This is the second in our “How I Got Here” blog series. If you are in the museum world and would like to write about this topic, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. -Ashley
Last week, Ashley wrote about how she got into the museum biz and now it’s my turn.
This is a really difficult post for me to write because I have spent a little too much time thinking about why I’ve chosen to work in museums, not least because I had to write a grad school personal statement about it and then spout off variations on the theme in any number of job interviews.
Like many of my colleagues, I have pretty much always been interested in history. I read miles of historical fiction as a kid and I fantasized about living in different time periods. I’ve already written about the “aura” that seems to surround places of historical significance (completely contrived, but no less real for it) and I think a large part of why I was drawn to museums and historic sites as a kid was a search for that aura. Seeing Abe Lincoln’s hat at the Smithsonian travelling exhibition sent shivers down my spine and dressing up in costume at Colonial Williamsburg brought to life all my childhood fantasies derived from American Girl books.
As an undergraduate, I was fascinated by the idea that history is socially constructed and that our understanding of a particular historical moment is reliant on the sources we choose to use as well as those we choose to ignore. History is never “what happened” but rather the narratives that historians, politicians, communities have decided to tell about what happened. All of this might be pretty obvious to those reading this blog, but it blew my 18-year-old mind.
Somewhere along the line, I started to think about museums and historic sites as spaces where some of the most powerful historical and identity narratives have been created – think national museums, World’s Fair exhibitions – but also as spaces uniquely equipped to debunk a lot of those same narratives. I came face to face with this phenomenon while studying abroad in Prague, Czech Republic: many countries in the former Soviet bloc are attempting to reinterpret Soviet history as a way of both reclaiming national identities and dealing with the unpopular Soviet past. Museums are often at the forefront of this reinterpretation, just as national museums and national monuments were spaces where Soviet identity narratives were constructed in the last century.
This is where things get a bit convoluted and academic in my head, but basically I get excited by seeing how people’s relationship with the past manifests itself, particularly with regards to physical artifacts or historic sites. Plus, since museums and historic sites are very public spaces – far more accessible than academia – they can be used not only to discuss actual historical events but also to involve the public in the interpretation of those events. If done well, museums can be key players in the public domain, encouraging critical thinking by reinterpreting well-known national myths and giving voice to those groups traditionally silenced in the historical record.
This is obviously a utopian view of museums. I learned pretty quickly that vocal sponsors, public pressure, lack of funds, and fear of controversy make it difficult for many museums to use their public platforms to ask tough questions or suggest new historical narratives. But a girl (or an Emerging Museum Professional) can dream, right?
(Someone on the AAM LinkedIn group suggested this entry, so here it is! I am going to ask everyone that blogs with us to write one, since I love asking people how they got into the museum world)
So this time two years ago, I thought I’d be going to law school in fall. Thank the dear lord that didn’t happen. A fabulous professor took me out to lunch and convinced me that the world (specifically the Anishinaabe community) didn’t need anymore lawyers, but other educated people with diversified skill sets. I was a little sad at first (wish I could have sold my LSAT score to someone!) but I decided to explore other options. I never even thought of museums until another professor told me about a fellowship program being offered between my university and the Minnesota Historical Society.
Once I got into the fellowship, it was pretty obvious that the museum world was where I should be. Less insular than academia, because we deal with the public (people see our work!) More fun than law. Still meaningful. Our fellowships came with great internships, and I was lucky to land in a department where I found amazing mentors and inspiration. Unlike internships I have done in the past, they really seemed to want to teach me what they knew, and they were also interested in hearing what I have to say (which must be trying at times.) Then they gave me a job where I get to help make an exhibit. Pretty great opportunity fresh out of school.
I was kind of stupid for not thinking about going into museum work earlier. I spent three long, hot summers doing costumed interpretation at MHS’s Historic Fort Snelling and a few years on Walker Art Center’s Teen Arts Council. I had already been doing the work for almost 10 years, before I ever decided to work in museums.
I also have rock star parents that raised me to be a nerd. As a kid, my parents had to take me to the planetarium, the zoo or the art museum weekly and my mom had so many swingy pendulum drawings from the Science Museum that there was no more room on the fridge. My dad read to me every night from when I was born until I started reading to him when I was three. Thanks Mom and Dad!
As the director of this museum, Miyazaki has written a clear set of directives that guide the museum. Its right on the museum’s website [link to the manifesto]! That in itself is refreshing and wonderful. No political hedging, no corporate-speak, the vision he has put into writing is divided into two categories: what the museum should be and what it shouldn’t be.
Here’s some of the goods:
This is the Kind of Museum I Want to Make!
A museum that is interesting and which relaxes the soul
A museum where much can be discovered
A museum based on a clear and consistent philosophy
A museum where those seeking enjoyment can enjoy, those seeking to ponder can ponder, and those seeking to feel can feel
A museum that makes you feel more enriched when you leave than when you entered!
To make such a museum, the building must be…
Put together as if it were a film
Not arrogant, magnificent, flamboyant, or suffocating
Quality space where people can feel at home, especially when it’s not crowded
A building that has a warm feel and touch
A building where the breeze and sunlight can freely flow through
The museum must be run in such a way so that…
Small children are treated as if they were grown-ups
The handicapped are accommodated as much as possible
The staff can be confident and proud of their work
Visitors are not controlled with predetermined courses and fixed directions
It is suffused with ideas and new challenges so that the exhibits do not get dusty or old, and that investments are made to realize that goal
The museum shop will be…
Well-prepared and well-presented for the sake of the visitors and running the museum
Not a bargain shop that attaches importance only to the amount of sales
A shop that continues to strive to be a better shop
Where original items made only for the museum are found
This is what I expect the museum to be, and therefore I will find a way to do it
This is the kind of museum I don’t want to make!
A pretentious museum
An arrogant museum
A museum that treats its contents as if they were more important than people
A museum that displays uninteresting works as if they were significant
If you work in a museum, take a look around. Could your leaders make a list this one? Would they? How would your museum’s manifesto relate to your museum’s mission or vision?
What would your personal list look like? This might feel a little like the museum version of “If I win the lottery…” but so many of these “what ifs” are completely doable with a few thoughtful changes!
Are there things on this list you wish were part of your own museum? I am particularly committed to speaking with and treating children as I would any adult and I try to make that an integral part of my workplace. I also appreciate that this list takes into account the people that make it happen by demanding a museum that makes staff proud of what they do.
What goes into your manifesto? We’d love to hear!
Often, museum don’t collaborate because of the risk involved. What do I mean by that? Museums carefully craft their image, maintain their reputation, and work to build connections in their communities. Partnering with a person or institution that may have an unknown impact on those relationships seems very very risky.
The result of this risk management is that museums appear not just “safe” but stodgy. In history museums, where I do the majority of my work, this problem is compounded by the inability to let go of historical authority or to risk a mis-interpretation of history that will outlive us all.
One museum took a fun risk last week that made me shout, “Yeah! Way to go!” at my computer when I read the news.
Reader, meet T.Rex:
This spring in Minneapolis’s Whittier neighborhood there are few storefronts left empty. No, this struggling neighborhood did not suddenly turn its rough real estate situation around. Instead, the community is nurturing a neighborhood-wide celebration of art and renewal with Artists in Storefronts. ( Back it on Kickstarter)
Here’s the scoop: “Artists in Storefronts partners vacant and under-used commercial storefronts with local artists to create public exhibits within those spaces, a collective urban walking gallery! An ongoing project throughout the Twin Cities, Artists in Storefronts aims to work with neighborhood organizations, artists, and local businesses in an effort to promote creativity, revitalize local economies, and provide everyone with equal, open access to art.”
So with a little grassroots administration and some talented people, empty storefronts become a community resource, artists get a temporary gallery, and suddenly the sidewalk becomes a link between people and art. Total win+win.
Is it a museum? No, and that’s good! Museums aren’t often as accessible as next-door or around-the-corner or even on-the-way-to-the-bus. Having culture land, even for just six weeks, in your everyday world changes that world, changes the way you think about that everyday world. Then you start thinking about art and yourself and how these things fit together and then there is no end to the thinking– the thinking!
One of my favorite things when putting people and culture together is to let them mingle with each other. Interactivity, participation, and letting the people be a part of the process and the product is always worth more to me than the expertly curated playlist of culture.
Artists in Storefronts has fostered a few storefront projects that do just that. “Six-word Minneapolis” is a crowdsourced project by Emily Lloyd displaying thousands of six-word homages to Minneapolis like this:
Here’s a project called Before I Die from Candy Chang that turns a wall into a forum. Your mere participation in this work makes you part of it. It makes you an important piece of something larger. What you write matters. You matter. Rinse, repeat, over and over, how do you think that changes a neighborhood?
Art is no stranger to the street, though, and murals and buskers and even graffiti are so at home out in the world rather than inside walls. What about other genres of culture? Can other disciplines break out of their museums and find a place on the outside? Could an archive ever translate to the street? What would history look like if freed from walls or even the fences of outdoor museums? Maybe the better question is what would you want it to look like?
Candy Chang sounds like a pretty awesome woman. Her resume is a little intimidating, but her projects are right up the alley I love. One of them recently made it’s way to Minneapolis. The Before I Die project started in Candy’s hometown of New Orleans, but has been turned into a toolkit so anyone can create a wall in their city. We recently got one here in Minneapolis as part of the Whittier Artists in Storefronts project, lead by local creative Joan Vorderbruggen.
I love this project because it’s simple, but asks an important question. It’s inviting, but profound. Chalk is also just a really fun medium, am I right? The toolkit also makes the project accessible (creatively) , but leaves me feeling a little conflicted about economic accessibility.