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Museum Life: An Evening With Jane Goodall Live

September 28, 2011 1 comment


My mid-career walkabout continued tonight as I attended the nationwide simulcast of Jane’s Journey, a documentary of primatologist Jane Goodall written and directed by Lorenz Knauer. I went because her story of traveling to Tanzania in her twenties without a college degree to study chimpanzees under Dr. Louis Leakey has always inspired me. Likewise her writings and penchant for pithy quotes that I love so well, such as ” Lasting change is a series of compromises. And compromise is all right, as long your values don’t change.”



The event was part film screening, part this is your life, part Hollywood stars pay homage and part commercial for Jane’s current quest to inspire people to save the planet from damage humans cause. I thought the documentary was well done, particularly giving rare glimpses into her personal life including the often difficult effects of lifelong passion for work. As most driven people, she made sacrifices within romance, friendships and family. She spoke candidly about two marriages to “jealous” men who in her opinion kept her from doing the type of travel and work she does now.  After her second husband died from cancer in 1980, she sought solace in the wilderness for four weeks and chose to be married to her work from then on. Deeply resonating for someone like me.

A period of separation from her son and grandchildren due to philosophical differences regarding the environment and commerce was also explored. Her son pursued commercial fishing and export of live crabs to Japan, which did not sit well with mother. He expressed remorse over those “lost years” chasing profits. Yet today he and his mother are working on an ecotourism venture together to take people to a pond called sacred by locals in Tanzania. It is filled with hippos that have been guarded by generations of the same family. Jane suggest that “high-end” clientele who “respect” the area will actually help increase financial stability for the area and offer more protection for the animals. I am not yet sold on this aspect of the film. The balance of moneymaking and mission with regard to culture and preservation is a theme that causes me angst almost daily. Jane didn’t help me find new insights on this.

While I am the first to tout the benefits of  the marriage of pop culture and science to reach a broad audience, I didn’t feel seeing Courtney Cox, Angelina Jolie, Pierce Brosnan, Dave Matthews, Nancy Cartwright (voice of Bart Simpson) or Charlize Theron accomplished this very well tonight. Their segments seemed a bit disjointed and didn’t help the message as much as seeing a young reporter interview Jane about how young people can make a difference in the world. His unbridled enthusiasm for the topic spoke volumes for what young people can do.

While some scientists question her research methods, and there are criticisms of her focus on public appearances vs. hard science, Ms. Goodall still inspires me as she travels 300 days a year at age 77, making appearances and supporting projects at the Jane Goodall Institute. She does countless interviews, with her message of community action and education front and center, such as statements about women and science today in Huffington Post. The Roots and Shoots youth program, now in 100 counties, has me thinking of new ways museums might help organize and engage youth on a global scale.

Find Out More! Jane Goodall’s archives recently moved from University of Minnesota to Duke University, following Professor Anne Pusey, a long-time colleague. The Research Center has a wealth of information and educational activities for adults and kids alike.


Museum Life: Art & Copy

July 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Art & Copy a film by Doug Pray

It has been a few months since an entry. During this portion of my walkabout I have traveled to the Caribbean, moved back to the desert, worked on a traveling exhibition for Liberace and studied media stories to track how museums are perceived and reported.  I have also watched movies. A LOT of movies.  My recent Netflix find was Art & Copy. It won at Sundance, Toronto and Atlanta Film Festivals and just this week was nominated for a News & Documentary Emmy in the category of Outstanding Arts & Culture Programming after showing on PBS.

This documentary is about advertising. Not just ads but the people behind them–men and women who created the type of agency now portrayed in “Mad Men” as well as those who ventured out as artists and social commentators and inspired clients to present people, businesses and products in ways consumers had never seen. From Mary Wells and “I Love New York” to  Rich Silverstein and Jeff Goodby who coined “Got Milk” , George Lois and “I Want My MTV” and Dan Wieden and David Kennedy with “Just Do It”, I learned the strategic and random ways campaigns that become part of our culture were formed. And I saw museum work.

Although never mentioned in my museum studies program, I have learned over the last 20+ years that we in the profession are in sales. Not just the Marketing & PR Department or the Retail Division–all of us. We are selling ideas, knowledge, experiences and access. Just like an ad agency, we sit behind primarily closed doors and create exhibitions and content, bounce ideas around and layer every message to the public with our brand, whether consciously defined or not.  We are trained to “interpret” content for the public in the way we want them to understand it. Our missions may be collecting, conserving, exhibiting, teaching etc. but we NEED people to consume our product and pay money to do so.

However. most in the profession rarely admit that what we do fits this way of thinking. Only in the last couple of years have we even seen a joint degree in museum studies and business administration offered. Within museums we still support segregation of marketing, advertising and earned income from other work such as research and curation when it is the intersection of the functions that create inspiring messages. Every staff member, volunteer, board member and visitor is a walking, talking, writing advertisement for an institution. We therefore need to be clear in our mission and message, and style– “brand” if you will. With countless museums in financial trouble and closing while others build new buildings and open as we speak, I can’t help but think  “Art & Copy” are defining factors for survival.

Ford Bell, President of the American Association of Museums proposes museum advertising in the form of advocacy in a recent address at the annual meeting. “We need to be a true museum field”, he states, “with a consistent, coordinated message advocating for the power and purpose of museums, for their value to our communities and our society, for their essential contributions to our economy, our education and our lives. When he said “everybody needs to hear it”….  there was silence from the audience of museum professionals. No applause, nothing. Did they not want to hear it? Were they surprised by a call to action? Are they prepared to be spokespersons?

This week Payless Shoe Stores portray museums as the “fun way to learn” in a commercial. Maybe we need to hire their agency!

Museum Life: Shout Out Brooklyn!

March 6, 2011 Leave a comment

The Brooklyn Museum

Today I am thinking about new approaches to visitor input informing museum content and am intrigued by The Brooklyn Museum project launched this month entitled Split Second: Indian Paintings. From now until April 14th you can go to the Museum’s website and choose the paintings you would like to see installed at the gallery this summer.  Per the site, “inspired by the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell, this online experiment and resulting installation will explore how our initial reaction to a work of art is affected by what we know, what we’re asked, and what we’re told about the object in question”.

After you self-identify for age, sex and level of subject matter expertise, you are shown pairs of paintings and asked to choose which one you find more “intriguing”.  What makes this challenging is that your decision must be made in four seconds. Next you are asked to write a few words and then you are given unlimited time to choose again with accompanying text. Try it by clicking here. Go ahead… I’ll wait.

So…. what did you think? I found the first part of the process difficult. The site even kicked me out and told me I was too slow in my choices. After 20 some years working in museums it seemed wrong not to analyze and apply something more than my initial visual reaction to a choice. But ultimately it was liberating and exactly what this walkabout project of mine needed. It took me back to the time when I could simply say I liked an image for no reason other than I responded to it. No words or theories ar academic justification required. I ended up enjoying that first section more than the others. Having direct input made me feel invested in the project as I will definitely check  back to see if my selections make it into the show.

This is the second such process designed by Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology.  The first,  Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition debuted in 2008 and gave website visitors the role of curator by reviewing photographs submitted by the public and selecting the pieces that were later exhibited. In addition, the website summarizes the Top 10 photos compared in each category and the 25 that received the most comments. In total 3,344 evaluators cast 410,089 evaluations of 389 photos submitted.

Brooklyn has also had the public help decide museum programming via the website. People were invited last summer to nominate musicians, DJs, films and books to be featured at a Target sponsored First Saturday event.  Making this happen required program and IT staff to collaborate to ensure the website programming could accomplish what was needed to collect votes and get feedback.

Diving deeper into the Museum’s website, you can see that back in 2007 the Museum had a visitor video competition asking people to document  a First Saturday event. The winner was “Mr. Cool”:

The Brooklyn Museum is inviting us as visitors to interact via the web in every way available. They are everywhere in the social online world — Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Flikr, YouTube, My Space, iTunesU and they led the way in establishing institutional blogging.  But the staff at this museum is not just sending content out, they are asking for us to return it, even to assist in creating what is presented in the galleries.  They are blurring previous roles in the field and using technology with more consistent content than I have yet to find anywhere else.  Shout Out Brooklyn!

Museum Life: Retail Therapy

March 5, 2011 Leave a comment

American Folk Art Museum in NYC- Image by artist Jim Shores

If you visit museums you have surely succumbed to the presence of retail and plunked down your cash for a tangible reminder of your visit. On behalf of museums everywhere– thanks! My first paid position in a museum was as a Store Buyer and Manager. Now at mid-career I know it was the best introduction to the daily elements of museum work possible from budget creation and management to educational design and visitor service.

There are as many approaches to retail as there are museums, and you will find varied levels of  commitment to mission and adherence to the professional code of ethics that should govern the non-profit operations. The Museum Store Association was founded in 1955 and serves as the professional organization for those involved in the “cultural commerce industry”.  Having attended quite a few MSA conferences, I respect these professionals that often provide significant operating funds to institutions and are responsible for high levels of visitor interaction. “Exiting through the gift shop” is usually the last contact a visitor has with staff and can make or break return visits and ongoing support by patrons.

My philosophy is to treat the Store as part of educational outreach in addition to a profitable enterprise. In each museum I have worked, the Store staff have been trained as educators, and are expected to be the ambassadors for every area of the operation. Those who do it well combine knowledge of collections and program content with customer service abilities to present a consistent message and image for the institution.

Below are some of my personal favorites that combine educational message with creative product choices. Enjoy!

The American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The two shops in the Museum never disappoint for unique items beautifully designed with just enough humor to make the shopping experience a pleasure to be shared. Be ready for good old-fashioned mail order if you can’t visit. Definitely work the effort!

The British Museum in London. The vast collection provides endless possibilities for product, They have some of the best publications in the business as well as jewelry based on designs from around the world.

New Afghanistan exhibition catalog from The British Museum

The Field Museum in Chicago. A museum that combines history, natural history, sciences and art in scholarly and popular ways has a Store that does the same.

The Heard Museum in Phoenix. Because of the decades old relationships with artists and a commitment to authenticity in the Native American art market, The Heard is a trusted place to find jewelry, art, music and books. The world-famous indian Art Market is this weekend, at which you can meet the artisans behind the pieces you buy while immersing yourself in performances and food!

Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia, Vancouver. This is one of the finest shops I’ve seen anywhere, let alone on a University campus. From educational items for kids to high-end contemporary First Nations artwork, you can find unique products that are as diverse as the collections on exhibit.

Recycled exhibit banner totes- UBC Museum of Anthopology

Museum of New Mexico Foundation. This is an innovative business model in which one foundation carries out fundraising for multiple museums. This online store combines products made my New Mexico artisans in one section with pieces representative of  world cultures in another. Name a place and you’ll likely find an artist represented!

Beaded flask from Haiti- New Mexico Museum Foundation

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA combines an extensive book collection with gorgeous jewelry, unique household pieces and one of the best kids’ sections I’ve seen. Throw in their great logo items to carry around or wear and you can’t go wrong!

Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Hands down one of my favorite museums because of the depth of programming that corresponds to cutting edge exhibitions. The Store mixes international contemporary pieces with a nice focus on local artists and no fear of humor! They have one of my favorite museum shirts designed by their Teen Council that says “Boring and Non-Offensive“.

MN artist Amy Mueller grass & concrete jewelry- Walker Shop

Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Even if you aren’t a major Warhol fan, the products presented here use the artist’s images in such creative ways that you might just want to surround yourself with them!

I’ll stop there for this installment. More Stores to come throughout this year of museum exploration. Send me your suggestions!

Museum Life: Behind the Monkey

March 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Curious George by the Reys

My walkabout got me thinking today about a stellar museum experience I recently had, with one of the highlights being the exhibition “Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey”. If you haven’t seen it and are in the Bay area, you have until March 13th to go to The Contemporary Jewish Museum in downtown San Francisco. The exhibition was organized by The Jewish Museum in New York.

I grew up adoring the stories of George and friends and those narrow escapes as he maneuvered himself through adventures. What I never knew was that he was born “Fifi” of Jewish authors who escaped for their own lives on bicycles in 1940 because of Nazi occupation in Paris.

The Reys

They traveled across France, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil before ending up in New York four months later. All the while, Margaret and H.A. wrote beautifully illustrated stories for children that  focused on friendship, bravery and escaping harm.

What this exhibition does so well is appeal to both adults and children. The story of Nazi Europe is told without diluting the fear faced by the authors, but it is balanced with design and activities that also allow visitors to also focus on over 80 pieces of original artwork, the authors’ journals, an interactive timeline and even an “Art Pack” in the form of a little suitcase that provides activities and a map for kids to use.

Visitors with different interests can see the exhibition simultaneously and understand that while the Reys were experiencing this time of escape, they used their artwork and stories to help carry them along. Their ultimate success makes this a welcome lesson of perseverance and personal choice in how we deal with traumas in our lives. Perhaps that is why Curious George is still well-loved today, not only in the books but on PBS in his own show, on DVDs and even on Facebook where he has over 240,000 followers!

I went into this exhibition simply interested in learning more about some books I loved as a child. I came out loving them even more for the story previously unknown. That’s a good day in Museum Life!

Museum Life: Replacing Human Docents?

March 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Ada & Grace

Searching with the word museum on YouTube brought me face to face with potential human docent replacements. Is it possible Museum Life of the future will rely less on people to teach, guide and interact?

There is already a robot docent in Japan that can look into your eyes to see how interested you are as well as how much you understand and will adjust content accordingly:

The Museum of Science in Boston  currently has the InterFaces project that includes virtual guides Ada and Grace named for early computing scientists Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852) and Grace Hopper (1906 – 1992). This is an ongoing collaboration with University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies funded in part by the National Science Foundation. The project includes a Living Laboratory to use visitor hypotheses and feedback to continue development of the technology. Using speech recognition and analysis these guides can answer your questions and make suggestions. Here they are with a group of kids:

The avatar look of these guides makes it clear they are virtual, but some companies are taking the next steps to use human representations such as those you see “speaking” to you on websites within physical spaces. Combining the human appearance with interactive abilities is suggested for sales situations, conferences and  yes- museums. NuMedia Innovations, Inc calls “nuV-Host” a fully interactive virtual mannequin and cites “no recurring costs for talent or staff” as a benefit.

 Here is one in action in Norway:

Will this just be another technology that enhances what people do, or could it actually replace some functions?  I would like to find more examples in place in museums and to inquire about visitor reaction as well as retention of information provided, particularly comparing age groups. It wasn’t mentioned, but saving stored data on the questions asked and areas of interest that could be reviewed and reported would be extremely useful in planning and project evaluation.

On the other hand they have not addressed the human ability to hear 12 questions at once from 30 fourth graders, and to gracefully create answers that address everyone while walking backwards and knowing you have 3 minutes left to get everyone back to the entrance so they don’t miss their bus….

It is easy for me to envision these interacting with visitors at learning stations and they could certainly help in getting more information across to more people at once. But would visitors feel they are missing anything without “real” human conversations? Would you?

Museum Life: Divine Intervention

March 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Day 5 of my project has me thinking about museum-like functions that take place in other environments. This started with a random video on the site of an installation by artist Bruce Munro at Salisbury Cathedral, 90 miles southwest of London. You might know of the Cathedral as the home of one of the best preserved copies of the Magna Carta. While I first just wanted to connect with the art and music, as I dug into my daily research I found striking similarities in how the Cathedral is run and how museums function.

First- the art installation by Munro. It ran through February and was entitled Water-Towers. The Cathedral has an ongoing program of exhibition, in fact they also collect contemporary art. This was Munro’s second installation on site, and it encouraged visitors to wander the spaces to immerse themselves in sounds and changing color seen through 16,000 plastic bottles filled with water. Munro credits the book  Gifts of Unknown Things by Lyall Watson as inspiration to create the experience as he was fascinated by the character Tia who has synesthesia,  the ability to “see” sounds in color.

The contemporary work in an ancient space seemed very museum-like to me but the similarities did not stop there.  The Cathedral website explains that the building itself is an artifact and there are four staff conservators charged with maintaining the centuries old elements such as statuary on site. It also maintains a library and archive of historical works and has an active research program.  There are ongoing classes in art making, music and history for all ages. One can make donations or become a volunteer. Guided tours for small and larger groups are available and finally, there is a restaurant and shop for visitors. Even on the administrative side you will find a mission statement, specific measurable commitments to the community and a strategic plan available for review.

How often do museum professionals and people running other destinations carrying out similar functions interact regarding their work? Museums and libraries often partner on projects, most notably through federally funded programs. IMLS lists 117 examples funded.  Nonetheless the two professions remain quite distinct.

 Are there ways we can increase communication and potential partnerships with national and international sites that carry out similar work? What examples already exist? So many questions from one little video!