Most of us agree that inclusion is important. However, we might be unsure how to activate this positive ideal in our daily professional practices. Where to begin when so much change and transformation seems needed? This week, we are excited to feature the Welcoming Guidelines that the LGBTQ Alliance, a professional network of the American Alliance of Museum (AAM), has been developing over the last couple years. These guidelines can certainly inform and help facilitate action. Thank you to Renae Youngs for introducing Incluseum readers to these guidelines that have been gathered in this document.
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Over the past two years, an AAM professional network has been developing a broad set of Welcoming Guidelines to help museums be more inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer staff and visitors. The Guidelines touch on all areas of museum work, are available for free online, and launched at
Tis the season for conferences. American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and the National Art Education Association National Convention are just two of the big ones, but smaller or more regional conference hashtags are starting to fill twitter feeds. One tweet on how to have a good session caught my eye a few months ago. We spend SO MUCH time thinking about ‘what’ we are going to say – when is the last time we dedicated time to ‘how’ we say it? In the age of TED Talks, epic presentation skills and storytelling rule. How can we infuse that enthusiasm and energy into our conference talks?
Now, I’m sure there are quite a few people saying:
‘The message is what matters – not how people say it!’
I completely disagree.
Let’s be honest – when have you politely stayed in a session that was all show-and-tell and the presenter was just reading from their script? Or because you wanted to meet the presenter/knew the presenter/were the presenter/couldn’t get to the door without being noticed? This happens – not all the time, but more often than it should. The worst part about it? It can be fixed, so it should happen so much less.
While The Engaging Educator is known for our improv-based education in museums, we also lead Presentation Skills and Storytelling Classes, as well as conduct Private Coaching. That tweet about how to have a good session stuck with me – I haven’t seen a lot of articles on how to prepare for sessions! Because it is something we work with people on, here’s our speaking tips for conferences.
Before the conference….
Practice, Practice, Practice: This is serious. You should be going over your presentation as many times as possible with as many different people as possible. Get feedback. Think about actors and how incredible live theatre is. They practice CONSTANTLY. This isn’t about memorizing things word-for-word; this is getting the flow and knowing your bullet points, your plan and what you want your audience to walk away with.
DO NOT WRITE THINGS WORD FOR WORD:This stands repeating: Do. Not. Write. Things. Word. For. Word. Two things happen when you write word for word – you end up reading your presentation (and at that point, I ask, why didn’t you just write an article or blog post?) or you memorize word for word and then forget a word, which throws everything off. It’s the same idea behind knowing the alphabet – try saying it without singing it and skip the letters D, P, and W. It’s slower because at this point in our lives, the alphabet is memorized by order. When you take out a step in that order, the rest is harder to recall. Same thing with your conference ‘script’.
Think about how to involve your audience:If your audience is made up of superfans, they are there to hear you talk. You could wax poetic about banana bread and they would hang on your every word. Unfortunately, chances are,your audience is not 100% superfan. So how can you keep them interested? Find ways to engage them. Yes – your program/research/thoughts are incredibly interesting. And you should find new and different ways to reach your audience. Have people draw, brainstorm, share, answer questions, create, move – get them involved, and they will remember your session more, versus quietly texting or Facebooking in the back of the room while you talk. Even if it’s giving them 5 minutes to talk to one another about your focus, you’ve broken the monotony of your voice.
Work on your how:The how is just as important as the what. That’s been one of my biggest mottos with EE – how you say things matters A LOT. Your cadence, tone, volume, speed, disfluencies – all of these connect to how you are perceived as a speaker. When you are practicing, use different ways of saying things – do everything with an exclamation point, throw in a bunch of dramatic pauses, over do your gestures, speed up, slow down. Change it up. And while exclamation points may NOT work the whole time, by experimenting you might find times it does work.If you are plagued by disfluencies – essentially anything that breaks up speech – slow down. I notice many adults struggle with what I call ‘grown up’ disfluencies – the extension of words, the insertion of ‘so’ and ‘you know’. Disfluencies exist both because of habit as well as thinking what comes next. Just slow down!
An hour before the conference…
Warm up your voice: Don’t go in cold! If you’ve ever stumbled over words, you should warm up your voice before a presentation. Do a few tongue twisters – say them slowly and over enunciate.
Don’t over practice:If you don’t know it now, you won’t. At this point, you should just be relaxing, doing a quick run through of ideas and enjoying the conference. Check out your room, if possible, and make sure your tech works.
Breathe:Take a few deep breaths. Now take a few more. Even if you aren’t nervous, breathing correctly allows your voice to be rich, deep and resonant versus shrill and pinched. Make sure you are breathing low, meaning your stomach area expands when you take a breath in.
During the conference…
Breathe!THIS IS STILL IMPORTANT! If you find yourself getting lost or nervous or going too quickly – take a breath. Now take another! If you look awkward and nervous, your audience focuses on that and then starts feeling awkward and nervous.
Let it go!This is the time to fail gloriously. Go big or go home. Just do it. Let it go. All the inspirational songs and sayings!All joking aside – there is nothing to do now except rock it out. So do it now, or forever wish you had.
Reflect on what worked and what didn’t:Think about what was successful and why as well as what didn’t work. Was it you? The audience? The subject? Even if you aren’t making this presentation again, reflection is priceless.
Any other tips to add? Add them in the comment section below!
Written by Karleen Gardner, Director of Learning and Innovation, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Reposted from the Museum Education Roundtable’s JME40 blog. Be sure to check out their posts exploring the evolution of the Journal of Museum Education during its 40 volume run as a reflections of the field at large.
I recently enjoyed traveling to the great city of Denver, Colorado and participating in the Leading the Future of Museum Education: Challenges and Opportunities, a convening of an amazing group of museum leaders from across the country. This event (May 2015), co-hosted by Bank Street College’s Leadership in Museum Education and the Education Professional Network (EdCom) of the American Alliance of Museums, offered a much-needed opportunity for educators in our field to come together and discuss issues, the future, and ask beautiful, scary questions.
In her opening remarks, Sarah Jesse, chair of EdCom and Vice President of Education at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, introduced the idea of beautiful questions inspired by the bookA More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. A beautiful question is:
“an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”
Such questions seem to be ingrained in our DNA, for in 1987 a group of 25 art museum educators came together in Denver to explore similar issues and reforms, and to develop a collective vision for the future of the field. The Journal of Museum Education (JME) Volume 13, Number 3, Fall 1988, was dedicated to sharing the insights and key issues from the Denver Meeting. Guest edited and authored by the organizers and participants of that meeting, the JME issue reflected the individual thinking generated through their discussions and widened the conversation to engage more educators from across the field. I am proud to say that two representatives from my museum were in attendance in 1987.
Twenty-eight years later in Denver, our brainstorming and discussions focused on many of the same topics: the empowerment of museum educators as leaders; making our work visible; professional development and career tracks; visitor-centeredness; the lack of diversity and inclusion in our field; and leading change.
Much of the program and conversation in Denver focused on change on many different levels—the ever-changing and vast-paced world in which we live, the shifts and much-needed changes in our field and institutions, the rethinking of museum education, and the changes in us as individuals. Both Kaywin Feldman, the Duncan and Nivan MacMillan Director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Marsha L. Semmel, principal of Marsha Semmel Consulting, spoke of our VUCA environment and the need for adaptive and strategic leadership. VUCA is short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity,and ambiguity, and a catchall for our turbulent, dynamic reality. In order to thrive, we must have vision, understanding, clarity, and agility and be willing to experiment and take risks. Laura Roberts from Roberts Consulting points out there is no one way or single path to get us where we want to go and the “best practices” from the past won’t be sufficient.
We must challenge ourselves to find these new paths and ask beautiful, scary questions, which will inspire us to take risks and head into uncertain territory, and possibly fail. Some of the beautiful questions that emerged from our brainstorming and conversations in Denver:
How might we encourage greater diversity and inclusion in our field?
How might museums become truly visitor-centered institutions?
How might we find balance in engaging both our core and new audiences; balance between co-creation and expertise?
What if we broke down silos and collaboration was the new norm?
How might we rethink our work with the public education sector?
How might we harness the power of technology to expand access, improve engagement, and try new approaches to our work?
What if excellence isn’t enough?
What if educators became more empowered and began breaking the rules?
To begin exploring the strategies and solutions to these beautiful questions, we must become adaptive leaders and both individually and collectively embrace the gradual but meaningful process of change. Marsha Semmel introduced us to John Seely Brown who believes in social, participatory learning and teaches us that museums need to stop protecting our assets—our stocks—of authoritative knowledge and instead nurture our flows—creating new knowledge. We are poised to cultivate these flows.
Laura Roberts, who was asked to reflect on and summarize the convening stated in her closing remarks, “museum educators routinely use the sort of skills an adaptive leader needs. Moreover, if we are going to shift our museums from a focus on objects to a focus on visitors and community, it is clear we are positioned to lead the way…” She noted these observations about our character:
Educators are trained to elicit observations and points of view and to bring people together in dialogue. We are good facilitators. We have those “soft skills” to be boundary spanners.
We are clever, creative, and imaginative. We are good problem solvers. We are good listeners.
We practice the skills of collaboration and partnering. We are matchmakers and brokers.
We often serve as the integrators in the institution, bringing disparate staff together.
We are often “empowerers.” Many educators are refreshingly light on ego.
We have these skills, and we also need to become more empowered and better advocates for our values, our expertise, and our audiences. Insights on the 1988 Denver Meeting from Diane Brigham in JME echo this concept, stating that our role is essential in serving the missions of our museums and that:
“when we realize that we offer abilities that no one else in the museum can contribute, we are better able to offer leadership. We empower ourselves when we are clear about what we are and have prepared ourselves to practice our profession with rigor.”
It is essential for us to be more rigorous and confident in articulating our goals and vision, and ask beautiful, scary questions that will serve as catalysts for innovation and change in our field and our communities.
KARLEEN GARDNER is Director of Learning Innovation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She leads initiatives and experiments in interpretation and learning, and works to make the museum accessible and relevant for all audiences. Karleen currently serves on the board of directors of the Museum Education Roundtable, on the editorial team, and as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education.
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Header Photo by Ann Rowson Love via Twitter @annrowsonlove
“Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you.”
This year’s American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting wrapped up in Baltimore last week, but I’m still wrapping my mind around some of the ideas that came up in sessions and lively discussion (in person and via the Twitter hashtag #aam2013). Although the official theme was “The Power of Story”, I walked away thinking that another fitting tagline could have been the above quote from that classic of children’s literature, The Velveteen Rabbit, shared as wisdom from the Skin Horse to the titular lagomorph.
The idea of realness and how that matters in a museum context was on people’s minds throughout the conference, enough that it had a whole session dedicated to it on the first day. “Is It Real? Who Cares?” brought together a group of museum professionals to engage the room in debate over some knotty questions. Before you get excited for a recap of that session, I’ll clarify that I wasn’t there. But they’ve set up a Tumblr that’ll give you some ideas of what you missed, and the handout includes some of the questions that may affect your thoughts about realness.
They ask some great, substantial doozies:
Does authenticity of objects matter more or less to different visitors?
Can display context render real objects fake or make fake objects seem real?
Is the object rendered more real because it’s rare or one-of-a-kind?
If I were feeling more academically-minded, here’s where I’d drop some quotes from Walter Benjamin’s seminal The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction about the aura that a real object has due to its very realness, but I’m only feeling academically-minded enough to use the word “seminal” and bring Benjamin up in the first place. Besides, he wasn’t speaking at AAM, so I’ll move on.
I’m sorry I missed “Is It Real? Who Cares?”, especially because it was the beginning of what became a thematic thread I followed throughout the rest of the conference. In Tuesday morning’s session, “Significant Objects”, Rob Walker talked with the Center for the Future of Museums’ Elizabeth Merritt about his project of the same name, which started out with Rob and Joshua Glenn collecting thrift store tchotchkes, inviting an array of creative writers to contribute fictional short stories about the objects, and then selling the objects+stories on eBay. You can probably guess the punchline. The $128.74 worth of knick-knacks sold for $3,612.51.
But did that make those knick-knacks more real? Would purchasers have paid more if the stories had been nonfiction documents of the objects’ histories (the kind of thing we love to include in museum labels), or was there something special about fiction that drove up the value?
As Elizabeth Merritt put it in that room, there are plenty of stories museums choose to tell about their objects that are factual, but not terribly enlivening or enlightening.
It strikes me that this is part of what’s behind projects like Amuseum Guides or MoMA Unadulterated, unofficial audio guides that offer quirky alternative angles on museums instead of straight facts. Discover forty-six ways you could be killed by the animals and places in the dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History. Hear what 3-10 year olds have to say about the art grown-ups like to dismiss with that tired chestnut, “A kid could make that.”
Lively! Fun! Encouraging people to see museums in a different way, much like the material shared in the alliteratively alluring AAM session called “Magnificent Masters of Museum Mysteries: Narrative Games in Museum Contexts.” Seema Rao from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Susan Edwards and Rebecca Edwards (no relation) from the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Georgina Bath Goodlander from the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum all shared games they’ve developed that ask players to use museum objects to help move through stories. The objects are central to the game experience (visual clues often help answer questions that lead to the next step), but the games aren’t designed to specifically teach the player about the objects.
There are lots of great examples of this kind of approach that privileges the visitor experience and makes museums fun (*gasp*). Amuseum Guides and MoMA Unadulterated do it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Murder at the Met: An American Art Mystery does it, inserting museum visitors into a fictional story that requires looking closely at the museum’s objects and allows some leeway between the fact and fiction of the contextual, historical information about those objects. Visitor engagement and careful observation are the goals, not formal learning about the art. A true experience in the museum that doesn’t rely on real facts to make it so.
But how does this sort of true–though not altogether real–experience balance out with museums’ responsibility to offer audiences truthful information? A central question throughout these sessions, but nowhere more relevant than on the last morning at “Talking About Race: ‘Mining the Museum’ After 20 Years”. Here was a panel of educators, scholars, and curators talking about Fred Wilson’s 1993 exhibition, “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society, where he re-curated displays to juxtapose objects like iron shackles with elaborate silver serving ware and highly finished wooden chairs drawn like an audience around a post once used to whip enslaved people.
Wilson himself joined the panel and spoke eloquently about what inspired the exhibition in the first place. He talked about being mad walking into museums and not seeing racially diverse stories represented. “It made the museum complicit in the evils of the past,” he said. The idea of provenance came up and was questioned. How is provenance determined, after all? Is it who owned a thing? Who cleaned a thing? Certainly in most museums, that first one trumps all. Ownership tells us one part of an object’s story, but it’s far from the whole story.
And so ended AAM with these unresolved issues floating through my head. What makes an object real? Who determines that realness? How important is that realness to a museum visitor? And, maybe most importantly to those of us in the museum field, how can a museum balance out the nebulous concept of realness with an authentic, true experience.
I started with a quote, so in the name of symmetry I’ll end with one. It’s from “Peter and Alice”, a new play by John Logan that I caught in London a few months ago, and it hits on that careful balance between real and true. The play imagines the conversation that might have happened between the people who inspired Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and near the end there’s a scene where the real Peter (there’s that pesky word again) is remembering when he first saw Peter Pan performed onstage:
I remember the first time I saw the play. I thought it was all real. […]
After the performance Uncle Jim took us backstage. It was a mad bustle, even that was thrilling. I mean, I knew it wasn’t actually real, I knew they were all actors, and we were in a theater… But I needed to know if this place existed, if it were somehow true, even though it wasn’t real. So as the party was going on and everyone was celebrating I wandered onto the stage by myself. Just me… How large it was… I saw the painted backdrop of Neverland. The pirate ship… the wooden moon… And I closed my eyes and spread my arms… And it was true. […]
For a moment… Then I opened my eyes and heard the party, and Uncle Jim calling me, and my brothers laughing… And life went on.
I don’t have neat answers for these questions, but AAM certainly got my mental wheels turning. Do you have answers? Thoughts? Examples of how you find this balance of real and true in your own museum work?
Experimental work in museums has been a topic of conversation for quite some time, and many museums have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects. But earlier this spring, many of these explorations and ideas came together in a unique and powerful way in a session at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting entitled “Experimental Museum Projects: Creating a Community of Practice.” Presented by Maria Mortati (independent exhibit developer), Sarah Schultz (Walker Art Center), Susan Diachisin (Dallas Museum of Art), and Stephanie Parrish (Portland Art Museum), this session explored how to support, realize, and engage with a variety of experimental projects, leaving attendees — and the entire museum community — with an Elastic Manifesto for Museums and Artists.
For me, this has sparked some great conversations with colleagues and staff about taking more risks with the work we do, and fueled my own fire to “just make it happen” (to use the words of the Manifesto). And here’s the really crazy thing … I didn’t even attend the conference! I had heard about the session prior to AAM, and connected to the Elastic Manifesto and related materials through Maria Mortati’s blog (which includes the Elastic Manifesto, Elastic Manual, and supporting Bibliography with some must reads!). The presenters also started the Experimental Museum Projects group on Facebook, and their session was tweeted and retweeted to a very widespread audience on Twitter. So before AAM had even ended, people across the country had already been discussing the ideas surrounding this flexible manifesto and embracing experimental work.
Far beyond the boundaries of the conference, this session is now living its potential to empower these types of experimental projects and to help museums create platforms and spaces for new kinds of creative experiences. To support the open conversation that has been ongoing since AAM, I wanted to launch a new series of posts called “Experimenting in Museums” on ArtMuseumTeaching.com and include more voices and projects to the mix.
As you read the perspectives posted in this series, you can add your own thoughts to the conversation in 2 ways: (1) add comments to the blog posts, and (2) contact me via Twitter @murawski27 if you are interested in contributing your own post to this series.