Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Raising Up Little Voices: Girl Museum

In response to a recent ExhibiTricks post about "small but mighty" museums doing things a bit differently than the "mega-museums" in the world, Tiffany Rhoades from Girl Museum reached out and offered to share some information and insights based on her experiences there --- first as an intern, and now Program Developer. 

Tiffany has worked on amazing projects that are pushing the boundaries of museums. Today, she’d like to share with ExhibiTricks readers what Girl Museum is, what they’re been working on, and tips for success in engaging with communities.

Girl Museum is…

Girl Museum is the first and only museum in the world dedicated to celebrating girlhood.  We research, preserve, and present the history of girls from all cultures and time periods, with an emphasis on letting their voices and stories shine. 

“But wait, isn’t that just a women’s history museum?”

Well, no.  While we do talk about women’s history a lot, Girl Museum is different because we intentionally focus our gaze on the experiences of females from birth through the age of 25.  Our work crosses into women’s history – because the voices and records of girls are largely lost to us.  We have to dig for them, but we know the girls are there because we’ve already found so much.

And all of this is accomplished by a volunteer team (not even our director is paid!), on a shoestring budget, and put online so it is freely accessible by anyone, anywhere, anytime. 

Girl Museum does…

In the three years I’ve worked with Girl Museum, we’ve produced projects that have reached new audiences and highlighted marginalized groups:

Surfer Girl looked at the history and contemporary culture of women in surfing, and was entirely contributor-led. It included videos on surf history by students, oral history interviews with female surfers of the 1950s and 1960s, and stories showcasing how surfing is giving girls better opportunities and a platform to advocate for equality.

Heroines Quilt 2016: Girls of World War II showcased the real women and girls who were impacted by the war, both at home and abroad.  Utilizing our blog as a platform for engagement, we invited visitors to discover a new story every day during Women’s History Month, and dive deeper through photo essays and our podcast series.

STEM Girls showcased the history of women in STEM fields, as a platform to explore how we can get more girls interested in STEM.  This exhibition was one of our most well-received to date and proved that exhibits can be platforms for changing the world.

Gamer Girl invited female gamers around the world to discover their long (and surprising!) history and advocate for better treatment and representation.  It featured contributions from well-known gaming professionals, while also giving a voice to girls around the world with our Why I Game participatory quilt – making it our largest and most popular exhibition to date.

This year and next, we’ll introduce exhibits focused on girls’ history, including Kindertransport and Ancient Girls.  We’ll also combine history with pop culture in our explorations of what it means to be a Warrior Princess and how girls have impacted music in Alternative Girls.  And there’s so much more in the works – including fashion, art, girl groups, more historical periods, and mythology.

Tips for Success

Though we’re entirely in the virtual realm, the lessons I’ve learned from creating these projects are integral to making museums more relevant and engaging to our communities. 

1. Let Your Community Guide You
When producing Surfer Girl, I started with only a rough idea of what I wanted.  I researched a lot, but what I couldn’t find was the actual voices of girls.  So, I put aside my notes and reached out to surfers, surfing companies, and academics for advice.  What I got were contributions from around the world that showcased exactly what I wanted: surfer girls’ stories, told in their own words.  My job was simply to put these stories together and provide transitions along the way. 

The result was an exhibition that engaged new audiences with our museum, used a variety of multimedia, and had other underrepresented groups emailing in to discuss possibilities.  We also made connections that have proved vital to keeping our museum funded.

2. Embrace Social Media
We live and breathe social media.  It’s the primary way we connect with our audience – sharing stories we find interesting, highlighting girl-related news, and connecting with people who can help bring our ideas to life.  We use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and a blog on a daily basis. 

In late 2014, we put together a Social Media Strategic Plan.  Within one year, we nearly doubled our social media following – and it’s still growing. 

3. Infuse Everything with Passion
Every project our interns are assigned is given to them because either (a) it was their idea or (b) they absolutely love the topic.  By empowering every member of our team to pursue what inspires and motivates them, we produce projects that tap into the hearts of our audience.  (Bonus: Many of our interns stay on as long-term supporters, advocates, and contributors!)

As a museum, our job is to inspire people – and passion is the key to doing that.  We tell every exhibit like a story – one infused with real voices, real experiences, and real questions.  When we invite contributions, we make a point not to edit more than grammar.  When we produce a project, we ask how it is relevant to today – and we aren’t afraid to stand up, put in a call to action, or ask our audience the hard questions. 

In Kindertransport, we’re doing just that – showcasing the experiences of girl refugees during World War II, linking it to the refugee crisis today, and asking, “Are we willing to stand by and watch another genocide?  Or are we going to do something about it?”

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail.
We’ve failed – epically.  Several of our projects never go viral.  But no matter what, we keep trying.  We haven’t figured it all out yet – our budget alone could tell you that – but we’re not giving up.  Because what we do is important.  Because we know that we can change lives.  Because girls – from throughout time and space – deserve a museum entirely their own.  Because museums matter, now more than ever.

Tiffany Rhoades is a public historian and emerging museum professional, specializing in exhibitions, social media, and digital public programs.  She volunteers as Girl Museum’s Program Developer, and currently makes ends meet as an independent consultant for museums and museum-related organizations.

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