“Today’s Museum: Innovation, Change, and Challenge”

Here’s the presentation I gave at the Mathers Museum’s “Museums at the Crossroads: Local Knowledge, Global Encounters” workshop last week. More on the workshop here. It was a delightful event: smart people from around the world thinking about the future of museums. Video and more coming soon.

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“The Curator Rules”

Tonya Howe designed this fine poster. With apologies to Mr. Peale.

Tonya Howe designed this fine poster. With apologies to Mr. Peale.

These are the slides and my notes from my talk at Marymount University, the Bissel Lecture in the Humanities, presented April 10 as part of the Virginia Humanities Conference. My thanks to Tonya Howe for the invitation, to Marymount for their hospitality, and to the audience for its good questions.

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NOTE: The next entry in this blog is a corrected and expanded version of this talk.

Exhibit and exhibit labels workshop

I talked to the “Methods in Public Humanities” class today about exhibitions. A very quick overview, and didn’t even get to the how-to-write-good-labels part of the talk. Here are my presentations, on exhibits generally, and on exhibit labels, slightly cleaned up but without much in the way of notes.

The Curator Rules

Museum curators have certain ways of doing things, certain rules they follow. It’s important to know what these rules are – and also to realize that they can be broken.

These are notes from my talk to Catherine Whalen and Sarah Carter’s “Curatorial Practice as Experiment” course at Bard Graduate School. Catherine asked that I talk about creative curation, to inspire students in the class working on an exhibition project.

The assignment got me thinking: what’s creativity? Some part of creativity is breaking with tradition, breaking the accepted rules.

And that led me to: what are those rules? What do we take for granted when we curate exhibitions? What do we take for granted when we collect for museums? What do traditional curators do?

You need to know the rules before you can break them…

And so I tried to sketch out those rules, and offered some thoughts on where they came from. I tried, to use the academic phrase, to denaturalize them. They’re not natural laws: they are customs we have accepted.

Some of these rules are good. Some I think we should do away with. But in every case, we should not just take them for granted. How might we improve the work of museums if we’re willing to break the rules?

Here’s my talk: use the gear button at the bottom to view the presenter notes. I’ve also included, below the slide show, a printout that might be easier to use.

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Writing about the past, thinking about the future: National Museum of American History

Curator Herbert Collins in political history storage areaPhotograph by Richard Hofmeister, Neg. No. 76-13488-18. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

My article on the history and philosophy of collecting at the National Museum of American History has been published in the Federal History JournalThe issue is freely available, here, and my essay is here. It’s a good issue: I especially recommend the article by Margo Anderson, “Public Management of Big Data: Historical Lessons from the 1940s.”

My essay was inspired by the 50th anniversary of the NMAH. I used to work there, and a former colleague asked me to write something. The director was eager to have the museum’s anniversary noted at various scholarly organizations, he said. I gave talks based on the research for this paper at the National Council for Public History conference last year and the Society for the History of Technology Conference in October.

But whether this was the kind of history the director had in mind – I don’t know. It’s fairly critical, both of the curators, and of the museum’s management.

I argue that the museum’s management was never able to figure out how to build and use the museum’s collections as a part of its mission. Curatorial prerogative was the watchword of the Smithsonian when the museum was founded. It has remained so, at least through the most recent of many hand-wringing “what about the collections?” reports, a decade ago. Curatorial prerogative has not shifted with the changing goals of the institution; that’s a managerial failing.

But perhaps the curators were fighting the good fight, and management misguided? My reading of the archives suggest that the curators never really figured out how the collections could be useful, either. In the early years, they adopted a philosophy of collecting based on natural history. But they were never able to make a good argument for history collections, beyond the small fraction that were put on display or, for a few of the curators, their own research. Not that they haven’t tried – I suggest that the material culture movement of the 1980s came out of an attempt to provide a rationale for all those artifacts.

At the urging of the editor of the journal, I added a conclusion looking at the recent past, and into the future. How might collecting philosophy change to make collections more useful? How might the smaller number of curators now at the museum cover the territory they need to? I suggest that taking advantage of new technologies to allow curators to connect the public with collections might help them make a case for collections in a way that the “potential research” argument never did.

It was a bit odd, and also fascinating, to write about a place where I used to work, and about a history that I had some connection with. What I wrote is not a memoir, though, like Bob Post’s recent book on the museum; I tried to keep my distance. But I kept thinking: I wish I knew this history when I was there. Working in a bureaucracy, in a big institution, one takes for granted the way things are done. Tradition, and the myth of a golden age, are powerful. Knowing the history – how it came to be that way – would have made it easier to question it, to think about how things might change.

Perhaps this essay, and other historical work on the museum, will help encourage new thinking not only about the past, but also the future.

“Museum Histories” course, Spring 2015

Here’s the syllabus for my upcoming course, AMST1903I. It’s a history of museums, mostly American, history and science as well as art.

The syllabus includes links to many of the articles, but you’ll find some are behind paywalls.

Any feedback welcome!

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Crossing borders, or not, at the AHA

I go to the American Historical Association annual meeting about once every ten years. The usual complaints keep me away: too big, too crazy, most of the sessions too far outside my interests. And the more specific complaint you’d expect from someone interested in public history and public humanities: too academic.

Just everyone I talked to had similar complaints. Even more important: they always have.

That’s one of the lessons from a fine talk at a fine session (now that I’ve got over the complaining): Rob Townsend’s talk on the early history of the AHA, in a session that looked at the history of public history. The organization has heard complaints for a century or so, ever since it got big enough and powerful enough to define exactly what counted as history, or more precisely, academic history.

The AHA, at its founding, included what today would be public history and archives, but in the 1910s and 20s it got into the business of policing boundaries. Archivists and local historians set up their own organizations, and the AHA narrowed its focus to, mostly, the research work of academic historians. It’s a typical story of professionalization.

Rob’s paper, the other talks at that history of public history session, and some provocative twitter discussions, got me thinking about boundaries: setting them, policing them, crossing them.

And once it was in the air, I saw it everywhere. We were all policing boundaries, or trying to open borders, or trying to work across various lines. True, I went to sessions that were mostly on the fringes of the academic history business – public history, digital history, museums – and it’s from the borderlands that you see the borders.

It’s in those borderlands, too, that battles happen. Even sessions designed to help cross boundaries could reveal treacherous terrain. A session of historians looking at history museums made clear to me just how difficult it can be to even see across the boundary, much less cross it. Why did these historians, many of whom had studied museums, or consulted with them, seem so oblivious to the parts of the museum that weren’t directly historical in nature: visitors, for example? Or perhaps well-meaning historians were crossing into my territory, raising my hackles? Was I defending my territory? There are two sides to fences, and you need two countries for a border station. Diplomacy is hard; but it starts with respect, not the assumption of empire. As Jesse Stumel tweeted, “Maybe we should stop thinking about inviting people into a tent and work to get ourselves outside tents. #AHA2015 #s158.”

And I did see some good progress in crossing boundaries. A session on scholarship beyond text showed historians working well with artists, creating comic books and historically informed abstract art that drew equally on the skills of artist and historian. Digital history, a field much concerned with definitions and making a space for itself, has begun to make its way into the mainstream of historical work: papers in a session on the history of slavery made strong arguments for crowdsourcing, GIS, and tumblr for new ways to answer important questions and reach new audiences. Digital humanities is finding ways to be both its own field as well as a set of tools for other fields. A session on archaeology and history made clear just how much could be gained from combining two fields in imaginative ways, though also the challenges of talking across disciplines. William Walker’s talk, on the ways that hybrid fields were created at the Smithsonian in the postwar era, suggested the possibility of new combinations: folklore/history, for example.

But there’s also something to be said for the freedom new fields offer. Denise Meringolo raised the question, in that history of public history session, about how public history might be different if it didn’t see itself as a sub-section of history, if it weren’t located in history departments. Will noted that interdisciplinarity is a key aspect of the development of public history. The public humanities program at Brown is, in some ways, an answer to the question of what public history would look like if were done by the generally more boundaries-crossing-friendy of interdiscipline of American studies. It may be that its success comes the relative ease of boundary crossing that Brown, and American studies, encourages.

There’s a balance to be struck here, between creating new disciplines and defending old ones; between taking ideas and tools from other disciplines and using them in our own. between between inviting others into our tent and getting outside it.

Going to the AHA, I suppose, is one way of getting out of my tent. Like a century of conference goers, I’m annoyed by the ways in which the AHA doesn’t put my work at its center, or even make it easy to visit. But like them, and like all visitors to foreign lands, you learn things. Doing the work of crossing borders can be worth the trouble.

Be back in a decade or so.

With thanks to @DDMeringolo @urbanhumanist @ProfessMoravec @Jessifer @rbthisted @MarlaAtUmass @willcooperstown and other #twitterstorians who shaped this through their tweets and talks.

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and related events

I am pleased to join a group of distinguished museum folks in this statement about the role of museums in addressing contemporary issues. The public humanities puts community at the center of its theory and asks: How might cultural institutions be useful to community? The recent events help to focus that question. We should ask not what we should do now, but what should we have been doing all along to build the community connections we need to be useful now? –Steve Lubar

The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role–as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit–in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook—that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by…

  • Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
  • Contributing to and following the Twitter tag #museumsrespondtoFerguson which is growing daily
  • Checking out Art Museum Teaching which has a regularly updated resource, Teaching #Ferguson:  Connecting with Resources
  • Sharing additional resources in the comments
  • Asking your professional organization to respond
  • Checking out the programs at The Missouri History Museum. It has held programs related to Ferguson since August and is planning more for 2015.
  • Looking at the website for International Coalition of  Sites of Conscience. They are developing information on how to conduct community conversations on race.

Participating Bloggers and Colleagues

Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons

Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum

Aleia Brown, AleiaBrown.org

Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities

Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching

Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum

Paul Orselli  ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog

Ed Rodley, Thinking About Museums

Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities

Nina Simon, Museum 2.0

Rainey Tisdale, CityStories

Jeanne Vergeront  Museum Notes

Public and Digital Humanities

gale geek

I enjoyed speaking with Melissa Rayner as part of Gale/Cengage’s GaleGeeks webcasts. You can enjoy a recording here.

(For those of you who listened closely and noted that I couldn’t remember the name of my favorite tool for visualizing collections: it’s viewshare, at http://viewshare.org/.)

Collecting the History of Technology at the National Museum of American History

Collecting for history museums is challenging work, and there needs to be more research and writing on both its history and how to do it. We need to understand how and why collections came to museums; what decisions that shaped collections they hold today? And we need to talk more about how to collect, how to train museum curators to collect, and how to evaluate collecting and collections. We need to share best practices.

Those were among the conclusions of a session on collecting technology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History at the recent Society for the History of Technology meeting in Dearborn, Michigan. The session was one of several sessions, at a range of scholarly conferences, organized by the museum as part of its semi-centenary celebration.

There were four speakers:

I spoke first, on the ideology of collecting. One of the challenges for the museum, I argued, was that the Smithsonian never developed a good way to evaluate curatorial collecting. Museum managers encouraged each curator to collect as he or she felt best, in the area he or she was most interested in, and (mostly) for his or her own research. The museum borrowed its ideology of collecting from the Natural History museum, and thought of collections as research tools for curators, not as public resources. That approach began to change in the late 20th century, but how, what, and how much to collect, and how best to make the collections useful, remains a challenge. (The Federal History Journal will publish a longer version of this talk in its January issue.)

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Kathleen Franz, of American University, spoke next. She compared two large-scale collections. The Allen B. Du Mont Collection came to the museum in the 1950s, when the DuMont company went out of business. Kathy is in the process of collecting material from Univision now, for exhibition as part of the museum’s upcoming American Enterprise exhibition. Both represent important TV networks that are not part of the mainstream history of network television. Franz noted the intense collaboration required to collect documents and artifacts from a large corporation. The engineers, for example, are the experts in their work. One needs to work closely with them, to share authority with them, to jointly decide what artifacts the museum should collected — and to convince the firm to donate good materials.

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Peter Liebhold, of the National Museum of American History, offered a second comparative study. The Bracero History project, about a decade ago, used extensive in-person collecting to acquire artifacts and oral histories from former braceros and their families. The  Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive, part of the collecting for the new American Enterprise exhibition, used social media as well. Peter argued that social media’s a good start, but personal contact is still essential to collect good artifacts and good stories.

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Allison Marsh, of the University of South Carolina, spoke about orphan collections at the museum — those without a curator. Focusing on the engineering collection, without a curator for the past decade or more, she asked two questions: how might the museum make these collections available, and how might the museum continue collecting in this important area? She suggested, among other things, ways that engineering drawings from the collection might be scanned and made available, and used for teaching, and urged that new staff be found to care for and expand the collections.

Allison’s talk was based on her article in Issues in Science and Technology, which is online here.

There was good discussion after the presentations, with questions and conversation about new ways to let researchers know about what collections are at the museum, taking advantage of new digital tools; the role of deaccessioning at different museums; issues of copyright and trademark in making collections available both online and in the museum; and how social media and curatorial expertise might best be combined to improve collections.


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