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Rainy Day, Boston by Childe Hassam, 1885, Toledo Museum of Art

Rainy Day, Boston by Childe Hassam, 1885, Toledo Museum of Art, via Google Art Project

For the first time in my life I have found a weather forecaster who actually matters to me. His name is David Epstein, and I am a big fan of his blog Weather Wisdom on boston.com. So are many of my local friends. Why do I care so much about David Epstein? Because he is the first meteorologist I have encountered who not only delivers the forecast, but then truly explains how it is going to affect my life.

Take his post yesterday about the impending Hurricane Arthur. He was precise and thorough in describing exactly where and when to expect significant weather across southeastern Massachusetts. But more importantly, he told me what I needed to know to effectively adjust my plans for the July 4 holiday weekend. Yesterday afternoon many Bostonians were still trying to figure out whether it would be okay to attend last night’s outdoor Boston Pops concert at the Hatch Shell, a local Fourth of July tradition. Knowing it would be on our minds, Epstein made sure to advise us that as long as we cleared out of the Esplanade as soon as the concert ended, we should be able to avoid any significant downpours. He also knew many Bostonians would be thinking about today’s Red Sox game, so he told us what to expect there too: it would probably get cancelled, and if wasn’t then count on getting soaked (eventually it did get postponed until Saturday). Indeed, he advised that any outdoor events for this afternoon and evening would get cancelled if they hadn’t been already. He even weighed in on flight delays. And finally, he told us it would all clear out for a beautiful Saturday and Sunday: dry, not too hot, and great for all outdoor activities except ocean swimming (currents will still be strong). Which lets me know definitively: Pops but not Sox; no to my friend’s outdoor picnic this afternoon but yes to my other friend’s indoor party tonight; and Saturday’s farmer’s market–as well as brunch afterward on the patio–will be glorious. Weekend planned.

All last winter, whenever snow was predicted in my city, David Epstein told me whether to head out early, on time, or late–or to skip going out altogether. He also gave me shoveling advice: was it going to be the kind of light, powdery snow where we can save the shoveling til the next morning, or a wet, heavy snow that means we need to shovel every 2 hours or risk throwing our backs out. Because some storms bring down trees on power lines and others don’t, he told me which one I would be dealing with so I’d know whether it was worth my time to get out the flashlights and fully charge devices. And all year long he has been telling me what the weather is going to mean for my yard–when to plant, when to water, when to protect from frost.

Other forecasts simply don’t provide this context. They give me some information, and then it’s up to me to interpret how this information is going to affect me. Therefore they are interchangeable. They come and go, from one weather service or another, hovering right at the line of mediocrity where they’re neither remarkably bad nor remarkably good; they just are. But not David Epstein’s forecasts. He understands his audience’s needs. He knows right now we’re thinking about the holiday weekend, and on Monday morning we’ll be thinking about a whole different set of concerns, and we’ll always be thinking about the Red Sox. He understands that the whole reason to have a forecast in the first place is so people can apply it to their daily lives, and so he helps me make good decisions. For this reason, I am loyal to David Epstein. I recommend him to everyone I know. If boston.com tried to drop him I would care; I would fight for him. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

So what does David Epstein have to do with city museums? The shift that he has made in terms of delivering a useful forecast is the same shift that city museums need to make in delivering useful content. Most city museums think of themselves first and foremost as history museums, dealing with things that happen in the past. But just as it’s not enough to get the forecast right but leave your audience on their own to apply it, it’s not enough to get the history right without explaining what it has to do with everyday lives right now.

For city museum workers, this means paying attention to what’s going on in your city–following local news and social media, talking to fellow residents–and then looking for opportunities to make connections between past and present. If your city is in the midst of a particularly intense local election, dig up some stories that help put it in context. If it’s the first day of spring and everyone has turned out on the street with bare arms and legs for that collective joy that only the first day of spring can elicit, find some photos in your archive of spring 50 years ago and post them on your social media channels. Moreover, your content doesn’t have to be historical to be meaningful and mission-driven for city residents; holding a town hall forum about an important local issue or investigating the here and now in urban neighborhoods is also compelling work for city museums.

Anticipating audience needs and delivering content that applies to everyday lives right now is how city museums build loyal fans who will recommend the museum to friends and neighbors, and fight for the museum when it’s threatened. It’s how city museums rise above mediocrity to become institutions that matter.

 

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Something came across my desktop today that I had to share. It touches on everything I care about: the power of story, the way that people inhabit and experience cities, museums, creative practice, how objects can be reframed to shine a spotlight on their meaning and emotion, and simple human kindness. In this case the story in question is that of Loes Veenstra, the city is Rotterdam, the museum is Museum Rotterdam, the creative practice is knitting, the objects are sweaters—many, many sweaters—and the kindness comes from neighbors.

Loes Veenstra spent the last 60 years compulsively knitting sweaters, until she had amassed 550 of them. They were never worn—each time she finished one she would put it in a box in her apartment and start another. Last year folks from Museum Rotterdam discovered her collection and asked if they could exhibit it as part of a project on her neighborhood, Carnisse. Then artist Christien Meindertsma got involved, and low and behold one day this happened, on the street outside Veenstra’s home:

I’ve seen photos online of the exhibition of the sweaters, and that’s beautiful too—a sea of colorful forms, suspended from the ceiling like a sculptural installation. But this video—it’s something different, something much more. First, the sweaters are worn. Standard museum practice is that nobody gets to touch the objects—they must be protected and preserved. But see what happens when these sweaters are put on bodies and come to life: they are human kindness animated. And second, the sweaters come to life not in the exhibition gallery but on a residential street. In this context—in this sense of place—they become an instrument of community.

I think a lot about the hyperlocal experience—what it means to know every nook and cranny of a five-block square, how each of us is an informal historian, logging the small changes that happen each day in our neighborhoods. We come to learn a lot about our neighbors, and on the other hand, there is always more to learn. I am imagining how this flash mob has changed the hyperlocal history of Carnissestraat—not just for Loes Veenstra but for all her neighbors who participated in and witnessed it. And I am imagining what it would be like if museums’ treatment of objects were always this powerful. Imagine me and you, so happy together.

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I am traveling in Italy at the moment, and earlier this week I had an opportunity to visit the new Museum of the History of Bologna, which opened in January of this year. It’s housed in the former palace of the Pepoli family, and it’s part of a larger project, Genus Bononiae, initiated by the Carisbo Foundation to restore and link together eight cultural sites in Bologna. The Museum of the History of Bologna is a particularly interesting city museum for several reasons, one of which is that it’s a distinct departure from the “museo civico” model found in so many Italian cities. At some point I need to write a proper blog post about my experience there. But as is often the case when I visit for the first time a museum I really like, the seed of a new idea is planted in my head and I feel compelled to spend my post sharing that instead.

The idea I had in Bologna was sparked by a gallery at the city museum called “Your Museum” (pictured above). Its goal is to involve Bologna residents by inviting them to bring their own objects to be exhibited in the museum. Massimo Negri, the museum’s scientific director (i.e. chief content developer), told me he had originally hoped this gallery would be much bigger, with a system where people could bring in their objects and on the spot have them added to the display. Unfortunately, due to space and logistical constraints, he had to settle for the iteration I saw.

Many museums are now interested in public participation, and they have been experimenting with the best ways to do it; Your Museum in Bologna is one example. At the same time, we also acknowledge that the museum collections we have inherited, formed in previous centuries, were assembled haphazardly, with major gaps in the stories they can tell. They leave out large groups of people and do not adequately represent the breadth of our history and culture. In short, the objects that have made their way into our museum collections represent only a tiny fraction of our entire material heritage. I’ve been thinking about these challenges a lot recently, as have many of you, I’m sure. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my recent visit to the Museu da Maré, a community museum in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Museu da Maré has a much more flexible collections policy than museums are normally used to: a member of the community can donate an object to the museum and then, if later he or she wants it back, the museum gives it back. Community members might also technically give the museum an object but still keep it in their home. I have heard that the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa has a similar policy. Mix all of these concepts together and you end up with my Idea du Jour:

Can a city museum catalog the material life of its city without actually acquiring and owning it? Imagine a zoo that collects animals from the wild and puts them together in cages. Currently, our museums are like zoos. Now imagine a biologist who tracks and studies animals, but never takes them out of the wild. We have sophisticated RFID tags and we have extensive object database software. Why not conduct a material culture census, or inventory, of a city, but not actually collect anything?

This may seem like a lot of work for nothing. I would have said that too five years ago, but the museum landscape has changed enough that I think we could start to see the potential. There are so many opportunities here for public participation. Residents can catalog their own objects, with or without the help of a curator. People can “like” the objects they are particularly drawn to, or contribute additional information about objects posted by other people. Curators can put out a call for certain gaps in the “collection” that need to be filled. But perhaps also a resident can recommend that her neighbor’s object be added to the collection because it has a great story. And perhaps if an object gets many, many likes, it is then recommended for physical acquisition by the museum (subject to the owner’s approval, of course), a kind of crowdsourced method of determining which artifacts are most important to preserve, combined with some gentle community pressure for public ownership of them. Individuals could also recommend a neighbor’s object for exhibition at the museum, and so on. The role of the museum curator, then, is to highlight really interesting objects, monitor and improve accuracy, draw connections, and start conversations.

Because, as you know, I am obsessed with geotagging objects, I think it would be great to have a mapping component where you can see all these objects existing out in real space, out in “the wild,” across the city. Although that may present a security risk that could serve as a deterrent to community members. If people know you have special things in your home then maybe they want to steal them. (And who knows what other practical considerations this idea raises since I’m really just thinking it off the top of my head.) On the other hand, many objects no longer live in the place where they had the most geographic meaning, so the tags on the map don’t necessarily have to represent current location, just location of meaning. Also, it would be easy enough to hide the identity of object owners so that only the museum has personal contact information.

But wouldn’t it be interesting to see what happens when the material culture of a place is collectively exposed in this way, regardless of whether it is owned privately or publicly? Would it make us rethink what cultural heritage means, and perhaps assume a different kind of shared responsibility? I wonder if anyone out there has already experimented with this concept–if so chime in and let me know. Otherwise, let’s make it happen somewhere as a pilot project.

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An outdoor exhibition about the Berlin Wall, Alexanderplatz, Berlin. Could we go one further and not even put the objects in cases?

You know how I’m obsessed with geotagging objects, right? We lost a lot of meaning when we separated artifacts from their places of origin in order to assemble our museum collections—especially in the case of our local history collections—and geotagging gives us a chance to get some of that meaning back. I preach about this concept to anyone who will listen, and I’ve even played around with pinning some objects from New-York Historical Society‘s collection to the Google Map in historypin (until historypin told me to stop because they want people to stick to photographs).

This evening I had a conversation with Chris Chelberg, a library science grad student I met back in May at THATCamp Museums NYC. We were following up on a session Chris led at THATCamp about disruption theory, Clayton Christensen’s argument from the business world that the real threat to established companies comes not from their conventional competitors—the companies selling the same product they are—but from products brand new to the market that offer a “good enough” solution to fill the consumer need at a much cheaper price. At first these new products are so shoddy that the established companies don’t pay any attention to them, but eventually they improve to the point where they take off, and by then it’s too late to do anything about it. Christensen cites a number of real world examples, the most interesting of which (to me at least) is that online degree programs like University of Phoenix have the potential to disrupt universities like Harvard and Yale: online learning might seem like no match for such prestigious schools now, but it’s getting more and more sophisticated with time, and it fills the need for a credential at a fraction of the cost. If disruption theory is new to you and you want to get caught up, you can read Christensen’s books, or I recommend this short and sweet New Yorker article by Larissa MacFarquhar.

Chris and I were talking about potential disruptions to museums; can we anticipate them and how they will affect our work? One of the big challenges museums face is the burden of caring for their collections. This is an essential function of museums, mind you, but it is so expensive that it leaves us particularly vulnerable to disruptions from cheaper, more flexible sources. We talked about the things that museums think are poor quality but that the general public often thinks are good enough, and cheaper: popular historical fiction, video games, anything labeled edutainment. Community-curated exhibitions. Pop-up projects. Reproductions.

This last one elicited the most interesting conversation. Right now, reproductions are no match for the real thing, and museums hold tight to the notion that authenticity is their trump card. I firmly believe this myself; In fact I wrote about authentic objects in History News last year. But maybe it’s just that reproductions are no match for the real thing yet. Is it possible that in 5-10 years they will be good enough? Are you following what’s happening with 3-D printers these days?

What Chris and I came up with is that maybe 3-D printing, as it evolves, can finally address some of the major access challenges museums have been grappling with for years. So we put everything in glass cases because we don’t want visitors handling and stealing our precious artifacts. But who cares what happens to the 3-D reproductions? Let them get breathed on and licked and caressed to death, Velveteen Rabbit-style. Put them in a room without climate control; heck, put them outside.

Which leads me back to geotagging. I would love to see a city museum take 100 of its most significant objects, partner with a 3-D printer manufacturer (or better yet, as Chris suggested, crowd-source it to the local maker community), and then install these 3-D reproductions out on the streets, where the original [authentic] objects came from. What would we learn from such an experiment? Could we own the disruption? Let me know if you want to find out.

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The On-Air Forum

The Takeaway, Todd Mundt via Flickr

My husband Graham is a journalist who has mainly worked in public radio, for talk shows like On Point and The Takeaway. He gets dragged to a lot of city museums and I end up in a lot of conversations about the current state of news media. Usually our two fields feel very different, but every now and then we are reminded that they are actually very similar: we both work to engage and inform a public audience.

He made an interesting analogy the other day about an issue that museum folks grapple with a lot: are we temples or forums? I’m going to share it with you here in case it gives you a slightly different way of understanding the nature of our current debate. To paraphrase, he said:

Most of the time history museums seem to give their visitors all the answers. It’s like starting off an hour-long radio show saying, ‘We already have the answers for you; here they are.’ But the whole point of a public radio talk show is to say instead, ‘We have a lot of questions so we’re bringing in some experts to debate them, and if you call in you can debate them too.’

Do hosts like Tom Ashbrook, John Hockenberry, and Celeste Headlee provide a model for the 21st-century museum curator, facilitating conversations between experts and interested listeners/visitors? What could we borrow from public radio to improve our museums?

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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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I make a lot of qualitative comparisons of city museums. But recently I’ve been thinking about quantitative comparison; what do the numbers say regarding which city museums are working and which ones aren’t? Annual visitation is one useful comparison, particularly annual visitation in relation to overall population, or annual visitation as compared with the art museums in the same cities. I’m slowly compiling the data on this—not every museum publishes their numbers, and there are a lot of variables in terms of how visitation is counted.

A few weeks ago I realized that comparing TripAdvisor reviews might also yield some interesting information. TripAdvisor reviews are posted by members of the general public, not by museum professionals like me (at least most of them aren’t posted by people like me), and unlike the visitation figures, all of the scores are crunched using the same formula. So I took a look at the TripAdvisor reviews for 32 city museums in Europe and North America. I mainly stuck to the ones I have personally visited, although I threw in a few additional ones (Ghent, Vancouver, Liverpool) I want to visit because they are generating buzz. First, a little context:

  1. Most of the reviews on TripAdvisor are posted by tourists, not locals. Occasionally a reviewer’s profile location matches the review city, but most of the time these are folks assessing their sightseeing experience while traveling.
  2. TripAdvisor reviewers (if their profile locations are to be believed) come from all over the world (TripAdvisor provides a Google Translate button).
  3. Fifteen of the 32 city museums each had 5 reviews or less, which means we have to take the scores with a grain of salt.
  4. Not every place in my survey is a spot-on city museum in the traditional sense (run by a non-profit organization or the local government, with a mission to preserve and disseminate the history of its city). I included a few outliers that offer city history exhibitions but don’t fit the standard mold (the for-profit Story of Berlin, for example).

With that background in mind, how did these city museums rate? On one hand, very well. 24 of 32 received scores of 4 stars or better, on a 5-star scale. There was only one score lower than 3 stars. This may simply mean that the kind of folks who visit city museums while on vacation, and then rate them, are the kind of folks who are predisposed to like city museums. The following museums scored a 4.5 (with number of reviews in parentheses after the name): Museum of London (104), Atlanta History Center (46), Story of Berlin (33), Museum of the History of Barcelona (29), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (28), People’s Palace/Glasgow (16), STAM/Ghent (5), Detroit Historical Museum (5), Stockholm City Museum (4), and McCord Museum/Montreal (3).

On the other hand, the TripAdvisor ratings suggest that city museums are rarely among the top things to do in their cities. TripAdvisor ranks all the attractions in any given city based on number and quality of reviews. Only 5 city museums ranked in the top 10 for their cities: Atlanta History Center (3/167), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (3/50), STAM/Ghent (5/27), Vapriiki Museum Centre/Tampere (9/26), and Turku Castle and Historical Museum (9/14). With the exception of Atlanta, these seem to be cities with few attractions overall. If I try to control for number of attractions in each city, the city museums that come out ahead are Atlanta History Center (3/167), Museum of London (16/720), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (3/50), People’s Palace/Glasgow (11/135), Museum of the History of Barcelona (17/204), and Pointe-à-Callière/Montreal (19/199).

I noticed a couple of other themes from the textual reviews. First, TripAdvisors made note of free admission as something they valued (Helsinki City Museum, Musée Carnavalet/Paris, Museum of London, Museum of Edinburgh), not surprising. Second, some museums have unusual features you don’t see other places (Mannekin Pis wardrobe at Museum of the City of Brussels, the Kaiser Panorama at Markisches Museum/Berlin, the nuclear fallout shelter at Story of Berlin, and the archaeological excavations on the lower levels of Pointe-à-Callière/Montreal and Museum of the History of Barcelona), which then get reinforced in the reviews as a reason TripAdvisors think other people should visit.

Lastly, it’s interesting that several of my personal favorites (Helsinki City Museum, Museum of Copenhagen, Amsterdam Museum) did reasonably well (4 stars each) but did not stand out. And Museum of the History of the City of Luxembourg wasn’t reviewed at all. Maybe they would fare better with local reviewers?

I learned a little from this exercise but not as much as I’d hoped. I’m going to keep my eyes out for other numbers to compare. In the meantime, it looks like I’ve got some reviews to write…

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