Make students curators

In response to a call for content for a book titled Hack(ing) School(ing), I wrote an article on how we should replace middle- and high-school history content standards with helping students to develop curatorial skills.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.  Check out the post at my more academic blog, The Clutter Museum.

Augmenting Museums and K-16

Last month, I kicked off a series of posts about museums and emerging technologies, and specifically the actual and potential interplay of technologies across educational sectors (K-12, museums, and higher ed)—and how museums might make the most of these intersections. In this post I’m going to consider augmented reality—a technology the New Media Consortium forecasts will be more widely adopted in museum education and interpretation within the next couple years, and within K-12 education within four to five years.

The NMC’s 2011 Horizon Report for museums explains augmented reality:

Augmented reality applications can either be marker- based, which means that the camera must perceive a specific visual cue in order for the software to call up the correct information, or markerless. Markerless applications use positional data, such as a mobile’s GPS and compass, or image recognition, where input to the camera is compared against a library of images to find a match. Markerless applications have wider applicability since they function anywhere without the need for special labeling or supplemental reference points. Layar (go.nmc.org/rfomi) has been a leader in this space with augmented reality applications for the Android and iPhone platforms. Layar Vision is a markerless application of AR that makes it easy to develop apps that can recognize real world objects and overlay information on top of them.

Augmented Reality is already in some museums

Museums are pretty far ahead of their K-16 colleagues in implementing this version of augmented reality. Some examples:

  • Archeoguide was developed ca. 2000 as an AR platform that can be deployed at any cultural heritage site.

Once downloaded, you need only point your phone at a targeted marker for [James] May to appear in all his three-dimensional glory on the screen of your smartphone or tablet. Your position in relation to the marker directly effects Mr. May’s. So, if you were to walk 180 degree around it, you would see the opposite of Mr. May’s body. Through nine installments in the gallery, he will talk to you and move just as if he were there in the flesh, your own diminutive downloadable docent!

You can download the markers for the exhibit (PDF) to watch May’s performance from anywhere in the world.

Possibilities

One of the most exciting museum AR projects to date didn’t originate with the museum itself. Rather, two artists made a guerrilla art show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, superimposing new artwork onto the walls of MoMA’s galleries through Layar, and even adding an additional virtual floor onto the museum to accommodate the new pieces.

The HistoryPin app draws on HistoryPin’s crowdsourced project to put historical photos on the map.  Using the app, you can superimpose historical photos onto the present-day landscape. History museums and archives could use this simple AR platform to share their collections. Each photo that your institution adds to the HistoryPin map includes a link to your institution’s HistoryPin “channel,” where you can talk up your museum, its exhibits, and its collections.  (Check out the U.S. National Archives channel for a great use of this platform.)  You can also create tours, as the National Archives has done with the civil rights-era March on Washington.  (You might also check out Tagwhat, a similar app that allows people to build “interactive stories” that include photos and video.)

These AR applications are targeted largely at adults, but that doesn’t mean we have to leave kids out of the fun.  I’m a fan of traditional sand-and-water tables, but this use of the Kinect platform at UC Davis is pretty damn cool.  Imagine all the ways science centers might deploy this technology–what about demonstrating the possible shifts of rivers, oceans, lakes, and terrain due to climate change?

Deploying the technology in your museum

I frequently hear museum administrators say they can’t adopt these technologies because their staff doesn’t have the expertise—or the time to develop that expertise.  And I get that–we’re all very busy trying to stay afloat in an underfunded cultural sector.  However, just because we lack the time or expertise doesn’t mean we can’t bring someone on board who either has that expertise or–even better–wants to acquire it.

My solution: find a student intern who wants to learn about some aspect of museums, and then encourage her to find new applications for these technologies in the department in which she’s interning.

So, for example, you can hire a collections intern and immerse her in conservation work—by which I mean you both guide her through the process of conserving an artifact or a small collection of artifacts, but also impress on her the broader contours of, and challenges facing, the field. You might emphasize that some objects are too fragile or unstable to be put on exhibit, lament that only a small portion of the museum’s collection will ever be displayed, or express visitors’ frustrations that they can’t see the back of some of the textiles currently on exhibit.  You would then challenge the student to use augmented reality technology to make the collections more accessible to visitors.  Depending on the length of the internship, you could either have the student actually deploy a beta version of your AR project or have her write a white paper on the various AR technologies that might reasonably be used by the museum, recommend one, and then outline how to deploy an AR project for the next intern. Alternately, depending on the student’s interests, you could ask the student to research opportunities for grants, and then draft a grant proposal.

It’s win-win: Your intern gets a sense of collections work and new technologies, your museum learns about how it might deploy AR, and your intern has a project–either an AR project, white paper, or grant proposal–to show to future employers.

I’m putting this into practice myself in the fall, when undergraduate and graduate students in my new Digital History course will research AR platforms and create a walking tour of downtown Boise that uses AR to give visitors a glimpse of the historic city.  (I’ll let you know how that goes.)

One caution

Of course, it’s easy to get caught up in the oooh! shiny! factor of new technologies, and AR implementation definitely presents such a peril. If we’re not careful, it could become just another gimmick instead of truly augmented educational programs and projects. Margaret Schavemaker points out that it’s important to foreground museum visitors’ authentic encounters:

Of course one can denounce “paratouring” — or, in terms of AR, “pARatouring” — as a distraction from what the tour is really about, namely, mediating knowledge and enhancing visitor experience both inside and outside the museum. This is a risk, and we should take care that it does not obstruct the actual encounter with the museum, collection or exhibition.

Will your museum try augmented reality?

As you can see by some of the examples—particularly those platforms that allow anyone to contribute, such as Tagwhat and HistoryPin—museums can test the waters of augmented reality without breaking the bank.  Whether you budget a bit of time for your staff to upload photos to HistoryPin or hire an intern to explore Layar or Aurasma, your institution need not invest a lot of money into exploring this virtual frontier.

How might your institution use AR?

If you want to read about additional opportunities for museums to deploy AR, you can download Areti Damala’s dissertation, “Interaction Design and Evaluation of Mobile Guides for the Museum Visit: A Case Study in Multimedia and Mobile Augmented Reality.” (PDF)

Enlivening old exhibits

While researching local history, one of my students recently came across an old newspaper article she thought I’d find amusing.  Titled “Old Scenes Take Form At Museum,” it was a piece on a new exhibit opening in the state history museum.

I do indeed find museum history interesting, so I was eager to see how the exhibit was described, what motivated the museum to put it up, and to compare it with the exhibits in the museum today so that I can get a better sense of how the museum’s exhibition philosophies and priorities have shifted.

You can see where this is going, right?

The exhibit featured in the newspaper is still up today, and from the description in the article, it appears it hasn’t changed at all.

The newspaper article was published in the early 1960s.

A cautionary tale

My point in writing this post is not to shame or embarrass the museum in question. (It certainly isn’t alone in having permanent exhibits that are, well, permanent.) As with many state history programs—and, I’m guessing, like many such programs in politically conservative states, where education tends not to be funded as fully as it might be elsewhere—it’s clear even to the casual visitor that the museum doesn’t have the money to mount new exhibits on a regular basis.

Still, it’s important to point out the liabilities of such an approach to exhibitions to underscore the importance of keeping up-to-date with museum theory and practice.

Visitors

First, it’s not good when visitors say about your museum—as did the students, aged 20-50, I took to this museum last month—”It hasn’t changed since I was a kid.”  The number of visitors who appreciate the nostalgia factor is likely to be far smaller than those who would like to see a new exhibit.  Late last year, Reach Advisors delved into their databases to determine what visitors’ attitudes are to changing exhibits—and whether these attitudes differ among museum members, frequent visitors, and occasional visitors.  Among their findings:

  • Museum visitors appreciate changing exhibits.
  • Museum visitors who expect more change in exhibits but don’t see that change happening are less likely to be satisfied with a museum.
  • “Children’s museums, art museums, and more traditional history museums should still take heed of the demand for changing exhibitions.”
  • “Museums of any type that are specifically seeking to attract family audiences should also bear in mind how important change is to parents.”
The Reach Advisors blog continues:

Changing exhibitions does not necessarily mean huge costs, though costs are certainly a factor.  Of the written-in comments we examined asking for more changing exhibitions, none referred to what we call “blockbuster” exhibitions.  Some suggested small changes to liven things up.  Change might be a “science in the news” area, which changes on a weekly basis but would not necessarily meet design standards for a longer-lasting exhibition.  Change can be delving into the permanent collection and highlighting an artist, or a local history topic, and featuring those items through a new lens (a tactic deployed by many museums during these rough economic times).  Change doesn’t mean an expensive line item, and it doesn’t mean changing over the entire museum every six weeks, though it does mean a commitment of some funds and considerable time.

Funding agencies and foundations

One of the most commonly asked questions on humanities and arts grant applications today seems to be some variation of, “What’s innovative about your project?”  A museum might be able to find a grant writer who could answer that question relatively persuasively about a proposed exhibition redevelopment, but if I were on a grant proposal review committee—and I have been—I would be looking for evidence that the museum has dabbled in whatever brand of innovation its staff wishes to implement. In the case of this particular museum, if I saw that most of the exhibits were 30, 40, or 50 years old, I would wonder about the museum’s capacity to implement best practices in museum education and exhibition—simply because I don’t see many signs in the current exhibits that the museum is even interested in experimenting with, say, interactivity or with exhibit panels of fewer than 300 to 500 words.

Let’s say this museum knows it should implement a new degree of interactivity but it hasn’t. Because authentic artifacts are the traditional history museum’s stock-in-trade, incorporating interactivity may at first seem a challenge because visitors can’t touch the artifacts the way they can interact with objects and manipulatives in a science center or children’s museum. Furthermore, if the exhibition development and education staff of a history museum hasn’t been provided quality opportunities for professional development—and I don’t know if that’s the case with this particular museum, but the museum’s exhibits do not reflect the at least last 20 years or so of theory and practice—then they might not be able to think beyond expensive replicas and the sometimes complex  “recipes” for fabrication designed by science centers like the Exploratorium. Once we can force ourselves to think beyond video kiosks, replicas, and dynamic science interactives, we find many possible baby steps toward interactivity or visitor participation.  It’s easy to add a simple paper-and-pen or token-based polling system for visitors, create laminated cards or brochures that offer alternative tours through the museum based on individual visitors’ interests, or affix QR codes to exhibit labels to direct visitors to more in-depth content on the museum’s website or to additional photographs of the object from angles that aren’t visible to the visitor.

Interactivity can be simple and inexpensive to integrate into an exhibit, and much information is available freely online about how to successfully include interactive components in an exhibit. There’s no longer any good reason a museum hasn’t adopted such techniques, and it doesn’t make sense for a museum to ask for funding for a new, innovatively interactive exhibition if it hasn’t shown interest or capacity in more basic interactive techniques.

Donors

Although museum professionals know that in most museums only a small percentage of artifacts ever see the exhibition floor, my sense is that few donors to local history museums understand their treasures likely will remain in storage in perpetuity. Donors who wish to see their gifts on display during their lifetimes may be dissuaded by decades-old exhibits or by temporary exhibits not drawn from the museum’s collection.  In addition, speaking for myself, I’d be unlikely to donate my family’s beloved heirlooms to a museum if the institution lacked the creativity and wherewithal to interpret artifacts in ways that challenge visitors to think critically and creatively.

Solutions

Let’s consider a few ways to update this exhibit relatively inexpensively and thus gain some respect in the eyes of visitors, current and prospective donors, and even funders.

A wringer washer in Wyoming. Image by arbyreed, and used under a Creative Commons license.

First, a description. The “old scenes” mentioned in the newspaper article comprise a kitchen and porch exhibit whose central feature appears to be laundry.  I haven’t paid attention to the exhibit lately, but if memory serves, there is a wringer washer, soap containers, and some other household goods arrayed on a porch.  The article describes it thus: “The porch display. . .will include an old hand-crank clothes washer, ice-box refrigerator, rocking chairs and a stack of wood.”

The exhibit depicts, in other words, a tiny slice of domestic life at the turn of the last century.  My reading of it is as cute and nostalgic in a way that makes me uneasy because the woman who would be using the objects displayed in the kitchen and on the porch is absent; her labor becomes invisible.  So, in this scenario, let’s find a way to make that woman and her labor visible to the visitor.

Assuming visitors can get network reception inside the museum’s building, I recommend adding multimedia content accessible via smartphone, 3G or 4G tablet, or, if the museum is equipped with public wifi, a wireless device like an iPod Touch or wifi iPad.  Having such content available on devices a visitor brings with her, or even on a device that can be checked out from the front desk, means that the museum won’t need to buy, maintain, and update a bulky and expensive audio or video kiosk.  This content might be accessible through a QR code or simply a URL printed at the bottom of the exhibit’s interpretive panel.

Audio content might include the voice of a woman talking about how tired she is after using all these devices or telling a story about how her curious toddler stuck his hand into the wringer when her attention was directed toward another one of her children, and she cranked the handle (audio of child screaming or crying), and the doctor had to be called to examine the child’s hand.  Alternately, the printed URL might take the user to a YouTube video of someone using a hand-cranked washer:

In an underfunded museum such as this one, audio content could be created by interns who undertake research into the use of such machines, then are given free range with Audacity or another free or low-cost audio editing program. Interns also could seek out such video footage of an antique washer, such as I’ve posted above, and embed it onto mobile-friendly pages on the museum’s website. (Of course, best practice for any institution would be to include a link to a transcript of the audio for deaf visitors and a description of the video for blind visitors.)

Or we could tell a different kind of story. This is, after all, a museum with a quarter million objects in its collection, so it has plenty of artifacts it could be exhibiting.  Perhaps we see the open porch at a moment of transition; it’s being enclosed to make a laundry room, and the woman has set her old hand-cranked washer and wringer out in the yard to make way for her new machine, which features an electric agitator. Audio or textual content could describe the woman’s feelings about the new machine at the moment of its arrival, as well as showcase her ambivalence a few months down the road, when she complains about constantly having to repair it, or when she expresses the belief that it’s too rough on her family’s clothes, wearing them out prematurely.

In this scenario, collections and education staff could establish a schedule whereby the laundry machines and interpretive content (text or audio) are updated every few months. Visitors could play a game, made with magnets and laminated photos of old laundry machines, in which they try to place the laundry machines in the correct chronological order.

Or, of course, we could abandon laundry altogether.  It isn’t, after all, the sexiest subject.  Moving away from laundry, however, doesn’t have to mean a complete (and costly) exhibit renovation. The relative openness of the porch exhibit “stage” lends itself to any number of scenes in a way that, say, the built-in cabinets and framed windows of the restored formal dining room in an adjacent exhibit do not. The museum could tell any number of stories about race, class, age, gender, leisure, and labor.

And need I mention that it’s best practice to rotate artifacts?  Changing exhibits allow objects relief from light, vibration, and other damaging phenomena.

Share your thoughts in the comments

I’d love to hear your own stories of

  • permanent exhibits that became a little too permanent, and how the museum resolved the issue;
  • low-cost changing exhibits;
  • inexpensive ways to add or integrate simple multimedia content that enriches an exhibit or shifts its meaning; and
  • old exhibits updated to become more interactive or participatory.

I’m also eager to hear what solutions you’d propose to the particular challenge I’ve shared in this post.  What advice would you give the museum staff?

Tips for picking a graduate program that will be a good fit for you

I get lots of queries, both from my own undergraduates and from students shopping around for graduate programs in museum studies and public history, about which programs are currently the strongest.

Honestly, I don’t have an opinion about specific programs, which is amazing, because hoo boy do I have opinions about almost everything else.

So I thought I’d share here today some of the (maybe slightly unconventional) thoughts I have on finding a grad school that will be a good fit for you.*  (I apologize in advance if this post seems terribly U.S.-centric, but it’s what I’m familiar with right now.)

Before I start, let me say this—and really, I can’t emphasize it enough (hence the font change):

The best way to get into museum or public history work–and I’m hoping I’m not the first one to tell you this–is literally to get your foot in the door, no matter how that happens: volunteering, internship, entry-level job. Graduate school can, and likely will, bolster your chances of advancement in the field, but six months or more of hands-on work in a low- or no-pay job is what will convince others (as well as yourself!) that this really is the kind of work you feel called to do.

Laying a foundation

I’m going to begin with some advice that, alas, may require some time travel for many of my readers: Get a liberal arts education. I don’t mean you have to go to a fancypants Ivy League school or a boutique liberal arts college (though I’m a big fan of my alma mater). Rather, you’ll likely find you have a lot more options open to you on the arts-and-humanities and public-education side of the museum world** if you have a good deal of intellectual curiosity and you have cultivated the ability to research a topic in depth without losing sight of its broader context, identify novel connections among phenomena that at first glance may seem different, and engage in meaningful conversation with people from diverse backgrounds.

Even if you have earned an undergraduate degree that is light on the liberal arts and sciences, I encourage you to enrich your learning. Study a living, foreign language and culture until you reach the upper-division courses (typically after four semesters of study); take a variety of science classes that challenge you to see the world in new ways (seismology, environmental science, evolutionary biology, epidemiology, climatology, and nanotechnology come immediately to mind, and large universities often offer some kind of introductory class in these fields for non-majors); pursue history and anthropology; take art history, studio art, and music courses; and read all the assigned texts for your literature classes, then come to class ready to talk about them. Sample the “studies” disciplines that have cropped up over the past 20 to 30 years, as they will teach you to challenge traditional intellectual paradigms: Native American studies; women’s, gender, or queer studies; Chicana/o studies; African American studies; Asian American studies; and others.  In many museum careers, your mission at some level will be to nudge people into thinking differently about the world, to challenge their conceptions about how stuff works. A liberal arts education is going to equip you with the tools in critical and creative thinking that will make you a welcome contributor to our line of work.

Location, location, location

In other fields—law and medicine, for example—it’s important to attend the absolutely best-ranked school, as students graduating from those programs tend to land the most sought-after jobs.  In museum studies and public history, however, graduate school name recognition (usually) does not matter as much as you think it might.  Accordingly, I encourage you to think just as much about location as about programmatic reputation and rigor.

I suggest you think about program location for two primary reasons: opportunities following graduation and opportunities during school.

First, it may seem premature, but you should think about where you would like to live when you’re finished with the program.***  Almost all my former students at John F. Kennedy University’s museum studies program in the San Francisco Bay Area are working in that region in large part because that’s where they pursued their internships and entry-level positions while earning their Master’s degrees. My students graduating from the Master’s of Applied Historical Research at Boise State tend to get jobs in Idaho, for much the same reason. Through their work in local museums, they have established professional networks in their region. It’s much harder to get a job outside the immediate geographical area where you earn your Master’s degree because it takes a good deal of time and effort to establish those networks. It’s not impossible by any means–and social media is making it easier to connect with professionals elsewhere–but it’s something to think about as you’re selecting a program. If you know you will have family obligations that mean you must find work near Los Angeles, it might not make sense to spend a couple years interning in, say, Tallahassee.

While you’re thinking about opportunities after graduation, you also might want to look at who is currently employed in the institutions in the area where you want to settle eventually.  I mention this because the educational attainment of the local public history professionals can also be an indicator of the sophistication of the local public history scene. If a city’s or region’s museums look much like they did in the 1960s and ’70s, for example, you might find that’s partly due to funding issues but also possibly a sign of professional disconnection from the wider field. (Note: if you want to be a historical museum curator, check to see if the curators in the region have Ph.D.s in history, and if they do, either rethink your region or career aspirations, or consider a Ph.D. in history–though a humanities Ph.D. is a long, hard road offering even less a guarantee of employment than an M.A.)

Both because you’ll likely find your first professional position near your graduate institution and because you’ll want great opportunities to intern (and maybe get an entry-level job) while you’re in grad school, you’ll want to pick a program that is surrounded by museum or public history opportunities. Are there many history museums nearby, and are they of sufficient quality for you to apprentice there? If you’re looking at museum studies programs and you’re interested in informal science education, find out if there is a science center, natural history museum, planetarium, botanical garden, arboretum, zoo, or similar institution (and preferably several) nearby. If you’re interested in public history, if the program is in or near a state capital, then there are likely to be opportunities at historic sites as well as with state and federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. Washington, D.C. and its environs are rich with historical sites, museums, and government agencies, and thus the region can be an excellent place to get started in public history. It’s a good idea to be pretty specific about your needs; if you want to study historic preservation, and you’re especially interested in preserving masonry structures built before the Civil War, be sure you have several such buildings to learn from close at hand, as well as local experts from whom you can learn.

Program structure

The structure of museum studies and public history programs varies quite a bit; such variations can be a function of program age, enrollment, faculty hiring, and/or resource allocation in the broader university. While certainly we could place such graduate programs on a nuanced spectrum, each end of that spectrum is occupied by two very different approaches. There are some programs–from glancing at its website, American University’s appears to be one of them–that offer a wide range of actual coursework on topics as diverse as oral history, historic site management, digital history, visual and material history, public policy, and visitor evaluation. There are also programs, however–and Boise State’s is one of these–where by design students do much of their learning outside of class; students here can take as many credits of internship work as they do of elective coursework. (In addition, our M.A.H.R. students take only one graduate class in public history, and currently we offer that introductory course only every other year because we don’t have the student enrollment or faculty staffing levels to justify offering the course every year.)

I think institutions can successfully occupy either end of the spectrum, but there will be people who disagree with me, probably vehemently. In the end, your career path is a combination of your learning, your initiative, your network, and a good deal of luck–not which classes you take. If you know you’re the kind of learner who prefers coursework to largely self-directed research and practice, then do yourself a favor and attend a program that offers classes in specialties that interest you.  If, on the other hand, coursework has always kind of bored you, and you like the challenge of self-directed learning, it’s worth investigating programs that are less structured around traditional graduate seminars.

Before you decide to go with the latter, free-form variety of program, however, you want to be sure four things are true:

  • You’re self-directed as a student.
  • You click with at least one faculty member there who can serve as a mentor to you as you navigate the wide-open spaces of public history practice.
  • There are institutions nearby where you can pursue a meaningful internship.
  • The program’s graduates are meeting with a good deal of success in the job market.

Of course, these factors also are beneficial in a more traditional, course-based program, but they are absolutely essential in a program with fewer course offerings in the field.

Don’t forget digital humanities practice

Another big trend in public history in particular is the digital humanities, and if you’re interested in that, then in the U.S. currently the mid-Atlantic states are among the most popular places to be; George Mason University is home to the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, the University of Virginia hosts the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the Virginia Center for Digital History, and the University of Maryland offers the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

I’m seeing more job position descriptions, as well as internship supervisors, ask for applicants with digital media skills in both public history and museums. One great thing about the digital humanities is the people who work in it are incredibly well-connected throughout history and its subfields, so the chances of networking your way to an actual job may be higher than in other subfields of public history practice. If you’re interested in the intersection of museums or public history and digital media practice, I recommend you contact faculty or staff at these programs.

Where can you find programs?

The National Council on Public History offers a guide to public history programs and the Smithsonian maintains a list of undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as certificates, in museum studies, historic preservation, decorative arts, conservation, and more. Wikipedia’s page on the digital humanities provides a list of digital humanities centers.

I want your questions and comments.

Questions? Leave ‘em below, or e-mail me at leslie -at- museumblogging -dot- com.

Public history and museum professionals–let’s help out our prospective colleagues here in the comments section.  What advice would you give about selecting a graduate program in these fields?

*And good god do I wish someone had offered me some job-focused advice when I was considering my first second third all my graduate programs. Maybe then I wouldn’t have that top-secret M.A. in writing poetry or have been on the academic job market for five years (thanks, interdisciplinary Ph.D.!).

**I’m excluding, for the time being, scientific research positions and high-ranking curatorial jobs in elite natural history museums, botanical gardens, arboreta, aquaria, and zoos.  If you want that kind of work, my best advice is to get a Ph.D. in a scientific discipline, not an M.A. in museum studies.

***Good news: you get to choose. If you had decided to pursue a more traditional Ph.D. in the hopes of becoming a professor, you wouldn’t have much say at all where you wind up.  (As much as I like my current job, for example, I’m not in Boise because I love freezing winters and red-state politics. After five years on the job market, this is where I found an academic home.)

Engaging in difficult dialogues

I’m attending the National Council on Public History conference in Pensacola.  Today was packed with interesting conversations.  I started the morning by attending a panel on civil dialogue in public history practice with Marla Miller of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Meghan Gelardi Holmes of Rutgers; and Lokki Chan of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

I’m not going to write about the 1.5 hours of presentations and conversation, but rather share a few of the things that stuck with me.

Developing Public History Students

First, Miller shared a list of four traits she said the faculty at the U. Mass Amherst try to cultivate in their public history students:

  • tact
  • diplomacy
  • patience
  • humility

It wasn’t clear to me if these are the top four traits they try to cultivate, or just those that relate to civility.

Regardless, it made me consider what might be the top four traits I try to cultivate in my public history students.  Here’s my first stab at that list:

  • resourcefulness
  • creativity
  • empathy
  • thoughtfulness

Students here are incredibly polite, so I suppose I’m less interested in Miller’s list (which many of the students here have mastered) than I am in dynamic engagement and thoughtful provocation.

What traits are you trying to cultivate in your students, interns, or staff, and why?

Past and Present, Stories, Engagement

Chan said that the among the goals of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s program that combines a tour with an hour-long discussion are

  • deromanticizing the past and complicating the present
  • highlighting the power of individual stories to inspire civic engagement
  • emphasizing that, in the words of Rev. Wilson Goode, “Every solution starts with a conversation.  It requires a willingness to talk and to listen.”

Drawing on Lois Silverman’s work on museum experiences as therapy, the presenters underscored that what docents wish to emphasize might not be what visitors take away from the tour.  If a docent in a house museum, for example, mentions that a woman miscarried, there’s no way of knowing that a visitor isn’t going through a similar loss.

Triggers abound.  Remember to be compassionate, to observe, and to listen.

A good deal of the conversation following the panelists’ presentations centered around getting the “Fox News demographic” to share authentically with the “NPR demographic,” and vice versa.  Especially in a place as loaded with history and politics as a tenement that was home to generations of immigrants, it’s important to establish an atmosphere where it’s possible for people to ask difficult questions and remain open to answers that might make them uncomfortable.

In My Classroom

On Monday, my public history grad students were treated to a presentation by one of their own, a student who served three terms in the state legislature.  He termed himself a “progressive Republican.”

I had to smile at such a rare description. In this state, politics are so far to the right that one commenter on a newspaper website recently pointed out that in any other state he’d be an extremist, reactionary, right-wing Republican, but in this state, he’s a conservative Democrat.

Anyway, this student talked about how, a few years back, he tried to introduce a bill to require state and county agencies to engage with the state historical society when they were talking about demolishing or altering buildings older than 50 years.

Apparently the bill prompted at least one legislator to point out that his outhouse was more than 50 years old–and he still used it.

We read over the proposed bill, discussed my student’s reasons for introducing it–and then had a very interesting conversation about working “across the aisle” when the aisle is more of a giant fissure.

Specifically, I asked my students what kind of rhetoric they might adopt if they were going to pitch a similar bill to today’s even more conservative state legislature.

The students came up with many examples, including substituting “Idaho’s heritage” for “Idaho history.”  I thought that was pretty savvy, as many of the legislators come from rural districts and either are ranchers  or have been at one time, and phrases like “Idaho’s agricultural heritage” or even “Idaho’s mining heritage” probably sound pretty good to them.

The former legislator also talked about the sexism of the House floor, and how many of the older male representatives expressed offense at women who dressed in a way that showed what they believed to be too much skin or–God forbid–cleavage.  Class ended before we had the chance to delve into the issue of whether my young women public historians ought to dress modestly to meet the expectations of the power brokers, or if they should dress in ways that made sense to themselves.  I’m sure that would have been an interesting conversation.

I pointed out that being able to not only see an issue from another perspective but to speak the language of that perspective was very powerful indeed, and that it was a skill humanists seeking funding from penny-pinching legislators would do well to develop.  How can we teach students to empathize, and to voice their ideas in ways that appeal to people who would not normally find them appealing–all while remaining authentic to their core selves so that they don’t feel slimy?  (Of course, this idea applies not only to humanities appeals to conservative legislators, but also to any context where there are two or more groups of people who tend to talk past one another rather than with each other.)

Between education and curation

(cross-posted from The Clutter Museum)

There’s been a ton of talk over the past year about how participating in social media—whether through blogging, social bookmarking, Twitter, Flickr, or whatever—can be a form of curatorial practice.

And I totally get the appeal of that particular metaphor. In fact, I understand that some people mean to use it in a very literal way, in the sense that they see themselves as imposing a welcome order or useful narrative on a very unwieldy collection of internet artifacts. I’ve seen some people I think are absolutely brilliant using the term this way.

Those who know me well know I don’t roll out my Ph.D. lightly. But as an (OK, adjunct) professor of museum studies and soon-to-be assistant professor of public history, I have to call bullshit on this one. As a lover of metaphor and as a poet who embraces all the possibilities of metaphor, I completely expect commenters to tell me to loosen up in this case. In fact, I suspect I’ll come across as a snob. But really, this distinction—what is curating, what very much isn’t—matters tremendously.

Educators with some facility in social media have become particularly fond of the term. But education isn’t curating. Curating isn’t education. In fact, in many museums, curators and educators are, alas, at odds with one another. Traditionally, curators have developed a depth of expertise in a content area over years of study, while educators tend—and yes, I know I’m generalizing here—to be younger folks with less education and experience. Education positions have a ton of turnover, a ton of burnout; curatorial positions come with more prestige and a sense of ownership of a position, sort of like tenure. Curators have at least a master’s degree and frequently a Ph.D. Educators have undergraduate degrees and increasingly, in this era of incredible competition for jobs, master’s degrees.

I don’t mean to imply that curators are above the fray, that they hold themselves at arm’s length from education. But their function is different. Curation is not a process of choosing the best resources to help other people learn. It’s much, much more, and to suggest that social bookmarking, sharing links via Twitter, or using an internet platform’s algorithm to help you determine which songs belong on your internet radio station is curation is ridiculous. Differentiating among things you like and dislike, or resources that you think are good or bad, and then sharing those opinions with people as a collection of internet or educational resources, is not curation.

When people talk about “curating” via social media, they’re really talking about filtering, and curators do so much more than filter. You can’t, I’m afraid to inform Robert Scoble, just “click to curate.” In fact, the absence of talented curators makes a given educational context degenerate, in newcurator’s most excellent formulation, to reality television.

Educators also do more than filter. They translate the curator’s research and expertise into small bites digestible by the general public or schoolchildren. This is a talent unto itself, and—as a former museum educator and exhibition developer—it’s not easy to develop because informal education diverges so spectacularly from what we’re all taught is supposed to happen in formal educational settings.

The conflation of a combination of sharing, digital resource connoisseurship, and online teaching and learning with a form of curation not only devalues the actual practice of curation—and by extension the time, effort, and passion it takes to develop sufficient expertise to become a curator—but also obscures the skills we hone as we navigate sharing on the social web.

We need a new term for folks who are developing (or who have already developed) the depth of expertise that marks curatorial work, but who also practice the distinctive forms of teaching and learning engendered by the social web. It’s not exactly edupunk, and it’s not museopunk.

In my mind, the people—and particularly academics—who occupy this space practice Keats’s “negative capability”: they are “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” By this I mean they get the tension—apparent to anyone who has planned a college course or an exhibition—between helping students or visitors develop content expertise and giving them opportunities to think critically and creatively. Doing both of these things simultaneously—cultivating expertise and promoting real intellectual development and discernment—is incredibly difficult to do from a lectern. The social web, like a provocatively interactive museum exhibition, offers new possibilities for this kind of participation in, and service to, the world.

California Academy of Sciences botanical curator Alice Eastwood standing on the scarp of the San Andreas Fault, 1906. Eastwood was both a curator and an educator.

What we call that exciting—and dare I say disruptive?— role is open to discussion and debate. Kindly leave your witty neologisms in the comments.

Update: Just saw this article on the new curators in the New York Times, which in some ways undermines my argument and in other ways reinforces that curating is its own special skill set. An excerpt:

It is also a group plugged in to all areas of museum life. They don’t simply organize exhibitions, they also have a hand in fund-raising and public relations, catalog production and installation. “The old-fashioned notion of a curator was that of a connoisseur who made discoveries and attributions,” said Scott Rothkopf, 33, who is the latest full-time curator to join the Whitney Museum of American Art’s team. “A lot of that work has already been done. The younger generation is trained to think differently, to think more about ideas.”