Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Is Your Museum Alive? A Guest Post by Lucimara Letelier

Lucimara Letelier is the founder of Museu Vivo (Live Museum), a collaborative platform fostering innovation and economic sustainability in the museum sector through initiatives and consultancy combining museums, sustainability, and new economies.

Lucimara has extensive experience in development, fundraising, marketing, as well as arts management and has worked and consulted with more than 30 museums and nonprofit organizations. She is a vibrant facilitator and teacher in MBA programs in Museums and Arts Management in Brazil and the ICOM Training Center in China with Museum Branding and Audience Engagement.

Previously, she was the Deputy Director Arts for the British Council and Head of Fundraising at ActionAid, both in Brazil. Lucimara graduated in Marketing and Communications, Master in Arts Administration at Boston University and Design in Sustainability at Gaia Education. She is also a Board member at ICOM Brasil and ICOM MPR.

Lucimara was kind enough to share the text and images from her recent presentation at MuseumNext London entitled "Is Your Museum Alive?" with ExhibiTricks readers. As the MuseumNext conference celebrated its 10 year anniversary, trends and ideas were discussed with new voices and perspectives regarding whether a museum is (or is not) contributing to a regenerative culture in a world in transition.

Lucimara Letelier was one of these voices at MuseumNext and was the only Latin American speaker there. She presented a more holistic and systemic perspective with her talk below.


I see museums dying everyday and everywhere.

It is not necessarily due to financial crises or it does not mean they are closing their doors. It means a profound disconnection and lack of relevance.

As much as this can sound sad, I see it as a great chance of a rebirth. In all living systems, something has to die, in order for a new life to be born.

Have you seen this Oscar-winning animation called “Coco”? In this story happening on the Day of the Dead in Mexico, you are dead only when people stop remembering you. Until then, you are still alive, but in the “world of the dead”….

It makes me think…. What does it take for a museum to be alive?

Looking into the evolution of museums, what made a museum alive in the past evolved from collections preservation to Audience Growth and Experience, Diversity and Inclusion…  And Now, community engagement is the hot spot! Great! But, for what?

I see we spend a lot of energy discussing what we do and how we do it, but now the crucial question for museums is WHY we do it.

That question is not disconnected from you.

Why you do what you do, in your museum? How do you feel alive as a museum professional?

Social innovators start with why, and this is what inspires others to join them ..

In the museums sector, I feel there is a new “why” emerging.

A new purpose, a new role, which makes a museum truly alive!

Now, more than ever, museums are required to collaborate with a larger movement to earth regeneration. A new vision, a new set of values, a new culture of living is required, which is part of the core business of museums, anyway...

Listening to museums managers, many feel like in the “Coco” movie, living in the world of the dead, but somehow feeling something bigger and more relevant their museums could embrace to be back to life.

Have you felt like that before?

Museums in the Global South and in the Global North have responded to that call in different ways.

Museums professionals awakening and turning their museums into change makers! Museums as key players to reframe cultural paradigms that will change the world for the better and for everyone.

Where to start?

If you are seeking an inspiration, I am bringing here a case from Brazil. Alemberg Quindins, the Director of the "Kariri Museum" 
(Memorial do Homem Kariri) says: “The beginning of everything is the absence” …And perhaps this is where many museums are today. Think about what topics, contemporary issues, and territories, the museums you work with are currently absent of…

Working with museums in the Global South, I see many stories of resilience we can share. Urgency is clear to us, due to the challenging environment we face there. And community engagement is central to our identity. 

Thus, let me tell you more about the Kariri Museum. It is located in a region with one of the worst Human Development Indexes in Brazil.

The Museum is managed by children. Its co-director, Yasmin Pereira, is 13 years old and became part of the museum 3 hours after she was born. The museum started with a budget of 50 Dollars per month and became a remarkable case of creative economy. It catalyzes social business by training local families to start up bed and breakfast accommodations for tourists and local coffee shops, it created a methodology of “organic museums”, in which they musealize people’s houses and empower the community to be the curators, reconnecting with their local indigenous memories. Many different houses became museums in the town and yet they continue to be families’ houses.

This museum helps to solve complex issues in education, social and economic development.

When I talked to the director, why he does it, he said: “Our museum is a living body with its heart beating with the hearts of its place and people.” The lessons we learn with the daily practices of the Kariri museum are a lifelong methodology that many museums around the globe are searching for in order to air their community engagement programs and bringing more authenticity, spontaneity, and affection to their museums.

When I look at the museums sector in the Global North, I see this urgent call been heard as well with the creation of collective networks for change! Awakened Museum Professionals like you catalyzing a vision of social impact and decolonization! Well, the work of a change maker can feel exhausting and lonely sometimes. It is the notion that we are not alone that keeps us walking and makes the real change as we move together!

Museum Detox in the UK, MASS Action, and Museums Are Not Neutral in the US, Decolonize This Place, We Are Museums, OFBYFORALL, Museums Change Lives and many other movements and networks are our collective response to a scream from the earth asking for a major reshape of museums.

If we look at this from a systemic view, it is basically:

YOU at the center, working together with US all responding to the urgency of NOW for a major CHANGE!

To sum it up…

To me, museums are alive if they connect with the people, its territory, and its urgencies, to drive deep change. People like you as museums professionals, as well as the visitors and the people whose stories we tell. We, as the “museums people” together, we are the living body of a museums ecosystem. We are responsible to make this system alive.

What about you? What makes your museum alive? What makes you alive in your museum?

The world is changing; we are in the transition team. Are you?

You can see a video of Lucimara's MuseumNext presentation on Vimeo.
You can connect with Lucimara and find out more about her work through Twitter, Instagram, or the Museu Vivo website or Facebook page.

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Friday, August 10, 2018

Where's The Chairs?

Sit down before you read this. If you're at home, or even reading this on your iPhone, there's probably a seat nearby.

Unfortunately, if you're visiting a museum or gallery, finding a place to sit and/or rest might be a lot more difficult. Art museums, perhaps because of their deliberately "contemplative" nature (or the advanced age of many of their patrons) do a much better job of providing seating in gallery spaces than other types of museums.

Paradoxically, the types of museums that we often think of as the most interactive, Children's Museums and Science Museums, often have the least seating available inside their exhibition spaces. One reason often given for the lack of seating is that "we want parents to play with their kids, not sit down!"

This is the sort of bogus, passive/aggressive, museum-speak that really infuriates me. You can't "force" someone to engage with their children by taking away all the seats like a twisted game of musical chairs. An ideal museum visit will have a rhythm of activity --- sometimes quiet and contemplative, sometimes more mentally and/or physically active --- and museum designers should encourage, but not "force" people to engage in exhibit experiences in these different ways. Also, if you believe that eliminating seating options is going to coerce adult caregivers into stopping their young charges from racing around your museum or tearing up your exhibits, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you!

Leaving all that aside, what are some of the parameters to consider when selecting seating for any type of exhibition gallery? Personally, I think sturdy, movable seats, like stools or benches, are your best bet. Flexible seating arrangements let visitors shift things around a little, and you might even learn a little bit about how visitors are using (or not using) your exhibits by watching how the seats get rearranged.

Here are a few suggestions regarding seating options for museums:

On the low(er) end of the budget spectrum, IKEA (as I've mentioned in a previous post) provides simple, durable seating options. (Like the "Kritter" bench pictured above.)

If you have more money to spend, I really like the Alvar Aalto stools and benches. Clean design, and stackable. (If you get the stools, choose the more stable 4-legged option for museum use.)

Other good options for purchasing simple, durable seating are from Library furniture suppliers like Gaylord or Highland Park.

So, please consider your visitors, and think of ways to provide seating in your museum's exhibition spaces. (I'll sit down and be quiet now.)

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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

7 "Red Flag" Questions to Ask Before Starting Your Next Project

Why do some museum/exhibit/design projects succeed while other projects either spin their wheels for years or just crash and burn?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately since almost all of my current work involves "start from scratch" projects set up to create entirely new museums or installations rather than adapting or designing experiences for existing institutions.

One of these start-up projects, in particular, is operating under the long shadow of a recent design process that failed, and that left a lot of bad feelings (and canceled checks!) behind.  So now, in addition to working hard to create a successful new project, our design team is constantly beating back the ghosts of past mistakes in the minds of funders and stakeholders. 

One thing that's been helpful is to differentiate the parts of our current creative process that are not related to the "pain points" the client team and stakeholders have experienced previously.  It really boils down to a few essential elements.

So here's a list of my seven "red flag" questions --- issues or attitudes that I really watch out for before I decide to join a project, or try to prevent from taking root during the twists and turns on the road to a successful project completion:

This Year's Model?
Are your design ideas based on community input with a mind toward project sustainability (economically, operationally, ecologically) or are you just chasing fads?  There was a time when every new museum seemingly had to open with an IMAX theater and/or a huge traveling exhibition space whether those business models made sense or not.

I love the Make(r) Movement but just slapping a "Make" sign on your old recycled art space because "Maker Spaces" are cool is a bit like putting old wine in new bottles, isn't it?   The true spirit of a sustainable and evolving Maker Space (for example) has to involve the work of connecting with local tools, people, and resources, not just latching onto the buzzwords.

Leggo That Ego?
Is one person's (or one group's) ego constantly driving the creative process?  There should be no shortage of strong opinions that get batted around during a project, but at the end of the day, are the final decisions that are being made project-oriented or personality driven?

Who's On Your Team?
Are the people in your project group "team players" in every dimension?  Do they respect each other? Do they truly want to engage the communities who will visit the museum?  Do they look for ways to creatively partner with other museums and organizations?  Or is everything a "we know best" situation?

What Does "World's Best" Mean?

I've written posts about this topic before.  It is great to set the bar high, but at least know what you're talking about. What specifically would make your new museum "world class"?  If you can't meaningfully answer that question, you don't seem aspirational, you seem delusional.

Do You Really Need A Ferrari?

Do the design solutions you're developing really fit the project and the place where it's located?  I sincerely believe that every community should have great cultural institutions, but you don't build a Ferrari when a Ford will do the trick.  Find the right tools for the right tasks.

What's Under The Hood? 
No prospective creative partner is perfect, but you owe it to your project to "check under the hood" a bit.  Ask your design team to describe a previous project that ran into a snag or two, and what steps they took to address and resolve the challenges.  If they can't come up with a credible answer or, worse yet, say that nothing like that has ever come up --- RUN! 

It's easy for everyone to be happy and excited at the beginning of a project when the schedule and budget seem great, but what happens when you all hit that first big pothole together?

Built To Last?
Let's finish where we started --- talking about sustainability.  Is your project built to last?  Are you creating true "internal capacity" (one of my favorite topics!) that will help your organization and your organization's employees and volunteers constantly grow and improve?  Or are you happy to throw your lot in with a bunch of "one-stop shopping" hucksters who will promise to do all the hard work for you as long as you keep writing checks?  I can show you many new(er) museums that,  just a few years after they opened, are sorry they made that choice.

What do you think?  Did we miss any important "red flags"?  Let us know in the "Comments" Section below!

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Museum/Exhibit/Design Inspiration: Poetic Kinetics

Poetic Kinetics transforms public spaces with their kinetic art.

The group, based in Los Angeles, has created site-specific work all around the world.  I'll call out a few exceptional pieces that stood out for me, but you should really click on over to the Poetic Kinetics website and YouTube channel to get a broader sense of their work.

Liquid Shard, pictured at the top of this post and in the video embedded below, was a large-scale sculpture made out of holographic mylar and monofilament installed across Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. The wind and air currents in the square cause the piece's two layers to rise and fall from 15 feet off the ground to 115 feet in the air.

Escape Velocity,  a giant mobile Astronaut amazed fans and performers during the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, hovering over concertgoers and interacting with them as they passed by. Radio-controlled animatronics gave the Astronaut the ability to articulate life-like gestures, such as peace and thumbs up signs. Video projection mapping allowed participants to have their face projected into the helmet visor as well as have their name appear on the suit’s nametag. There's a cool YouTube video of the creation and installation of the Astronaut here.

Nimbus is an installation that transforms a transitional space into a performance site. The installation acts as a timepiece for Walt Disney Concert Hall as Rand Steiger’s commissioned music changes over the course of the day, alternating between computer generated musical atmospheres and compositions built from material recorded by soloists from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. These pieces, spatially distributed over 32 speakers, alternate with periods of silence interrupted by briefly related sounds triggered by motion sensors.

Let the Poetic Kinetics website and YouTube channel inspire you to think of new ways to transform the public spaces around you and your museum!

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Pass The Flamingo: An Interview with Andrew Coletti

Andrew Coletti is an educator, writer and history / fantasy / food nerd who holds degrees in Classics and Museum Education. He is a full-time educator for the non-profit Salvadori Center. You can also find him teaching about ancient food (and sharing some) at the Brooklyn BraineryCaveat and other venues around New York City. His food writing has appeared in Eaten magazine and Atlas Obscura and his fantasy novella The Knife’s Daughter is now available from Pink Narcissus Press.  

Andrew was kind enough to answer some questions about his work and background in this interview for ExhibiTricks readers.

What’s your educational background?
I have a BA in Classics from Bard College and a Masters in Museum Education from Bank Street College of Education.

What got you interested in Museums?
During college, I got a summer job as an intern in the Education Department of the MFA in Boston. I had never really heard of museum education as a field, so I’m not sure how I found the job posting or what made me decide to apply, but I’m glad I did! That summer I got to develop teacher resources to supplement school programs, and I fell in love with museums and education from there.

What prompted you to start your “Pass the Flamingo” blog?
I’ve always loved the ancient world and over time, I realized that food was a great way of bringing ancient history to life for people. I had been giving lecture-based classes for adults on ancient history at the Brooklyn Brainery for a while when I decided to incorporate some food, using a cookbook of reconstructions I had sitting on my bookshelf but had never really used. I made Mesopotamian beer for people to sample at my Mesopotamia class and later hosted a Roman dinner party at home using recipes from the same book. 

I had been steadily gaining an interest in cooking around the same time, so I was really excited to have found a way to combine my interests. Soon I was giving classes at the Brainery specifically on ancient food, with a menu of samples. The blog developed out of those classes. Since then, I’ve gotten to present about ancient food at museums and educational venues outside the Brainery and publish my food writing outside of my blog.

Tell us a little bit about how your background informs your work?
One of my college professors used to joke that majoring in Classics is like majoring in everything. You get a little bit each of history, language, art history, philosophy, etc. and you learn to be a good writer, which is a skill you can apply anywhere. I try to take some of that well-roundedness that I was encouraged to cultivate in college into the work I do.

Because I didn’t study education until grad school, my approach to teaching and curriculum development is very influenced by Bank Street’s philosophy. I’m big into hands-on experiential learning with multiple sensory levels, and that has informed my approach to ancient history as well, such as the food blog and classes.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about the latest thinking on ancient history?

 All Mesopotamia (Find them at Facebook or They post really cool and informative articles that take a deeper dive into Mesopotamian culture and history.

 Eidolon ( Fun modern Classics scholarship, often slightly tongue-in-cheek or with a pop cultural bent

 Colleen Darnell (@vintage_egyptologist on Instagram): A professor of Egyptology at Yale who also happens to be obsessed with vintage fashion. She posts interesting snippets of Ancient Egyptian history and literature with images of herself in fabulous 1920s garb.

What advice would you have for fellow cultural workers and educators, especially those from smaller institutions, in bringing an appreciation of ancient history into their work?
Be flexible and embrace new interpretations of old material, and don’t be afraid to introduce a historical parallel or connection where it might not be expected. You’d be surprised the number of connections you can make between ancient and modern people’s lives, especially when you look at common human experiences (like food, love/sex, and death). 

When I teach my ancient food classes, the most important thing I want people to take away from the experience is that ancient people really weren’t that different from us. If you can believe that, it’s easier to see how it can be relevant to your own life, which is the biggest hurdle people have to overcome to get interested in or excited about the ancient world: what does it have to do with me?

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
I feel like I am seeing museums increasingly reinvent themselves and restructure their way of presenting their collections, although some institutions are ahead of others in this regard. I think it will need to happen to a greater extent for museums to stay relevant and inspire new generations of people to care about their collections.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
I recently got to visit the Museum of Childhood in London. It’s a really fun and different take on a children’s museum, with displays that trace the evolution of children’s toys and games over the centuries.

In the US, I love the Mesopotamian galleries at the Morgan Library & Museum and the Penn Museum museum in Philadelphia. NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World on the Upper East Side often has cool temporary exhibitions.

Can you talk a little about your book?
Sure! My novella The Knife’s Daughter will be available July 10th from Pink Narcissus Press. You could say it’s loosely related to my love of food and ancient history (food comes up quite a lot and it’s set in a world inspired by ancient Korea). It’s meant as a subversion of familiar fairytale tropes, including the prince who goes on a quest; in this case, the hero is a prince who was born female but raised to consider themselves male. It’s written in the second person so that the hero is just referred to as “you.”

If money were no object, what would your “dream” museum project be?
I would like to stage a production of my college senior project (a one-act comedy in which I performed in drag as the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna), in the Ancient Near Eastern galleries at the Met.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers, Andrew! Find out more about Andrew's work through his ancient food blog at or @passtheflamingo on Instagram and Twitter

AND NOW THE FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY!  We will be giving away two FREE copies of Andrew's new book, The Knife's Daughter to two lucky ExhibiTricks readers!  Here's what you need to do to win --- if you are not yet a subscriber to the ExhibiTricks blog, just click on the link at the very top right of this page and subscribe via email or your favorite newsreader app.  If you are already a subscriber to the ExhibiTricks blog, just send me an email and put "I want to win a copy of Andrew's new book!" in the subject line.

In either case, you must enter by July 27, 2018 to be eligible to win. One new subscriber and one existing subscriber email will be chosen at random to receive one copy of The Knife's Daughter. GOOD LUCK!

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