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I’m on a plane, flying to Baltimore for the 2013 American Alliance of Museums conference. It’s the largest meeting of museum professionals in the United States; it will draw 5,000 of us from around the country and internationally. This year’s conference is jam-packed with interesting sessions and events. Here are a few on my personal schedule that you might want to know about:

  • Is it Real? Who cares? I’m honored to be joining the superstar team of Judy Gradwohl, Darcie Fohrman, Steve Lubar, and Roy Campbell to explore the nature of artifacts and authenticity, with a ton of audience participation. (Sunday 3:30-4:45)
  • Museums & Creative Practice Meet-up Linda Norris and I have planned this informal event to talk about creativity in museums. We’re bringing our art supplies for a fun activity while we talk. (Monday, details TBD after we scope out the logistics of the Baltimore Convention Center—contact me at raineytisdale@gmail.com or @raineytisdale for more info. 10:15-noon, at the seating by the Starbucks near convention registration)
  • Tragedies as Educational Platforms for Museums Stemming from my work with the Boston Marathon bombings, I’m looking forward to a chance to attend this timely session organized by colleagues from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, Project Rebirth, and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum about museum responses to tragedy. (Tuesday 10:15-11:30)
  • City History Museums: Canaries in a Coal Mine? Lynn McRainey (Chicago History Museum), Cynthia Robinson (Journal of Museum Education) and I will be talking about new museum models that innovative city museums in Europe and North America are developing to better serve their urban audiences. It’s based on the “City Museums and Urban Learning” themed issue of the Journal of Museum Education that I guest-edited earlier this year. Because this session addresses emerging trends in the museum field, the Center for the Future of Museums has highlighted it as part of the “Guide to the Future at the Annual Meeting” digital badging project. (Tuesday 3:15-4:30)

At these sessions and more, I’m looking forward to meaningful conversations with my colleagues about making museums better.

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I’m excited to share a new project that’s in the works. Along with Linda Norris (of Uncataloged Museum and Pickle Project fame) I am writing a book about Museums & Creative Practice. Today we are launching a fledgling project website that you can access here.

I’ve been interested in this topic for years now. I believe strongly that museums across the field are in need of an enormous infusion of creativity. We tend to think creativity is only the concern of contemporary art museums when in reality it should matter deeply to all of us. We also tend to think it’s the purview of exhibition designers when in reality creativity, and creative problem-solving, is equally important for visitor services, education, administration, development—every department of the museum.

As I travel from city to city trying to figure out what makes a great city museum, I am struck by how large a role creativity plays in successful institutions, and I have been thinking a lot about how city museums can be more creative. In fact I gave a paper on this topic at the CAMOC/ICOM conference in Shanghai in 2010. I have also been making creativity a priority in the material culture course I teach in the Tufts Museum Studies program. I don’t want to send my students out into the field to develop the same old exhibitions and programs we’ve been doing for years; instead I want to empower them to find interesting, compelling, surprising new ways of presenting objects to the public. This book project is a natural next step for me in exploring creativity’s impact on museums more broadly and more deeply.

There’s a wealth of new literature on the import role creativity plays in the economy and in society at large. Linda and I think it’s time someone applies that literature to museums. We have been following and admiring each other’s work for several years now, and I can’t think of a better partner for this project. We’re envisioning a practical, nuts-and-bolts kind of book that provides our colleagues with the tools they need to make their museums, and themselves, more creative.

We’re just at the beginning stages; we don’t even have a publisher lined up yet. But it’s important to us that we involve our colleagues from day one so we can write a book that’s genuinely useful to them. As we begin our research and draft our book proposal, we’ve developed a quick survey that you can take here, and you can also make comments/suggestions either on this post or at the Museums & Creative Practice website.

Lastly, we’ll both be at the American Association of Museums conference in Minneapolis next week (yes, this year’s conference theme is “Creative Community”) and we are hoping to talk there with as many colleagues as possible about this project. We’re holding two informal Museums & Creative Practice meet-ups:

  • Monday, April 30, 12:30-2:00. Grab a takeaway lunch and meet us at the cafe seating in the lobby of the convention center, near Dunn Bros Coffee
  • Tuesday, May 1, 6:00-7:30. Join us for a drinks and discussion at The Local, 931 Nicollet Mall, a few blocks north of the convention center. The reservation is under Rainey; we’ll be at “Arthur’s Table.”

I don’t yet know where this project will lead, but wherever it goes I’m looking forward to it. I hope you are too.

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By Gord McKenna via Flickr

Since a lot of my readers work at city museums, I want to make a pitch for CAMOC annual conference, to be held this year in Vancouver, October 24-26. CAMOC is the international professional association for city museums, and I try to attend this conference every year. I always meet interesting people and learn a ton.

If you want to make a presentation at this conference, proposals are due on April 15; I just turned mine in this morning. I know that’s just a few short days away but don’t worry, the proposal requirements aren’t too lengthy or complicated. The Call for Papers can be found here or on the CAMOC website. There are several different options for participation: you can deliver a formal paper about an issue facing city museums, make a brief presentation about projects your museum is undertaking, or participate in a poster competition.

The Museum of Vancouver (pictured above) is our local host for this year’s conference. MOV is on my list of city museums to watch, so I’m very excited to spend some time getting to know the organization and its staff. And Vancouver itself is an amazing city. Hope to see you there.

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I know posts have been a little thin on this blog over the past few months. One of the reasons is that I’ve been working on two other projects that I’m now ready to share with my CityStories readers.

The first is an exhibition that came out of a fellowship I had in fall 2011 at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage (JNBC) at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I was at JNBC to continue my research on city museums, but while I was there I also worked with five JNBC graduate students to develop an exhibition about what it means to live in Providence, drawing from the field of psychogeography for our methodology.

Pyschogeography isn’t exactly a household word. Loosely defined, it involves mapping abstract concepts like emotion, sensory experiences, and personal meaning, in contrast to our traditional concept of mapping physical elements—roads, landmarks,  topography. I had been grappling a lot with the disconnect between what city museums think is worth knowing and preserving about their cities, on one hand, and what city residents know and preserve as living, breathing “archives,” walking around their cities each day, on the other. The exhibition was an experiment to see what it would be like to create a city collection where the emotional, sensory, and personal experiences of residents command center stage. After this project I am further convinced that city museums should be incorporating psychogeography into their ongoing work. The exhibition, You Are Here: Archiving Providence in the Present, is documented here.

The second project is a little more personal, but still strongly tied to my professional practice. I’ve been developing a blog for my five-year-old cousin Thomas, who wants to be an explorer when he grows up. I post photos from cities I have visited as part of my research, and I challenge Thomas to figure out the location of each photo. When he solves one, he and his mom report on how he did it, which gets posted on the blog. It’s called Thomas Sees the World.

The blog happened organically. Thomas was working on one of Andrew Sullivan’s “View from Your Window” challenges, but it was really hard. I offered to send him a few of my own photos that I had screened to make sure they contained enough visual clues. Thomas attacked these photos with an overwhelming eagerness to learn, and I was fascinated by his thought process, which almost never conformed to my expectations. After four or five of these challenges yielded such rich responses from Thomas, his mom and I decided to try a blog. We are developing a small but devoted following, and this game is bringing us all a lot of joy. I think about cities—and the differences between them—all the time, but I have never thought about them quite this way before. I am learning all sorts of new things as I look at cities through Thomas’s eyes. Take a look at the blog and you’ll see what I mean.

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In October I flew to Aarhus, Denmark, to give a paper at an urban history conference hosted by the open air museum Den Gamle By. The Aarhus City Museum just merged with Den Gamle By, and the conference was organized in part to guide strategic planning efforts under the new management structure. This is a video of my talk; it’s a half-hour in length. Hardcore city museum folks will also want to check out the other conference presentations, not only from Aarhus but also Copenhagen, Rotterdam, and Ghent—each one has a different take on urban history.

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My Approach

When I describe my project here in Helsinki, I’ve had a few people make the assumption that I spend my days doing research in various archives around the city. It’s happened enough times that I feel I should clarify my approach.

I want to start by emphasizing that I am not an academic historian; I am a public historian. That means my job is to take the research academic historians produce and translate it into something that is not only easy for the general public to understand, but that also is meaningful, unexpected, captivating, or even entertaining. (more…)

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Why Helsinki?

Everyone asks me this. On some level there are many cities in which I could conduct this research. But there are some interesting parallels to be made between Boston and Helsinki.

First, they are more or less the same age, which is rare when comparing North American and European cities. (more…)

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