22 Dec

A Museum Christmas Carol

 

 

 

In which a museum director learns that he is leading badly. 

 

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. This was nonsense! Jonathan still had work to do.

Jonathan gazed upon the stack of Change of Status Forms weighing down his desk.  They would need to wait until after the new year for his signature. Those people would need to wait for their jobs. Nothing that can be done methodically should be done in haste.

The unsettling noise started again, getting louder as it resonated off the hard surfaces of his office. He must be overworked, Jonathan thought. If only people understood the exhaustion of the never-ending glad-handing.

Gazing out the window, he tried to regain his mental composure. Larger ones were superseding small snowflakes. In 12 hours, he would be Miami enjoying a holiday thanks to one of the trustees. He tried to focus on the image of the infinity pool and bikini-clad ladies—the real meaning of the holidays.

He was abruptly jogged from his imagination by a vision reflected in the window. Allegra Marley had been gone six months, and yet there she was reflected in the glass.

Jonathan Scrooge knew she was dead? Of course, he did. How could it be otherwise? She and Scrooge worked together for I don’t know how many years.

 

Jonathan turned his Knoll chair back to face his desk, eyes closed. After three slow breaths, he reopened his eyes. There, sitting across from him, was his deputy director, dead these six months. She seemed every bit the woman he sat beside in endless meetings. She wore her characteristic black clothing tailored in fashionably asymmetrical, haphazard manner paired with a ridiculously monumental necklace. Her hair hung in a loose bob, framing an angular, plain face. Her eyes had always been her most charming feature. But, now instead of an electric blue, they glowed. In fact, her whole person seemed to glow.

 

“Who are you?”

 

“You should ask who I was?”

 

“Alright then, I don’t have enough time for this. Who were you?”

 

“I must say that I am not shocked at your refusal to name an attribution. You were always averse to making declarations, just focused on counter-declarations and rebuttals. But, your time is shorter than mine, as it stands. So, I will do you the favor of getting to the point. I am Allegra. And, I am here to share what I know.”

 

“Al…Allegra. I must be nuts or overly caffeinated.”

 

“There is no saying if those two statements are true. But, I am still here sitting in your office, as I did when I was alive. Though now, I no longer need to listen to your complaints or endure your micromanaging.”

 

“There is no need to insult me.”

 

“True. True. I am not here to settle a score but instead to warn you of your errors.”

 

“Errors? I don’t make mistakes. I have made this museum into an exemplar. The best scholarship and best business sense.”

 

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”

 

“We are focused on the business of people. We are mission-driven.” Jonathan exclaimed smugly.

 

“Oh, now. I was like you. I said mission-driven more often than my own name. But, I also avoided any family event. I spent 2 hours with the general audience in my last year here. And, most of that was when I traversed the lobby to go to the cafe.”

 

“Well, you were busy. The executive team has many responsibilities. They can’t be everywhere.” Jonathan knew how to handle his staff, even the dead ones. Words like this were perfect to prevent confrontation.

 

“Jonathan, you are not listening to my words. You are more focused on manipulating me.”

 

“Allegra, whatever has happened to you? You would never be so…direct.”

 

“Death, Scrooge. Death has happened. I spent the first week after death sitting in my old office. Listening as people walked by. Do you know what the staff said when they walked by? ‘She didn’t have much, poor girl.’ ‘Oh, she used to be nice before being promoted.’ ‘At least we don’t have any more of those awful committee meetings.’”

 

“Allegra you have a Ph.D. Really. Who cares what those people think? They are curatorial assistants. Secretaries.” Jonathan pronounced the last word with resounding disdain.

 

“They are our staff–our colleagues. And, they didn’t care for me…because I didn’t care for them.”

 

“Now you just sound like a consultant.” Jonathan sneered.

 

“Listen, you don’t need to believe me. You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”

 

“At least it is a literary number.” Jonathan chuckled, first quietly and then more loudly as his pride turned to pronounced fear. He looked at the seat where Allegra had been. It fine leather surface was unmarred and empty.

 


 

 

Scrooge blinked hard. There truly had never been anyone in the seat, he concluded. Another coffee was clearly necessary. He picked up the phone to ask Mrs. Cratchett to whip up a latte. Then he remembered that he had let her go home early today–it was Christmas Eve. HR had demanded that he let the whole staff work only ½ day today,  selling the bonus vacation day rather than a holiday party. He didn’t know why his staff deserved this bonus frankly. He was the one who really kept this ship sailing. And, he was the one who was still working, holiday or no.

 

He rose slowly. He felt a bit unsteady, truthfully. Passing his private restroom, he turned into the kitchenette. He avoided the instant coffee machine generally, but everyone made sacrifices. Tonight, this was his. Watching the brown brew drip, he stood trying to assess what might have caused his hallucinations. No head injuries, no spoiled food, no strong alcohol. Stress must be the cause. If only his staff understood the trials, he endured!

 

Coffee in hand, he turned back into his office. Had engineering done something with the HVAC? The room was unnaturally cold, even for a museum. Oh, no. It was happening again. But, now Allegra looked incredibly strange as she sat huddled in the chair.

 

“Allegra, don’t you have something else you should be doing? Guessing ghosts don’t have budget reports to do, huh, if you have time to wander back in here.” He stated with clear sangfroid.

 

Whoever was sitting in the chair didn’t respond.

 

He approached the figure only to see an older man with an affable expression in pleasant repose.

 

“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Scrooge.

 

“I am!”

 

The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.

 

“Who, and what are you?” Scrooge demanded.

 

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

 

“Long Past?” inquired Scrooge: observant of its dwarfish stature.

 

“No. Your past.”

 

“This will need to wait!” Jonathan snapped. “Someone is playing music. I don’t like music at work.”

 

He barreled out of the office to find himself in a large, bright lobby, but not his museum’s lobby. There were signs everywhere, like an airport. Even worse, the space was filled with people wearing some of the crassest sweaters he has ever seen. Just then, he saw the oddest sight of all. There he was, some thirty years earlier, wearing not only a reindeer sweater but also a red boa.  

 

“Where are we, Scrooge?” The glowing pinstriped man that had been his office now floated unseen above the ticket center.

 

“No need to tell me! This was my first museum holiday party. It was the year I was interning right after my masters. Oh, wait, I love this song.”

 

The Ghost of Christmas Past chuckled as he watched Jonathan young and old bob their heads to the tune. He let the inadvertent synchronized dance continue for a few minutes before coming to rest beside Jonathan, “What do you notice?”

 

“Music was better before millennials?” Scrooge retorted.

 

“Now, now. Those millennials are willing to put in 100 hours a week for sixteen thousand dollars.”

 

“Hey, I would have been thrilled with 16K. I had to live with mother and work at the library to be able to take this job. It was a privilege.”

 

“Mother, sure. I mean, look around. Describe this shindig.”

 

“People are dancing. Oh, look at Lara. She always made parties fun. But, she was fun. She always had a full candy dish at her desk in registrars. There is food. Oh, yeah, that terrible cheese ball. And, some weird chili. Who catered this? The gas station?”

 

“Catering…” The Ghost snickered.

 

“Oh, look my deviled eggs! That’s right. It was potluck. Look there is John Brownstone, the legendary director. What a mentor! He published a book every other year, even when he was the director. I’m very like him, actually.” Jonathan proudly gazed over at the older man who stood beside the microphone.

 

Eventually, after the roar of speech, speech, the old man stepped up to the microphone, alone on a stand.

“Another year is done. I know we are celebrating early this year. But, that is because I hope that you will all use up all your vacation time between Thanksgiving and New Years. You have done such a stellar job making the museum wonderful this year, and now you need to enjoy wonderful times with your family. Now, no more speaking! I want one of you to show me that new dance.” Brownstone left the mic as the whole staff broke into applause.

 

Jonathan stood stock still gazing at the dance floor mesmerized. Cleaners danced with curators, educators and registrars laughed uproariously, and the director attempted to dance gracefully.

 

Scrooge startled when a chilling tap on the shoulder jogged him out of his memories.

 

“It’s time,” the ghost whispered.

 

Before Scrooge could make sense of the words, he was once again sitting in his desk chair. He felt a vague sense of loss and loneliness, but then his email dinged. He picked up his phone. As he scrolled through his email, a familiar chill subsumed him. He wondered idly if he might avoid the ghost by shutting his eyes.

 


 

 

“Wake up, buddy.” A cheery voice stated.

 

In front of him sat a young woman dressed in an outfit likely hailing from a thrift store wearing the smile of a fool.

 

“So, on our way down, just stay on the right side, okay?” the ghost said in an innocuous voice.

 

Jonathan barely acknowledged the ghost. This was a ghost who hadn’t signed on to adulthood, obviously.

 

With that thought, he found himself sitting on the floor of a gallery. He sat frozen for a moment, stalled by the shock of being on the floor. When sanity, as it were, returned to his consciousness, he attempted to stand. The Ghost of Christmas Present put on his shoulder, forcefully pushing him back down.  

 

   “I can’t sit on the floor.” Jonathan went to stand again, and again the Ghost pushed him down, this time with an even more placid smile.

 

   “I don’t sit on the floor,” Jonathan said again. This time the Ghost held his shoulder in a most impressive vice grip. Apparently, he would be sitting on the floor.

 

Scrooge’s attention shifted as the cacophony of young voices started to get louder. A young woman, dressed as if she shopped at the same establishment as the Ghost, walked in followed by a group of children walking in a line if you were generous in your description. The whole mass of humanity flopped down into a seated position.

 

   “Now, listening ears, all. And, looking eyes.” The woman said.

 

   “Of course, they are listening and looking,” Jonathan said.

 

   “Now, now. Could you spend 45 minutes with 20 three-year-olds?” The Ghost whispered. “I would pity those children.”

 

   “Of course not, I have a Ph.D.” Jonathan rolled his eyes.

 

   “Right.” The Ghost burst into laughter.

 

   “So, let’s look at this man. What is he thinking?” The educator said.

 

   “Please!” Jonathan said. “This is an abstract painting. The kids won’t know.”

 

   Soon, limb flew akimbo energized with the excitement of knowing the answer.

 

   “Everyone will have a chance. Jon, let’s start with you.” The educator said.

 

   Jonathan began to say, “Well some scholars think.” when he realized a young boy was answering.

 

   “There is a man in the middle. The red one. He is so excited to be in the forest. See the green square…”

 

   So it continued for nearly 30 minutes. The educator listened patiently, repeating key words. Finally, the educator asked the children to stand. “Walk in a line as if you are on a tightrope.”

 

   This little visitors lined up dutifully and filed out of the gallery in silent awe.

 

Jonathan expected to be whizz back to his office. Instead, he was unceremoniously pulled to standing and pushed to the end of the line. He watched the kids move into a lobby. Standing in the middle, Mr. Cratchett was holding a clipboard.

 

   Mr. Cratchett, the spouse of his assistant, had worked in education for 20 years. He was an older man who without fail asked questions at all staff meetings. He always thought people wanted his opinion.

 

   Mr. Cratchett smiled broadly at the students and his staff member. “Great job all! Such scholars.”

 

   “Scholars.” Jonathan chuckled.

 

   As the students left the building, Mr. Cratchett turned to shake his educator’s hand. “Lilia, thank you for all your work this year. I really do wish I could have offered you more hours next year. But, you know.”

 

   “Mr. Cratchett, I know, I know. It’s not your fault. I know that you tried.”

 

   “Oh, Lilia, but you were the best. So many teachers congratulated you on good work. I just wished I could have many Saskia understand. But, you know, there are so many layers here. And, now, big money is in “outreach” programming, she told us.” Mr. Cratchett’s voice had the tenor of someone attempting to hold back tears.

 

   “Now, now. It’ll work out.” Livia said before hugging her boss.

 

   Jonathan stood shocked by the display of emotion.

 

   “This young person is worth more than you. And, if you don’t care about her, your visitors lose. If you miss a day, your staff miss meetings. If she misses a day, 100 children lose out.”

 

   “Pshah, I make the important choices. I make sure that we get diverse students in here. Those kids didn’t look diverse.”

 

   “Man! Diverse just means more than one type of thing. There were boys and girls in that class–that is diversity. If you don’t get her a job, you will be sorry.” Then the Ghost pushed him down to sitting. He went to object to her treatment, but then he realized that he was once again seated at his desk.

 


 

   He sat for a full ten minutes staring at the visitor chair. He wasn’t going to let the last ghost surprise him. But, nothing. He turned back on his computer. Scrolling through the emails, he started to feel a headache coming on. Oh, the stress. If only the staff understood. He closed his eyes for a moment, only to feel a cold hand on his shoulder. With that touch, the room becomes suddenly, unbearably, bone-chillingly cold.

   

   He tried to turn towards his assailant but found himself paralyzed. A moment later he was standing in the lobby of his museum.

 

   But, everything was slightly different. There was a forest of signs. But, these signs were advertisements. A monkey was extolling the virtues of hair tonic on a sign below the ticket fees. Another sign showed a rubicund man and a tiny sports car. While signs abounded,  there was a dearth of visitors. People, actually. There were no people at all in the lobby. There were a couple of screens, but they flickered ominously.

 

“Is the museum not open yet?” Jonathan said to the ghost who stood beside him.

 

The ghost remained still. Unlike his compatriots, this spirit seemed to be the absence of light. He wore black from the hooded sweatshirt to Chuck Taylors. His hirsute face was set off by hollow eye sockets.

 

“Alright, so, it isn’t? But, it’s AM. The board would be livid if we were empty at this time. Oh, I get it. I am well read. If I don’t do something, we will be empty at 11 AM. But, come one, one gallery teacher?”

 

Two grey-haired staff members came down the stairs into the lobby just then. They spoke in hushed voices, but their giggles were fairly obvious.

 

“Well, at least this year will be better than last.I mean, really. That micromanager has left us!”

 

“Yeah, seriously. Can’t really get worse after that guy.”

 

“Spoiled sports,” Jonathan snapped. “But, wait, so in the future, I get a better position. I knew I could.”

 

The dark figured nodded slowly and then pointed to the screen ahead. The screen showed Jonathan, suit-clad, with the phrase, Rest in Peace.

 

“Rest in Peace? How tacky!” Jonathan said before realizing the meaning.

 

“Heart attack?” The one old staff member chuckled.

 

“Heartless attack.” The other retorted.

 


 

Jonathan sighed slowly and dropped to his feet. Head in hands, he started to sob. The next thing he knew he was at his desk.

 

Light was streaming into his office. Morning had broken. This terrible nightmare was over. He went back to the kitchenette for coffee. He could hear a woman typing while quietly humming “Joy to the World.”

 

   Peaking into the outside office, he saw Mrs. Cratchett wearing black check.

 

“Whatever are you doing, Mrs. Cratchett?”  Jonathan said sternly.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry Dr. Scrooge. I didn’t know you were already in.” She barely looked into Jonathan’s eyes for fear of upsetting her boss.

 

“I mean, Mrs. Cratchett, it’s Christmas Eve, you know. And, I have decided it’s ridiculous that we have ½ day off on Christmas Eve.”

 

“Yes, Dr. Scrooge.”

 

“You think I am about to say ‘Bah Humbug’ I might have! But I am a changed man. We should have the whole day off. I mean, we spend every day working hard. Today we should enjoy. I need your help. Can you please reprint that change of status form about Lilia? After that, please go home and don’t come back until New Years. At which point, we will need to figure out how to throw a great staff party. You know, one that feels fun. I am not great at fun so that I will need your help.” His speech over, he expected some reaction from Mrs. Cratchett.

 

Instead, she stared at him as if he were a ghost.

 

“Alright, I will need to return to my desk to send out the official email sending people home. I will need you to know HR will need to stay for a few minutes because I have a mound of Change of Status papers. I can’t leave those. But, I will be able to sign them. The managers have checked them. Won’t be more than 20 minutes before I am gone too.”

 

Mrs. Cratchett murmured a faint sound of agreement.

 

Jonathan went back to his desk. Rather than returning to his office chair, he chose the visitor chair. From there he could see out the window onto the entrance of the museum. He sat for a minute observing the museum’s visitors–his visitors. Then he went to work on those papers. This would be a great holiday for his staff; he would make sure of it.  

 

21 Dec

A Museum Christmas Carol (Part 1)

 

 

A Museum Christmas Carol

 

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. This was nonsense! Jonathan still had work to do.

Jonathan gazed upon the stack of Change of Status Forms weighing down his desk.  They would need to wait until after the new year for his signature. Those people would need to wait for their jobs. Nothing that can be done methodically should be done in haste.

The unsettling noise started again, getting louder as it resonated off the hard surfaces of his office. He must be overworked, Jonathan thought. If only people understood the exhaustion of the never-ending glad-handing.

Gazing out the window, he tried to regain his mental composure. Small snowflakes were being superseded by larger ones. In 12 hours, he would be Miami enjoying a holiday thanks to one of the trustees. He tried to focus on the image of the infinity pool and bikini clad ladies—the real meaning of the holidays.

He was abruptly jogged from his imagination by a vision reflected in his memory. Allegra Marley had been gone six months, and yet there she was reflected in the glass.

Jonathan Scrooge knew she was dead? Of course, he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and she worked together for I don’t know how many years.

 

Jonathan turned his Knoll chair back to face his desk, eyes closed. After three slow breaths, he reopened his eyes. There, sitting across from him, was his deputy director, dead these six months. She seemed every bit the woman he sat beside in endless meetings. She wore her characteristic black clothing tailored in fashionably asymmetrical, haphazard manner paired with a ridiculously monumental necklace. Her hair hung in a loose bob, framing an angular, plain face. Her eyes had always been her most charming feature. But, now instead of a electric blue, they glowed. In fact, her whole person seemed to glow.

 

“Who are you?”

 

“You should ask who I was?”

 

Alright then, I don’t have enough time for this. Who were you?”

 

“I must say that I am not shocked at your refusal to name an attribution. You were always averse to making declarations, just focused on counter-declarations and rebuttals. But, your time is shorter than mine, as it stands. So, I will do you the favor of getting to the point. I am Allegra. And, I am here to share what I know.”

 

“Al…Allegra. I must be nuts or overly caffeinated.”

 

“There is no saying if those two statements are true. But, I am still here sitting in your office, as I did when I was alive. Though now, I no longer need listen to your complaints or endure your micromanaging.”

 

“There is no need to insult me.”

 

“True. True. I am not here to settle a score but instead to warn you of your errors.”

 

“Errors? I don’t make mistakes. I have made this museum into an exemplar. The best scholarship and best business sense.”

 

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”

 

“We are focused on the business of people. We are mission-driven.” Jonathan exclaimed smuggly.

 

“Oh, now. I was like you. I said mission-driven more often than my own name. But, I also avoided any family event. I spent 2 hours with the general audience in my last year here. And, most of that was when I traversed the lobby to go to the cafe.”

 

“Well, you were busy. The executive team has many responsibilities. They can’t be everywhere.” Jonathan knew how to handle his staff, even the dead ones. Words like this were perfect to prevent confrontation.

 

“Jonathan, you are not listening to my words. You are more focused on manipulating me.”

 

“Allegra, whatever has happened to you? You would never be so…direct.”

 

“Death, Jonathan. Death has happened. I spent the first week after death sitting in my old office. Listening as people walked by. Do you know what the staff said when they walked by? ‘She didn’t have much, poor girl.’ ‘Oh, she used to be nice before being promoted.’ ‘At least we don’t have any more of those awful committee meetings.’”

 

“Allegra you have a Ph.D. Really. Who cares what those people think? They are curatorial assistants. Secretaries.” Jonathan pronounced the last word with resounding disdain.

 

“They are our staff–our colleagues. And, they didn’t care for me…because I didn’t care for them.”

 

“Now you just sound like a consultant.” Jonathan sneered.

 

“Listen, you don’t need to believe me. You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”

 

“At least it is literary number.” Jonathan chuckled, first quietly and then more loudly as his pride turned to pronounced fear. He looked at the seat where Allegra had been. It fine leather surface was unmarred and empty.

 

Scrooge blinked hard. There truly had never been anyone in the seat, he concluded. Another coffee was clearly necessary. He picked up the phone to ask Mrs. Cratchett to whip up a latte. Then he remembered that he had let her go home early today–it was Christmas Eve. HR had demanded that he let the whole staff work only ½ day today,  selling the bonus vacation day rather than a holiday party. He didn’t know why his staff deserved this bonus frankly. He was the one who really kept this ship sailing. And, he was the one who was still working, holiday or no.

 

He rose slowly. He felt a bit unsteady, truthfully. Passing his private restroom, he turned into the kitchenette. He avoided the instant coffee machine generally, but everyone made sacrifices. Tonight, this was his. Watching the brown brew drip, he stood trying to assess what might have caused his hallucinations. No head injuries, no spoiled food, no strange alcohol. Stress must be the cause. If only his staff understood the trails he endured!

 

Coffee in hand, he turned back into his office. Had engineering done something with the HVAC? The room was unnaturally cold, even for a museum. Oh, no. It was happening again. But, now Allegra looked incredibly strange as she sat huddled in the chair.

 

“Allegra, don’t you have something else you should be doing? Guessing ghosts don’t have budget reports to do, huh, if you have time to wander back in here.” He stated with clear sangfroid.

 

Whoever was sitting in the chair didn’t respond.

He approached the figure only to see an older man with an affable expression in pleasant repose.

 

“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Scrooge.

 

“I am!”

 

The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.

 

“Who, and what are you?” Scrooge demanded.

 

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

 

“Long Past?” inquired Scrooge: observant of its dwarfish stature

 

“No. Your past.”

 

For the Conclusion, go here. 

19 Dec

Are Museums Neutral? Or are they Neutered?

While I was going to do a round-up of our favorite blog posts of the year today, a recent post by Rebecca Herz made me want to return to one topic: #MuseumsarenotNeutral. I wrote a bit about it last month, and it was one of the five most popular posts. But, let’s dive in:

Neutrality vs. Neutralize:

What does the word neutrality mean? In common parlance, we often use neutral for cars, when they are neither going forward nor backward. Politically, the term can be used for a nation as “not engaged on either side; specifically: not aligned with a political or ideological grouping.”

In the former definition, the car is static. Anyone who has put a car in neutral when on a hill without the parking brake can attest to the fact that momentum is a possibility. The neutral vehicle is in a state when motion is no longer solely the choice of the driver.

The car is the apt metaphor for considering museums and neutrality. When museums don’t acknowledge that they make choices, they are not freed from making decisions. For example, if when planning an exhibition of American history, if you decide to remain canonical, you are making a choice. Any history is based on decision and interpretation. When you present that history, you are supporting those decisions. You might not see those decisions. You might believe those ideas to be facts, but assuredly, other facts have been left out. If you want to go with the classic two-sides to every story argument, history is full of sides. If you don’t think so, you are working with your eyes closed. Even if your eyes are closed and you claim to be neutral, your decisions mean you are still acting.

To return to the definitions of neutrality, the nation-state sense of neutrality can also be an edifying metaphor. Switzerland was famously neutral during World War II. The tiny mountainous nation was surrounded by Axis states, so they were on an ideal flight path for the Allies in their quest to vanquish the Nazis. Yet, Switzerland had a strict no-fly-zone in effect. Allied planes were impounded in Switzerland. So, while the Swiss didn’t fight on either side, they made it hard for the Allies to fight against the Axis. In effect, their “neutral” action was still making a choice; they chose to allow a government, who massacred millions of innocent people, to continue to do so.

Let’s bring the nation-state metaphor back to the museum sphere. There are points when history is incredibly, egregiously horrendous, like the Holocaust. But, there are other moments, when the depravity of humanity is effaced by other social victories. American history is full of examples. Consider again about mounting a comprehensive installation about American history from above. You need to make choices. If you are choosing between George Washington and his neighbor Jasper, you will choose our first president, certainly. Square footage costs dollars.

But, other choices are harder. What about choosing to discuss if Washington had slaves? Omitting a mention of his slaves is a choice. You might think you are doing this to remain neutral and avoid the issue of race. But, what you are doing is supporting an America that doesn’t acknowledge slavery.

Museums have a long history of sanitizing installations with the victors earning the spoils of history. But the act of removing elements of history is attempting to divorce collections from politics. Simplifying history will almost always sway towards those in power.

Museums are, at their core, social institutions; if not, they would be repositories. Collections are held in care for people. In galleries, material culture becomes social education.  The question then becomes what education is offered in the museum galleries? There is great responsibility in this decision—and great power. When 20th century museums increased their education offerings, they were using that power to support social causes.

Power and museums have a relationship like peanut butter and jelly. When combined, they are hard to separate. In many ways, this is why the issue of neutrality is so hard. Museums have been able to support power subtly under the guise of neutrality and devoid of politics.

The aversion to “Museums are not Neutral” from the field is in part because as a field we have fooled ourselves. We made political decisions when we placed non-Western collections “in context” which European collections in pristine white galleries. And, we made different choices when we moved those same collections into pristine galleries. Art museums aren’t the only one making political choices. Science museums have long shown prehistoric objects, taking a stance on evolution. Every moment of collecting, installing, and interpreting is a moment when you make a choice. What you exclude says as much as what you include.

Finally, there is no getting away from politics. Everything in our culture is socially constructed. When you think you can be neutral, you are missing the natural biases in society. This can be extremely dangerous. You can inadvertently make choices that make your installations more partisan.

Return to your installation about George Washington. Without it, you are clearly taking a side, which is that slavery, and the people associated with it, isn’t worth discussing. If you acknowledge slavery in the installation, you are opening yourself to share your institutional interpretation. This will be challenging, no doubt. It’s hard for many people to see slave owners as good people making bad choices. It’s equally hard for some people to see George Washington as a slave owner.

Here is the crux of the neutrality issue. Bringing up complexity in the museum is hard. We often neuter narratives in order to maintain our veneer of neutrality.  Our visitors are often not well-versed enough to notice what has been omitted, and as such they are getting partisan information. By remaining blind to bias, we are doing our field and our visitors a disservice.

14 Dec

2017 in Museums : Year End Quiz

 

Welcome to the Museums 2017 in Review Quiz

This quiz looks back at the museum stories of 2017. Some themes were far too serious to include in this light-hearted quiz:

  • Many museums around the country were impacted by natural disasters, including hurricanes and fires.

  • Equity and access remained a major challenge. Articles highlighted the lack of diversity in leadership; a challenge that the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation attempted to counteract through gifts to 20 museums.

  • Many museum professionals wrote about the challenges of working in the field, citing salary as one of the major reasons for leaving the field. The topic of salaries came up in social media and in AAM's publications.

  • Alleged sexual misconduct was the reason for the head of ArtForum being dismissed. Thomas Campbell of the Metropolitan Museum stepped down, and some cited his inappropriate behavior with a staff member.

For the rest of the museum news of 2017, take the quiz.

1. This American personality penned this tweet as part of the Smithsonian's #SmithsonianCypher:

"Artifacts on wax

Platinum plaques on tracks"
2.

The 87-year-old artist with the most visited exhibition in the US in 2017 will be opening her own museum in:
3. Museums are getting some real boosts thanks to Netflix. Which one of these, though, is not true?
4. Guards at the Louvre went on strike in March because:
5.

This rendering shows the future gems gallery at the American Museum of Natural History. The gallery will reopen in 2019 in honor of the museum's anniversary. Which sparkling anniversary are they celebrating?
6.
Which is NOT a museum that opened in 2017?
7. While not always fun and games, some news articles highlighted the weird and wonderful occurrences in the world of museums.  Which story did NOT happen?
8. Tech in museums made news, but which headline is false?
9.

“Saving Washington” at Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library have interactives that focus on the women of the Revolution, including an interactive on Male Combativeness. The ethos of the exhibition could be summarized by this quote: “We possess a Spirit that will not be conquered. If our Men are all drawn off and we should be attacked, you would find a Race of Amazons in America.” Who said this?
10.

Agnes Gund sold a Lichtenstein painting for $150 million for what reason?
11.

This work by Ramiro Gomez was included in an exhibition highlight worker at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. The idea for the exhibition came from:
12. The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors condemned the sale in July of artworks saying “One of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset.”  The Berkshire is considering selling works by this artist for the right price:
13. Museums took down collection objects due to public outcries. Which of these did not happen?
14. Visitors made their mark on collections in some unfortunate ways. Which of these did not happen this year?
15. The Brooklyn Public Library installed the World's Smallest ____ Museum.  What is the theme of this vending-machine-sized museum?
16. "While science informs and improves our existence, it also drives our economy," said Evalyn Gates, then director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, summarized the participation of many museums in this major American event in 2017.
17. The wildly success #DayofFacts initiative on February 17, 2017 celebrated the importance of truth and learning. The initiative trended on Twitter all day. How many tweets were generated?
18.

In a 2017 exhibition, we learned that Frank Lloyd Wright thought of many colors for the Guggenheim, finished 6 months after his death. Which color was not on his original list of ideas?
19.
This painting sold at Auction for Record-Breaking $450.3 Million was not without controversy. What was the deal?
20. Museums responded to the travel ban in many ways, including the Guggenheim's joint press release, removing or shrouding works from banned countries at the Davis Museum at Wellesley,  and rehanging works from banned countries at MoMA. The New York Historical Society responded to the ban by

Are there any big stories we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments.



12 Dec

Museum Education 2018 Trend Forecast

Last month, I put a call out on Twitter for museum professionals to share their predictions for 2018. Before we get into the trends, it is useful to share the respondents’ collective vision of museums and the field.

What is a museum?

I invited participants to share their definition of a museum in 140 words (The survey was produced before #280characters). The themes of the responses could be categorized into three big themes:

  1. Object-oriented: Respondents used works like objects, conservation, and loan.
  2. Social Space: Words like institution and space were often paired with words like gather and community.
  3. Learning focused: The responses described the broadest sense of education, including scholarship, experiences, and interprets.

What is museum education?

 

Respondents were asked to give five words that defined museum education. The terms were overwhelmingly positive, with only 1/3 having negative connotations. Most of the positive words related to the output of museum educator and the experiences of visitors. There was a broad span of terms, including words that describe specific activities like workshops and terms that describe methodological approaches like engaging. Some of the terms might connect to values held by practitioners, like flexible, creative, dynamic. A few respondents shared words that might indicate changes in the field like transforming and evolving.

The negative and ambiguous terms related to the working in the field. Some words like comfortable and complex can be seen as positive or negative. Other words like undervalued and frustrating are clearly negative. These words often allude to the feelings of workers, feeling undervalued, underpaid, and stifled. Other negative words focus on the programs of museums and how they impact museum education like siloed, unchanged, and racially white.

Museum Education 2018 Trendcasting

Respondents were shared many issues about visitors, both generally and also specifically on K12. They shared their interest in developing programs that were relevant and experiential. The other major theme in responses were about social justice and access, as well as the training needed to be able to create equitable programming.  Above, one can see the relative importance of the major themes, and below one can see the nuance in the responses.

When seen together, museum education in 2018 would like to offer visitors a high-quality, inclusive experiences but feel real challenges in order to do so like funding and training. Educators are thinking about how to evolve to meet the learning needs of visitors. They are interested in finding ways to include narrative and responsive experiences to engage visitors. But, they are also thoughtful about the fact that diversity, access, equity need to be planned and supported.

The respondents discussed this tension between goals and funds in their trendcasting for 2022. The above graphic shows the aggregate of all of the long-form responses about museum education in 2022.In other words, museum educators do not foresee that the problems in the field will improve in the next five years. Digital and technology were big themes for the future, particularly AI. There were real concerns about balancing technology and collections-based experiences. There were also real fears about challenges for the future in terms of funding and staffing.  

 

Stepping up a level, looking at the projected themes helps clarify the biggest issues projected for 2022. Not surprisingly, there was a greater disparity in themes for the 2022 trends, as forecasting so far out is more challenging.  That said, notice the certain issues like disaster readiness appear on the 2022 themes list but were absent from the 2018 list.

Conclusion

The educators had clear expectations for 2018. Equity and access was a major theme, along with the perennial issues of schools and visitor experiences. However, funding and workplace challenges were equally important. Taken together, one can see a distinct tension between expectations and possibilities. Museum educators want to do more but are already strapped. In many ways, the 2022 projections indicate that there is a sense that the big challenges of funding and equity/access might not be addressed.

So, how as a field can we thwart the predictions for museum education 2022?

  • How can we address the issues of frustration in the field?
  • How we move our work into a supported position in our organizations?
  • What types of funding changes or expectation changes are needed?
  • How can we make real changes with equity and access so that five years from now we are looking at broader audiences?

What are your thoughts on the trends for 2018 or futureproofing the field for 2022?

 

Also, if you would like to look at the raw data, drop me a line at seema@brilliantideastudio.com 

05 Dec

5 Ways that UX Designers Practice can Improve Museum Work

 

User Experience Design is the set of practices employed to create products that center the user. These designers focus on people to make products better. Their working practices also center people to foster collaboration and support. So, what can  museum workers learn from UX Designers:

 

Problem: You are working on a big project together but you don’t know what each person is doing.

Make it Visual

Put up a physical board that shows where each team comes in. Have teams tick off progress so that everyone can see quickly.

 

Stand-Ups/ Check-in time

Set up a time that you can check in for 15 minutes with everyone that recurs.  This could be weekly or daily depending on the timeline. Every team reports where they are on the project. Then, you deal with pressing issues teams have in order to go forward.

Don’t let this meeting go over. Be brutal when the meeting gets off track.

You can do this live, if the group size makes this feasible. If not, try meeting on slack. Avoid doing this on email, as it will just cause chaos.

 

Problem: You are never in the same place or in the same meetings.

Make time for in-person interactions

Buy some cake and invite the team. Set up some time to meet together for lunch. Foster strong bonds across silos.

 

Add some Slack

Online tools like slack can be an ideal way to create a conversational tone amongst peers from different teams.

 

Make files accessible

Create a shared drive, with naming and filing conventions, so that everyone is looking at the same thing.

 

Problem: Everyone has their own process.

Create a common language

Processes can differ if you are communicating together. Find ways to find commonality, like by creating shared experiences (see above). You might need to create a shared term’s document so that you are all speaking the same language. This final detail is particularly important in places that use a number of acronyms or in projects that work across a divergent field.

 

Problem: There are misconceptions in other departments about your project.

Align with your message

Make sure everyone on the project has the same message. Allow everyone to share the message, or find a message that everyone can share.

 

Invest time into educating people about your project.

Nominate people throughout hierarchy and across the project departments to serve as ambassadors.

Share

Be transparent about your work to those outside your project teams, including setbacks. This will build trust and goodwill.

 

This post was inspired by the great post by  Code Monkey Tech.