Making something out of nothing

We were sitting at breakfast last week, watching the birds out our back door.  There was about an inch of snow on the ground (which meant my son was complaining about how it NEVER snows in Indiana) and we were on, like, day 47 of grey skies and gloom.  This particular day, however, was sub-zero–so cold school was delayed (hence our leisure at the breakfast table).

The birds we get at the feeders on our back patio aren’t terribly remarkable: sparrows, chickadees, juncos, cardinals, house finches, and the occasional mourning dove.  On tis particular morning, they looked especially cold, all puffed up with their feathers ruffling in the miserable, persistent wind.

We noticed, suddenly, that our normal pair of cardinals had been joined by several other pairs.  At one time, we counted ten or eleven of them, both males and females.  As less-than-amateur birders, this was a very special sight and one we had never before seen at our feeder.  We took pictures, marveled at the efficiency of their triangular, stubby red beaks against the sunflower seeds we had provided, and talked back and forth about how extraordinary this large cardinal gathering seemed to be.

This kind of thing–getting so excited about seeing multiple birds of a feather–is the kind of thing we just do in our house.  We notice little things, and we talk about them.  Constantly.  Multiple times.  You do not want to drive anywhere with us in cars in autumn unless you really like talking about foliage.  And by “talking about”, I mean saying things like, “Oooh!  That’s a good one!” or “Wow!  That one really turned orange since we saw it two days ago!”

We point out hawks along highways.  We report back at dinner time whether or not we saw ducks or the resident heron at the retention pond in our back yard.  We keep tallies of how many rabbits and/or chipmunks we see on morning runs.  Spring flowers coming up in the front yard?  Oh my goodness, thank goodness for the ability to post photos.  And should we ever get anything out of the ordinary?  Well, everyone gets in on that action.

But here’s the thing: these little details, these small things that make us happy, these ordinary, everyday things that most people pass by?  We notice them.  And we talk about them.  And we appreciate them.  And that excitement doesn’t stop with our family conversations.  That ability to notice the details also carries over (for better or worse) into my teaching.

I’ve led field trips through the woods and stopped kids so they could peek through the vines at a robin sitting on her nest.  I’ve showed them trees so punctured by woodpecker holes they were no longer structurally sound.  We’ve snuck up on frogs, stood stock still and silent so we could listen for bird song, and I’ve been so excited to see a pair of Baltimore orioles that I actually hit a parent chaperone on the shoulder.

I suppose my point is that if you are excited about something–even something ordinary and mundane–your excitement will spread.  Other people start to see these everyday wonders through their own eyes.  That’s worth mentioning.

Back on track.

Link

ryan gosling

2012 was a long time ago.  A gap that big isn’t impressing anyone.  Look at Ryan Gosling there.  Does he look impressed to you?

It’s not that I haven’t been busy.  Really.  I’ve been here.  And here.  And here.  And here (where I can assure you I was just as interested in the whole experience and not just getting to relive childhood memories by going here).  And much of my time has been spent going between four very important but time-consuming volunteer commitments.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing my best to raise a child who is curious about his world and has a love of learning.  And believe me, he has already tapped the limit of what I remember back from those two semesters of organic chemistry in undergrad, so I think we’re doing OK.

This gap has not been due to idle time, believe me.

But with the prospect of several new projects coming up and some new opportunities on the calendar, it’s time to get back on track.  It’s time to get back into reflective mode and to start sharing these experiences again.

I’ve had two weeks to think about what my New Year’s resolution should have been two weeks ago.  I don’t necessarily believe that change has to start on January 1, but it does start with a deep breath and a commitment.

So here we are.

 

the world is my museum

As someone who is highly prone to motion sickness, I am very concerned.

In three days, my father-in-law, husband, and I are going to be leaving for a ten-day trip to the Galapagos; seven of those days we will be on a boat, and a relatively small boat, at that. Judging from the website, it’s going to be a very nice boat, but it’s no Carnival cruise ship. I will feel the waves.

More important than the fear of spending my time on board hanging over the side, though, is the excitement of what we’re going to see. Since the time in elementary school when I did a report on the Galapagos (way back when kids did reports using things like “encyclopedias” and “library books”), I have been intrigued by this tiny chain of islands 600 miles off Ecuador’s west coast.

For most people, the Galapagos aound familiar for three reasons: finches, giant tortoises, and Charles Darwin. I’m sure I’d be able to expound on all three of these things in a much more intelligent and fact-filled way after the trip, but you know that theory of evolution? That happened there. A lot.

Museums like to present timelines of stuff. As humans, we connect to the past by relating it to our present, and imagining our future. It’s fun to look back and see how things have changed, even if it’s a little scary to see how quickly this can sometimes happen. As it is, I had to explain a clothesline to my son yesterday. He did know what I was talking about, but referred to it as “old-timey”. And did you know that phones used to have cords? Like, attached to them? Weird.

We’ve all seen those little drawings depicting man ascending from apes (sorry, Rick Santorum). We’ve also been to museums and have seen rows of objects, be they dinosaur and chicken skeletons or Barbie dolls, aircraft or artworks. Humans, I think, understand change when you can see it.

What has already amazed me through the scant research and preparation I have done (the extent of my packing currently includes Keen sandals and SPF 50) is being able to see, in present condition, how organisms have changed. Distinct populations of animals live on each island, and have adapted certain characteristics to ensure their survival in that particular niche. Beak shape, hunting tactics, shell form, ability to swim and feed in salt water…the birds and reptiles of the Galapagos are remarkable survivalists, succeeding where few humans before them have.

While we may not be able to see the entire timeline before our eyes, knowing the history of the islands and understanding why something appears the way it does is fascinating. Seeing the plants and the vegetation and knowing how intimately connected they are…we can see it anywhere we look, as all organisms are masters of adaptation, but the backdrop for this lesson is a bit more exotic (though no less dangerous) than watching the house finches at our backyard bird feeder.

Bookending our cruise will be days spent in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. We’ve been trying to decide what sights we’ll see in the city, and since we’ll gt a lot of nature out on the boat, we’ve been focusing our research, of course, on museums.

I’m kind of ashamed to admit it (and hopefully this doesn’t diminish my credibility) but we’re going here. And while I could blame the quest to get (as the website calls it) “that photo” of ourselves straddling the Equator on my GPS-obsessed male travelling companions, I’m pretty sure I’m the one who brought it up first. Can I help it that, in addition to being a well-educated, culturally-aware citizen, I’m still a tourist?

It’s been a while since I’ve travelled internationally, and each time has been an adventure. My first trip out of the country was to the Dominican Republic, where we spent a week on a desert island. Our accommodations were slightly less luxurious but offered more scorpions, cactus, and mosquitoes. We explored Santo Domingo as well, visiting churches, ZooDOM, the national botanical gardens, the Acquario Nacional, and several historical sites. OK, I admit. We did also go here. It wasn’t all completely cultural.

Our 2005 trip to Italy was equally stunning, though being seven months pregnant (and as big as a car) made for an interesting experience, and with far less wine than originally planned for. The time we spent in Venice was surreal; I don’t normally find myself in places so postcard-worthy. It’s exhausting, spending so many hours stumbling around in discovery mode, amazed and enchanted by everything.

And so while I am blessed to live a life that allows me to travel every so often, to see the world as my museum, I am also thankful that each of those experiences has changed me. I’d like to think they’ve made me wiser, they’ve shaped my own timeline and my own evolution, but at the very least, they have opened my eyes to see something new.

Super.

I thought maybe I’d give it a week or two (or a month, as it turns out) to post about my experience with Superbowl XLVI. I could tell that by the end of the celebration, people (myself included) were starting to twitch whenever they heard the word “super”. We get it. Indy is awesome. We wanted to make this the Best. Superbowl. Ever. And by many accounts, it was. Score.

I am a football fan. Not a fanatic, mind you, but I like the game. I have more than one Colts t-shirt, we fly a Colts flag every Sunday during regular season, and I have been known to paint my nails bright blue. But there is a such thing as a football fan who also goes to museums. These two cultural arenas are not mutually exclusive.

However, the museum community around town seems to have a bit of a chip on its shoulder when it comes to football in this town, and rightly so. Taxes went up 1% to support the building of Lucas Oil Stadium, so we’ll be supporting that venue for years to come, whether we want to or not. How many of your tax dollars went to support museums? Zero. On the flip side, how much do the arts contribute in tax revenue back to the state of Indiana? Around $52 million. You’re welcome.

This isn’t about griping about the preferential treatment that sports get in our city, though. Between January 27 and February 5, I was glad sports got preferential treatment. It gave our city something to be super excited about. It gave thousands of people a chance to do something good and volunteer their time. And I know museums got a boost from the influx of visitors as well.

Where am I going with all of this? I couldn’t help but make comparisons between the Superbowl and a museum visit. Being a part of the activity and excitement downtown gave me a chance to see how one event can be crafted into a complete and all-encompassing experience, and I saw just how much hard work was put into making a trip to a city for a football game into something so much more for thousands of people.

When you visit a cultural institution, it’s not just about the stuff you see. It’s about the parking, the staff, the exhibits, the lines, the other visitors, the food…everything. All of those factors were taken into account for this huge city-wide event, and I think the city deserves all the back pats it’s received. There has been a tremendous amount of gratitude shown to the volunteer corps for the event…all 10,000+ of us. So allow me to share a part of my experience, and then maybe later, when we’re feeling all nostalgic for the post-season, I’ll write more about the event as a whole.

I signed up months and months ago to be a volunteer. I was scheduled to be a part of the Green Team (just one of several big initiatives unique to our role as host city). I was stoked because not only would I get to drive a golf cart and do something good for the Earth, but I was going to get a SuperScarf. Forget all the other cool free stuff they gave to volunteers. You had me at “scarf”.

So, right off the bat, the Host Committee knew how to make its volunteers feel appreciated. Once they hooked us, we had to sit through an online tutorial called SuperService. While this was perhaps not the most riveting part of my experience, I was impressed by the program itself. Designed for everyone from hotel staff to street recyclers like me, the tutorial provided us with thorough information not only about Indianapolis, but general customer service as well.

I won’t go into details about the 20-12 Rule (greet everyone within 20 feet with a smile, and verbally greet everyone within 12 feet…OK, I went into details); it’s a great idea, but here’s what made implementation tricky: Try smiling at over a million people.

There were over 265,000 people who attended the NFLExperience at the Convention Center throughout the ten days of celebration. Considering how long the lines we waited in were, I think most of those people came the same night that we did. Some of those lines moved more quickly than others. It seems that, as a family, we have lost our ability to wait in lines of any kind. On more than one occasion, we’ve been known to forgo cultural experiences simply because we were too impatient to stand there for a while. We did, however, humor our son and wait in several lines for a total of about 90 minutes so he could run the 40 yard dash. You know…something new and exciting.

We waited a very long time so David could run. RUN.

Regardless, the volunteers and staff working the NFL Experience were just as enthusiastic the first time they said “Ready, Set, Go!” as they were the 905th time they said it (right about the time we made it through the line). These were people who were happy to be there, happy to be doing something to help out, regardless of what it was.

That’s how I felt when I got switched from my Green Team duties to help out in the XBox Kinect Dome. I didn’t even know what Kinect was until I got in there. And while I was disappointed that my role was slightly less noble and I had to stand inside a revolving door (which frighteningly few people know how to maneuver, by the way) for three hours at a time, I still embraced my very important job of saying, “You’ll see we have Just Dance 3 over to the right, and there are two consoles with FruitNinja in front of you there. Have fun!”

Inside the XBox Kinect 360 Dome. Meaningful work, let me tell you.

I’m not sure how many people clumsily stumbled through my revolving door during my shifts (oh, yeah…I was so good at monitoring the door the first time, they asked me to do it again) but I smiled at every single one of them. From the nine-year-olds whose jaws dropped as they walked in and looked up at the laser show being projected onto the ceiling to the senior citizens who instantly regretted letting their curiosity get the best of them, to the Patriots fans…I smiled at them all, greeted them all; hopefully they could tell that I really was having a good time.

On one of the mornings when I arrived before the official start of my shift, I wandered over to do my best to snap a quick picture of Ann Curry for my son. As I walked through the Village, I couldn’t help but smile. Once or twice I had to remind myself to tone it down a little, since I probably looked like a goober, with my ear-to-ear grin and my SuperScarf swinging along with my step.

So, to wind this all up, the experience was all-encompassing, whether I was on the visitor side of things or the volunteer side of things. The experience of seeing what all the fuss was about and the experience of helping other people see what all the fuss was about were equally enjoyable, equally rewarding.

Just like visiting a museum, so many factors influenced our time spent downtown. Crowd control, parking, authentic objects (like the Lombardi trophy, which was so impressive I decided not to stand in yet another line to see), and smiling volunteers all added to the experience. Even the weather was beautiful!

So what makes a museum visit different from the NFL Experience? What did my trips down to the Village have that a museum doesn’t have? One compound word for you, baby: SuperScarf.

Have a super day.

A change of heart, maybe for good

So, I was going along, almost ready to upload my most recent thoughts, when I acknowledged the nagging feeling that the post was…well, it was bitchy. This should not come as a shock to most of you, and while in the post I admitted to the huge chip on my shoulder that I can not seem to escape, I didn’t feel right putting it all out there. Again.

I had wanted to highlight some of the differences I have experienced between different types of leaders withing the museum field. I went on and on about how most CEOs are so out of touch with what happens in the rest of the museum, and yet they have both the power and the tendency to make huge, sweeping decisions with enormous impact. Sadly, these decisions are often based on ignorance, or worse yet, numbers alone.

So you can imagine where I was headed with that. I’ve had some personal experience and many axes to grind, but that’s neither productive nor professional, so let’s focus on looking ahead rather than looking back, shall we?

Is it because we’re three days away from a Happy New Year? Ehhh, probably not. I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, mostly because I either don’t keep them, or they’re things that I should have committed to back on July 14th or some other—any other—day. So while it’s nice to think I’m making a fresh new start with my positive, kind-hearted outlook on life, it’s really not that.

Whatever it is, let’s hope it sticks. Let’s hope I can focus my insight and thoughts on making myself and my outlook better. That usually proves much more useful than complaining and lamenting. I am a museum educator. I have to find the balance between being extremely sensitive to the needs of others (be they visitors or colleagues) and being extremely thick-skinned (in order to withstand interactions with visitors and colleagues). The whining, while necessary on occasion, doesn’t do much good beyond one or two teeth-gnashing, hair pulling sessions. Then it’s time to keep calm and carry on.

Here is my attempt at finding the bright points in working in the museum field. For me, it’s a bright point every time I get to go to a museum as a visitor. Being on the inside is a different story. But it helps to remember that I am here to make the visitors’ experiences better, and when I go to a museum as a visitor, I have those educators there to thank for their hard work as well. So go ahead and count my head as I pass through the door, and may I boost your attendance numbers so that they influence programmatic decisions at your institution in a positive way!

I recently had the chance to sit in on a staff meeting of museum interpreters. Their CEO was in attendance, and after all the smaller housekeeping-type details had been covered, he took the floor and proceeded to praise the staff for the work they have been doing. He mentioned people by name and by the precise area in which they worked. He named specific examples of good performance, provided suggestions for improvement and constructive criticisms in a way that was motivational, gentle, and not critical.

How could he do this? He’s the CEO! He’s not supposed to know about these things! And yet, he was so knowledgeable about the programming and the people because he routinely goes through his institution and observes his staff. He tours donors through the galleries so they can see educational programming at work. He knows what his staff does, and he can describe it to someone else in detail that he has learned firsthand by watching it himself.

He finished out this staff meeting by reading two letters of praise. One letter was from someone at a pretty important museum organization, thanking this particular CEO for the tour, and mentioning in detail some of the more meaningful aspects of his tour and visit. You know what that says? It says that these educators and interpreters did such a stellar job that they created a lasting, positive memory for someone who probably visits hundreds (if not thousands) of museums every year.

While my original intent on sharing that story was to emphasize what a good leader does in contrast to what bad leaders do, I’ll just follow this particular museum leader did and focus on what was done right and what things can be done to be even better. You know why? Because from now on, I’m go to try very hard to make it so there’s no crying. There’s no crying in museums.

Why do you ask?

Why do we ask people for their advice? If you’re me, you already have your mind made up (even if you don’t realize it) before you ask. I know that nine times out of ten, when I ask my husband to weigh in on something, I usually go with whatever is precisely the opposite of what he says. Even though he almost always is wrong when I ask him something (bless his heart), he really is helpful, since his wrong answer only confirms that I am, indeed, right in my thinking.

I’m not talking about the kind of “Does this make me look fat?” kind of advice. I’m talking about issues that run deeper than “What should we have for dinner tonight?” or “Don’t you think it’s a good idea to get new kitchen cabinets?” I’m talking about things that really matter, whose outcomes have the potential to really impact your life and how you live it.

Museums have always been known as the guardians of information, experts telling you what it most important about all their stuff. Most museums are traditionally in the business of telling, and not asking. This (most fortunately) is changing, though. Evaluation, visitor studies, assessment…call it what you want, but the practice of asking questions about visitors and of visitors is becoming a far more common practice than it ever has been.

Some museums are great at evaluation. For some, it’s ingrained in the institutional culture to ask, to evaluate, to re-do (if necessary) or to be proactive. There are some museums that (swoon!) even have full-time staff members dedicated to evaluation. Alas, there are also places that still consider themselves to be The Holders Of All That Needs To Be Known, and don’t really care what visitors think.

I will never forget a conversation I had several years ago with my supervisor. We were discussing ideas for potential new exhibits, and when I suggested asking visitors about what they’d like to see (though Heaven forbid we “cater” to our public), his response was—and I quote: “The public doesn’t know what it wants.” Wait, what?

I can completely agree that it’s not productive to give someone a blank slate and say, “Have at it!” That’s how you end up sifting through requests that could never be met. But I’m pretty sure that if you asked someone what they’d like to see at a particular institution, they could take the context of their setting and be able to give you a fairly reasonable response. Visitors aren’t stupid…well, most visitors aren’t stupid. Some are.

To assume that your visitor doesn’t know enough to be able to make a suggestion is insulting. To assume that you, as a museum employee, are the only one capable of making an intelligent decision about what your public wants…that’s just ignorant and egotistical.

Now let me be clear: I give full credit to those in museums who are content area experts. To experts who write labels (notice I didn’t single out curators this time around), I have much respect for the depth of your knowledge. To the folks who design exhibits, I admire the passion for which you approach your work. To the educators who run classes and lectures and programs for the public, way to spread the word and engage the public. But museums aren’t here just for you. They’re here for the 850 million people who visit museums across the country each year. They might have something to say, too.

So here’s the real kicker. If you invest the resources and commit the time to do evaluation, you’re just wasting your time unless you actually do something with it. All those people you spent hours watching? All the times you lurked in the shadows with a clipboard and a thumb cramp from hitting the stopwatch so many times? All the interviews you conducted and free stickers you handed out (you know, as a reward for participation) and spreadsheets in which you compiled data? It’s not worth a thing unless you’re ready to accept the responses you get and results you find and put them into practice. Don’t ask the questions if you’re not ready to listen to the answers.

I’ve witnessed many cases where an institution will survey their visitors on some topic or another and end up with responses they don’t particularly like and weren’t necessarily expecting. Rather than taking this into consideration and heeding the suggestions of their test subjects, some museums ignore the results, assure themselves that it’s the visitors who are mistaken and uninformed and don’t understand, and carry on as before.

If you ask me (and I know you didn’t) evaluation ought to permeate every aspect of a museum’s operation. Before you stage an exhibit, test out the design and the label text to make sure readers can understand it and they know what they’re supposed to do with interactive elements. Once it’s open, see how visitors are actually using and responding to the exhibit. After it’s closed, tally your numbers, assess what worked and what tanked, and be willing to make changes next time around.

A good museums has goals and objectives for its exhibits; how else would you ever know if those goals are met if you don’t evaluate? How would you ever determine if visitors had a quality experience?  You can’t judge success solely by the number of people through the door, no matter how proud museums are of announcing their numbers.

And surely, with millions of people passing through museum doors every year, at least one of them ought to know what they want.

I see you. And I’m writing down your every move.

The Outskirts

For the past month or so, I’ve been fortunate to have a few contract jobs (or “gigs”, as I like to call them, because see how cool that makes me seem?!) come my way. They’ve been short-term, low-pay, but pretty fun. It’s a good way to keep my foot in the door, to stay in the loop, to hear things through the grapevine, insert other cliché here.

I left my previous full-time position for a variety of reasons, the biggest one being that I wanted to spend the last remaining months before my son started school at home, desperately trying to make up for five years of lost time. Those were six pretty fun months, and I do not regret that decision one single bit.

The second reason I left my previous full-time position is because dang. There were some politics there that I was just tired of dealing with. Every institution has its own idiosyncrasies and closet skeletons and dirty little secrets, but I was just tired of being a part of it. My family is most important to me, and when it becomes glaringly obvious that the health and well-being of our whole family is suffering because of me, things need to change.

Something tells me there’s another blog post brewing in there. I bet you just can’t wait.

So, in the meantime, school started and within about two days, I got bored. Granted, my mom and I booked a mani/pedi appointment about twelve minutes after the bus pulled away on that first morning, but it didn’t take long for me to feel like I needed to re-enter the world of productive society. Not that being a mom and volunteering at school and managing my household (a term at which my husband would probably snicker, seeing as how our household is not the sparkling, gleaming home I had promised it would be once I was home full-time) wasn’t important, but I liked working. Well, I take that back. I liked my work.

Thank goodness for the fabulous people I’d come to know through my coursework, and thank goodness for the folks with whom I’d developed strong working relationships. For ever and ever, God bless my mentor for passing out my name left and right. I owe her a lot.

So, between the occasional workshops I teach at a nearby nature center and the handful of contract spots I’ve landed, my schedule seems as full now as it ever did when I was working 40 hours. There are, I have found, lovely advantages to being a contractor. First of all, I don’t have to work 40 hours. My schedule is flexible, so most days I can pull bus stop duty at home with no conflicts. Folks seem to recognize and respect the need for me to put family first, and that has been such a relief.

Another advantage to working short-term jobs is that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Whether I’m on the job for 15 hours or 15 weeks, I always know that this, too, shall pass. Usually it’s bittersweet because I have come to enjoy the people and the visitors I’ve been spending time with, but if the job is not particularly exciting for me, then it’s something of a relief to fill out that last time sheet. But most often I’m a little sad when my time runs out.

Most of the work I have done has been, let’s face it, grunt work. Busy work. Work that is important, but not so critical that full-time staff is able to dedicate the hours to doing it. I’ve told people that I don’t mind doing that kind of work for them, or being the Creepy Clipboard Lady. Since most of what I have done has been related to exhibit evaluation, it’s a good thing that I like watching visitors and talking to them about their experiences. That kind of stuff takes up a lot of time, though, and I know (from being on the other side) that it’s the kind of time you normally just don’t have as a full-time employee.

Another benefit to working as a contractor is that I get to stay out of the politics of the place. My stints are short enough that I don’t get caught up in the on-going drama that seems to be unique to each museum. My role is innocuous enough (at least as far as I’m aware) that I don’t make waves. I conduct myself with the utmost professionalism and formality, lest I be considered that rogue contractor and they never invite me back again…first impressions, you know.

The people I work with most directly have, in every instance, been the loveliest of people and have never been anything but smiley and friendly and appreciative and helpful. They’ve always said hello and have welcomed me into their spaces.

This is also one of the biggest drawbacks to working as a contractor. I’ve been on the inside at other museums, so I know how things go: a place is never really all smiles and friends and appreciation. I only get to see the shiny outside of these institutions, and often I feel like I don’t really get to know individuals very well. Even though I may have a parking sticker on my rear windshield and I can breeze through locked doors with the mere flash of a badge, I’m still an outsider. Often it feels like being a guest in my own place of employment.

People can be the worst thing about working someplace. They can make bad decisions, talk way too loudly in the cubicle next door, not show up for meetings on time, miss deadlines, steal your Thanksgiving leftovers out of the staff fridge, not appreciate the work you do, and (if they’re important enough) pretend like you don’t exist. Sometimes they even lie straight to your face.

Fortunately, people are often the very best thing about working at a place. They (can) become your true friends, they know what’s going on in your personal life, they can help you get you caught up when you’ve fallen behind. You have inside jokes, secret languages, and everyone knows who keeps the jar of fun size candy bars in their unlocked overhead cabinet. You know who in the office is afraid of octopi and you take full advantage of that phobia. Every person brings their own unique talents and knowledge, and if you work with the right kind of people, you learn from each other.

When you’re a contractor and your tour of duty is short, you can (thankfully or regrettably) miss out on both kinds of people. People are what makes a museum what it is, whether those people are workers or visitors. And because I have been called an “emotional person”, sometimes a little bit of workplace drama is OK. So, while I’m so very thankful for the opportunities I have to experience bits and pieces of different museums, sometimes I wish I could really be on the inside looking in.

Thanks, But No Thanks

I’m a pretty lucky gal, career-wise. Before I finished undergrad, I spent good money on nice resume paper (back when you were still supposed to send out paper resumes) and cold-mailed dozens of education directors at zoos from coast to coast. I don’t think I was entirely sure what it was I was applying (or asking) for, but I knew I had some marketable skills; surely, someone would want me for their open position, or else they would realize my brilliance and just create a position for me.

Though it took me several months, I never despaired or thought I wouldn’t find a job. I just assumed it would happen. And after a declined offer for a position I neither wanted nor was really actually qualified for (though in hindsight, it would have been pretty cool to start out as a bear and mountain lion keeper), several phone calls made awkward by my professional inexperience, and a trip for an in-person interview during which the airline lost my one and only interview suit, I was hired.

It took me a while to get the hang of things, to realize what it meant to live and work in the real world, and more specifically, in the zoo world. Once I got the hang of things, though, and once I understood what my role was, I blossomed. I found confidence and my voice. I started getting invited to meetings! When you’re young and fresh and new, meetings make you feel important. They give you a sense of responsibility, and you find boldness you didn’t know before.

Of course, then you grow up and meetings become a pain in the ass. But still, when you’re 22 and you want to earn the respect of your colleagues (notice I said “colleagues” and not “co-workers”…sounds more polished, doesn’t it?!), meetings are where it happens.

Anyway, I grew up. I earned a statewide award. I was asked to speak on panels at conferences. I started to have fun, to create new programs, to change things my predecessor had put in place years before. I made the program more my own, but always acknowledged that it was a team effort, that we worked together to make it happen. I never took credit all for myself. And I meant that.

My next job found me in an entirely different world: an art museum. Though I didn’t know much about art (and, truth be told, I still don’t know as much about art as I think I should) I did know about teaching and educating in a museum setting. I really, really liked doing that.

I had an exceptional mentor who became a true friend, and we made an awesome team. Whether or not those above us recognized or saw the great things we were doing, we still felt as though we were fighting the good fight and that the work we did was meaningful and important. She had awesome ideas about what we could do, and we were going to make those things happen.

When she left (rather, when she was suddenly and unjustly let go) all her work, her projects , and her ideas dropped into my lap. For someone who had started out in a happily part-time position, this new load was pretty daunting, and I struggled without her guidance.

But I made it work, and after a while, it actually worked pretty well. Again, I never could have made things happen without the support of my colleagues and the encouragement and gratitude of docents, teachers, and students. I might not have been able to teach about art per se, but I could teach about teaching about art, and I think I did that pretty well.

In between times, I had other side projects. I did contract work for other museums and liked being on the fringe of those communities. I was asked to teach a course for the Museum Studies program from which I had graduated, and the student became the teacher. Wow, was that ever a humbling experience. I’m sure I learned more than my students did and there were some aspects of that semester that most adjunct instructors do not have to go through, but I’m glad I did it, and I hope to do it again…and be better prepared and more confident the second time around.

So this whole long story brings us to yesterday. I had interviewed last week with a museum for a contract position. I have never worked with this museum before, though I am somewhat familiar with their collection and mission, and did a decent amount of research to prepare myself for the interview.

I would like to think they found me every bit as charming and easy-going and clever as I thought I was being. I was hoping they would see my preparation and hear my thoughts and ideas about the project and cancel any other subsequent interviews they had scheduled. I thought our meeting went well, and I left feeling like it was going to happen. Their comments led me to believe I was a shoe-in.

And then I got a phone call yesterday telling me that although they were impressed with my preparation and they really liked my ideas, they had decided to go with someone who had “a little more experience”. I was not prepared for rejection, and as I spoke with her, I could feel the huge phony smile I had frozen on my face.  I’m wondering now for whose benefit that fake smile was.

I will preface my rant with this: I harbor no ill will towards these folks, and it is absolutely within their right to choose whatever candidate they felt was best for this opportunity. They seemed like people with whom I would have enjoyed working, and I genuinely meant it when I told her that she could feel free to call me if any future opportunities came up.

But here’s the thing. I would have done a kick-ass job. I know it. This position was for something I feel I am good at, something that could have put some of my strengths to good use. It would have been really, really fun (for me), and I know my excitement for the project would have been great publicity for the museum because I would have wanted to tell everyone about it.  Frankly, I still think it’s a cool project and I’ll still tell people about the exhibit.  I’m just disappointed that the only role I’ll play is that of visitor.

I think what else bothers me is my own inflated sense of self-confidence. I was too confident. I left the interview feeling (and acting) as if it were in the bag, that the position was mine, and that I was pretty hot stuff. In general, success in my career has come relatively easily for me (and for that I have always been thankful, believe me). Why wouldn’t these people want me, too?

But this? This was humbling and surprising and a little embarrassing, to be honest. I was reminded that there are people out there who do fabulous work…even better work than I could do. It’s one thing to admit it to myself, but its even harder to hear that from someone else. Do you know how frustrating it is to check “mid-career professional” next to the box that best describes my tenure in the museum field, and then be told that I got beat out by someone with more experience?

So, what have I learned here? I’ve learned not to go in and think that I’m such a hot ticket,  that I don’t need to sell myself during an interview. My words do sometimes need to speak louder than the actions I have succinctly summarized on paper.

I have learned that success and opportunity are not always going to fall in my lap. I need to continue to work for it, and to never assume that my awesomeness will speak for itself. I need to be humble and gracious when people do compliment me or express faith in my abilities, but always give credit to those who helped me get to where I am.

And who knows? Maybe another chance to work with this particular museum actually will come along someday. In the meantime, while I was still coming to terms with the “thanks, but no thanks” phone call, I received an email asking about a new work opportunity. That was just the vote of confidence I needed.

Where have you been?

I’ve been to several museums. I’ve worked in museums. I’ve dragged various family members through more turnstiles and admissions lines than they probably signed up for. I’ve read books about them, written papers, participated in impassioned discussions. I have a Masters Degree in Museum Studies. Safe to say, I have a vested interest.

For fun (and yes, this is my idea of fun), I made a museum list. In order for an institution to make the list, I had to have at least one distinct memory of the visit, and be able to recall at least one exhibit, installation, exchange, or object with relative clarity.

For most people, I guess the list would seem pretty long. But for me…sigh. So paltry. So short. So unimpressive. Make no mistake, I am blessed and fortunate to have had opportunities to travel to these cities and experience these sites. But compared to so many of my colleagues, I feel like I got nuthin’. It must be how birders feel when they compare Life Lists: What, you’ve never seen a bronzy jacamar? Psh. Amatuer.

Does it matter? Am I any less qualified to talk about or teach about or think about the museum experience, just because I maybe haven’t had as many of them as other people? I think most people would agree that no, it doesn’t matter. It’s a quality (not quantity) kind of thing. If a museum is “good”, I know it when I see it. If it’s lacking in the visitor experience, I certainly know that, too.

So what makes a memorable experience? I know this is equivalent to asking something like, “What is art?” or “To be or not to be?” There is no one right answer. And while asking an art person “What is art?” tends to really piss them off and make you feel totally ignorant, asking a museum person about what makes an exceptional museum experience can be a real trip.

Enjoying a museum can be about what you feel in your heart or learn in your mind or do with your hands or say to your companions. It can bring you great joy in the moment and fond sentiment years later. It can firmly cement a network of assembled thoughts or shock you with an epiphany. It can convince you of one mindset or open your eyes to a new perspective. Museums can invigorate you to act or exhaust you with emotion. They can comfort you with the familiar and the reassuring or make you squirm with something novel and disturbing.

Regardless of what kind of an experience a museum can (and does) do to you, I would venture to say that it’s impossible for anyone (at least anyone who is not made of stone or dead inside) to go to a museum and not have some kind of reaction. React, for example, to this:

Can you even stand the cuteness? A baby pygmy hippo at the Taronga Zoo.

Selected works by Damien Hirst, one of the most controversial contemporary artists working. He's the guy who puts dead stuff into tanks of formaldehyde and calls it art. Discuss.

Herding sheep at Conner Prairie.

Concentration camp uniforms from the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

Did any particular image appeal to you or repulse you? Would you specifically seek out any of these experiences? Why? Why do you go to the museums you visit? What draws you in, or conversely, what keeps you out?

I ask you to geek out along with me and create your own museum list. Where have you been? Do you notice any patterns or any type of experience you seem to be drawn to? Why? What do you remember about these places?

And for those of you birding novices who have not, in fact, seen a bronzy jacamar, I give you this:

There Can Be Many Right Answers

Even in Kindergarten, my son has homework. I don’t mind this so much, because their “assignments” usually consist of copying letters and drawing some pictures…nothing too difficult. I mind this because their assignments consist of copying letters and drawing some pictures. Where’s the challenge? Where’s the actual learning?

Maybe I’m biased because my son is already pretty good with writing his letters, and if he goes through one more box of crayons in his attempt to decorate every paper-covered surface in our house, I’m going to go ahead and invest in Crayola stock. My point is, homework is a cakewalk.

I’m not ready to spend grueling hours sitting at the kitchen table talking him through Algebra or quizzing him on spelling words (though we do that now anyway), but I sort of wish homework would present more of an opportunity to actually think.

Enter this worksheet that came home with him the other day:

I have several problems with this. It’s not that he got an answer “wrong”. I am all for letting kids make mistakes and learn from them. I’m just mad that he got this answer wrong. Why, you ask? Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Birds and butterflies have wings. Snakes don’t.

So, my initial response was from an evolutionary biology point of view…snakes and birds are way more closely related than arthropods, so right off the bat, he was on to something (whether he knew it or not). How can you say something with an exoskeleton and six legs is more closely related to one of two organisms that evolved from a common reptilian ancestor? What malarkey are they teaching kids these days?

What bothers me more is that when my son explained his reasoning to me, he said that he’d circled the bird and the snake because they both have tails. Of course, he hadn’t argued this point with his teacher, but it got me thinking (something that most of the kids probably didn’t have to do much of in order to answer the question).

In my previous work position, I spent a great deal of time using and instructing others in a teaching method called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). This method is built on the premise of having a discussion wherein participants talk about what they see and are asked to provide visual evidence for their comments. They look at a work of art, think about what’s going on, and then validate and support their answer by explaining what in that image they see that is making them think in that particular way.

So, in my mind, the “wings” answer on the worksheet is a no-brainer.  Yay.  You circled two things that fly (and one of them even has the word “fly” in the name”. A gimme if I ever saw one.) The “tails” answer, however…that required a little more thought. I’m not making a big deal of it just because I’m proud that my son took a different route to finding similarities, or that his answer was (in my opinion) way more creative. I’m making a big deal of it because he was rewarded for his answer…by having it marked incorrect.

I am not about to go into a rant against our current educational system.  That could be an entirely separate blog altogether.  What irks me is that it seems like our children, more and more, are subject to a spoon-fed education, and they’re not being asked to really think.  Regurgitate, yes. But thinking?  Only if they come up with the one right answer.

We are fortunate to live in a really good school district, yet it frustrates me and makes me nervous that that distinction is based on standardized test scores, and not on the depth of thinking or the cultivation of creativity amongst its students.  Kids need to be taught to think, not to memorize.  They need to be open to multiple interpretations and to be willing to see things from other perspectives.  Apparently, their teachers need to be learn the same thing.

Maybe I’m reading waaaay too much into this. I know, deep down, what basic skills and identification this silly worksheet was trying to accomplish with the kids. Still…it’s never too early to encourage critical thinking, and rather than X an answer out and take away points (especially from a five-year-old!), why not spend a moment and follow up with that child?  Seriously.  His teacher knows he’s a smart kid, and knows that he’s into animals (just like his mother).  Ask him about the reasoning behind his answer, and see if maybe, just maybe, there might be more than one right answer…