Saturday, December 8, 2018

Three Places Sharing Difficult Histories in Montgomery Alabama


Last week I visited Montgomery Alabama for the first time.

I was there as a member of The Museum Group (TMG)  as we held our fall 2018 business meetings there.

As part of our experiences in Montgomery, TMG was fortunate to visit three important cultural institutions, the Civil Rights Memorial Center, associated with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and two more recently opened sites associated with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and The Legacy Museum.

Visiting those three places still has me thinking about the difficult histories in the United States involving race, slavery, discrimination, and justice, so I wanted to share my experiences and still-evolving impressions here.




THE CIVIL RIGHTS MEMORIAL CENTER

The Civil Rights Memorial Center is a modest space associated with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.  The Memorial Center itself is associated with Maya Lin's monument to commemorate people who were killed during the civil rights movement (pictured below.)



While many people think of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement as something from the past, it is clear that SPLC's message in the Memorial Center is that the work of fighting hate and bigotry continues to this day and involves every one of us.

To that end, the exhibits and experiences inside the Memorial Center not only share information about the people featured on Lin's monumental sculpture outside but also present modern stories and images such as those of Heather Heyer, the young woman killed during the Charlottesville protests. The information here is sobering and thought-provoking.  




The final experience inside SPLC's Memorial Center is a large Wall of Tolerance, an interactive video wall that lets you insert your own name as a record of visitors who have pledged to take a stand against hate, injustice, and intolerance.

I found that adding my own name was a hopeful, and purposeful, way to conclude my experiences at the Civil Rights Memorial Center.







THE NATIONAL MEMORIAL FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE

The Memorial is a six-acre outdoor site that forces visitors to confront the ugly legacy of racial terror lynchings in the United States between 1877 and 1950.  Hundreds of six-foot-tall metal boxes formed of Corten steel produces a rusted, weathered surface that evoked images of blood (and wear) in my mind.

The experience is a deliberately narrative one that leads you on a winding path through the six acres of the Memorial.  The experience starts with a statue of enslaved people bound in chains, perhaps at a slave auction.  This powerful image is followed by a winding pathway lined with benches as well as signs on the interior of the walls surrounding the site that provide both historical context and evocative quotes.  The design of the entire space acknowledges the need to occasionally stop to rest and process.




As you move closer to the sets of human-sized boxes, they are resting on the ground so that you can read the names of counties across the United States where documented lynchings occurred and the names and dates of the people killed in those places. The sheer number of names and boxes is daunting.



As one moves through the memorial, different sets of boxes from all the different counties continue to lift off the ground until the final set you encounter is hanging above you, evocative of lynched bodies, with the names and information punched into each box now nearly impossible to read.




The overall effect of the Memorial, for me at least, was strangely quiet and contemplative despite the histories represented there.

The encounter with the hanging memorial elements ends in an area where duplicate copies of each box are placed lying down in long horizontal rows.  (Pictured at the top of this post.)  My understanding is that the Equal Justice Initiative wants to offer each of those duplicate boxes to every individual county so that appropriate memorials can be constructed at the sites of past racial terror lynchings using the corten steel boxes that originated in Montgomery.

The message I took away from the Memorial was one of truth and reconciliation, and the acknowledgment that we as citizens of the United States will never truly reconcile with our difficult histories unless we face the truths of our collective past.




THE LEGACY MUSEUM

Visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside EJI's Legacy Museum, so I will just share a few high-level thoughts about my experiences. The Legacy Museum clearly stands in association with The National Memorial for Peace and Justice but focuses more on the current social justice work of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the idea that slavery did not "end" in the United States but merely "evolved."

The emotional experiences of The Legacy Museum start immediately as you are informed that you are standing at the site of a former slave "warehouse" where enslaved people were held before they were bought and sold at auction.  Just steps away from the entry desk, video presentations are illustrating the pain of family separation of enslaved people and the pivotal role that Montgomery played in the slave trade.

As you move further into the Museum, dense text displays were interspersed by compelling short video presentations (I was especially taken by those featuring the illustration and animation work of artist Molly Crabapple) effectively illustrating the modern concerns of the Equal Justice Initiative --ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

As with the two other Montgomery sites, my experiences inside The Legacy Museum were quiet, yet compelling. 



CLOSING THOUGHTS

I found it interesting that two social justice organizations deliberately chose the approaches of museums and memorials to amplify their messages.  Ironically, given the difficult histories that each of the sites shares, I have no doubt that, especially after the relatively recent openings of The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, that many more people will visit Montgomery.  Based on my own experiences, I would certainly recommend a visit to Montgomery to anyone.

As a side note, I couldn't help but notice the guards and metal detectors at the entrance of each site, and we were informed that both EJI and SPLC require security around their buildings and facilities 24/7.  Clearly, not everyone in and around Montgomery is happy to be reminded of the histories shown inside these important institutions.

Despite this, I can't help but be both hopeful and humbled by the work these institutions and their sponsoring organizations do every day.  On the last day of The Museum Group meetings, we were honored to have Bryan Stevenson, one of the co-founders of the Equal Justice Initiative, speak with us. I couldn't help be struck by his grace and purpose. One thing he said that I continue to think about is:

“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” 


Please visit the websites of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Justice Initiative to learn more about these organizations and how you can support their important work.

I'd also encourage you to read Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy.






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Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Annual Survey of Museum-Goers Needs YOUR Museum!


Assessing the impact of museums feels hard. Mushy. Nebulous. 

Assessing the impact of an individual museum can feel even more out of reach.

But what if it wasn’t so hard after all? What if museum-goers were able to tell us, pretty explicitly, about the impact we've had in their lives? 



That they promote empathy, compassion, and understanding in meaningful ways.

And that individual museums are vital to these contributions?


The thing is … museum-goers and non-visitors DO credit museums for these things (and more). 

But we only know this because museums themselves have participated in the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, gaining data that begins to measure their impact over time while also contributing to our field-wide knowledge. Additionally, we need to continually push this research to refine and deepen our understanding of impact, so we can better make our case to visitors, donors, government entities, and the public.

And now the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers needs your museum. 

If you want to begin to understand the impact your museum is having, the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers is a consistent way to measure how well you are serving visitors as well as contextual evidence about your impact … and how you can matter more. It builds on the strength of many museums to understand audience segments and motivations, helping participating museums broader and deepen their reach in their community.

And it only costs $1,000 to participate. 

That modest fee includes:

  • high-quality research on your visitors, with custom questions and contextualized results via spreadsheet, report, and a personal call from me (Susie Wilkening);
  • field-wide research that is conducted and shared broadly with the field via presentations, The Data Museum, and my easy-to-digest Data Stories; and
  • broader population sampling for comparison purposes.

The 2019 survey will continue to allow individual museums to measure how they are doing, but the heart of the survey will focus on three themes:

  • The Pain/Pleasure Index. While we might wish that every museum visit was a total pleasure for visitors, we know it isn't always. The Pain/Pleasure Index will expand our understanding of the pain points of visiting, and how it affects the entire visit.
  • Curiosity. Visitors to museums do credit museums with sparking curiosity, but how do we do that? How do we compare with other curiosity-sparking activities? And how does it affect knowledge building?
  • Empathy and Compassion. Museum-goers often state that knowledge makes them more empathetic and compassionate, and they credit museums for cultivating this. But what is it about museums that makes us effective? And why does empathy and compassion matter in today's divisive time?

These themes matter to all museums, large and small, science and art and history (and everything in between). 

To make the January/February launch window, museums need to enroll now. Only $1,000 for high-quality research, both about your museum and our field as a whole. 

For more information, you can:





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Monday, November 19, 2018

Happy Tapes-giving!


As we get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving here in the United States, one thing I am always happy for as an exhibit developer and prototyper is TAPE!

Tape is one of those handy things that you often use but rarely think about.

So here's a listing of a variety of specialty tapes for your creative design toolbox.  Just click on the title link above each tape description to go to a web page to purchase that tape or for more information.


HAPPY TAPES-GIVING!


3M SOLAS Tape
"SOLAS" stands for "Safety Of Life At Sea" and it is super-durable reflective tape that was designed originally to be used by the Coast Guard. It's strong. It's shiny. What more could you want? It may also be useful outside your exhibit pursuits on bikes, backpacks, or cars.


Gaffer's Tape
If you think duct tape is useful, try Gaffer's tape. You can think of Gaffer's Tape as duct tape without the sticky residue. It's the standard tape in the film and theater worlds. Best of all, the adhesive is designed to not rip off paint. You can leave Gaffer's tape stuck to a wall for days, and then remove it without tearing up the wall surface or leaving sticky gunk behind.


Blue Painter's Tape

The "blue masking tape" is great because it doesn't mar or mess up walls.  Great for painting/masking of course, but also super when putting together large paper or cardboard prototypes that need to interface with walls, floors, or windows.



Vypar X-Treme Tape

X-treme tape is a non-adhesive, self-bonding wrap. It's not really "tape" since it's not sticky. But it really grips and wraps around wet stuff or slimy stuff --- think water exhibits, hoses, bubble exhibits, etc. Once it's in place -- it is NOT coming off! You just pull on the tape and it fuses to itself under tension. As a bonus, it comes in a range of colors as well. 



Here are two variations on good old reliable duct tape:

Gorilla Tape
Gorilla Tape is like regular duct tape on steroids. Sure, it's much stickier, but it also adheres to uneven/rough surfaces.


Clear Duct Tape
From the creative minds of 3M comes "clear "duct tape! It is less noticeable than standard duct tape, but more importantly, 3M claims it lasts 6 times longer than the standard variety, having been engineered for extreme temperatures and UV exposure.



Vet Wrap

A "self-clinging" wrapping material that does not require tight compression.


Instant-bonding Glue Dots
Adhesive "dots" that require no drying time, are clean and easy to use and work on a variety of materials. Glue Dots bond instantly to any surface.


Terrifically Tacky Tape
This is double-sided craft tape with red liner that is super strong. (The bond actually increases after the first 24 hours it is applied.)  This is the same kind of ultra-thin, very sticky tape as "3M 4910 VHB Tape" but TT tape comes in shorter-length rolls so it is less expensive.


3M Dual Lock Reclosable Fastener System
Clear self-mating reclosable fastener with clear acrylic adhesive on the back. This is the "mushroom" topped style, rather than hook and loop, so it fastens to itself and doesn't collect fuzz like the "hook" half of velcro.


Colored Plastic Vinyl Floor Marking Tape
Great for outlining areas on floors or walls.  These tapes come from Identi-Tape and are highly adhesive and resistant to water, oil, fungus, and chemicals, have a semi-gloss finish and can be written on with permanent markers.


1/4"-wide Colored Plastic Vinyl Tape
Also from Identi-Tape, these 6-mil vinyl adhesive tapes are available in a 14 colors plus clear in 36-yard long rolls. These tapes are ideal for constructing lines and tables on dry erase boards, identification of small tools, decorative striping, etc.


Hugo's Amazing Tape
The cool thing about Hugo's Amazing Tape is that it only sticks to itself.  This makes it great for things that need to be wrapped and re-wrapped, or opened and closed, on a regular basis.  Hugo's tape can also be used as a temporary clamp or stabilizer for irregularly-shaped materials as well.


And that wraps up this post about tape!  Do you have any favorite tapes that we've missed here? Leave us the info in the Comments Section below!




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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Labor Pains: The 2018 NEMA Conference and the Museum World's Ongoing Wages and Workers Challenges


A labor dispute happening during the recent New England Museum Association (NEMA) Conference illustrates the Museum World's ongoing challenges with workers and wages.

Despite the fact that representatives of Unite Here Local 217 requested that all NEMA Conference attendees honor a boycott and daily picket lines against the Stamford Hilton by not entering the hotel, over 90% of the approximately 900 conference registrants entered the hotel to attend sessions and events.

A small number of NEMA Conference attendees chose to honor the boycott and picket lines by not entering the Hilton and by holding their sessions offsite at either the Local 217 Union Hall, The Bruce Museum, or Franklin Street Works, a local not-for-profit art space. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all of those offsite sessions had a social justice focus, and almost all of those offsite presenters honoring the Hilton boycott were women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ+ communities.)

Certainly, the decisions that everyone made regarding how to participate (or whether to participate at all) in the NEMA Conference were their own, but museum people being museum people, there was some furious parsing of union and labor terminology and some pretzel logic going on to justify some of those decisions -- which you can rehash for yourself by checking out the #NEMA2018 hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

[And now for context, a short union terminology sidebar, speaking from my perspective as someone who grew up in Detroit in a union household and in an extended family of union members, including my immigrant grandfather who was fighting with his coworkers against Henry Ford's goons to help start the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.

To boycott an establishment (like the Stamford Hilton) means to withdraw from commercial or social relations with an organization as a punishment or protest.  There doesn't need to be a "strike" a "labor action" or even an active "dispute" or "demonstration."  Union 217 asked all NEMA Conference attendees to boycott the Hilton by canceling their room reservations, and/or by not entering the hotel as a show of support and solidarity.

Picketing is a form of protest in which people congregate outside a place of work or location where an event is taking place. Often, this is done in an attempt to dissuade others from going in, but it can also be done to draw public attention to a cause. Again this can be independent of any formal "strike" or specific "labor action." In this case, Union 217 held daily picket lines outside the Stamford Hilton to urge people not to enter or patronize the hotel.
If you wait 10 minutes after a picket line stops to enter a place of business, or if you look for a side or rear entrance because a picket line is only at the front door, you "technically" did not cross the picket line, but you are also "technically" acting like a weasel.  A picket line serves the same purpose as a boycott in the sense that it is an ongoing request for support and solidarity, whether a picket line completely encircles a building and every entrance 24 hours a day or not. ]





What happened during the 2018 NEMA Conference may be an isolated incident, but it is also reflective of ongoing challenges related to wages and workers in the museum and not-for-profit worlds and how museum workers and museum organizations need to "walk the walk" not just "talk the talk."

Salary transparency is an example of one small way to increase awareness and equity for museum workers. While many national museum organizations like the Association of Children's Museums (ACM) and the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) along with numerous regional, state, and local museum organizations have required that salary ranges be part of every job posting, some other museum organizations (including NEMA) have chosen not to honor this simple requirement asked for by members, including some of their own board members.  (You can find out more about the campaign for museum salary transparency at the National Emerging Museum Professionals Network's website.)


If we want fair pay and better working conditions for ALL workers, including museum workers, and if we want to make museums welcoming places for ALL people, not just a small subset of our communities, how will we ACT when given the chance to show support and solidarity for those ideals? 



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Saturday, November 3, 2018

Impressions of MuseumNext NYC 2018


I attended my first MuseumNext Conference that just happened in Manhattan.  MuseumNext often bills itself with the tagline "The Future of Museums" and while this NYC edition had a decidedly digital bent, I was pleased to discover that not everything in the museum world's future appears to be digital.

First, a few general impressions before I highlight a few specific sessions that struck me.

MuseumNext NYC had a relatively small number of participants (around 300) although they hailed from 15 different countries in addition to attendees from North America.  The presentation format is TED style, so all MuseumNext attendees see the same presentations all together in rapid succession (there is a lunch break and a short afternoon coffee break, but otherwise the sessions move right along.)

While this format has benefits, as an attendee if you don't like a presentation you are stuck -- there are no other concurrent sessions to jump to.  And this was a problem for me during the 2-day conference because several presentations were more "sales pitch" than sharing of expertise and experiences.  That's fine, and to be expected, in the case of MuseumNext sponsors who were given the stage, but it felt a little slimy in the case of the other presentations.

My other quibble with the MuseumNext NYC schedule was that there was not enough time for socializing and networking.  I would have appreciated the opportunity to spend a bit more time with more of the very interesting attendees!


Below are some takeaways and impressions of some MuseumNext NYC presentations that particularly appealed to me. (You can find many of the MuseumNext presentations and slides here.)

Hannah Fox from the Derby Museums in the UK led off the first day of presentations by sharing the approaches that bring the Derby Museums and programs such acclaim.  I was particularly struck by how often the word "prototype" came up in Hannah's presentation! The Derby Museums try out everything with their visitors and community partners.  I also appreciated how often Derby's cross-disciplinary teams pushed back on the “it would just be better if I did it myself” approach.




Laura Flusche from the Museum Of Design Atlanta (MODA) explained how she and her staff create a "maker museum" that constantly uses design thinking and "radical friendliness" to incorporate visitor feedback into their process. In a simple equation, Craft + Activism = Craftivism at MODA. So, letting visitors create at MODA to express their stories. (I also loved the corridor of pool noodles from the “Designing Playful Cities” Exhibition!)



Christian Rohner from the Museum of Communication in Berne, Switzerland explained how their museum re-allocated budget to switch from volunteers and part-time “communicators” to all permanent staff and how the redesign of the MoC made sure every object was coupled with a human story.



(I also loved how children could follow a graphic "squirrel story" without words to experience the Museum of Communication.)



Victoria Travers from the Auckland Museum explained how the museum staff used Facebook as a means for collecting objects from current events (like the worldwide Women's Marches following Donald Trump's election.) The Auckland Museum also did a lot of prototyping and shifting of exhibit experiences based on visitor feedback. (In the picture below, the upper left image shows how staff thought visitors in Auckland would use a feedback experience, and the other images show how visitors took over the whole feedback experience and space!)





One of my favorite quotes on Day 1 came from the engaging presenter Liat Rosenthal, curator of Uniqlo Tate Lates (evening events at the Tate Modern.) She and her colleagues think about a museum as "a university with a playground attached."



Day 2 at MuseumNext NYC 2018 featured two very different, but equally strong, digital museum experiences:

ReBlink at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) used Augmented Reality (AR) technology to help visitors engage more deeply with a small selection of paintings from the permanent collection. Working with creative company Impossible Things, the AGO was able to create deeper visitor engagement by introducing modern images and ideas into classical artworks. (Evaluation shows that visitors shifted from spending two seconds (on average) with AGO paintings to 4-9 minutes with ReBlink paintings.) Here's a video teaser of ReBlink (below or on Vimeo)




The folks from Impossible Things also gave a pop-up demo of ReBlink during the lunch break.



Ann Neumann from the MIT Museum shared the lessons learned from the development of the immersive Virtual Reality (VR) project, "The Enemy" developed with Camera Lucida. By juxtaposing the stories of combatants from conflicts around the world the MIT Museum asks whether VR can be a tool to expand our moral imaginations?




Of course, after learning about two wonderful app-based projects, JiaJia Fei from the Jewish Museum in NYC gave a wonderfully contrarian and compelling argument against apps in museums! Basically, visitors to the Jewish Museum access web-served audio guides once they connect to the museum’s free WiFi — no downloads or apps. (A major limitation of the use of apps in museums is the minuscule percentage of visitors who actually are willing to download an app onto their devices.)


One of my other favorite presentations from Day 2 came from Tim Powell of the Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) in the UK. Tim shared several of the exciting ways that HRP are using an R&D approach through collaboration with artists, and by gaining audience input from the start.



I'll end my impressions of MuseumNext NYC 2018 with this image of Rolf Coppens from Grrr creative agency in Amsterdam. I think the qualities of pushing boundaries, working together, being demanding, and keeping users first were certainly captured in many of the presentations (and my takeaways) from the conference. MuseumNext was definitely not a typical museum conference, and I would encourage ExhibiTricks readers to check out a future edition near you if the opportunity arises.




You can check out additional impressions of MuseumNext NYC 2018 by searching for the hashtag #MuseumNext on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.


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Friday, October 26, 2018

Reasons To Be Cheerful and The Happy Museum Project


I've decided to take a little "break" from paying too much attention to the news because it makes me unhappy.

So for this post, I've decided to highlight two different museum/cultural projects that focus on the happiness and well-being of museum visitors and cultural consumers.



The Reasons To Be Cheerful website is an interactive mapped compendium of projects around the world arranged by topics such as Energy, Health, Culture, and Education. You zoom around the map to find out more about the people and groups moving projects forward to make a better world.

Worth checking out by clicking here.





As stated on the Happy Museum website, the project "supports museum practice that places wellbeing within an environmental and future-facing frame, rethinking the role that museums can play in creating more resilient people, places and planet. Through action research, academic research, peer networking and training it supports institutional and community wellbeing and resilience in the face of global challenges."

The Happy Museum website is well-stocked with resources and thoughtful findings that can provide ways of moving your institution or personal practice toward supporting institutional and community wellbeing and resilience in the face of global financial and environmental challenges.




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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Do We Need More Museum Teams or More Museum Auteurs?


I recently visited the excellent John Waters exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and as I was walking around the rest of the BMA, admiring site-specific pieces like Tomas Saraceno's "Entangled Orbits" (pictured at the top of this post) I started thinking about how exhibitions (and entire museums) get put together.

One thing I've noticed about truly unique and ground-breaking museums (like AVAM, City Museum, The Exploratorium, and Museum of Old and New Art) is that many of the most interesting things inside are the products of strong-minded individuals, not teams.  Which begs the question:

Do we need more museum teams or more museum auteurs?

It seems a lot more straightforward, if less democratic, to pursue one person's design vision than to sit through endless meetings trying to come to agreement among staff and advisors on the direction of an exhibition, or a set of exhibitions, in the case of a new museum.

Most granting agencies have essentially mandated an approach that makes all sorts of consensus-building techniques an essential part of the "creative" process --- but has this approach resulted in more interesting exhibitions and museums?

Art Museums seem more willing to turn over their galleries to individual artists for installations, usually with very good results. How can less "auteur" minded institutions like Science, History, and Children's Museums take advantage of a strong-minded individual driving the exhibit process forward, rather than the oft-venerated "Exhibits Team"? (I'd love to see Olafur Eliasson put together an exhibition at a Science Center!)

The "Creative Team" Conundrum also rears its ugly head when thinking about visitor studies and that Web 2.0 favorite, "crowdsourcing".

In the case of visitor studies, most visitors are only able to come up with variations of exhibits and exhibit themes they are already familiar with. Every museum stocked according to audience surveys would likely include a rocket ship or train, a dinosaur skeleton, and a mummy --- not bad, necessarily, but not exactly moving the exhibits field forward either.

Crowds and focus groups are notoriously bad at choosing innovations, which is why companies like Apple don't use them. Apple’s attitude is that sometimes, to truly innovate, you’ve got to go beyond giving people what they say they want. Building consensus often builds mediocre, and "safe" (rather than interesting) design decisions.

Maybe we need to bring in more "trouble makers" like Fred Wilson to shake up our staid exhibition development models. As Kathy McLean said in a previous ExhibiTricks interview, "I don't really need a lot of money or time to do my dream exhibitions ... I need organizations that are interested in presenting unusual, thought-provoking experiences."

What do you think? More museum teams or more museum auteurs? Let us know in the Comments Section below. (If you don't see the word "comment" at the very end of the post just click on the link that shows the posting time.)


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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Discovering the Power of Podcasting at Museums: A Guest Post by Hannah Hethmon


Hannah Hethmon is an independent museum consultant specializing in podcasts, social media, and other digital communication tools. She is the producer and host of Museums in Strange Places, an award-winning podcast about exploring the world through it’s the museums, and the author of Your Museum Needs a Podcast: A Step-By-Step Guide to Podcasting for Museums, History Organizations, and Cultural Nonprofits. She recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Iceland, and currently lives in Warsaw, Poland.



Discovering the Power of Podcasting at Museums



Having just released a whole book dedicated to teaching museums, history organizations, and cultural nonprofits how to produce their own podcast in-house, I wanted to step back in this post and share my journey from casual podcast listener to museum podcast advocate. It was during this evolution that I saw how perfectly the medium of podcasting suits the needs of museums and how podcasts can help us in the ongoing effort to go from walled-off elite institutions to permeable community structures.


My own podcasting journey started when I accepted a Fulbright Fellowship to spend nine-months in Iceland studying the Icelandic language and researching Icelandic museums. I had been working at the American Association for State and Local History, and in my capacity as Marketing Coordinator, I was constantly thinking about ways to connect with AASLH members digitally and how the engagement techniques I was learning and testing could be used by our member institutions to expand their mission beyond their physical space.




As I thought about how I would begin my investigation of Icelandic museum culture, I decided it would be practical to buy a recorder so I could easily transcribe my conversations later. It was only a short mental hop from there to completely discarding the idea of formal research; instead, I would start a podcast that explored the museums of Iceland through interviews and storytelling. Though I didn’t realize it just yet, I would be collecting and interpreting the museums of Iceland, rather like they were doing with their own communities and areas of focus.


By the end of my time in Iceland, I had recorded episodes at twenty-one Icelandic museums for Museums in Strange Places. The most powerful stories I recorded were the stories of how these unique institutions were founded and the passionate people who made them a reality. I found the same when I recorded at twenty-two museums in Maryland for Season 2 of the podcast (coming late 2018). It’s not that these museums aren’t producing excellent exhibits and programs and tours; it’s that we, as a field, are not fully communicating to the public the incredible passion, dedication, and expertise that goes into even the smallest museum.




When I visit museums to record, I can capture intimate portraits of a museum at work. I usually interview a high-level staff member, and they don’t just share what is on the walls. For example, when I visited the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, I got to speak with Katie Reichard, their Director of Programming. One moment really stood out to me: we were talking about their display on women who had secretly enlisted in the Civil War. The main panel speaks about one individual who was born with female anatomy but began dressing and presenting themselves as a boy/man in their early teens. It was only when they were sent to a nursing home in their old age that they were “discovered” to be a “woman” and forced to dress accordingly.


Katie talked to me about the challenge of interpreting queer people in the past. In this conversation (and others), Katie’s passion for her work and the museum’s mission was unmistakable. The relevance of this discussion combined with Katie’s nuanced approach is the kind of interaction that turns a casual visitor like me into a person who really believes in the work of an institution. I think about the people Katie described to me and the museum’s efforts to tell their stories all the time. My experience at the museum deeply impacted the way I think about the Civil War and war in general, honestly.


This has happened countless times. I visit a museum for the first time to record, thinking it seems interesting, but with no deeper attachment; I leave filled with excitement for the museum’s work and a deep affection for the institution. This is the result of intimate, relevant, one-on-one engagement with passionate museum people. It’s nearly impossible to get this experience from a visit that doesn’t provide this kind of intimate human connection.




But it’s also nearly impossible to provide that to every visitor, no matter how much money a museum can commit to the endeavor. This is where podcasting comes in. Podcasts offer the opportunity to speak directly to an individual, on their own time. Podcasts are intimate. Regular listeners to podcasts talk frequently about the emotional connection they form with the hosts of their favorite shows. Often, podcasts are what keeps them company on long drives, during the workday, and whenever else they have access to a computer or smartphone, which these days is basically always. And when I say always....well, my husband and I fall asleep listening to podcasts every night and then get up and listen when we leave the house in the morning.


I’ve come to truly believe that the medium of podcasting can open up incredible doors to the kind of intimate, one-on-one engagement that converts visitors to devoted fans. And, as I’ve spelled out in my new book, podcasts can be done with a lot of money and a little time OR a little money and a lot of time. So there is room for budgets of all sizes to start telling their best stories this way. I think what’s stopping a lot of institutions from starting their own podcast is a sense that this requires certain skills they don’t have or that it’s very expensive. There’s also almost no museums-specific information available that explains in detail how to start a podcast. My goal in writing Your Museum Needs a Podcast was to solve this problem, and based on early feedback, I think I’ve delivered on that goal.


I hope to see more museums start making great podcasts. In my dream world, everyday listeners would look to museums for great podcasts, knowing that we are the keepers of some of the world’s best stories and that we’re staffed with the right people to tell those stories.





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