Let us suggest a refreshing one…
Let us suggest a refreshing one…
On April 25 Kimberly Boice (the educator where I’m curator) and I will be presenting “Eine Kleine Nachgeschichte: A ‘Little Night History’ at a Pennsylvania German Farm” based on our semiannual immersive experiential history program for the Peter Wentz Farmstead Society Spring Meeting.
For more information check out https://www.facebook.com/events/354104414760170/.
The event is free and open to the public.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
There are lots of reasons to dislike strategic planning and plans. It is easy for them to be unnecessarily extravagant, noncomprehensive, and impractical. If the strategic plan fails it’s usually because the goals were misdirected, the plan meandered too far into the future, or the necessary resources and known challenges weren’t correctly identified.
I collect plans that seem to offer counterpoints to the above (admittedly I am not as diligent in finding out how well those plans worked).
Recently I ran across the Morris Arboretum’s “Strategic Plan 2012-2016 … A Vision for the Future”
Among the more noteworthy points are:
No one strategic plan is perfect, but the Arboretum’s strikes me as one of the more thoughtful ones.
On April 3 I’ll be presenting on one of my favorite topics “Without Noise or Parade: The Spiritual and Material Culture of Moravian Indian Missions” at the Conrad Weiser Homestead.
You can find out more at http://www.gogreaterreading.com/event/spring-lecture-at-conrad-weiser-homestead/
It is free and open to the public.
I forgot this museum reality in my previous post:
No one person is responsible for a museum’s success.*
Which is also to say my last post was perhaps unfair to the site, my coworkers, and myself. It was the sum of all of my anxieties and frustrations about museum work as I’ve experienced it. But it was inspired by more than a selfish perfectionism or a “god’s-gift” complex.
Whether we admit it or not, a museum’s internal politics, ignorance, and laziness are on display just as much as its diligence, knowledge, and aspirations. As one of the staff responsible for what we show the public (intentionally or not) I am hyper-aware of this.
All of which keeps me coming back to one question: if museum work is supposed to be collaborative at what point am I the reason that things don’t get done?
This where my head has been lately. Wondering how to consistently reach the place where my intention and my action meet, despite not being in charge (whatever that means) or even charged with change.
I say lately as though this is a new pursuit, but it seems like I’ve never not wrestled with this. For all the time I’ve pondered it I’m still at the same conclusion: it is always site- and staff-specific. And even then things might change from day to day. So I’ll keep looking.
And maybe use a little Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator to remove the occasional obstruction.
* Though one person can sink a museum.
Museum work has several inherent truths. Lately I was reminded of a few of them:
These truths came to mind during my historic site’s annual (history-lite) holiday event – a night full of people in funny clothes doing oldey-timey things. The evening is not as research-based as one could hope. Sure everything visitors see has a history to it, but it’s most likely not one connected to our particular story (like the list above, this is not unusual to our site). This looseness of historicity was brought into sharper focus because we asked a very talented colleague to help out during the event. I felt she was going to quickly and accurately identify all of the junk that’s crept into our site interpretation over the years.
Along with a concern that the program itself wasn’t very interesting and that we were utilizing a talented interpreter for what was nothing more than “industrial interpretation” (pumping visitors through a predetermined path as quickly as possible), I worried that all of my failings at trying to introduce or inspire new research, new material culture perspectives, and new interpretation would be glaringly obvious to this colleague.
It probably doesn’t help that this event happens at the end of the year, just as I’ve been reviewing my 2015 goals and realizing how many went completely untouched.
This isn’t a case of “imposter syndrome” (one needs to be successful to feel that). Rather, it’s feeling ineffective. After four years at the site I sometimes think not much has changed despite everything I’ve tried to do. And it’s hard to see the change that has happened when your looking to help bring the whole of the place along, not just a bit of it.
(hours have passed since I wrote the above)
I’ve been sitting here all day trying to figure out what comes next in this story I’ve started. It seems like the place to insert platitudes about needing to find a way or (always the least helpful) that I should get a new job. I could instead discuss the lack of resources, staff, and talent, but not workload. Or I could simply take cold comfort from the truths listed above knowing that it’s not just me or my site.
But everything keeps coming back to one final truth:
Even on the good days. Especially then.
No wonder I feel ineffective more days than not.
A little while ago I got to do something I’ve never done before. I was invited to participate in an exhibition focus group for a new museum, which shall remain unidentified, in Philadelphia.
The museums I’ve worked at haven’t typically had the luxury of time or resources for focus groups. The best I could do was steal a few minutes from the administrative staff (those who didn’t have museum backgrounds) and ask what they thought of an idea. While that’s a pretty unscientific approach, which provides only limitedly useful results, it was the best we had and it was helpful. Still, I would have loved to have had a test audience.
The new museum had already hosted two focus groups before ours, one for tour operators and one for educators. I would have liked to sit in on the tour operator group. I feel like all of their questions would have been about the bathrooms, cafe, and gift shop. Our group consisted of museum professionals who work directly with the public. We were invited to offer our perspective on how visitors would engage with their exhibit. I felt a little like the country cousin. The rest of the participants represented Philadelphia museums, while my museum is outside of the city in the Montgomery County sticks. Plus, I represented the smallest museum at the table.
The meeting progressed as one might think. They introduced themselves, we introduced ourselves. They had us fill out a written survey about our backgrounds and historical awareness, followed by a brief overview of their goals for the group. Then they asked us a short round of open ended questions, presented a slide show of the draft exhibit designs and interpretation, and asked our reaction to the designs. It was efficient, collegial, and thoughtful. While it was pleasant all around, I was secretly hoping for a little argument. You don’t often have that many history people in a room and expect so much agreeing. What the group lacked in academic drama, it made up for in interesting conversation.
Perhaps the conversations were only interesting to me. I think such conversations are important, no matter the project, but all too rare. They’re important because they give the participants on both sides of the table time to learn, reflect, test, and tweak without consequences.
While our conversations ranged all over, a few of them stuck in my head and got me thinking about the field, my current museum, and my own work.
First, I learned a new term: “witness object.” I don’t recall having heard that one before. I’ll bet I don’t even need to explain what that is, but in case I do, it’s an historical artifact which was actually present at the moment which is being interpreted. It’s a much more expressive term than the rather clinical “artifact.” The new museum seemed full of witness objects. That reminded me that my own museum is, for the most part, full of whisper-down-the-alley objects.
Because we were museum people, we were required to have a history v. heritage discussion. Have you ever noticed that every museum, no matter the size, thinks it is the keeper of history, while at the same time thinking some of their sister organizations only care about heritage?
Part of the heritage v. history conversation included the perceived visitor itinerary, which included the Liberty Bell, State House, Betsy Ross House, and a few other ending with the sports stadium. A couple of reasons were given for this, including it’s what people heard about in grade school and now they want to see it and they’re free. Which led to a discussion of how to break that pattern. Maybe because it would sound too cynical, but I didn’t say that I don’t think any amount of marketing money and widespread PR is going to overcome most people’s long-held and often simplified understanding of American history. It has always been a challenge and it always will be.
During the exhibition presentation the new museum laid out their intention to offer a layered approach. The exhibits would be written in such a way that visitors could drill down for greater detail as they went along. I love this approach. It allows us to reach visitors who are new to the story and those who have more familiarity with or interest in it. I’ve done it with a few exhibits, using design elements to differentiate the big ideas and from the details. But I wonder, with all the work that goes into creating those layers, if we forget to tell visitors about them? Instead of hoping visitors will independently discover the layers as they go, perhaps we need to put up a short key identifying the layers, so those who want to get the general story know where to look, while those who want more and more detail know where to find it. I guess I’m suggesting that we need to publicly interpret our public interpretation a little better.
Since this is a modern exhibition we had to discuss technology in the exhibits. Tech comes standard now, and like many standard features, it can be more or less useful. These conversations often seem to be less about what’s the right medium for the message, and more about how much technology can we include. Fortunately, the new museum was a little more reserved with their tech talk. They asked us what we thought of immersive theater (movies augmented with sensory components). My view of them is a little different than the rest of the group’s, who all seemed to think they were a fine and fascinating addition to the exhibit. While sensory experiences can help set a mood, they can also overwhelm the story. The visitors I’ve talked to about their immersive theater experiences almost always remember the rumbling seats or the fake snow, but never why the seats shook or the snow fell. True, museums who offer immersive theater productions can claim to be cutting edge, but I’m not convinced they can claim effective interpretation. Guess it comes down to what the museum wants visitors to remember about their visit.
Perhaps the most interesting question was how did we see the new museum fitting in with the existing Philadelphia museum landscape, both thematically and logistically. Everyone felt the museum could tie several thematically-related sites together, but they were less sure about the logistics. It was felt that most visitors spend a day in the city and they’re already loaded with places to go (as mentioned above). No one was sure there was enough time for visitors to see the new museum, which could take an hour or more, and still see everything else. I thought it was a very necessary and real question to pose.
The one question I had difficulty with was what did we think visitors wanted to know about the history interpreted by the new museum? This supposed that visitors already had a historical framework in mind and were curious for more, but didn’t know how or where to express that curiosity. It felt like it would have been more appropriate if the nouns were changed from visitors to scholars, hobbyists, or reenactors. While not endemic to the new museum, it often seems to me that many museum professionals think our job is to turn visitors into mini-museum people.
I wish the new museum well and I’m grateful for the invitation and giving me so much to think about. Hopefully they found it as interesting and useful as I did. Now that I’ve participated in a focus group, I want to watch one being planned or, better yet, help plan one.
If you use a century designation as an adjective please hyphenate it.
It looks like this: seventeenth-century jordans
Hyphenation still applies if you write the century numerically: 17th-century jordans
If you’re able to be more specific you’ll need another hyphen: mid-seventeenth-century jordans
But there’s no hyphen if you’re referring to a time period: jordans in the seventeenth century
Here’s a two-fer image for my visual dictionary of early domestic items: it shows a set of steelyards (aka stillards or Roman balance – the long object in the upper left of the image below) and a scale (image right):
Steelyards and scales both weigh objects. So why have two machines that do essentially the same thing? The reason seems to be one of scale. That is, size.
Scales (equal-arm balances) are useful for weighing smaller items, such as coins or spices. However, if you want to weigh anything larger than a few pounds you’d need to build a bigger and bigger scale. Steelyards (unequal-arm balances) are often used to weigh larger or heavier items without needing to be equally big.
To illustrate, it’s a more efficient use of space and materials to weigh a person with a steelyard balance such as this:
Than to use a person-sized scale, like this:
So how do steelyards work? You suspend whatever you’re weighing from a hook or loop on the short side of the pivot. Then slide the counterweight away from the hanging hook on the longer side, which is marked out in pounds, until the indicator, an arrow fixed at the same spot as the hanging hook, points directly upwards (perpendicular to the floor). It looks kind of like the image below (but only kind of).
The New-York Historical Society’s collection includes this archeological piece:
According to the Society:
This sword guard was excavated by Reginald P. Bolton, William L. Calver, and others prior to the formation of the Field Exploration Committee in 1918, at the British camp on the Dyckman farm, between Seaman and Payson Avenues and 204th and Academy Streets in Washington Heights. The sword belonged to a British officer, grenadier, or sergeant, or to a Hessian officer.
While the Society identifies this as a sword guard, it’s more likely a remnant of a fencing foil. Compare it with this extant foil which, apart from having a deeper bell guard, is very similar to the N-YHS piece:Thanks to Erik Goldstein, weapons scholar and Curator of Mechanical Arts & Numismatics at Colonial Williamsburg, for bringing the guard to my attention and suggesting it was for a foil.