes, I too was afraid, and fear was not only part of my students’ classroom it was part of my classroom too. So what could I do and how was I going to do it?

I was going to make my classroom a safe place. A place where students did not just learn about the facts but also learned about each other and the implications of the facts they were learning. It was important no for me to begin to create a place where my students felt free to explore and grow along with experiencing the subject they were studying. In my safe, humanistic classroom, my students will be learning as much about themselves and their relationship to the subject and their colleagues as they are about science facts. We will all be working together to learn.”

Why am I telling you all this? What does this have to do with museums?

Plenty. All of our activities are aimed at helping faculty interact with and help one another. We put forward questions–and the opportunity to ask questions–and listen and moderate as faculty answer those questions in ways that make sense to them depending on their disciplines and where they are in their careers. We’re providing a “third space”–not the home, not the classroom or lab or office–where faculty can exchange ideas about teaching–where they can learn to take risks that will likely improve their instruction. If we can reach even 100 faculty members each year–and we are in contact with far more instructors than that–we can impact the lives of thousands of undergraduates, as well as graduate students who have these faculty as mentors.

Similarly, the best museums–through exhibits, outreach, and other educational programs–seek to meet people where they are, and help them take the next steps on their journey toward making their communities a better place. This gets back to the post on museums and civic discourse I wrote back in March. Funding issues aside, many museums are ideally positioned to serve as these “third places” where people can be changed and be inspired to effect change in their communities.

I spent a couple years working for a small science center, first as an educational outreach specialist and then as an exhibition developer. In both roles I was called upon to tailor our exhibits and lessons to meet the needs of classroom teachers–that is, I needed to make explicit in the appendices of our teacher guides exactly which of the state’s science standards our programs met for each grade level. The science center’s assumption, then, was not only that classroom teachers needed help meeting the standards because they didn’t have the temporal and financial resources to teach these subjects in their own classrooms (which was true), but also that the state’s standards of scientific literacy by grade level made sense.

Such an assumption troubles me. Yes, Americans in particular could benefit from supplemental learning opportunities that boost their scientific and historical literacies. That said, should we let the state dictate the content of our exhibitions and education programs? I’m considerably less interested in making sure that a fourth grader understands the basics of electricity and magnetism and can build a simple compass than I am in getting that fourth grader to think through the hard choices we have to make about the sources–coal, wind, petroleum, solar, geothermal–of the electricity that powers her home. I’m more interested in helping a seventh grader and her parents understand why it’s not safe for a huge school bus depot to be sited in their neighborhood–and helping them combat rising rates of asthma among urban children–than I am in having that same girl understand the finer details of how the cardiovascular system functions.

Let the schools teach students to make compasses and diagram bronchioles. Our job as museum professionals is to provide the learning that students frequently can’t get in schools because of conservative school boards, high-stakes standardized testing, or for myriad other reasons.

But to get to the community–to those youth and adults most in need of this kind of advocacy and information–museums need to partner with institutions they don’t normally court. In my previous post on civic discourse, I mentioned supermarkets as one space for advocacy about foodways. But there are plenty of other spaces as well.

For example, say you’re doing an exhibition on AIDS or HIV, and you’ve seen these stats:

Black people have come to bear the greatest burden of AIDS in America. They represent 54 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases in America, 70 percent of the new cases among American youth are Black, and nearly 67 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases among American women are Black, and 43 percent of the new cases among men are Black. Most importantly, the majority of those still dying from AIDS in America, totaling more than 18,000 last year, were Black.

Why wouldn’t you partner with local African American churches as well as correctional facilities where African American men are incarcerated in numbers out of proportion to their representation in the United States? If you work for a science center, you can reach out to churches, even though in the U.S. we tend to see science and faith as oppositional.

Another example: Increasingly, Americans are growing food in community gardens, in abandoned lots, in their backyards, and even in their front yards. After more than five decades of waging war on weeds in their suburban front lawns, citizens are realizing that lawns can be an environmental nightmare. Add to that a dawning realization that our food sources are insecure, and you have an increased interest in urban agriculture. (Did you know there are people farming in the increasingly abandoned Detroit suburbs?) Whether your institution is dedicated to history, art, or science, there are myriad opportunities to connect with local communities around growing food: tours of local suburban homesteads, workshops on how to grow tomatoes–even on an apartment balcony in a hanging basket (and don’t forget to give away tomato plants), classes on how to compost, quasi-guerrilla gardening projects in underutilized public or private spaces, or contests to see who can grow the biggest pumpkin or the tallest sunflower in each neighborhood in your city or town. Set up a sustainable garden on your museum grounds, demonstrating how to safely recycle “gray water.” Write labels and install educational signage in your town’s communal gardens. Showcase how people historically conserved, transported, and used water and food in your region. Hire some local artists and horticulture experts to collaborate on an art garden, where the beauty is in the garden itself but perhaps also in sculptures made from “freecycled” objects.

The earth is dying, our educational systems are in many ways dysfunctional, and Americans’ health is declining. Museums can’t afford to be apolitical in the face of such challenges. We don’t need our exhibit labels to express radical political beliefs, but our actions and partnerships need a radical overhaul.

What museum-community partnerships do you find exciting and inspiring change in their regions?