My Career is Cooler than Yours

I mentioned when I restarted this blog that I want this to be a place for museum professionals but also for people aren’t in museums at all. Today, I’m going to explain to you what the heck I do.

Since I was in seventh grade, I was set on my future career. Twelve year old me finally settled on a career after spending my childhood years being convinced that I would be a clown, then a dancer, a DJ, maybe a veterinarian, most certainly a fashion designer — oh and later an architect.  Like many pubescent youth, I finally figured it all out. I was going to be a teacher. Eighteen year old me started undergrad as a history major and secondary education minor and ended up graduating a history major with no teacher certificate but a whole new passion (more on that later).

I’ve had the privilege of being a  museum educator for a few years now. Still it’s a bit difficult to quickly summarize what I do. I usually end up saying “I’m a teacher at a museum.” That’s not too far off actually. Allow me to share with you some of the responsibilites of a museum educator.

Things a museum educator might do:

  • Programming; for almost all museum educators this is what your job mostly entails. “Programming” in the museum world usually means scheduled activities that usually have some educational component. Art wokshops, lecture series, and other museum programs need someone one to come up with ideas to engage visitors, plan it out, and make it happen.
  • We work with our oldest and youngest visitors. Sometimes educators work with a special age group at an institution.
  • Museum educators might also design, book, and/or lead field trips.
  • They may work part-time or full-time.

Things I’ve actually done before:

Ok,  this is actually what being a museum educator has meant for me for me time to time. These are real things I’ve done.

  • Waking up at 3 am and deciding to write a list of all the little details I need to get done for that program or event next week.
  • Googling the weirdest combination of things part because you need to accurately explain this to kids and part because you’re too curious not to. A few things I’ve Googled for my job:  “how old is the earth”, “how to make a cloud”, “what are highland games”, and so on.

    working

    I’m working!

  • Writing lots of label text so I hope you’re reading those little signs in the galleries or online.
  • Tried making an art zine with a bunch of teens.
  • Met awesome people like Wendy Red Star when planning and moderating a sweet photography panel. *name drop*
  • Traveled to New York City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Phoenix for work including nerdy museum conferences.
  • Turned to a mad scientist over time. Did I mention I can make circuits now? Did I mention I’m a history major? I made a circuit with dinosaur toys and LEDs — just for kicks.
  • Designed more things than my non-graphic design self has ever imagined. You want a flyer, a Facebook event cover, a brochure? I got you!
  • Came into work with a bad attitude and, by the end of a program, had an adorable 8 year old hugging my legs then thinking “Yep, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Pretty cool, right? I know what you’re thinking: “How do I become a museum educator?” Far be it from me to think I’m some expert on making it happen but I can give you some advice — but you’re going to have to wait till next for PART TWO *cliffhanger!*

Hey, here’s an idea: maybe you should follow this blog for updates. Seriously, thanks for your views and likes. I hope to keep it coming.

Museum educators, chime in and tell me what you do. Tell me the weird stuff.

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How to Matter: A Review of Art of Relevance

Okay, it’s not so much of a review but more of me saying “yaaaas!” to most of what I read in this book but stick with me.

Museums, like many other institutions, are nothing without the people. This is very much why this blog is titled Mining the Public. The public or our guests are the gems that we are searching for that make artworks, interactives, sites, and artifacts significant. art of relevance

I’m no expert on material culture but while objects, whether they be a Abe Lincoln stovepipe hat or Da Vinci painting,  have no significance in a cultural or educational institution without creating context and relevancy. Of course, objects can have meaning and importance to the person(s) associated with them but as time goes on and societies shift simply enshrining something because “it’s important” will not encourage most of the public to engage with our cultural institutions.  This and more are some insights I gathered from reading Art of Relevance by Nina Simon. Simon is an experienced museum professional and she has been important voice on the topic of  making museums about the people with good reason.

“If we give up on the idea, that people should want what we offer, we give up on the idea that what we have is desirable” – Art of Relevance, p.94

You don’t work at a museum, you say? I still think this book could be a worthwhile book for you if you’re involved with a non-profit of any sort, arts organizations, education, marketing, and, as Simon mentions, places of worship. The crux of the book is about how to matter to the people we hope to attract; how to be of value.

What immediately sold me on Art of Relevance was this:

“We believe what we do is relevant to everyone. We can connect it to everyday life, ergo, it is relevant. Everyone can see the door, everyone already has the key, and they can open the door anytime they like…these are delusions.”- Art of Relevance, p. 40

Since I’ve been working in museums (for a whopping 5 ish years combined) and had the opportunity to see the behind the scenes of what goes into exhibit planning, something that consistently irked me is a vague belief that this exhibit or museum is for “everyone”. The target audience is “everyone” or other broad terms museums like to use for their intended audience such as: millennials, adults, families, Asian Americans, and any other lumped demographic or category we think of. “This museum is about contemporary art, the audience is adults – maybe even millennials!” Really, all adults? That’s who you’re trying to reach? I criticize it because it’s lazy or, even worse, disingenuous. I’ve surely done it too in program planning but it must change because the audience you want for that exhibit or your museum or your whatever is never “everyone”.

I want to charm you into giving this book a chance by presenting some Simon’s best advice here. At the end I’ll link her Tedx Talk by the same name and let Simon woo you for herself.

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I’m a Bad Historian

…and museum professional.

I’ll get into all of that shortly. Let me start by saying, I’m impressed anyone at all is still visiting my blog considering that I’ve left it silent for four years. There are a few reasons why I left this blog behind: mainly it started in grad school and I got bored and busy after graduation. Secondly, I started working in museums and didn’t know how to reconcile some of my professional thoughts about the institutions I worked at. Basically, I was scared of getting in trouble for some of my more critical views of places I was employed. Last but not least, good ol’ impostor syndrome. “Hey, look at all these museum blogs! I haven’t been to that conference before. I don’t have anything to say that someone hasn’t already. I don’t know who they’re referencing. Am I supposed to know this person?” Yea.

Well, I’ve come up with new topics that excite me and have given up any attempts to be what I think I should be on here. Hopefully, some of what is to come is of interest to those who are not history and museum nerds as well.

On this note, let’s get it started — again.

  1. I love Renaissance fair (ren faire — if you wanna be legit). You may not even know what a Renaissance fair is. I only vaguely had an idea what they were until a few years ago when a fellow history nerd friend initiated me. Let me set the scene: you drive out to some rural area in the summer, park out in a sea of cars, and somehow emerge from you vehicle to some vague moment in English history which is both medieval and Renaissance. If you know any of your European history, you already know this isn’t the same time period. I glaze past this and any anachronisms I come past (I’m not always this kind).
    ren faire

    Bristol Renaissance Faire 2017

    Hey, there is Queen Elizabeth I and her court (Elizabeth’s sidepiece – Robert Dudley doesn’t look too shabby either with his shaped mustache and single pearl drop earring)! It’s a place where you can eat a pickle on a stick, watch a joust, and dress up in your early Italian Renaissance inspired gown (which you forced your mother to sew per your detailed design) made of completely historically incorrect polyester blend fabric. It’s historic reenactment lite. I mean, even some public historians side-eye legitimate historical reenactments because how does one correctly recreate the past anyway? But hey, I’m a twenty something year old Black woman, who happens to be a public historian/museum professional, who likes Renaissance fairs. Huzzah!

  2. Confession: I haven’t (completely) read a history or museology book in at least two years. I know it can’t just be me. Other people experienced after graduation reading burnout, right? After the sometimes tedious reads of academia you just can’t be bothered with voluntary reading. You’ve been trained to read on a deadline because of an assignment. I started thinking about how I’d like to read about the people who made up the Harlem Renaissance or about the reality of the “Wild West” considering I grew up enjoying westerns and had even gone to Deadwood and other places out West as kid. Nope. I think Ida B. Wells is one of the most boss women in American history. Have I finished Sword Among Lions which is an epic biography about Wells that I’ve owned for nearly two years? Still nope. In general, I’ve been forcing myself to read more the past few months and don’t fear; there is good news. I’m currently reading Art of Relevance by museum superstar Nina Simon (not to be confused with the also amazing person Nina Simone). In fact, the next post you will see from me will most likely be a review of that book because it’s really spot on.
  3. I’m a disappointment. Alright, I’m being dramatic. Yet, almost  anytime I remotely try to explain what I went to grad school for (public history) or what I do in a museum, people are usually incredibly and instantly confused or disinterested. I have had someone surmise and repeatedly tell me that I was a curator. I get it. Many people have no idea what careers are involved in museums. The one they might know is curator. Curators don’t get too proud; they aren’t quite sure what you do either. I’m sorry I’m just a museum educator aka a museum teacher who also does a ton of other stuff. Sadly, I’m not Indiana Jones either (truly a personal disappointment for child me).  Oh and yea, I have degrees in history, but shockingly don’t know what happened in *insert random year* off the top of my head or about any and every historical topic — most of the time ; )

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Multiculturalism Needs to Work: Public Historians of Color

During my oral exam (the final step in completing my Masters program), my adviser/program director asked me: “Do you think it matters that you’re an African-American public historian?” Before he could barely ask the question I knew where he was going and it had been something in the back of my mind for nearly a year by that time. In an explosion of anticipation, I quickly and loudly said “Yes!” I had a lot to say on the subject. Well that already seems like it was long ago and now I’m officially done with my Masters degree in public history.

Today, public history tends to be sensitive to those it serves and their diversity. Attempts to be inclusive seem to increase every year. During my studies, I learned about indigenous curation which applies the source culture’s reverence and attitude to their objects in museums. In other words: Hidatsa ritual objects might be conserved and interpreted in a way that allows for Hidatsa tribal members to provide their input and cultural tradition. It’s all part of the process of sharing authority and it is a thoughtful idea. Yet, I wonder what is the next step in indigenous curation? How about curators who are indigenous?

I’ll use the term “people of color” here because it best represents the communities I’m talking about; whether they be Asian, Latino, black or identify otherwise. The shift in the 1960s and 1970s towards social history, cultural history, and public history are praiseworthy but there is still a relatively small number of historians of color. The number of and dialogue about professional public historians of color is, by all appearances, miniscule. Historian Miguel Juarez in his article The Invisible Careers for Latinos: Public History and Museum Studies remarks on the subject: “Scholarship of our communities shouldn’t necessarily come from academe. We must not wait for institutions to affirm our history as important and worth collecting, processing, preserving, and presenting.”

No doubt, people of color are involved in public history whether it be as a museum visitor, docents or historic interpreters (NCPH’s recent issue of Public Historian about slavery and public history highlights this) or as non-professional operators of small ethnic historical societies. Public historians of color are needed for their varied perspectives, voices, experiences, and concerns. Furthermore, this does not mean public historians of color should only “represent” their race, ethnicity, or tribal affiliation. In my oral exam, my adviser asked me about this issue as well. Since I began my college career, one my interests is Latino immigration in American history. Should I, as a black person, feel out of place working at a museum focused the Latino experience in the US? Absolutely not! While my opinions and historical interpretation likely would differentiate from someone from a Latino community, my professional input stands.

In fact, I interned last year at the National Hellenic Museum working to promote knowledge of Greek and Greek American history. It was an enjoyable learning experience for me (some visitors asked if I was Greek which threw me off at first). Nonetheless, having a black person tell you about the significance of Greek history is representative of the goals of multiculturalism in the museum. If “their” history can be important to me then it can signal to museum visitors that it might be important to them, even if they aren’t Greek. It works both ways and every other way. We should explore what it means to have a Mexican American public historian creating interpretive labels for an exhibit on the Harlem Renaissance or a Korean American curator over a collection of Native American traditional art. Is it any different than the current situation: mostly white public historians interpreting, conserving, curating, and presenting the histories and artifacts of cultures they aren’t part of?

The obstacles and possible solutions to encourage the increase in public historians of color deserves its own discussion. Hopefully, I and others can address it in the near future.

Another One Bites the Dust

Approximately five days ago I realized that this would be my last week of graduate classes. It crept up on me and now its a little bittersweet. Am I really getting sentimental about what could easily be described as voluntary intellectual and emotional torment? Who knows?

Anyway, like I said this is my last week of classes and my last blog post related to my Public History and New Media class. It’s been a  journey, for sure, and an experience in quick paced learning. I can safely say that the majority of the things I learned in this class were new to me, a person who still feels sometimes like a tech novice for my age group.

Never thought I’d ever learn anything about HTML beyond my Myspace days and what do you know? I did, thanks to Dr. Roberts and Codeacademy. Dare I say I even liked it a little and I made this through my HTML skills: Image

The simple joys in life.

I learned many other skills that are important in the job market an public history world these days. I’ve been able to dabble in in Photoshop, get acquainted with Omeka (an open source system for online collections), and be bogged down by the basics of copyright law. Frankly, I might be a little lost, when it comes to newest trends in new media, if it wasn’t for this class. I didn’t even know what Creative Commons was. I even had the privilege of working with my group (Chelsea and Emily) on an artifact video for Loyola University Museum of Art that Ken Burns would be proud of. Furthermore, thanks to this class I finally gave in and created a professional Twitter and this wouldn’t be a successful blog post if i didn’t promote it here.

Critiquing “A More Perfect Union”

I’m not new to Smithsonian’s online exhibit and I did a brief review of their exhibit Cover Art a few weeks ago. This week I checked out a older online exhibit from Smithsonian Institute titled A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans & U.S. Constitution.

I chose this exhibit because since the beginning of my college career I have been interested in immigration to the United States. I’ve typically been interested in Latino immigration to the US in the 20th century (particularly Mexican) and Chinese immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was interested in how A More Perfect Union to see how it dealt with the less than positive or comfortable experiences of Japanese immigrants. The exhibit originally toured from 1995 – 1998 but made a return because the institute felt that after the September 11th attacks that the story still had resonance, and that is absolutely true.

A More Perfect Union

The online exhibit roughly covers the period from 1900 to 1980 and covers the experiences farming, forming communities, businesses, racism/xenophobia, removal to internment camps, and the aftermath. The exhibit is focused on how informal prejudice became institutionalized racism. It is a touchy subject that hasn’t always been something that Japanese Americans themselves have wanted to discuss. The overall exhibit provides a well rounded breadth of featured artifacts which users can click on and see larger with description. The overall exhibit has a soundtrack that I eventually turned off because I found it a little irritating but I can understand how it could be used to create atmosphere (important considering this is an online exhibit). I enjoyed the audio clips that you could listen to for introductory text and the oral history accounts which literally allow for people to speak for themselves.

There is a need for a few adjustments and a more updated appearance. My first issue was the visual size of the exhibit, the presentation does into take up the whole web page space which makes the images and text a bit small. I do enjoy the ability for the user to decide on their own pace and could choose what subject to explore. Otherwise, A More Perfect Union has a predetermined path for visitors. I enjoyed enlarging photos of artifacts but I would suggest that the accompanying text provide more context on how some artifacts are connected to the subject. For instance, there are advertisements from fruit companies and a person would have to assume these were companies that many Japanese immigrants worked for. A bit more context and visual updating could help with this exhibit that I think discusses a facet of immigration to the US that doesn’t get as much coverage some other immigration experiences (for example: Italian, Irish, etc.). I would love to see the exhibit refashioned while still featuring many of the intriguing artifacts and stories. It would also be nice to be able to hear more oral testimonies. My final praise for the exhibit is the provided space for visitors to provide reflections and personal stories; this is one of the most valuable contributions of the site.

This site is most appropriate for any visitor age 12+ and it would also be great for use in educational settings.

Web of Stories

I’ve already discussed new media and Web 2.0 a little bit here; it is the contemporary version of the internet that is more participatory and user-generated. As usually, the internet has a way of taking on older traditional means of communication and social interaction and making them digital and dynamic. This is no different when to comes to storytelling which is surely one of the oldest forms of communal entertainment. From tall tales to the “back in my day” stories, people have always been interested in each others’ experiences or imaginations.

Author Bryan Alexander’s book The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media explores what are the current relationships between new media and storytelling. In the fourth chapter of his book, “Web 2.0 Storytelling”, he discusses blogs, Twitter, wikis (which are web applications which allow for users to collaborate and create content), Facebook, and “social images” (images that might be on the image-based website like Flickr, for instance). Each of these sites or applications allow for people to create stories or narratives and for people to not only share them but perhaps comment on or adapt them. While I’m not completely sold on Alexander’s belief that Twitter can be a place of storytelling, I suppose it is possible to grasp a story from the short vain messages that make up the site. I’m more convinced by things like blogs (perhaps I am slightly textually biased) but I’m even more certain that images can tell as much of a story as a “tweet”, if not more. Of course, many images have led many people astray, and we all know the fantasy world of computer edited images.

Of course, digital storytelling can be a useful tool in the museum for exhibitions and museum education. Freeman Tilden said that interpretation is “not instruction but provocation”. Interpretation in the museum setting means sharing a narrative to demonstrate meaning, significance, and feeling. In other words, I can hand you a list of factual of historic dates or can I tell you an account from history. One historical story is told on Flickr through the creation of edited photos that are historic World War II images merged with the same location in contemporary times called Ghosts of War. I enjoy many of the images because the creator goal is to show that “history is all around us”. The creator has adapted images to tell another story of change over time while making audiences see locations in a different way. Check out this one depicting a SS recruitment office from the war era merged with a current image of a diverse Amsterdam:

Ghosts of war