Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Series of Approaches To A Children's Museum, Part 1

The Children's Museum in Small Town, New York will soon realize its current capital raising campaign goal of 1.5 million dollars. It will be moving to a newly acquired building, currently under renovation, with 12,000 square feet of space planned for eight galleries and/or interactive learning studios, a gift shop, and second-floor administrative offices in August, 2008. Given these long awaited milestones in its growth, it would be prudent that it consider some new marketing strategies, development plans, and proactive steps for a future campaign to re-brand its identity to complement its new physical plant. The necessitated "breadth of" any branding campaign will involve years to implement, and it is likely that a number of marketing schemes and development plans will come and go during that time, but, for present and practical purposes of identifying and targeting new audiences, implementing a website re-design, and furthering educational outreach through additional programming funded through visitor subscription and grants may be a place to begin (Richardson 2007).

Development of these specific areas have the potential to only assist this institution in meeting the demands of its increased future operating costs but are a logical step towards bringing this museum in line with the more frequently visited museums in its proximity. Certainly, proximity to other museums warrants nurturing, at least, initially, the potential residual effects of its student and family visitation. The Museum should network the stories it tells and the experiences it can provide in order to have greater impact and relevancy to its visitors' experience, and this can be achieved by promoting a combined admission for both museums in addition to linking  some of their exhibitions with each other. This could provide a greater experiential impact on visitors. 

Providing a two-for-one admission fee might serve as a hook to get people into the Museum for the first time , "once you get them in then you can get them back" as Carl Nold, President and CEO of Historic New England and Vice-Chair of the American Association of Museums believes is true for all institutions. The Children's Museum's already anticipates that its new facilities will allow it to expand its functions through permanent exhibition, greater accommodations for onsite programs for educational outreach, and an increased attention to merchandising, which, in many ways, signifies its commitment to continued growth beyond its current "small museum" status and previously limited functions.
A re-branding strategy can potentially assist the Children's Museum in its second institutional life phase of "growth" by presenting a more compelling identity for both its current "key stakeholders," "staff members, trustees, general members," and "donors, " as well as its past, present, and potential future visitors by making the answers to the questions: why should I visit, join, partner with, work for, volunteer for, or make a donation to the Children's Museum more readily known. an initial step in re-branding is to determine how its current goals and strategies are perceived by both its staff and audience through an inquiry process. Diane L. Viera, Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer for Historic New England, calls this the "discovery phase" of re-branding, and Historic New England has found a discussion approach with current staff and audiences capable of producing more valuable information than more conventional written surveys in identifying details of the current perception of their institutions brand (Viera 2). 

Such inquiry often reveals the mistaken belief that someone in an organization has total understanding of how their institution is perceived by others. After examining its findings a resulting prognosis for re-branding will not only entail having greater control and uniformity in the perception of your institution but greater insight into the needs of your current and future constituencies for the purpose of targeted marketing; there is much to be gained by everyone being more in the know uniformly about an institution.

Sampling individuals of varying levels of involvement, interest, and association with the Children's Museum might similarly reveal disparate multiple levels of understanding about it as was the case with Historic New England's own findings. Surely, the Children's Museum's greater physical presence and the publicity that has resulted from its capital raising campaign have brought it to the attention of many who have never heard of it before. It is also likely this publicity has challenged much misinformation about the museum among those seemingly familiar with it, but were never quite sure what its mission or function was. This arose from its negligible exposure and physical limitations during its start-up phase.

The museum had occupied a rented second-floor storefront apace since opening to the public, and this physical circumstance more than anything else had largely stifled the opportunity for growth. exhibitions have been limited to a space of less than 1000 square feet in size, so it has limited itself to two exhibitions per year not only out of consideration of space but funds, staff, and its limited collections. Its collections of musical instruments, costumes, jewelry, games, figures and dolls, among other cultural artifacts, have been purposely limited due to lack of storage. Much of the museum's space has been devoted to a repository of children's art work; this includes original original art work and reproductions of international exchange as well as exhibition lending and merchandising.

Even without the benefit of the findings of the "discovery phase" of any re-branding campaign, a new and expanded marketing strategy as well as an outline for a plan of action for establishing a revised brand that expands its mission to inspire more than merely children in the upstate region [ of New York State] toward creativity and education in the arts might be considered for the Children's Museum. Its contact seemingly already extends beyond this area with its online offering of art exchange, and a new and vigorous campaign to attract greater participation in this program could be accomplished through a re-design of its website. This could more completely extend its reach serving in a limited capacity a community that is additionally national and international in breadth. As Carl Nold once stated in a lecture, "building a wider base is the secret to sustainability."

The sale of  art resulting from international exchange via snail mail is a thing of the past,and the prospect of reproducing and packaging these valuable educational  resources is labor intensive hence costly. An online PayPal account and making all materials available through a download would not only satisfy those who wish to be immediately satiated with their wants and needs of these offered resources, but would justify a reduced cost for the product as color ink and paper for reproduction would be accomplished by the customer rather than a limited museum staff.Certainly, a cost under fifty dollars for a version of these resources would attract far greater numbers than the current price tag of several hundred dollars. In addition, educators are the likely market for such resources yet no curriculum resources are available with the art to contextualize it and more importantly connect it with new core standards. Numerous teachers have emphasized that they would not pay for or advocate for with administrators an educational resource that requires much time on their part  to connect with learning standards and develop learning activities on top of everything else they do; such resources have to be both unique, which they are, and  ready-made for the teacher, which they are currently not.

Developing the necessary teacher materials to accompany this art work would not be difficult. A number of museums like Bangor, Maine's own children's museum----the Discovery Museum--- has met the needs of exhibition development by soliciting the assistance of local educators. The impetus is that teachers get free admission  for their own classes, for their families, and themselves. In exchange teachers meet once a week and develop connections between what they are teaching in their classroom and what could be realized in the museum setting to assist them. This is the embodiment of community partnership; museums working directly with teachers to bring them what they need. This allows the museum to avoid stagnation, for how many of us have belonged to a museum initially thinking its the cat's meow only not to renew our membership because we're tired of the same old exhibitions and activities. 


Making Bread Old School: Hands-on Learning

The following was the first installment, January 22, 2012, of a project begun last year. The project progressed until August, 2012, and, recently, with the impending Spring here in Maine, and in conjunction with the The Curran Homestead Living History Farm and Museum in Orrington, ME, the plan is to put in a crop of grain or grains on my shy-of-an-acre property with the intention of processing it and producing a loaf of bread.

The project has already moved forward from just an idea in September when I spoke with Jeff and Adina Bialas of J @ A Farm in Goshen, NY at the time of this writing. The Bialases and I had discussed the possibility of turning over some sod at Museum Village in Monroe, NY and planting some crops that would connect with the 19th century living history component of the museum, make use of a working collection of real agricultural tools and equipment from the past, and offer visitors to the museum an opportunity to experience early farming techniques first hand.

The conversation with the Bialas family actually occurred shortly after Hurricane Irene had destroyed much of their crop on their modest black dirt farm. Many local farmers had been devastated by the storm. The fact that Jeff and Adina were at the museum with the family during the museum's annual Civil War Re-enactment when we first spoke of the potential enterprise was because the work that they would otherwise have been engaged in at this time of year had they a crop was basically cancelled until preparations for the next growing season would resume.

During that conversation we talked about opportunities to present to the public demonstrations that would over the course of Spring, Summer, and Fall offer the public insight into crop cycles----planting, growing, harvesting, processing, and eating. Not only would we prepare the soil, plant, and harvest, but we ultimately wanted to process our crop and offer a final product. One of the crops we spoke of was broom corn. The museum had always had a broom making scenario, but the broom corn had always been purchased from an out-of-state supplier. Growing broom corn, harvesting it, drying it, and making brooms from it was pretty straight forward in theory.

The other crop we spoke of was wheat or some type of grain. We actually spoke at that time about looking into heritage strains of wheat. Orange County, NY had during its earliest chapter of agriculture been the site of small farm wheat production. Even after this waned there were always farmers who grew grains for their work horses well into the 20th century.

In addition to growing wheat we thought that the processing of wheat would be a wonderful activity to present at the museum. Harvesting wheat with scythes and scythes fitted with cradles would get a lot attention. Threshing the wheat could also be an activity that we would present, as the museum had hand threshing tools as well as the machinery to present the story of the beginnings of mechanized agriculture and wheat processing.

So the thought arose that if we could harvest and thresh, we would need to grind the wheat into flour. The question of how to grind the wheat into flour would be answered by what historical period we would choose to present. This answer was seemingly answered by the fact that the site of this enterprise was to be a museum that presented the time period 1860-1910, but during this half century there were monumental changes in how agricultural products were planted, cultivated, harvested and processed. We saved some thoughts for the next time we would meet.

    Trip to the Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum, Portland, ME

    One of my favorite things at the Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum was this 1926 Model T Rail Inspection Car. This track vehicle was built by the railroad shops of the Sandy River Rail in Phillips, Maine. Used by Superintendent Orris Vose ( any relation to Dr. Leonard Vose of Eddington, ME of yore?).

    The standard four cylinder Model T engine.

    Front View, notice the cow-catcher constructed from riveted and forge welded metal bar.

    Saturday, December 27, 2008

    The Museum's Continued Service to the Public in the 21st Century

    With the recent rally to reduce carbon emissions and reduce global warming, few have been willing to give it to the public straight. The only real solution is for all of us to eat less, buy less, produce less, and, for our purposes as museum professions, preserve, conserve, and restore less to combat carbon emissions run amuck. I am greatly concerned with a nonprofit museum culture that is committed to an unerring need to grow, and this includes, on the high end of that growth, the construction and maintenance of grandiose exhibition buildings, travelling mega-shows, and unbridled merchandizing. Much of this need for growth is a product of human ego, for board members and administrators alike see growth as a reflection of their own industry, their ability to accomplish. I am as guilty of this as the next person. I love museums as much or more than the next guy, but I also see that growth may be contributing to eventually making life as we know it a bit more difficult than it already is.
    Growth at the museum is also necessitated by the public’s own need to preserve all that they consider of historical or aesthetic value, and there is a certain amount of self aggrandizement with the act of donating an object that is somehow linked to our own history for long-term preservation and public display. Immortality seemingly comes to the donor or benefactor to a collection much like the published story keeps the name of the author within our conscientiousness long after he or she has put down their pen for the last time. Although rarely verbalized, much of the business of museums is simply rooted in a need for us to preserve something of ourselves beyond our own mortality.
    It is the ever-growing number of small nonprofit museums more often than not that become repositories for everyone’s treasured “artifacts,” without fully exploring the consequences of taking on that long-term responsibility. With each press release and the inevitable exposure of my own museum’s mission and function to the reading public, that the challenge of numerous offers of objects large and small for donation is met. Many of these objects are of value, and many more are not. The museum professional has a responsibility at this point in time to simply say “no” to these potential bequests. For with each bequest an obligation for further growth is seemingly necessitated. The donated object will need not only a roof over it but often more costly responses in order to preserve and restore it.
    The reason my modest history museum says “yes” to such donations is that we are trying to build up a unique collection with a small budget. Many of the donations are all or nothing scenarios; you either take the valuable and rare items along with the more common and less valuable, or, often, donors don’t want to bother with you. An additional motivation for taking the latter road is that by accepting these donations a publically perceived precedence is set whereby objects of superior condition become available somewhere down the road by others which will eventually replace similar objects in the collection of poorer condition. This ongoing process is mistakenly perceived as unfettered growth by some, but it is more accurately a growth process whereby the museum achieves a collection of objects of superior quality through a process of accessioning and de-accessioning, and for the purposes of full disclosure, we haven’t reached the stage of de-accessioning yet.
    A recent example of this at my modest living history farm and museum involves what is commonly known as a “dump rake.” This horse drawn implement was used to rake up cut hay in the field. The farmer would gather cut hay in its curved tines as he advanced by horse power. Eventually these tines would become full and a foot and hand pedal would be depressed to release the hay gathered “dumping” it. The resulting pile would then be pitched into a hay wagon. Our organization started out with a rake from our benefactors, but this International Harvester example had sat through many seasons outdoors; some of its tines and the original wooden tongue that was harnessed between a team of work animals were long gone. Another equally weathered rake was donated, but this had been adapted to tractor usage and the wooden tongue had been replaced with a galvanized steel pipe at some point. Recently, we have been offered many high quality objects from eastern Maine family farms in the process of dissolution; this has come with our increased exposure. An International Harvester dump rake with original paint and stenciling from its original journey by Maine Central Rail, probably to the farm of Thomas and Mildred Flagg in Lincolnville Beach from which it was donated, was accepted into our collection. Such an acquisition necessitates the need, for the first time in the history of our 20 year old institution, to de-accession one of these dump rakes from our collection simply because we have an example of superior quality making the others unnecessary and redundant.
    On the other hand, growth at many museums goes unchecked, and the decision to shed objects from a collection remain taboo, and this is arguably linked to a general cultural propensity to consume more than we need. The museum is a stage for the drinking, eating, buying, and producing that goes on in our culture, and additionally both art and history in commodified at museums in the US so that it too is responsible for the excess that plagues our times and threatens our future. Collections are housed, kept warm and dry in storage in some cases for perpetuity. Collections are packaged and shipped at great expense by larger museums, and results in the greater expenditure of materials, both renewable and non-renewable. De-accessioning a lot of what we have may be part of trimming the fat that is required in a world of growing populations and decreasing resources; we have to do our part just like everyone else. Before any serious consideration of a large scale cut back in collecting practices can take place those who make museums possible have to be first convinced that less may be more, and that new technologies may offer an alternative to how we experience what we experience in the museum.
    At the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts steps have been taken in recent years to re-evaluate the collecting practices of earlier times in life of their institution and measure them against the necessity to meet the present public’s taste and needs. In de-accessioning many objects from its seed collection, some critics have voiced concern for a perceived obligation to preserve the memory of the museum’s original benefactor and namesake DeCordova. The debate on whether to save or de-accession in this case is largely one of propriety, for how long can a public institution honor the last wishes of a long ago deceased benefactor especially when doing so may jeopardize the relevancy of the museum itself to its potential 21st century audience? Most museums have that important decision of how to best use the space that they have to fulfill their mission, and this might mean that some of the collection takes precedence over other parts.
    I am not sure whether I agree with the idea that a curiosity cabinet belonging to DeCordova himself, containing what some may more irreverently call Victorian-era junk, is irrelevant to 21st century museum goers, or that de-accessioning all this stuff is a prudent course of action. I do agree that some museums need to prioritize what is essential to their missions, and consider de-accessioning some objects that may be better utilized by other institutions and also allow these institutions breathing room for future acquisitions. It is obvious that many things in museum collections lose their appeal to many, but it can be argued that these objects embody the particular collecting habits of a time and place offering a valuable narrative worth preserving and sharing to an audience both now and in the future. If, at least, some objects must be de-accessioned, fully documenting an account of DeCordova’s original collection through new digital media is essential and without this there would be great loss to our social and intellectual history.
    Any museum which started out with one man’s aesthetic at its heart will inevitably change as aesthetic taste itself has changed. It is simply unrealistic that museums will continue to collect without ever shedding earlier and less valuable objects for new acquisitions. Nonprofit, and consequently museums with tax-exempt status have, at least, an unofficial obligation to satisfy public taste and needs rather than that of their original benefactors. The survival of these museums depends on not only the attendance of the public but on public funding via grants and allowances made to institutions with a non-profit status.
    Although nonprofit institutions seemingly have an obligation to satisfy public interest, it is the duly appointed stewards, board members, directors, and the like, that make the decisions about how the institution can best serve the public. These decisions often affect a change in the status of specific art or artifacts once valued for private reasons rather than public. The stewards of any collection have to first take into account the survival of the institution over the wishes of an original benefactor. Survival of the institution ultimately insures the survival of their memory. In order for the DeCordova to survive it had to become more than a mere repository of one man’s bibelot and kitsch by the late 20th century.
    In regard to more recent realizations regarding the understanding that society itself must trim back, change age-old behaviors towards consumption in order that future generations may survive, museums too may have to consider more than merely what specifically fits into its walls to satisfy the public but how a consideration and realization of less may effectively serve similar purposes. Certainly the increased use of new digital media to disseminate the knowledge that up until recently was the exclusive domain of the tangible object in the physical museum will play a major role in transforming how a museum does what it does.
    In the case of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the needs of our own times can similarly affect changes to long established guidelines to the physicality of a particular museum structure. A recently proposed addition to the Gardner Museum that was once a private residence as well as a museum open to the public has been necessitated out of the need to accommodate an ever greater number of visitors. Such a alteration conflicts with Gardner’s own stipulation that her home and museum remain as it was during her lifetime. Unlike the original DeCordova collection, this museum was from its inception a collection of unique quality and size making further additions to it, in the opinion of many to this date, unnecessary. Change, in this case, has been affected by the often welcome and rare occasion for many museums of ever increasing popularity.
    Instead of the 2000 annual visitors of Gardner’s own time, there are 175,000 annual visitors and more anticipated for the future. The structure simply can’t handle this many people for another one hundred years, so its stewards have to act accordingly. Public access to the structure is being scaled back. New additions will simply help to relieve the demands on the overtaxed structure, so that those who wish to see its treasures can.
    The response to the similar circumstances of increased demand for access to the Albert Barnes’ Collection in Marion, PA perpetuated a similar remedy whereby the benefactor’s original demands could no longer be met. Given that this once private institution chose to stand under the aegis of non-profit and tax exempt status it had to shed its long standing elitist pre-requisites, including a onsite tutorial on how to view art on view before getting access to the galleries. Characterized as both products of “aesthetic fanaticism’ and “egomania” these very specific rules kept much of the public out. The Barnes Foundation’s location in a quiet suburban neighborhood contributed further to its exclusivity.
    Public criticism of the museum’s location more than anything else threatened its survival, so in complete defiance of Barnes’ will his collection went on tour. The unmatched Picassos, Modiglianis, Cezannes, Soutines, Matisses, and others came down from the benefactor’s own bizarre displays that included examples of hand forged door hardware and other oddities. Regarding much art criticism as “philistine aestheticism,” Barnes had published his own aesthetic ideas regarding how art should be displayed and used for educational purposes. Unlike DeCordova, Barnes had a collecting frenzy informed by an eye that was in every sense avant garde, collecting Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modernist paintings before all others thought to do so. He purchased few fakes because he met the artists in their studios. No one wants to de-accession his collection but they do want it temporarily out of the suburbs and into the National Gallery and other world class exhibition venues so that ever greater numbers can appreciate it (Higonnet, 1994). Defying Barnes was necessitated by the need to preserve the collection as a collection, as well as make it available to the entirety of the public once and for all. Barnes himself like it or not is even more securely immortalized as a result of this decision, and his museum become a more efficient entity for educating the public.
    There is a distinction between unfettered museum growth and the natural progression of a museum whereby donations are sought and received to secure a collection that is both unique and important. De-accessioning may be a necessary stage of that growth whereby a museum ultimately chooses over time, and given the opportunity, the best examples for its collection to preserve long term. It may be just as important to provide greater accessibility to a finite collection as it is to scale back an institution’s unfettered collecting habits in the interest of public good. Providing greater accessibility to a collection maximizes its educational impact on ever greater numbers. It provides more efficient use of a commodity that would otherwise be seen by few yet incur great cost for continued preservation. We not only have to insist on more fuel efficient cars in the wake of the challenges surrounding the availability of energy and resources in the 21st century but also more efficient collecting and display methods at our public museums to insure the survival of these institutions that serve to disseminate both our history and culture.

    Higonnet, Anne, “Whither the Barnes?— Controversy Surrounding the Barnes Foundation’s Touring Exhibition of French Paintings,” Art in America, March, 1994 Accessed 10.3.08

    Wednesday, December 17, 2008

    When Is It Time To Leave?

    At what point does the museum professional decide that their career, sanity, and valued time outweigh their commitment to the success of a single institution? The time to leave may be simply when the battle has been long and hard fought, and there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel for this particular institution. Your life and talents might be better spent some place else.

    In the past year I have witnessed, albeit on the outside looking in, some of the skirmishes and full-fledged wars between directors and their boards. At last year’s NEMA conference I attended a “seminar,” that may have been more appropriately named museum melodrama, that seemingly brought one museum professional’s ongoing twenty plus year battle with the powers that be at an historic state building, which includes art and objects dating back to the 17th century, to the level of tragedy ( Names have been avoided so as not to exasperate an already volatile situation). The presenter nearly broke down several times while imparting the details of her battle, as its official caretaker, with her “board” and state officials seemingly apathetic and unresponsive to her pleadings for added funds. She has worn many hats in her capacity as director and has bounced back and forth between full and part-time status over the course of two decades in her devotion to this cause. I have to ask myself whether her seeming martyrdom for this collection is justified?

    She, like so many museum professions, will never receive the recognition they deserve. Such sacrifices are a given of the profession, but when the fun, enthusiasm, and reasonable financial compensation are gone its time to leave and find a place where you are once-again reminded of how much you love working in a museum. This professionals own seemingly hopeless plight was further evidenced by the fact that one of her board members had chosen to come to the conference, attend this particular seminar, and sit directly in front of her, as she proceeded to air the institution’s dirty laundry. The “board” member introduced herself as having a “different” purpose in attending this seminar and conference than other attendees in the room, including myself, in that she was here “to hear the complaints” of this director.

    I had to ask myself had this particular director done all that she could do, if one of her board had to come all this way to hear her complaints? To be fair, this particular board member seemed empathetic to the museum director’s challenges on some points, and this was indicated when she directed her to elaborate on the issue of a leaking roof, its threat to an important mural in the collection, and that this was merely one of many impending threats this director faced on a regular basis.

    Given the obvious tension in the room between these two women, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to deal with this for decades? What had been a seminar entitled “College & University Museums: Professional Affinity Group Museums within Larger Institutions” turned out to be, in this particular case, a venue to cry on the shoulders of fellow museum professions, and future professionals, who experience problems in various degrees at their own institutions. This is par for the course. Signs of the attending audience’s irritation were obvious; several skulked out of the room while others stood their ground and rolled their eyes periodically or sighed aloud so that everyone could hear. There were also some whose sympathy extended to some great suggestions in the Q & A portion of the “presentation.” Someone suggested that it was futile to remind the powers that be that this collection is part of every citizen’s cultural heritage and worthy of greater financial attention.

    This insightful audience member reminded us that this director’s superiors were elected officials who were given the responsibility of finding funds for this state collection’s preservation during their term of office and who also appointed board members to oversee its maintenance on a more immediate level. She further clarified that politicians only respond to larger constituencies that jeopardize votes and hence their political survival, so this particular director’s pleadings alone are and would always be futile. She suggested turning the situation against her unsupportive board and, ultimately, a political administration responsible as its caretaker by both surveying a public and making the fact that this collection, which has long served to educate school children on field trips and outreach programs, is in jeopardy of deteriorating through financial neglect. This might incite parents to contact these politicians and voice concern. An exhibition about this collection’s positive influences on succeeding generations of citizens, through testimonies, oral histories, etc., might serve the cause.

    If this director has reached a point where she is consumed by her own complaints and the futility of her own actions in accomplishing what she needs to accomplish, then it’s time to pack it in and move on. The institution itself might benefit from someone new at the helm. The resigning director might find a new cause, a new museum, and invigorate her own career. Of course, someone who has been entrenched in one institution in a community for more than twenty years has much of their life invested to simply walk away. Advocating such a response is rooted in the believe that the future of the only life we have and finding greatest happiness we can in it supercedes all and hustifies taking risks, periodic change, and life reassessments. People are living longer and healthier lives than ever, and that has inevitably meant that we can reinvent ourselves, have more than one career, learn more in a lifetime, accomplish more than we ever thought, if we allow ourselves to do so. “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” In this case, after twenty years, for this particular director, it’s time to run.

    Tuesday, December 16, 2008

    Museums Can't Satisfy Everyone, or Can They?

    Museums can’t satisfy everyone, but they can seek to serve more of the public than they have in the past. Recently, Claudine Brown, Program Director for Arts and Culture at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, remembered a "Town Meeting" that she attended in Detroit where community members argued over a future plan for a museum that would serve to educate the public about American slavery was especially poignant. Some are ignorant to believe that all African Americans feel the same about how that episode in history should be portrayed, displayed, and conveyed to succeeding generations of all Americans. The presumption is that everyone in a community, in which there is a shared heritage, religion, etc., are on the same page about anything could be seriously damaging to a museum’s public relations.

    There is a responsibility on the part of the museum to hear more voices and consider the views and interests of ever greater numbers of the public. One respondent at the "town meeting," according to Brown, wished that her children not be exposed to the graphic portrayal of slavery. Another opposed that view arguing that it was necessary that this part of his heritage be remembered by this and future generations. Both of these public respondents had valid arguments. The two clashed, and their respective views were eventually overshadowed by personal insults. The important thing is that they were given a forum to voice their opinions and were heard by museum planners.

    This anecdote made me think about new mediums of communicating in and outside the museum, like Internet blogging. Such mediums might serve the task of reconciling such arguments and others in response to new museums, their missions, and their exhibitions. In fact, blogs promise a more effective public forum for both present and future exhibitions. In such a scenario, a mediator, the museum’s voice in a blog created by the museum itself, can more effectively bring opposing views to a common ground. They can use such a tool to sell their ideas as well as meld them with some of the community’s. The condition of writing one’s response and sending it allows for greater consideration and less impassioned reaction. One can write and revise one’s thoughts before sharing them. What has proven so effective in emailing is true for blogging too.

    Of course, blogging can be expensive in that it is a time glutton for paid museum staff, but isn’t this important if the museum is committed to knowing the views of the public and if it is interested in "new audiences"? The respondents to such a blog about an upcoming event or one presently underway will be limited, but it is important that the museum has been responsible for such a public forum. It is important that they have been responsible for a dialogue with their visitors or potential visitors. Such dialogues don’t often happen. This venue has allowed visitors to communicate among themselves about art and history that they feel impassioned enough about to respond to.

    Blogs can be used in the actual museum’s exhibition labeling, as I have seen done recently. Such a venue allows the possibility of the museum reconsidering their choices and gaining further insight into the views and interests of their community. We must be reminded that these considerations are the antithesis of the museum in the past when an elite considered their own interests and values and used the museum to impose these on the public en masse. The blog is one more communication tool in a new era which promises a shared forum for those with long-held influence in assuring their imprint on what museums do and can do with those previously alienated and anticipatory of a shared stake in the future message of museums.


    Brown, Claudine, Program Director, Arts and Culture, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Guest Lecture, Tufts University, Medford, MA, 22 Oct. 2007.

    Friday, December 12, 2008

    Is Disney-ification a Good or Bad Thing For Museums?

    I remember watching Ken Burn’s The War on PBS last year. What I found most fascinating were the interviews with not only soldiers from the time but the civilians. It was the story of the home front that was the unique contribution of this documentary. The fact that much of what these civilians understood about the war at the time so radically differed from what soldiers in the field were experiencing reveals something profound about the nature of truth even in a time when photography and other modern means of documentation could seemingly serve as indisputable evidence of what was going on. These individuals' later realization of their own ignorance about the involvement of other US civilians, their capture, and imprisonment by the Japanese in places like the Philippines, was especially poignant.

    These wartime realities were both underplayed in the contemporaneous press or simply unreported as these wartime civilians were to learn, and this not only exemplifies once again that the first casualty of war is always the truth but something even more revealing about American cultural identity itself. The fact that the truth was kept from the US civilian population during the Second World War is pertinent to a discussion of Disneyification, and how this phenomena is symptomatic of a long standing cultural complacency with both half-truths and inaccuracies regarding our nation’s past and present.

    Many may argue that not knowing the truth has had its advantages over being in the know during the critical period of a war, but much of what happens in our own time, the history of yesterday, is also kept from the public or sanitized by those responsible for telling us “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…”. The movie industry has been just as guilty for providing us with an alternative and often more palatable truth than the real. There is no denying the fact that the film medium sadly serves as a significant source for Americans’ understanding of themselves as well as the worlds’ understanding of Americans. I believe that recognizing this fact initiates a responsibility on the part of the industry to be held more accountable for the historical accuracy of their product, or should we simply anticipate greater accountability on the part of the public for finding out the truth?

    The film industry’s portrayal of history has been from its beginning selective. Consider for one how many Black cowboys we have seen on the big screen or on TV, when scholars tell us that a third or more were. There is a long standing public complacency with not only movies “Based on a True Story” but many “living” history museums as well; the public simply accepts what is told to them. All of this is better defined as the Disneyification of our history. Disneyification of US history has also been embodied in museum blockbusters. These have the packaging of pop culture and a substance consisting of little scholarship in some cases. They have been the subject of repeated debate among supporters and opponents.

    Having pointed out that a product of these blockbusters is sometimes a flawed and exaggerated historical record out of regard for greater marketability, I, nevertheless, see the blockbuster itself as serving a useful role. They draw in ever greater numbers of the public into the museum that might otherwise never come. They are an addition to everything else that the museum does to preserve and educate, and as long as scholarship is maintained by the institution for its many other exhibits and offerings their existence is justified. There is also no reason that the more accepted historical truth couldn't be just as marketable if exhibit planners and developers put their heads together.

    Public opinion can be the only means by which the movie industry can be held accountable for what dramatized history it chooses to present. The same goes for the living history museum and other similar institutions. To be fair there has been an increased attention to historical accuracy in recent years by both industry and institutions that peddle the past. My problem with the film industry is that there is often no effort to reveal fact or urge the public to research the real and un-dramatized truth because a film is the product of artistic license. Meanwhile the impressionable are misinformed about history, and this can have avoidable corrupting effects on segments of society.

    It seems that it has more often been easier to accept the status quo rather than demand that we all be enlightened about the unsavory side or less interesting side of history that both movie makers and living history museums sometimes make ever more palatable. This sanitization of history in places like Colonial Williamsburg has been and continues to be deliberate and in its extreme potentially destructive, for it avoids rather than addresses for the purpose of educating issues like “slavery, disease, and class oppression.” If historical integrity can’t be maintained graphically in the setting of a living history museum, then it is seemingly that institution’s obligation to clarify this daily for the visiting public in big bold print or by some other means.

    According to Richard Handler and Eric Gable’s The New History in an Old Museum (1997), Ada Louise Huxtable, the famous architecture critic, said in response to Colonial Williamsburg’s opening that it was “preparing the way for the new world order of Disney Enterprises,” a condition that would “systematically” foster “the replacement of reality with fantasy.” Huxtable believed that such ventures would teach Americans “to prefer---and believe in---a sanitized and selective version of the past.” I think that’s true, for that institution and many others like it continue to thrive. It thrives because they succeeded at finding the right packaging and the right amount of verve to sell history as a commodity just like bread with the “Wonder” label added.

    Many have gone further in their condemnation of Colonial Williamsburg characterizing it as metaphorically too clean and a sell out to the obligation of historical integrity for the dollar, or more recently, some eighteen dollars per person or more. Huxtable herself liked the word “sanitized, ” for in addition to the colonial costumes, carriages, and houses that have been so splendidly reproduced or restored on an original colonial site, there were many other realities for the religiously oppressed, the slave, and the indentured (44). Where are the slaves, who numbered more than the whites, and the poor whites in rags, the Catholics hiding and practicing their religion in dark corners, the shanties, the all pervasive smell of sewage and animal manure, the slave auctions, and those bound in chains and dragged through the streets like livestock? These are some of the exclusions from the streets of this colonial capitol.

    Colonial Williamsburg staged a re-creation of a slave auction some ten years ago, but the public simply couldn’t handle it. There was much protest, and this reenactment was removed from the schedule. On any given day 200 plus year old reproductions of Colonial Williamsburg’s daily paper are printed and made available to visitors. Prominent in the classified section are advertisements for slave auctions and missing slaves, yet seeing that in the flesh was too much for audiences. The decision to abridge history at places like Colonial Williamsburg perhaps is justified for Americans may simply like their mix of entertainment and history with ice rather than straight up.

    Do we want to be reminded of all the inhumanities to our fellow man that underscore the building of this nation by portraying history as it was in the living history museum? Or do we spend the day walking across its pristine village green surrounded by pristine period homes to the sound of horse hooves, ringing anvils, and re-enactors in well- laundered costumes? The visiting public, that has become even more inclusive in recent years, hasn’t demanded much more “history” than they have been getting for the last 60 years at Colonial Williamsburg, so what makes us think that our history of history telling will change at institutions like this? With greater public cognizance of the many embarrassment of our nation’s history , it might be that much of the public simply prefers Disneyification?