Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Collecting Authentic Experiences: An Interview with Carolynne Harris

Carolynne Harris currently focuses on organizational, strategic and concept planning, exhibition development, operational planning, project management, and construction integration for new museums, renovations and expansions. Her clients have included the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories of the American South, College Football Hall of Fame, the National Museum of Wildlife Art, NASCAR Hall of Fame, the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, National Building Museum, and the Center for Puppetry Arts.

Prior to her consultant work, Carolynne applied an academic background in Anthropology, Museology and Urban Studies to the development of over 40 exhibitions, managing staff and projects at the Smithsonian Institution and Fernbank Museum of Natural History. She has been published in Curator, organized and presented sessions at national conferences of the American Alliance of Museums, has reviewed grants for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and is a member of Praxis Museum Projects Group.

Carolynne was kind enough to share her thoughts in this interview for the ExhibiTricks blog.

What’s your educational background? I have a BA in Anthropology from UVA and a MA in Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts from Emory University. I also have a big personal interest in architecture, so I have had an informal immersion of sorts in architecture.

What got you interested in Museums?  I actually was Pre-Med, but since UVA doesn’t offer that as a major, I picked Anthropology, because it seemed interesting and in tune with my curiosity about the world… and right as I was planning to take the MCATs, I got swept up in cultural anthropology studies, and in particular the ideas of representations of the “Other.”

I ended up doing my senior thesis on the Smithsonian and what was then beginning to be termed “the politics of representation.”  So I bailed on the med school thing, much to the chagrin of my parents, and decided I had to work at the Smithsonian. So I moved up to DC, and waited tables until I got a job.

What are ways to rethink  “traditional” museum experiences (such as museums without collections) ?  I think that museums, or rather ‘visitor experiences,’ now include so many methods of engagement, and the business of museums has become much more savvy in how resources are allocated, that collecting and storing large troves of objects doesn’t always translate into the most effective model. Visitors still look for an authentic experience, and objects are an important way to convey that, but many institutions are using them more judiciously. This may mean more sparingly in some places, using fascimiles or more environmental design, or even designing the experience to have certain ‘beats’ that are object-intensive, while others are not.

I’ve noticed that many new institutions are not planning for collections, but rather are borrowing them, reproducing them, or integrating them into the experience in new ways to allow for greater ‘access’ – like visible storage, digital archives or interactivity. Of course, this means different things to different kinds of museums. I mean, Natural History museums have been displaying reproductions of fossils forever, so that they can study and preserve the artifacts  – and visitors rarely know, and don’t care – just being on display in a museum confers authenticity, if they are learning something about it. And Science Centers don’t have traditional collections, right?

Visitors’ expectations are changing and we’ve all been talking about the need for digital engagement and social elements, but not at the expense of the authentic experience, so what does that authentic experience mean now? That’s one thing I’ve been thinking about a good amount lately. We have such a great opportunity to spark dialogue and exchange through these means now. It’s all about balance. And what the institution is good at, and can manage so that their visitors come away with a good experience.

I had a colleague many years ago who used to say, “Viewing art is about PLEASURE” and not wanting to muck it up with lots of interpretive labels, while I would argue “No, the interpretation is important for those who don’t know how to look, why they should care.”  Of course, now I believe both are possible, and with all the tools in our quiver, it’s a fun time to find the balance.

Can you tell us more about the workshops you’ve formulated for potential new clients to come up with a vision and roadmap for planning, without having to jump into an expensive planning process?  I do a lot of planning work for new museums, renovations and expansions. A Master Planning process can be time- and resource-intensive. I’ve found that sometimes the client may not have a clear vision of what the project really should be yet, the experience goals, or their own operational capacity. They also are scared to drop thousands and thousands of dollars on a Master Planning team, but need to have a better idea of what they are developing in order to get the project (and fundraising) off the blocks.

With a colleague in Philadelphia, I developed a workshop that is a one-day creative dialogue pulling together an organization’s leadership, stakeholders, and some creative instigators, the outcome of which is a consensus for the key aspects of the visitor experience and facility. From that, I develop a set of recommendations for next steps, an overall planning road map and a crystallized a ‘big idea’ for the overall effort.

I feel like it is useful and different, because:

* It is focused, and facilitates assessing and crystallizing existing work regarding possibilities, and starts to evaluate the viability of options.

* It’s a crystallization instead of big strategic/master planning – to get the institution to define a strong vision, a strong set of goals and an understanding of assets and resources.

* Through different viewpoints and voices, the client can explore options, variables and challenges in early in the process, and develop consensus to inform future planning.

* It provides a plan for what would be required to execute the agreed-upon vision.

* And, most importantly, it’s a fraction of the cost of an extensive planning process, so the client doesn’t go down some rabbit hole before they have a solid idea of what they are pursuing.

I have done a couple of these so far, and it seems to be well-received and valuable.

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your museum work?
I am an avid bike-rider, swimmer, and yogi, as well as having played a lot of sports in my life. For me personally, the physical activity helps me think more clearly – I’m a kinesthetic thinker. Some people have ‘shower thoughts’ -- I often have great moments of clarity on mile 15 on my bike, or lap 18 in the pool. I’m not sure what that brings to the work I do other than hopefully making me more efficient and clear when I’m at the desk or leading discussions!

In addition to playing sports, I also grew up playing guitar. Both being in a band, and on a sports team, teach you teamwork, the power of supporting and setting up someone else to be the lead, and resilience. I think those are skills I pull on daily, are important to the sustainability of institutions in our industry, and influence how I think about certain kinds of visitor experiences.

The down side? I spend a LOT of time watching sports and going to hear music. But I’ve also been really fortunate to work on projects related to these interests, so having some knowledge has been helpful to those teams.

What are the ways you think about making your projects accessible to the widest range of visitors?   I constantly work with clients about integrating their visitor experiences and content with their public presence through the Web, social media, and on-site programs and services. So many institutions have these organizationally siloed, and lose great opportunities to make more robust connections with their visitors and potential visitors. For example, a museum should be able to have one set of data for ticket buyers, members, donors, event attendees, retail and on-site registration for things, all connected to social media accounts.

Things are moving in this direction, but our industry has been way behind on this, and the outreach to visitors can be so much more focused and potent if all of these functions are integrated both in the data set and within the institutions’ outreach messaging and mechanisms.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?  Other than what we’ve already talked about, I’m not the greatest futurist.  I think that in general, many communities are realizing that cultural tourism is a big economic driver, and are starting to put a lot of resources behind it, which is great for our industry! Promoting unique history, culture and the arts of a region to bring people there is becoming more and more important in the economic equation. And this means more place-based public history and access to the arts in communities large and small.

The shapes and sizes and missions of the experiences being developed under the auspices of cultural tourism vary widely, but the whole movement is growing museums and other visitor experiences in places that are underserved, and that’s exciting to me.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?  This is the question I always suck at answering – I like certain things about a lot of museums and exhibitions. I will say, one of my favorite places to visit has been SFMOMA. I typically visit more art museums, even though I work more on other types of museums. I go to San Francisco at least once a year, and often find myself at SFMOMA (before it closed for expansion). I feel that they do really cutting edge exhibitions, that aren’t precious, but accessible even when it’s something like a crazy huge installation on Matthew Barney.

One place I love that isn’t a museum or technically an exhibit is the FDR Memorial in DC. I find it very moving, and using sculpture, water, and very few words, conveys its messages very effectively. And, it’s just a beautiful space. Having worked on a couple of outdoor exhibits, I appreciate how content and nature interact.

I like to go and watch people go through it, and also be reminded that design can be simple, beautiful and impactful.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?  I’m currently working with the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta on a renovation and expansion. They have the largest collection of puppets from around the globe, and just received an enormous donation of objects from the Jim Henson Legacy, so it’s a fun project.

I’ve got some other projects that aren’t ready for prime time, but they range from historic sites, to cultural history, and another possible music project, so I'm looking forward to 2015!

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?  Do you mean I win the lottery, or a project comes fully funded with a blank check?  Either way, I’d love to establish a ‘museum lab’ that is part shared workspace, part incubator for new ideas and technologies, part display and program area, including for food and drink.

It would be a place where thought leaders from around the globe would come to share ideas, test new engagement and interpretation strategies, and host innovative projects of many disciplines. The food and drink brings people together, but also expands how it can be a springboard for cultural exploration and fun/play. Our industry is very collegial, but I think it could be doing some really cool things if we had a place to stir things up and put money behind good ideas as well as good failures.

So after I win the lottery, and take my family and 12 best friends on an island vacation, look for the Lab of Incredible, Authentic, Innovative Cultural Experience!

Thanks Carolynne, for sharing your thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers!  To find out more about Carolynne's consulting practice, click on over to her website.  To find out more about Carolynne's involvement with the Praxis Museum Projects Group, head on over to the Praxis website.

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