Wednesday, January 19, 2011

TEDxKC - Francis Cholle - The Intuitive Intelligence Movement

Rethinking thinking . . .
Feeling the urge to play  . . .

This video of a lecture by Francis Cholle has been ringing in my ears for a couple of weeks, partially because I have been thinking a lot lately — I have been overly-serious, worried, and results-oriented. But when I saw the graph at 
9:03, I had this moment of recognition: I really need to PLAY to engage in the creative side of . . . life. Work, home, everything requires some messy interconnectedness — not just linear, tidy, hierarchy, which I find comfort in — in order to find the genius that's on this planet. In fact, I see through this video that using playful instinct, rather than just depending on reason and outcome, is key to welcoming creative magic into my world. 

Know where else this video took me? I think finding that magic is what visitors often get out of a trip to a museum. The question for me then becomes: do museum workers remember to take time to play during the time we spend creating these amazing institutions? 

(Don't ya just love a good TED talk!)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Definition of a Museum

But . . . but what about the . . .

Once upon a time, I was a student in the Master of Arts Museum Studies program at John F. Kennedy University in California.  In my cohort, there were two main specializations in the program — collections management and public programming — and they ran side by side. All the students were together for the core foundation courses, then we broke out into the respective groups for in-depth specialization classes. We also wrote our master's thesis on a topic to add to the literature / learning of our specialization.

Being in collections management, I honestly thought that I would see far more registrar-types than those interested in public programming. Boy, was I wrong! It turns out that in a class of (I believe) 12, there were only FOUR in collections management. I was shocked, really, and so the first lesson of this amazing program was that I was never to be sure what is going to happen in my own personal definition of the museum world.

The core courses were so interesting and so very challenging. These classes, often led by the phenomenal Gail Anderson, emphasized the community, and the educational mandate of museums. It was repeatedly stated that, without people, museums are not worth a whole lot with their packed-full rooms of collections. This was a bit of a shocker to me at the time, for 
I had always loosely defined museums as places that collect things that tell a story - it was about The Object. Yet we discussed that museums can exist without collections, but not without people.

WHAT? Wait a minute.

Museums without collections? This thought shocked me. The conversation kept being pushed — museums are first and foremost places of learning for people, not Mausoleums of Stuff. (Ouch.) Museums can keep things forever but if no one sees the collections, what's the point? Why spend all that money and energy putting things on those pedestals, and keeping them carefully tucked away in storage? 
Again and again it was stressed that if we, as museum professionals, were not serving our audience and community, we were in fact engaged in organizations that simply idolized and interpreted material goods. And so what about that? This seemingly endless discussion actually got my back up a little - hey, if there are no collections needed in museums, there are no collections MANAGERS. Are 'they' trying to get rid of me and my profession? And curators? And conservators? With the majority of the class being education-centric, it certainly seemed like my voice from the registrars' section was getting a little over-run. And so I kept rebuking, over and over again:

But — What about The Collections?

How DO collections fit into this museum definition of education and people first, things second?  This was the central question of my museum studies, and it was the heart of
 master's project in collections management, when I designed a form that documented the object donor's story at the time the object was given to the museum. From a collections manager point of view, I saw that having the community document their own donations as an important step in sharing the task of interpreting the collection in the museum.

And then I went back into the museum world . . .

. . . where the work often comes before the conversations of why we do what we do . . .

. . . and where the education side of museum professionals rarely out-number the object-centric museum specialists.

There I discovered that, somewhat to my initial relief, history, art and natural history museums were still, in my opinion, focussed on the object. Some exhibitions were practically alters. Some curators were the experts, and they owned the story that visitors heard and learned from. And accessibility, welcoming visitors? Sharing authority? Pretty much back burner. Educational programs seemed to be afterthoughts to the exhibitions. Mission statements started with 'To collect, preserve the stuff of the community'. It seemed to me that objects were the centre; my side of museum work seemed rather protected. But I didn't feel smug. In fact, I felt worried and a little sick at this realization of the museum sector in action.

Then, of course, it hit me. 

But — What about The Community?

All the discussions from my time at JFKU rang in my ears. Despite my rants to protect the object's role in the definition of a museum, this adoration of collections without thinking about the community is, well,
not a sustainable way to gather supporters, whether they be visitors or funders or fans. Only in a few cases will the object come before the interest of the visitor, so the collections should not be the only focus of what we do. If the museum values and welcomes its visitors, makes people the first priority, our communities just might see all these museums belong to them. And then maybe, just maybe, they will stay and play and participate in this ever-so-cool learning environment, for it will be for the visitor, and about the visitor. It truly is not just about the collection, or for those who adore the museum objects.

In coming full circle of my unique learning situation and professional experience, 
I have become aware of a few things. Museums to me are defined as places of education that hold collections in trust for the community. I personally need to keep collections as one of the central tennets that define a museum for I am and always will be passionate about the things that tell the stories of the world around us. But I also know this: I absolutely, without a doubt, cannot leave out the community in this definition: PEOPLE are the reason why museums do what museums do. Always. The collection and the community's experience — including educational — are together for me, and I use these fundamentals equally when I define what is a museum. No buts about it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Life as a Museum Consultant

Starring . . .

Ah, it's the time of year to take stock, mark where I've been and where I want to go. It is 
cliché, but it is also very difficult for me to resist this exercise. So here it goes — a contemplation on working as a museum consultant, and how I hope to be in 2011.

I wrote a while ago about
my career's evolution, and how I have felt as if I perhaps I was not living up to my potential. This was always rather heart-wrenching to me, of course. Thank goodness it was 2010 that I realized I had only one idea of what success looked like: it was a permanent job in one museum where I could serve and make a difference. 

I have not had that opportunity (do. not. say. that. sentence!) but have been blessed with many museum-based projects. This still has made me feel a little on the outside, as if I am not quite 'there' yet. I have always wanted more than that one project at a museum, and to be part of the team. I did my best to behave myself and be patient during these projects, making few waves, and working hard to deliver what was requested, hoping for approval. But the work would end. Over and over again, I was ultimately disappointed, because I kept thinking: WHO gets such short jobs like this and is happy about it?? The variety is good but . . . it's challenging, because I keep having to adapt to a new environment, get up to speed on the work 'culture', meet new people, form new bonds . . . then it's over. All wrapped up. What other professionals have to do this kind of variety of project-based work so much and so often and like it? And how on earth can one ever get ahead??

And then it occurred to me.

(Stop the sad violins!)

ACTORS live like this. 

And, heck, some even become

Actors work on plays, advertisements, television series, and movies. They take small roles in order to build a name - a 'brand' - and hope that people will recognize them for their craft, and to make a living. Some actors get to be known for their
face, others their body of work, and yet others cuz they's a little bit crazy and interesting to watch. But I would bet most actors are into all these projects because they love what they get to do.

How does this relate to being a museum consultant? I have multiple experiences: made
presentations, given advice to local cultural groups, worked on long-term heritage site projects, and now I am participating in a limited though intense, fabulous project. And I am realizing that I, too, have a responsibility to build a brand: what do I want to be known for, in this work that I love so much? 

Suddenly this consultant role has pointed me to the fact that many museums and organizations hire
me — Caroline Posynick — as a cast member who has to bring a lot to the production or it could fail or, almost as scary, not be a hit. Working as a consultant, independent of an organization, gives the opportunity for me to be ME with all my passion; I need to be aware of but am not tied to bureaucracies that exist within museums. My mistake up to this point is that I have been a quiet version of my museum professional self, wanting to to blend in and not make waves, be part of this bureaucracy.* I know now that this is not how I will make a difference, with or without a desk in a museum, for "making it" in the museum world means owning an opinion and speaking up with a strong voice. Being a consultant gives me freedom to say what I think will work more easily, and, man, I need to be all over that opportunity as an ever-developing professional, for I want to be known as an open, energized, fearless museum advocate.

Therefore, in 2011, I am going to strive to make the most of this adventure as a museum consultant. I will embrace the opportunity to deliver my dialogue clearly and concisely, and to prepare well and perform even better when I get my time on the stage. I will of course follow the director's instruction and not (gasp) be a diva, but my motto for the year seems to be turning into "Go For It!" And so I shall.

All the best to you and yours in 2011. Let's drive the paparazzo crazy with our awesome work!

I have been so guilty of being overly-cautious in my professional adventures — except for the one time at a collections development meeting where I noticed the curator was not present. I asked and found out he wasn't even invited. And so I said in a stage whisper, "Is this a coup??" I had better not turn into a Katy Perry — or at least be sure that it's Katy they want!