Thursday, April 12, 2018

Museums Involving Communities: Authentic Connections


In Margaret Kadoyama’s vision, cultural organizations are vital members of their communities and are actively involved in community revitalization.  Margaret works collaboratively with museums and cultural organizations to create strategic community involvement and audience development plans, assess programs, and plan for sustainability. 

Margaret was kind enough to share some thoughts here on the ExhibiTricks blog about her new book, Museums Involving Communities: Authentic Connections.



Imagine this: You are on vacation, and you decide to check out a local museum. You have a professional and personal interest in visiting, and when you arrive, you notice that the people there – the staff and visitors – seem to be happy to be there, and there is a vitality and energy about the place. When you look around, the staff and visitors are all sorts of people – various ages, styles, races, ethnicities, groupings, and the place feels welcoming and inclusive. People are engaged with one another and with the exhibitions and programs. You think, “Wow – this is a great place to be! How did it come to be like this?”


That scenario is a guidepost for me, and writing this book has been a way to discover how to make that happen for more museums. I have been long committed to the quiet but tenacious goal of helping people learn how museums can be vital members of their communities.  Since the late 1980s this vision has driven my work, and when I was asked to teach at John F. Kennedy University Museum Studies in 1997, I hoped that this was a way to influence many students over many years to embrace and incorporate community involvement into their daily practice. It has been a great pleasure to see hundreds of JFKU students embracing community work and join with colleagues in moving this forward. To my delight, the museum field has grown and is increasingly embracing community-focused work.

At this time and place (the United States in 2018), colleagues in many museums and cultural organizations are articulating the importance of being inclusive. A current example is the April 2018 issue of National Geographic, in which Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg’s editor letter acknowledges National Geographic’s racist history, and notes, “Let’s examine why we continue to segregate along racial lines and how we can build inclusive communities.”

The purpose of Museums Involving Communities: Authentic Connections is to explore how museums can become vital members of their communities, actively involved in community revitalization, and how community members can become actively involved with their museums. This exploration examines the components of museum-community relationships, with the goal of creating more accessible, inclusive, and relevant museums and cultural organizations. 


This book provides insights and guidance into how museums can be more fully engaged with their communities.  We take you through the process, looking internally to learn about our museums and ourselves, and then externally to learn about our communities.  We’ve included key questions to help guide this process, such as:

• What is your intention for engaging in a museum-community involvement initiative?

• Why do you want to have stronger relationships with people and organizations in your community?

• What do you hope will happen as you become more fully involved in your community?


Also included are stories from the field to illustrate how organizations such as the Science Museum of Minnesota, Queens Museum, Arab American National Museum, Oakland Museum of California, and others are embracing community. The stories are not only about what the museum leadership and staff are doing, but also why they are doing it, the challenges they are facing, how they navigate through those challenges, and the short-term and longer-term impacts of their work for the museums and their communities. And, sample worksheets and charts are included as helpful tools for museum leadership and staff.

In the book, we ask questions about communities’ impacts on museum programs, exhibitions, collections, audience and internal culture, a museum’s impact on its community, and the role of leadership in fostering community engagement. The book guides the reader to a) understand how relationships between communities and museums can be forged, b) learn and weigh strategies for involving and advocating for communities in museums, and c) learn how to develop a community involvement action plan.


A question posed by my friend and colleague Leslie Bedford says it best:



Why are some museums comfortable and successful at embracing community and others not? How is that culture of inclusion created and sustained?


Museums Involving Communities hopes to help you find out.



AND NOW --- A CHANCE TO WIN A FREE COPY OF MARGARET'S NEW BOOK!

If you would like a chance to win a copy of Margaret's new book, Museums Involving Communities: Authentic Connections, just become an email subscriber to the ExhibiTricks blog by clicking on the link at the top right of the blog's homepage.  If you are already an ExhibiTricks subscriber you can simply send an email to info@orselli.net with the subject line "I want to win a book!" 

In either case, all entries must be received before April 30, 2018.  The randomly-selected winner will be notified after that time.


You can also order a copy of Margaret's book directly from the Routledge Publishing website.  If you enter the code FLR40, you can receive a 20% discount at checkout.  (The book is also available at Amazon and other online booksellers.)



For those of you attending the 2018 AAM Conference in Phoenix, Margaret will be doing a book signing on Monday, May 7th from 3:00 to 4:00 PM at the Alliance Bookstore -- Booth #2448 in the Expo Hall.


Last, but not least, you can find out more about Margaret and her work by visiting her website.





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Friday, April 6, 2018

Back to Tunisia!


I'm off on another museum project  --- this time for my second trip to Tunisia!  I'll be reporting on my Tunisian travels in a future ExhibiTricks blog post, but for now I hope you'll enjoy this "encore" post about my first trip to Tunisia.  You can also check out my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds for live updates!


My work brings me to many unexpected places around the world, but I just returned from what may be my most interesting trip so far --- working with folks from Libya, but in Tunisia!

So how did I end up in Tunisia?  Earlier this year, I was contacted by Professor Susan Kane of Oberlin College.  Susan told me about her project through the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State to work with Libyan educators, scout leaders, and museum folks.

The point of this particular project being to bring together Libyans from different parts of the country who work with young people to help foster national reconciliation, and to create a greater appreciation for the importance of Libyan cultural heritage --- both tangible (think historic structures and archaeological sites) as well as intangible (things like music, dance, and poetry.)

Now we need to stop the story to fill in a couple of important details.  First off, given shifting events and unrest in Libya over the past few years, our U.S. Embassy to Libya is currently located in neighboring Tunisia, not Libya (see map below.) So that's why a State Department workshop with participants from Libya was happening in Tunisia.  (Also U.S. citizens are currently advised not to travel to Libya.)



Secondly, why ask ME to give this workshop that, at least partially, concerned itself with cultural heritage and Libyan national reconciliation?  Several kind museum colleagues pointed Susan in my direction, and together we crafted a plan to share my ideas about open-ended activities for children, quick and cheap exhibit prototyping, and developing pop-up or temporary museums in schools and community centers with the workshop participants.

After the initial excitement of traveling to Tunisia wore off, I honestly began to worry --- would my information and activities with simple materials actually be useful to Libyans concerned with reconciliation and cultural heritage? I continued to think about this from the time I started planning activities and gathering materials in the U.S. all the way until I arrived at the hotel on the outskirts of Tunis where the workshops would be held.

Fortunately, the Libyan men and women in my workshop were very enthusiastic and welcoming.  It was clear (once we got into the groove with our helpful translators!) that everyone at the workshop was hungry for activities to share with the students, scouts, and children they worked with.  I deliberately chose topics and activities that I thought could be used in a wide range of situations.



For example, I introduced a number of activities that dealt with the topic of "Structures."  In dealing with open-ended design challenges involving structures we could easily discuss History, Architecture, and Engineering among other subjects.  We created bridges and buildings out of simple supplies like paper, tape, straws, and paper clips.  The workshop participants excitedly shared their own embellishments for activities with each other, and also remarked on the symbolic value of a topic like "bridges" when discussing with children how to work together to create a more united Libya.  (Given the current political climate, maybe I should introduce more bridge-building activities for my workshops in the United States!)



Together with the workshop participants we spent one day focused on how to develop open-ended design activities and another on testing and prototyping ideas. Along the way, I also introduced fun activities like "Laughing Cups" that could quickly engage children and then lead into a broader discussion of cultural heritage topics like Music. (My new Libyan friends in the workshop called these sorts of activities Mr. Paul's "tricks.")

Our last workshop day together dealt with the development of Pop-Up (or temporary) Museums. These sorts of temporary displays or exhibitions are great ways to engage with communities and lend themselves to being set up inside non-museum spaces like schools or community centers (or even under tents outside.)  So we ended our workshop by creating a Pop-Up Museum!



Several workshop participants brought objects from home to share for the Pop-Up Museum, while others put displays together from materials available on-site.  One of my favorite examples of "instant exhibitry" was from Intisar, the director of the Children's Museum in Tripoli, who created a display about the different types of historical tombs found in Libya (clay for lower class, glass for upper class) using leftover chicken bones from lunch and an ashtray from her hotel room!



As with every class or workshop I lead, I learned a lot from the participants and our work together. Perhaps foremost in Tunisia, I learned that the Libyans I met (like all people around the world) want a better life for their children, and a safe and secure place to live.

So can Laughing Cups help Libya? In the hands of the thoughtful and dedicated people I met in Tunisia, I'm sure, in a small way, they can.



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Friday, March 30, 2018

Are There Hidden "Easter Eggs" In A Museum Near You?


I'm away in Paris for Easter, so I thought ExhibiTricks readers might enjoy this seasonal post!

You can also check out my TwitterFacebook, and Instagram feeds for live updates from Parisian museums and exhibits!

Museum designers often add "Easter Eggs" to their work.  But not the brightly dyed or chocolate-y varieties --- these are more akin to the hidden "Easter Eggs" that you may stumble across (or deliberately search out) inside video games, crossword puzzles, or DVDs.

For visitors, it's fun to feel like you've found a little "secret" inside a museum building or exhibition, and for designers it's a little "trick" to reward visitors for carefully observing and examining things inside the museum.

"Exhibits as advent calendars" as Dan Spock has observed (to mix religious holiday metaphors a bit!)  So here are a few of my favorite museum easter eggs:


• Secret Elves at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science: Artist Kent R. Pendleton worked on many of the Museum's dioramas, but supposedly he wasn't allowed to sign his name to his work.  Instead, Pendleton included little "elfin" figures hidden throughout many of the displays.  There's a great blog posting (with video) about Pendleton's retro easter eggs!






• The Magic House Mouse:  The "Magic House" Children's Museum outside St. Louis has some wonderful exhibits, but one of my favorite "hidden gems" is the tiny decorated mouse hole near the baseboards in one of the galleries.  If you were just whizzing around you might not ever see it, but if you're willing to get down on your hands and knees you might see (as in the photo below) a "presidential" mouse:





• The "Hidden Tunnel" at Casa Loma:  Casa Loma is a gigantic historic house outside Toronto that is filled with enough crazy details to keep even little kids interested during the self-guided tours.  One  of the things I remember from a family visit (nearly 40 years ago!) was the cool secret tunnel, nearly 100 feet long, that was hidden behind a pivoting wall section (just like in all those scary movies --- but this was real!)  that led to the Casa's underground wine cellar:




Of course some museums, like The City Museum, also in St. Louis, or the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A., are practically interlocking collections of "easter eggs" or in-jokes, but that's certainly one aspect that makes them so popular.

What are some of your most memorable "Museum Easter Eggs"?  Let us know in the "Comments Section" below!

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Friday, March 23, 2018

Exhibit Design Inspiration: Brad's Grocery Store Vegetable Displays


You have to admire someone who takes a "simple" job and turns it into a creative outlet.  Such is the case with Brad, a semi-anonymous grocery store worker from the city of Madison in Wisconsin.

I came across Brad's story, and examples of his work, through the food-related offshoot (called "Gastro Obscura") of the website Atlas Obscura.

For Pi Day!
One thing that resonated for me about Brad's vegetable creations was how he took a task that might have seemed mundane or even drudgery and turned it into a positive creative outlet.  I think there's a good inspirational lesson there for any museum/exhibit/design worker!

I also appreciated how positive customer feedback pushed Brad to keep up with his creative vegetable displays.  To quote Brad:

Compared to past jobs, “doing this work was the first time people would stop, smile, and give me nice comments on the beauty of my work.”

So as you move through your own creative tasks and challenges, take some time to find the beauty in your own endeavors.

Check out the Gastro Obscura article about Brad, and follow him on Instagram to see even more examples of his vegetable artistry.



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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Book For Everyone Who Works With Creative People


It's somehow always surprising to me that not everyone who runs a museum works well with creative people.

Bonnie Siegler's new book,  Dear Client: This Book Will Teach You How to Get What You Want from Creative People, may well be the perfect gift for those folks struggling to get the best results out of their creative relationships.

The tone of the book is set from the very first quote, attributed to Steve Jobs: "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do."

In a visually compelling presentation, Siegler, a graphic designer, lays out 66 pithy tips for working with creative people.  

Here are a few of my favorites:

No. 5  Have Clarity of Purpose

As Siegler mentions in her book, if you have more than three priorities, you really don't have any.

No. 8  Decide Who Will Decide

Creative vision is NOT a group activity. Choose one person who will be the decider and/or tie-breaker.

No. 20  Be Up Front About Money

Trust us with your budget parameters --- it will make us feel like we're on the same side.

No. 49  Don't Let Data Drive Your Decisions

I love what Siegler says here -- data doesn't leave room for the most unquantifiable of qualities: vision.  

People will always respond to the familiar in a way that can be recorded.  But how do you crunch the numbers on something new and remarkable?


In fact, you may want to purchase two copies --- one for yourself, and one for your next client!



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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Small Spaces in Big Museums


On a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston with my family, it wasn't just the big exhibition galleries and art that impressed me, but also some smaller, more intimate, exhibition spaces.

In particular, the Musical Instruments gallery was a perfect "right-sized" museum experience.  As you can see by the section of museum map from the MFA below, the space is barely bigger than the nearby ticketing desk area.


However, while small, every aspect of the Musical Instruments gallery was polished to jewel-like perfection.

To begin with, the space was slightly off the main entrance and easily missed if you were rushing into some of the special exhibition galleries.  Unlike most of the galleries in the MFA, Musical Instruments was sealed by a heavy glass door that blocked out the sound from the rest of the museum.  This was highlighted by the soft music playing inside the gallery --- very appropriate considering the subject of the gallery's contents!

The instruments on display were unusual and interesting (like the ceremonial trombone pictured at the top of this post) and because the space was small, with only a few other people inside, it rewarded careful observation and concentration.  Minute details that might otherwise be glossed over in the hustle-and-bustle of larger MFA galleries, were instead admired and appreciated.


The Musical Instruments gallery experience felt like an exhibit oasis in the middle of the MFA.  As a visitor, I appreciated the respite and felt recharged to explore some of the bigger, busier galleries.

So here's to small museum spaces!  How might you add a small or quiet moment to your museum or to your next exhibit project?



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Monday, February 26, 2018

Making Math (More) Fun for Museum Visitors


As I've been working on exhibit installations and new museum building (re)opening at The Discovery Museums in Acton, MA, I've been thinking about how to present and interpret different bits of content -- like MATH.

Lots of people claim to "hate" math topics, but I've recently fallen down the rabbit hole of Numberphile, a great math-oriented website and related YouTube channel filled with all sorts of clever ideas that should be of interest to educators and exhibit designers alike.

One of the things I like best about the Numberphile videos is that each mathematician is so enthusiastic, you can't help but get excited and interested in things like "circle inversions" that you might not have even given a passing thought to before.

While I've honestly enjoyed every Numberphile presenter I've seen, some are particular standouts.

Tadashi Tokieda often relates his math talks to toys or familiar materials.  Here's a video (embedded below or on YouTube) that shows all the fun topological ways to play with a strip of paper, some paper clips, and rubber bands.



Hannah Fry is a funny presenter who often ties the mathematics of game theory to real life situations like winning Rock, Paper, Scissors (video below or on YouTube) or Secret Santa, or making the best online dating profile.



If you are a bit "math shy" or even an avowed mathphobe, click on over to Numberphile!  I'm sure you will find something to pique your interest there.


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Friday, February 16, 2018

President Trump is No Friend to Museums (or Libraries, or PBS, or NASA ...)


Follow the money.  As with any budget, you can tell a lot about the interests and priorities of the White House by looking at their latest proposed budget.

While lawmakers are unlikely to enact most of Trump's proposal, here’s a direct look at some of the pages from the FY 2019 Budget that proposes to eliminate the primary government agencies that fund museums and cultural agencies.

IMLS

















NEH




















NEA




















The proposed FY 2019 Budget also calls for the elimination of PBS and the NASA Office of Education, as well as agencies like the National Wildlife Refuge Fund and the Chemical Safety Board.

Just because the current President is a short-fingered vulgarian doesn't mean that the United States government should not support arts, culture, and science.

Please contact your Representatives and Senators in Washington to tell them that a great country does not eliminate support for agencies like IMLS, NEA, NEH, and PBS.



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Monday, February 5, 2018

What If You Evaluated EVERY Part Of Your Museum Every Day?


What if you evaluated EVERY part of your museum every day?  That was the question I asked myself after reading this NewYorker magazine article about the Finnish company HappyOrNot.

These "frictionless" 4-button terminals let people leave feedback without even breaking stride. And HappyOrNot's terminals have already been installed in more than a hundred countries and have registered more than six hundred million responses --- in airports, gas stations, shoe stores, you name it.

While this happy/sad button approach seems incredibly simple (if not downright simplistic) the article is filled with direct business changes and improvements that were made due to the data generated by the HappyOrNot terminals.

And again it makes me wonder what would happen to a museum if you scattered these 4-button wonders throughout your exhibit galleries and near your gift shop, your bathrooms, your cafe?
And if not HappyOrNot terminals how can cultural institutions generate more real-time visitor feedback to improve visitor satisfaction?

Does this seem like an interesting idea or a hare-brained pipe dream?  Are there any museums currently using HappyOrNot terminals.? Give us YOUR feedback in the Comments Section below!



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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Museum Exhibit Design Inspiration: Glow-In-The-Dark Thread!


I love finding interesting exhibit supplies that show up in unexpected places. While working on a recent exhibit design project, I went in search of different types of glow-in-the-dark materials and found Sublime Stitching in Austin, Texas.

If you scroll to the bottom of the handy Tools Section of the Sublime Stitching website you will find the finely braided glow in the dark thread in a palette of five colors to fill all your fiber and phosphorescent needs. (And now you get twice as much tread per spool!)

Several of the other tools highlighted in this section of the Sublime Stitching website, while originally intended for sewing and stitching purposes, will work well for your next prototyping or exhibition project as well.

What unexpected exhibit development resources do you use?

Share your finds in the Comments Section below!


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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

5 Things That Great Dining And Great Museum Experiences Have In Common


Let me tell you about Bigelow's.  It's a little "hole in the wall" sort of place near my home on Long Island known for its fried clams. Bigelow's has been in business in the same spot since 1939.  I went there for lunch today with my youngest son Philip, and in-between our sighs of pleasure and chatting it up with our fellow diners, I was reminded of how much a great dining experience is like a great museum experience.

1) Everyone Knows Where It Is

I know you can use Google Maps or Yelp, but if you ask somebody at a hotel front desk or a taxi driver where a local restaurant or museum is, they should be able to tell you right away. If the place is really good, they should also be able to enthuse about a memorable experience that they or a friend had there recently.  I remember visiting a city whose (unnamed) museum was practically across the street from the well-known professional football stadium, and not one taxi driver knew where that museum was located or had even heard of it.  That's sad.

2) You Feel Welcomed Right Away

Even if it's the first time you've been there, a great museum or dining spot makes you instantly feel welcomed and at ease.  It's a combination of the physical entry sequence (starting in the parking lot) and the staff people at the entrance that do the trick. You feel like you are in the right place and are starting out your visit in a positive way.  Think about the qualities of the places that always make you feel welcomed (and the ones that don't!)

In the case of Bigelow's, you see the stools around the horseshoe-shaped counter (so you know where to sit right away) and the straightforward menu board lets you see your options (so you can start thinking about what you'd like to eat or drink as soon as you sit down.)  

Contrast that with some museums where you have no idea where to pay your admission, or how to figure out which things you want to do or pay for.

Welcome to Bigelow's!

3) Friendly Staff Anticipate Your Needs

You never wait for your water glass to be refilled, or twiddle your thumbs waiting for the check at a great restaurant. That's because the people who work there are alert and genuinely attentive to their customers' needs.  Great museums have actual floor staff interacting with visitors, not just chatting in a corner by themselves.  Wonderful dining and museum experiences share an important social component.  A positive interaction with a staff person often adds to the overall experience.


4) You Tell Friends About The Place And Want To Take Them There

A fantastic experience at a great place is one you want to share with other people. There's a reason "word of mouth" advertising is so sought after --- you can't fake it or spend your way there.  If you had a remarkable museum experience you tell other people about it.  And you want to go back there to share that positive experience with people you care about.  I've written blog posts about "museums worth a special trip" those places you would travel out of your way to go see based on a friend's recommendation.  I would definitely put places like The City Museum in St. Louis, or Chanticleer Garden outside Philadelphia in that rarefied category. 

Bigelow's is worth a special trip!


5) Memory Makers!

The best museums (and restaurants!) are memory makers.  They are the places that are part of every story that starts with "Remember the time we ..."  They are the places that you want to post on Facebook or Instagram because you felt the experience was worth capturing and sharing.  The picture at the top of this post shows my friends Bistra and Nadia from Muzeiko in Bulgaria after a lunch we shared at Bigelow's.  They asked for me to bring them somewhere that was real "Long Island."  And even though they both grew up thousands of miles away, they loved it!  And what business can ask for more than that?

As you are starting out your New Year and thinking about ways to improve the museum(s) you work for, maybe a trip to your favorite local restaurant can give you just the right kind of "food for thought" to inspire making some memorable changes for your visitors!

Facebook-ready "food for thought" from Bigelow's!




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Sunday, January 7, 2018

You Want "Free" Museums? Then Show Me The Money!

Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it was changing its entrance fee policies.

And immediately a torrent of outrage and pearl-clutching was unleashed into the Internet echo chamber by museum workers and art critics and culture supporters of all stripes. Basically, the social media grousing was about equally divided between those who said "all museums should be free!" and folks who characterized the people running The Met as heartless philistines (or worse!)

In an ideal world, every museum would be open to all, and not charge any admissions fees.  I am with you there 100%.  But how do we make that happen in a practical, and sustainable, way?

In the real world, somebody (or some entity) pays for free admissions policies --- and that usually boils down to rich people and/or governments giving money to museums. That money almost always has various strings attached, and not every museum has access to the recurring rich people's money and/or government funding to make that happen.

In places where most of the museums are "free" (like Washington D.C. or St. Louis, for example) taxes or voter-approved funding structures pave the way for "free" admission.  Somebody is still paying to keep the museum running, but not through the direct contributions of visitors through the door.

I understand The Met is an easy target for outrage (for lots of reasons beyond admissions policies) but let's looks at some numbers:

• Recent articles indicate that only 17 percent of Met visitors pay the full suggested admission of $25; the average person pays $9.  So let's just set aside the egalitarian notion of "suggested admissions" or "pay what you can" policies.  There are people visiting The Met who can pay more to get in, and choose not to.  If The Met wants to make it harder for rich tourists to cheap out on paying their fair share to see the Museum, I say go for it!  (The real question is how to provide universal museum access for the truly needy, not just thrifty yuppies.)

• How much would it actually cost to make up the "lost" admission revenue at The Met annually if there were no admission charge?  Recent attendance figures at The Met topped 6.7 million visitors.
So if you multiply that by the suggested admission fee of $25 you get a figure of over 167 million dollars annually. More than the 148 million dollars annual budget of the National Endowment of the Arts.  For just one museum! And that doesn't even take into account the Association of Art Museum Directors 2016 report findings that show the actual average cost of serving art museum visitors is closer to $55 per person. So museums are already subsidizing the costs of visitation in most cases.

• Beyond admissions prices and policies, does no-cost museum entry really provide the sort of universal access we would hope for?  Check out this blog post by Colleen Dilenschneider for some data and links regarding that very question. (Spoiler alert: free admission is far from the engagement cure-all that some of its supporters believe it is.)

So while I understand, on an emotional level, the pissed-off people shouting slogans or comparing The Met to Marie Antoinette on the Web, I'm afraid that alone isn't going to change the crappy, unsustainable business models of cultural institutions. 

I think our challenges to improve museum access can be both "big picture" (using the example of the funding structure of public libraries as a good starting point for political action and advocacy) and "intensely local" (what is one way we as museum workers can help a local museum to increase its access to all people?)

Those sorts of efforts might not provide the noisy, immediate gratification of social media posts about free admission policies but I think they can create longer-term impacts for both our museums and our communities.

What do you think?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below.


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