The bullet points
I help museums move past their roadblocks and various stucknesses* related to education, broadly defined:
- Educational programming
- Exhibition research and development
- Professional development of staff, volunteers, and interns
- Outreach, especially via new technologies
- Evaluation of exhibitions, projects, and programs
The (stiff) professional spiel
Leslie Madsen-Brooks, Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, professor, public historian, and mentor to an emerging generation of public history and museum studies practitioners. She brings to her museum consultancy extensive experience in both formal and informal education. She is a specialist in the teaching and learning of history and science, and understands as well the ways technology can be deployed thoughtfully to enhance learning and democratize this knowledge. She assists individual and institutional clients with educational programming, exhibition research and development, professional development, new technologies, outreach, and evaluation. She is an expert in the history of women scientists’ contributions to natural history institutions—primarily museums, gardens, and zoos—in the 19th- and 20th-century United States.
But really. . .
Let’s face it: even though work in museums can be rewarding and fun, it also has its challenges and frustrations. If you’ve found your way to this particular corner of the interwebs, chances are something isn’t quite working–or maybe it’s very broken–in your life as a museum professional or in your broader workplace. Maybe it’s an everyday frustration, like a poor flow of information through the museum’s staff, or perhaps it’s an issue that arises only in the week before a new exhibition opens.
I’ve felt your pain.
I understand resource shortages.
I’ve put together 1200-square-foot exhibits for $100–for the entire exhibit, not per square foot.
I’ve designed exhibit signage on computers that should be in the Smithsonian.
I understand that some aspects of museum work take some, um, getting used to. (I have a few gray hairs that I can trace directly to particular events.)
I’ve handled and interpreted snakes, scorpions, spiders, snails, lizards, frogs and toads, cockroaches, walking sticks, and giant millipedes. I’ve triggered, been the sole victim of, and quelled a honeybee swarm inside an exhibition pavilion on a day that tens of thousands of people passed through the exhibition.
I’ve driven a hinky van around a 13-county area to deliver hands-on science education programs to elementary school students. (I’ve been laid low by manipulatives-based germs more times than I can count.)
I’ve listened patiently while, in response to a visitor survey I was administering, visitors told me that DNA was approximately 4 inches by 3 feet long (the size of the model on the table in front of them).
(I’m guessing at least some of this sounds familiar to you.)
I know from experience that your responsibilities are by no means limited by your job description.
In one arts organization I was hired as a writer and press liaison, but I became a database manager and bulk mail specialist.
I’ve spent an entire weekend arranging items in gift baskets so they look enticing for silent auctions.
I was hired to develop an exhibition pavilion, but I ended up installing raised garden beds, furrows, and drip line—and then overseeing the cultivation and interpretation of a 3.5-acre demonstration farm and greenhouse complex.
When I was a reporter, my editor required me to take a ride in a Grand Prix pace car. In the rain on slick city streets that had been transformed into a twisty racetrack with sharp turns. With amateur C-list celebrity drivers learning how to drive on the same track. It was one of the more harrowing moments of my working life–right up there with the time a “partner” snuck a rattlesnake into my reptile exhibit overnight, in a terrarium on the floor, and I was greeted in the darkness by a rattling six inches from my ankle.
I know your institution’s secrets.
I was doing archival research inside a National Historic Landmark building when water started pouring from the ceiling–and it wasn’t even raining–and watched the archivists sigh and roll down the plastic sheeting they kept stored atop the bookshelves for just such a (common) contingency.
One of my mentors, also in a historic building used for archives storage, had mushrooms growing in her office carpet–on the second floor.
I’ve toured major museum storage spaces whose accessioning practices included–I kid you not–an Egyptian mummy stored in a plastic bag and bearing a Post-It note that read simply, “Mummy #3.”
I’ve seen things that should never be stacked stacked a couple stories high.
I know your museum probably has collections that you accepted with the understanding that they would be put on exhibit soon, but you don’t have the staff time to dedicate to adequately researching them.
I’ve seen directors pursue education grants without consulting their educators to determine if their proposal is feasible. (Related: I know of departments waging a cold war against one another within the same museum.)
I understand exactly why you want to scream when a member of your board suggests your staff should look into developing mobile apps–when, on their modest salaries, your staff members can’t even afford the data plans for smartphones of their own.
I’ve served as a sympathetic listener–really more of an informal therapist–for museum professionals, including one who recently ranted about the airplane she was asked to accession and bring into storage, even though it was home to an active paper wasp nest. . .and a packrat.
I know interns are a blessing and a curse.
I know that you don’t intend to fill that one position once it’s vacated because your institution really hasn’t been able to afford it for a long time, and that means shifting work onto a younger, less-experienced staff member in whom you don’t yet have full confidence, and that you’re kind of humiliated by that fact.
I get that you just don’t have time to deal with [that crap] right now.
I also suspect I know why you and your colleagues entered the museum field in the first place.
Maybe you were drawn by the untold narratives of everyday or extraordinary artifacts. Perhaps you were driven to share your love of sculpture. Maybe you felt compelled to build Rube Goldberg-esque machines, and you found the best place was in your local science center. Maybe you saw some crappy exhibits in your local historical society museum and realized you could do much, much better, so you signed on when they had an opening for a registrar-curator-exhibition developer.
But then you experienced job creep—your responsibilities far outgrew your salary—or maybe mission creep when someone secured a grant that really pushed the envelope of what your institution is supposed to do (and not in a good way). Maybe you tend to be an autodidact, but after only a year or so you realized your on-the-job learning could only take you as far as your institution’s physical resources—technology, tools, space, funding—would allow. Maybe you’re burning out from giving the same hands-on learning program in classrooms four times a day. Perhaps you’ve overseen one too many birthday parties at your institution.
Enough is enough. You don’t need to carry these burdens, large and small, alone. I can help you and your staff recapture some of your original energy and passion.
I’m here to help. I’m equal parts museum therapist**, educator, historian, researcher, and career coach. Call on me when
- you need a new professional development plan for you or your staff
- you need someone to research a collection of historical artifacts for an upcoming exhibition
- you desire assistance in linking your exhibition content to state or national curriculum standards
- you’re tired of updating your museum’s old HTML site, and you want to move to a simpler content management system
- you want help thinking through how your audience might benefit from the integration of mobile technologies with your exhibits and programs
- . . .and, really, anything else related to education, outreach, and professional development. If I can’t help you, I can find someone who will.
Get in touch:
Psssssst. . .
Want to know more about where I’m coming from? My About page is part biography, part manifesto.
* neologism courtesy of Havi Brooks
** I’m totally not a real therapist, but I listen, ask the right probing (and illuminating) questions, reframe your museum’s challenges, and work with you to formulate plans for making things (lots of things) easier and better. If that’s not nonprofit institutional therapy, I don’t know what is.