Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Letter from Museum Camp

Dear Folks,

I just got back from Museum Camp in Santa Cruz, and I wanted to tell you about it, and show you some pictures I took there.

First off, the "official" title of Museum Camp was "You Can't Do That in Museums Camp" or the somewhat edgier alternate title of "Hack the Museum Camp."  Anyway, whatever you call it, the Camp was launched by Nina Simon (a museum rock star, if there ever was one) at the museum where she is the director, the MAH (aka The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, pictured below.)

Nina invited me to come to Museum Camp and be a "counselor."  (More on that later ...) Just like summer camp there were campers and counselors --- some of the campers even slept on the floor of the museum in sleeping bags, but I got to share a house with some of the other counselors --- museum "rock stars" in their own right.

Just getting to be part of the same event with fellow counselors like Maria Mortati, Eric Siegel, Julie Bowen, Jason Jay Stevens, Dan Spock, Kathy McLean, Darcie Fohrman, Kevin von Appen, and Merilee Mostov was big fun.  (Also the Camp counselors brought a lot of professional horsepower to the enterprise.)

So the big idea of Museum Camp was this: bring together about 75 people (Campers and Counselors) for two-and-a-half days, break them up into 15 counselor+camper teams, let them choose from 20 or so museum collection objects, and then have an entire exhibition ready for the public opening party!   So check-in on Wednesday and check-out Friday night after the exhibition party.

Woohoo!  The perfect high-stakes, high-pressure antidote to the usual museum whining ("we don't have enough time, we don't have enough money!" ) And honestly, miraculously, it all came together --- there were 15 exhibits lined up with bright, shining faces to form an entire exhibition.  A wild, eclectic exhibition, but everyone delivered the goods!

So how did this all shake down schedule-wise?  Everyone checked in starting Wednesday morning (since I was a counselor, I got a whistle!) and we had a series of workshops throughout the afternoon related to exhibit development topics like prototyping, writing prompts, emotionally-engaging exhibitions, etc.  (I got to do a workshop on becoming an "Office Supply Ninja" prototyper!)

After a scheduled "siesta" (really --- it is Santa Cruz after all!) we played a game to choose the artifact (or artifacts) that each team would use as the basis of their exhibit.  After that was sorted out and after a delicious group dinner (with carefully delineated vegan and gluten-free options --- still Santa Cruz, right?) we used the time between 8pm and midnight on Wednesday to lock down the initial "Big Idea" and crank up the concept and development phase of our project.  Knowing that everything had to be ready to go before the Exhibition Opening Party at 5pm on Friday didn't leave much time for monkeying around (which was good!)

So let me tell you about our team, Team #10 (aka "Perfect Ten.")  My three team members were super!  Diana Kapsner is a staff member at MAH --- it was great to have a "local" on our team when we looking for materials and resources!  Emily Black Fry works at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City --- she had tons of great ideas and enthusiasm.  And last, but not least, Karli Kendall from the Red Deer Museum, in Alberta Canada --- Karli was definitely our "organizer" but in a good way!

The "Perfect 10" team chose a large (7 feet wide by 6 feet tall) painting by Joseph De Giorgio, entitled Oceanside No. 8. (Pictured below, but it looks better in real life.)   I'm no art historian, but I liked it, and it used a sort of pointillist approach which led directly to our team's "Big Idea" namely, "One Painting, Many Points of View."

So my way of describing the idea(s) behind our team's exhibit would be that we wanted to reward visitors for being careful observers of Oceanside No. 8, and that we also wanted to give visitors many multi-sensory ways to look at the painting more than once, and to experience the painting in different ways.  We set out to do this by creating a physical "beach scene" tableau complete with beach chairs, cooler, table, etc. set up in front of the painting.  Objects you might expect to find at the beach would all be used to allow visitors to experience this one painting from many different points of view.

Then it was just hard work! Pulling materials together and editing down our ideas, our team pretty much worked from Thursday morning up until midnight.  It was a loooong day!  I think it helped that our team conversations were honest, but respectful, even if we pushed back on each others' ideas now and then.  I think my role was less counselor as "exhibit Yoda" but more as an equal team member (albeit with a bit more museum exhibit development experience!)  I think we all left with a clear sense of what we needed to accomplish in the few hours remaining on Friday and how we could work together to do it.

I don't think any of our team felt stressed at all when we gathered together Friday morning.  We articulated the things we "had" to finish, as opposed to the things we'd "like" to finish so we had a clear sense of our priorities.

I'm really proud and happy with where we ended up with our team's exhibit. I feel that the Big Idea is a strong one, and that we gave visitors many ways (sights, sounds, smells) and reasons to engage with De Giorgio's painting.

Would I have done anything differently with Museum Camp?  Not much actually.   I might have added one more day to the process,  and also added an optional mid-day activity to break up the intensity of the long day(s) of work.

Also we spent a lot of time talking about "taking risks" and making "risky experiences."  I'm still not sure what that means exactly.  In the end, I think notions of "risk" became a bit of a distraction to the exhibit development process at Museum Camp.

So would I participate in Museum Camp again?  In a heartbeat!  It definitely reinforced some of my ideas about "quick and dirty" prototyping, but also stretched me professionally in thinking about new and different ways to twist the "traditional gallery experience" in more visitor and community-centric ways.  (Also, I'm sold on the idea of installing more beach chairs inside Art Museum galleries!)

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