Back on track.

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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.

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 Road Starts Out Winding (much like this post).

As a child, I wanted to be a vet. Specifically, I wanted to be a zoo veterinarian, and even more specifically, I wanted to work at the San Diego Zoo. In third grade, on the advice of my parents, I wrote to Joan Embery. I had no idea who she was, but I’m sure Mom and Dad had seen her on The Tonight Show.

At any rate, imagine the thrill of receiving a (mimeographed) letter back from her, encouraging my dreams yet cautioning me of the long road of hard work that lie ahead for anyone wishing to accomplish my goals.

In the meantime, I continued to spend countless hours outside, poking through tide pools at the beach or getting dirty and mucking around in the woods. I know we went to museums (growing up in the DC area, how can you not?) and I remember trips to parks and historic sites with my family. It was just what we did.

In high school I got my first job at a large vet clinic in Northern Virginia. I started out cleaning the kennels and assisting the techs and doctors with their patients, and eventually moved through the ranks. I took x-rays, cleaned stinky doggie teeth, worked at the front desk, assisted in surgery, staffed the pharmacy, and became a part of this large, dedicated family. To this day I thank them for instilling in me a work ethic that focused on compassion, responsibility, and customer service.

The experiences one has as a pet owner are not always happy, and often our human clients would be upset, worried, or grieving when we interacted with them. It was our job not only to provide comfort and care to the animals, but to provide a reassuring and comforting experience to their owners. I think this is where the idea of experience first began to solidify itself in my mind.

It wasn’t just bringing in a cat to get its annual vaccines; it was seeing the cleanliness of the waiting room (and having separate waiting areas for cats, dogs, and “other”). It was not having to wait in the exam room for the vet to arrive or the assistant (me) to prepare for the exam. It was frequent and comprehensive communication between the doctor and the owner. It was the explanations of procedures or tests being done. It was the tenderness and care with which we handled the animals, whether in the presence of owners or out of sight in the treatment area. It was the compassion and sympathy we extended and the sadness we shared when someone lost a pet–a family member.

While there are great differences between working in a vet clinic and working in a museum, some of the basic tenants of museum experiences still apply. Our work was to preserve and care for something (in this case, a living companion animal). We provided information and guidance about the animal, did our best to create an environment in which both animal and owner would be comfortable when visiting us, and tried to help owners learn how to better care for their pets. We wanted them to leave our building have had the most positive experience as possible, from the time they checked in at the front desk to the time they walked out the door. We also wanted them to trust us enough to bring their pet back. Does it sound at least a little bit like a museum visit?

I may be stretching, I know. My point is that I started out my work thinking about the care and experience of others. People and puppies alike both had to have their needs met—and those needs were diverse. I think of museums in the same light, to a degree. Visitors come in with incredibly diverse needs and past histories, and museums need to create a positive interaction for all of them. Impossible? Yes, probably. But certainly a noble goal.

Now sit. Stay. This won’t hurt a bit.

Robot Cat thinks you should visit museums.

 

Well, Here I Am.

There’s always pressure when introducing yourself to the blogosphere. I’m completely unsure of who will read these entries and thoughts, whether it be friends who click on a link out of obligation, or bored folks who stumble upon the blog out of coincidence.

So, the pressure is on. I pledge to be as witty as possible without being phony. I pledge to be honest about my experiences and opinions, yet I will try to be tactful when professionalism is required. Names may be changed to protect the innocent (or the guilty, see previous reference to professionalism) but if I feel I have something to share that may be of use or entertainment value to my readers (all six of you, Mom and Dad included), I’ll share it. If you know me, you know I rarely hold back. And if I do hold back, I still say what I’m thinking, only it’s thinly disguised with a layer of passive-aggressiveness.

Since I’ve already spent the first two paragraphs proselytizing, I probably out to skip the manifesto on Why Museums Are Important. I’ll even spare you the details of my career evolution (for now). But never fear: all (well, most) will be revealed in time.

I’ve worked in museums for 13 years, which, by museum standards, isn’t very long. AAM (the American Association of Museums) thinks I am out of the Emerging Museum Professional (EMP) stage and am now mid-career, but most days I don’t feel like it. Some days I put thought and effort into my relationship with museums, digging deep into the philosophy of informal education and really agonizing over trying to intelligently voice my thoughts and positions on museums. I try to think and speak and act like someone who is mid-career and ought to know something about museums.

Other days, I just want to dig my hands into the sand table at The Children’s Museum, or enjoy rubbing the slimy, wet nose of a calf in the Encounters Barn at Conner Prairie. On those days, I just want to enjoy being a museum visitor, rather than a museum thinker and analyst. Sometimes I just want to enjoy the experience.

And this is where I will end my inaugural post: asking you about your own museum experiences. What do you remember, either from your own childhood or visiting with your own children? What museums encounters stick in your mind? Why are they important to you? Discuss.

To get you started, here are some of my own museum memories:

-Visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and always searching out the same paintings:

What 2nd grader isn’t totally fascinated by a dude getting eaten by a shark?

On a more pensive note, looking at four paintings and contemplating one’s Voyage of Life.

-Pressing our faces against the glass that encased the giant squid at the National Museum of Natural History.

-Always looking for the sign with the seal stomach full of coins posted in front of their exhibit at the National Zoo. To this day, I still don’t like throwing pennies into fountains, lest a seal might come out of nowhere, eat my wish, and end up in Necropsy.

-Standing in the rain with my mom on my first day of work, about four feet away from an Amur tiger as he stretched up and strummed the harp wires (the only thing separating us) with his paws.

-Playing in Penetrable by Jesus Rafael Soto at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, TX. Sadly, the installation is no longer there, but we had a joyful time winding through the tubes on our visit.

-Walking into a dark room with a friend at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and having one of the most visceral and thrilling responses to a work of art, Acton, that I have ever had to anything in a museum. Ever. I still get goosebumps every time I go in there, even years later.