Archive for September, 2013

Two weeks ago, I attended the Learning Value of Children’s Museums Research Agenda Symposium.  When I received an email from the project evaluator asking me about what most resonated from the first day of the symposium, I found that my most immediate thoughts had nothing to do with children’s museums, despite the many interesting conversations in which I participated throughout the day.  Rather what most resonated was spurred by a comment from Kevin Crowley, Professor at University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, as he gave advice on the process of brainstorming around the research agenda.  He recited a quote from Woody Allen: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know?  It has to constantly move forward or it dies.”  He noted that researchers, in particular, can get caught doing mental gymnastics around ideas ad nauseam, but that we needed to push forward and drop pen to paper to avoid having a dead shark of a research agenda.

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991

I have absolutely experienced what Kevin described.  As someone who likes data, it is very easy to get caught up in interview transcripts, wondering, “What did they mean by that?”  I also could spend gobs of time running statistical analyses by every variable available looking for any kind of relationship.  Heck, it took me two years to finish writing my master’s thesis because there was always one more book, article, or podcast to review that might be relevant.  However, the reality of my work as a consultant evaluator is that I have been contracted by a museum client to collect data to inform exhibition, programming, or marketing decisions—all of which have deadlines.  When I first started working with RK&A, “deadline” was a scary word.  I worried about missing something in the data or not wording something exactly right in the report.  Now, I find deadlines as a necessary (and often welcome) parameter in which to work.  They help me hunker down and focus on key trends and salient information.  In that regard, deadlines have become a symbol for progress.  When I finish my work, the museum can move forward with its work—thereby saving the shark.

If you’d like to see how ACM is moving forward on its research agenda, check out the Web site:  The agenda is open to comments through October 20th if you would like to provide your two cents.

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In July, we moved our office.  Even though we were just moving across the street, moving is moving.  Books, articles, reports, journals, files (I’m not paperless as much as I try), drawer contents—everything needed to be boxed and labeled.  Intentionally, I had accumulated articles that filled two large file drawers—all the ones I collected in graduate school for my thesis, and the hundreds of others that incited my interest over the years.  It was relatively easy to give many of the older books to my staff and other young evaluators who live in D.C., as well as eager students, thanks to my colleagues at The George Washington University.  I was glad that much of this knowledge would be passed on.  Sadly, there was little interest in many of the articles that lived in the two large file drawers.  I suspect that when people looked at them they wondered, “Who is this person?” or astutely noted, “If this is any good, I’ll find it online.”

My interests have evolved, and I believe less is more, so I couldn’t rationalize keeping articles that felt out of sync with my current pursuits, like articles on collecting practices; recycling the paper those articles were on was a fairly easy decision.  And the very dated articles about computers—easy decision.  Then there were the classics—that was a fairly easy decision, too; they were keepers.  Screven - The Museum as a Responsive Learning Environment_Page_1“Exhibits: Art Form or Educational Medium?” by Harris Shettel appeared in Museum News in 1973.  My copy has highlights, underlines, and notes in the margins.  It was then, and remains now, a great piece and my copy feels like a personalized artifact.  All of Chandler Screven’s articles, such as the 1969 article, also from Museum News, titled “The Museum as a Responsive Learning Environment” (yes, it’s about participatory experiences); and then Molly Hood’s 1983 piece, “Staying Away: Why People Choose Not to Visit Museums” (yes, these reasons haven’t changed over the years) (also from Museum News).  I no longer refer to or reference them, but recycling the paper would be like throwing myself into the recycle bin, as I have learned so much from their work.

Decision making became a challenge when I was looking at the piles of folders with articles that I still found interesting even though their contents rarely entered into my current thinking.  They were neither the classics nor the outliers—they were somewhere in the middle—fascinating content and solid pieces but dated and no longer relevant to my work.  And this dilemma caused me to wonder, if I recycle the paper they are on, where will all that knowledge go?  Will the contents of these pieces just dissipate into thin air?  I really struggled with these neither-here-nor-there pieces.  I usually don’t fret about getting rid of stuff, but clearly this stuff had a different hold on me.

Then, while our move preparations were swimming right along, someone thought the piles of folders were forgotten, not as keepers, but as piles that never made their way to the recycle bin, and off they went.  I was away on travel so I couldn’t protest, and I can see the thinking—they weren’t in a box and they were no longer in their original home.  I had shared my dilemma with only one other person in the office—so no one else knew of my struggle until after the fact.  They were just there, piles of manila folders (all neatly labeled with the authors’ names), and if they were neither here nor there, then they were nowhere.  Thus, my dilemma about what to do with the pile of articles that were no longer central to my work was resolved by someone else for whom the folders had no meaning whatsoever.  I felt a weight lifted from me but I wasn’t entirely sure what else I should feel.  I wasn’t mad that they were discarded, but I felt that there was now a black hole; I still haven’t figured where the knowledge might go if I recycled the paper, but I suppose I have plenty of time to think about that, and if I should realize that I needed to guard the knowledge in those pieces, I suspect if the ideas were good enough, the knowledge will re-emerge and live a more contemporary existence in someone else’s article.

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The Museum of Mom and Dad

A personal account of what is a too-common story for many across this vast country of ours—how my childhood home became FILLED WITH STUFF!  Not just ordinary stuff—like my 4th grade math homework—but the stuff that makes The Museum of Mom and Dad…

Almost 60 years ago, a pack rat married a hoarder, and together they became collectors — and eventually dealers, in order to feed their habits. They hunted at flea markets, yard sales, thrift stores, and church sales . . . the dustier the better. Over the course of 25 years in business, they found some rarities: an 18th century pornographic watch, an original King Kong movie poster, a Strangl Art Deco punch bowl.  We had a temporary thrill when what looked to be a real Jackson Pollock was discovered in the basement; upon appraisal, it turned out to be an incredibly well-done reproduction—a collectible in its own right (the real thing hangs in the Whitney).Jackson Pollock

The business of collecting and selling advertising items and collectibles — what they referred to as “funky junky” — was really an excuse to enlarge their personal collections (stamps, coins, postcards, pocket watches, belt buckles, carved ivories, hats, just to name a few), and a means of selling off our childhood (I still miss my talking Casper doll, and my brother bemoans the loss of his Silver Surfer #1 comic).  Their customers included senators, statesmen, Hollywood stars, antiquarians, collectophiles, memorabiliacs, and maybe even a few curators.

The wares from the antique business have now commingled with our family’s treasures to create a bizarre exhibition, with no goals, objectives or intention, but fascinating nonetheless. A player piano is buried under Indian baskets, the piano rolls include “Rhapsody in Blue,” cut by Gershwin himself. Old 78 albums are filed behind the soda fountain syrup dispensers, before you get to the library stacks of juvenile series books (e.g. Tom Swift and Nancy Drew). Postcards mounted on display boards are piled with care in the den, next to the box of Grandma Sadie’s beautiful hand-crocheted and embroidered tablecloths, The tip of the icebergin front of the mid-century sideboard full of original childhood refrigerator art (by budding Pollacks) and science projects (Einstein has nothing to worry about). In the corner are items destined for the local history museum, for which my father served as board chairman.  Oh, and then there are Mom’s costuming supplies, which explode in every direction.

As a recent museum studies graduate said, “It can be argued that without collectors we would have no museums. Collectors are not only the founders of their own institutions, but also the source of donations for many already-established museums”[1](Letowski, 2010).  It’s thanks to people like Mom and Dad that many museums have objects of historical significance and charm, and curators have the unenviable task of saying “no thank you” to unsolicited donations that, while significant to the donor, do not qualify as important artifacts worthy of display—especially my homework sheets!

Many famous museums large and small started this way, though I don’t think the Gardner’s mid-century ranch-style house on Downing Drive can compete with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and sadly there is not enough of any one thing to start an institution of our own.  So now we have begun the task of deaccessioning the Museum of Mom and Dad (that we kids refer to as the “Hall of Wonders”).  My homework will be recycled, the collectibles will be sold at auction, we’ve agreed who gets the working 50’s pinball machine, the grandkids have adopted some vintage clothing, and the rest . . . anybody need an empty Moet champagne jeroboam or genuine pith helmet?The next layer of the iceberg

[1] Letowski, Jan T. (2010) museum-making: transitioning from private collection to public museum.  Unpublished manuscript. Washington, DC: the George Washington University, the Marie C. Malaro Excellence in Research and Writing Award.

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