Another Report from Atlanta

Posted on May 13th, 2015 by

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Along with several thousand other museum curators, educators, administrators, registrars, developers, and – of course – collections  managers, I enjoyed four days of camaraderie, discussion, ideas, and food both mediocre (sorry, official conference hotel’s catering) and excellent (thank you, Mary Mac’s Tea Room). Atlanta inaugurated a city-wide Museum Week to coincide with the conference, and many local venues and organizations sent their ‘mascots’ to the Georgia World Congress Center to welcome the attendees.

I’m not personally a fan of costumed mascots, but I couldn’t resist posing with Zhu Zhu from Zoo Atlanta.

I’m not personally a fan of costumed mascots, but I couldn’t resist posing with Zhu Zhu from Zoo Atlanta.

There are many museum conferences to attend each year, from local to national to international. Among those options, AAM positions itself as one of the ‘big ones,’ and indeed many of the session topics relate to the concerns of extremely large, influential, and well-known institutions. However, in recent years they’ve made a push to serve museums on the other end of the scale. That gives those of us with smaller staffs and budgets a chance to meet with our cohorts from across the country, discuss topics relevant to our needs, gather info about current trends, and learn useful tips on applying those trends that we can steal borrow from our fellows. There is a certain chip-on-our-shoulders attitude common to small-to-mid-size museum employees at a gathering like this one; in one session, geared toward historical societies and similarly not-exactly-the-Met museums, a presenter unwisely said: “Well, we only have 15 full-time staff.”  The audience did not feel her pain. (It was a very useful session, though.)

Conferences are a great chance to catch up with old friends, network with new ones, buy topical books at a discount, and gather as much information, contacts, and swag from the Expo Hall as you can….

The accidental theme of the only photos I took at the conference: Bears. This fine fellow was in the Expo Hall.

The accidental theme of the only photos I took at the conference: Bears. This fine fellow was in the Expo Hall.

…Oh, and attend sessions, right! The actual point of the conference! I went to lots of sessions about artifact and archival collections, of course, with themes ranging from the philosophical to the practical. In keeping with the conference’s theme, “The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change,” the keynote speaker, Dr. Johnetta Betsch Cole, roused the crowd with her call to action: Broadening the diversity of museums’ content, audiences, boards, and staff.  And, on the morning of Tuesday, April 28th – after a Monday evening spent watching the news as events unfolded back in Baltimore – a packed meeting room discussed the lessons learned by the Missouri History Center in the wake of Ferguson, and the ways in which museums in Baltimore and other cities can respond to and reflect on their communities’ needs.

As always, I returned from the conference with a bag full of notes, brochures, books, free pens, and far too many new ideas to implement all at once. The challenge is to maintain that enthusiastic “we can do it!” impetus in the face of the day-to-day realities of museum work.  But I’m so glad to be working in a museum like the JMM, an organization that welcomes those ideas, encourages that enthusiasm, and is ready to respond positively and proactively to the Maryland community.

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts from Joanna click HERE.

 

 

 

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Report from Atlanta

Posted on May 4th, 2015 by

I can still remember the odd feeling in 1968 watching the split screen of the events inside and outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago.  I was 16 at the time.  The events on TV were made a bit stranger since a few of my friends and relatives were in the streets that day (just 12 miles from my home) being tear-gassed and beaten while I was under my mother’s orders not to leave the house.

All those feelings from 1968 came back to me as I sat helplessly in my hotel room at the AAM museum conference in Atlanta watching parts of my adopted city burn. The conference theme was “the social value of museums inspiring change” – all I could think was “we have a lot of work ahead.”

I am writing this blog post about what was on “the other half of my screen” – the half that was doing my darndest to focus on ideas that might be useful to either adopt, adapt or avoid at JMM.

In conjunction with the conference I had a chance to visit four Atlanta museums I had not seen before and revisit the Atlanta History Center. Let me share a few personal observations about these five institutions.

  1. This was my second trip to the Atlanta History Center which is undergoing a major renovation. But their “unique” Civil War exhibit is still open to the public – if you want to know the Confederacy’s “strategy to win the war in 1865”, this is definitely the place to come. It also offered a fabulous dessert bar as part of a progressive dinner (sorry, no picture) – I lost that battle too!  But here is a photo of me with a 1929 Hudson Super Six Sedan that made me feel like I was on the set of Downton Abbey – the grounds of the History Center are among the most beautiful settings for a museum that I’ve ever seen.

    1929 Hudson Super Six Sedan

    1929 Hudson Super Six Sedan

  2. The William Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum. The museum has five major spaces on the ground floor (as well as quite a large surface parking lot). Two spaces are for performance/activities:  a small theater and a much larger auditorium (The Selig Center) which appears to be a shared use space with Atlanta’s Jewish Federation.  There is a permanent Holocaust gallery – heavily photo based; a temporary exhibit gallery (about the size of ours – currently featuring a tribute to Maurice Sendak); and a core exhibit, organized as a chronological journey through major artifacts from the collection.  I found the most interesting part of this gallery was the invitation at its end for visitor’s to offer their ideas of “missing topics” … I’ll be interested in finding out what kind of response rate they are getting to this offer.

    What stories did we miss?

    What stories did we miss?

  3. The Center for Puppetry Arts is located directly across the street from the Breman Museum. My sense is that this makes a great combination for attracting both family audiences and school groups – that can easily see both museums in the same day. Puppetry Arts (an inspiration of the Henson family kids) is in the midst of a significant expansion.  For now, I was most impressed with the diversity of artifacts on display representing everything from Balinese shadow puppets to Julie Taymor’s Lion King costumes to Pigs in Space.  Label copy and curatorial work is rather homespun but it is a space with lots of potential.

    Puppets!

    Puppets!

  4. Georgia Aquarium has an incredible array of animals and environments. Each tank is so full of biodiversity that it seems to scream – “you will never figure out everything that’s here.” The space makes use of lots of artificial environments and even fantasy to stimulate popular interest.  It is bright, bold and perhaps a bit corporate.

    Georgia Aquarium

    Georgia Aquarium

  5. College Football Hall of Fame – Atlanta’s newest attraction – makes the Aquarium seem sedate. There is absolutely no line here between corporate sponsorship, product placement and exhibit content… even the logo has ad type in it. Your first on-screen guide in the exhibit is the cow from the Chick-fil-a ad campaign.  The flashing screens and interactives are numerous and overlapping.  The signature technology is a badge you are given that “personalizes” your visit by recognizing your favorite college team and customizing the interactives to match the colors, mascot, song etc. of your alma mater (more exciting I think for someone who went to Michigan than to Brandeis).   And perhaps the bottom line is that this is a museum for people who would normally not be caught dead in a museum – and that may be an astute assessment of the market.

    College Football Hall of Fame

    College Football Hall of Fame

Google Glass

Google Glass

Speaking of technology – a lot of what’s new in the museum world can be found on the Museum Expo floor.  It is always fun trying out the latest gadgets.  Above you see me as a newbie to Google Glass.  The demonstration was designed to show that you could add a layer of content to a piece of art or old photograph on a very cool display.  My personal impression – the best part was being able to say “look at me wearing this great piece of technology”.  The content was underwhelming and who really thinks they want to have content sitting in their field of view – between you and the historic object.  Most of us want to get closer to something authentic, not have a layer that pushes us away.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality

My assessment of this very heavy set of immersive virtual reality glasses is not much better.  The content in this case was a first person perspective of Rosa Parks on the bus – as the bus driver and then a policeman get in your face.  The glasses allow you to look at the people behind you when you are being accosted – not sure that this is an “enhancement”.  Like the Google Glass these units are also a significant problem to maintain, as (for hygiene reasons) they need to be cleaned after every use.

But I don’t want you to think I am a complete Luddite.  There were two more modest pieces of hardware/software that really got me thinking.  The first were small display cases with thin LED projection surfaces on the front.  This case would allow you to “animate” the label copy superimposed on an object in a protected case.  No special glasses required and the price of the case is very competitive with other types of protective structures.  Two companies had prototypes on display.

The most impressive technology I saw was this simple (and almost free) telepresence system: http://www.venturerobotics.com/

Look at this for a moment and think of what it might mean for providing visitors access to spaces with physical barriers like the Lloyd Street Synagogue or environments with security concerns like vault space or access for global visitors.  Definitely going to begin a conversation here.  The expo provided proof, if any was needed, that the value of a gizmo is not to be found in its sleekness, complexity or price tag but rather the quality of the thought process about how it will be used.

By now you may be wondering – did you just spend your time visiting museums, touring technologies and making new contacts for JMM.  Well mostly… but I did spend some time at panels and in sessions that inspired fresh thinking about our work at JMM.  Especially useful were sessions on marketing, membership and recent psychographic studies of museum visitors’ interests.  I also attended a session entitled “Missouri Burning” about the response of the Missouri State Historical Society in St. Louis to the events in neighboring Ferguson.  If I had to describe this conference in one word – I think I would pick “timely.”

It was a week I needed some perspective and AAM gave me a full year’s supply.

~Marvin

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Museum Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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Exploring Open Source in San Francisco

Posted on March 16th, 2015 by

I was delighted to have the opportunity to take part in this year’s Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) conference taking place March 8-10 in San Francisco. Attended by more than 100 Jewish museum professionals from all over the US, Canada and Europe, this year’s conference theme, Open Source: Jewish Museums and Collaborative Culture was particularly appropriate for its setting in the Bay Area.

CAJM Conference 2015

CAJM Conference 2015

What a pleasure it was to leave gray, bleak and snowy Baltimore and to emerge from the BART station on Mission Street in San Francisco to a beautiful sunny day. Things only got better from there. Our first day was spent at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, one of our conference hosts.

exterior, The Contemporary Jewish Museum

exterior, The Contemporary Jewish Museum

Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Museum’s design incorporates Jewish symbols and is a striking presence in the heart of a bustling commercial and cultural district. (Visit www.thecjm.org/about/building to learn more about the building)

The CJM provides many wonderful opportunities for community engagement. I was drawn to its warm and welcoming education center featuring an abundance of creative hands-on activity stations that encourage exploration.

The CJM provides many wonderful opportunities for community engagement. I was drawn to its warm and welcoming education center featuring an abundance of creative hands-on activity stations that encourage exploration.

The conference kicked off with a lively keynote address by Nina Simon, executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Simon is known for her audience-centered approach to museum design and programming and she challenged CAJM participants to remove barriers of access that often prevent people from visiting their institutions. Her talk was one of the highlights of the conference as she presented a model for museums as participatory and experimental sites that engage in social bridging by bringing together people of different backgrounds. (You can read more about Simon’s groundbreaking views about the role of museums in her Museum 2.0 blog.)

One of my favorite aspects of CAJM conferences is the opportunity to visit other museums and San Francisco did not disappoint. Kudos to conference organizers for casting off the tradition of using buses as the primary mode of transportation and instead relying on public transportation. It was quite a feat that they managed to successfully herd dozens of conferees up and down subway platforms and onto the appropriate trains!

Sites visited included the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life where we had the chance to view Gourmet Ghettos: Modern Food Rituals, the California Historical Society and the Oakland Museum of California. Visiting the recently restored core exhibition galleries of art and history at the Oakland Museum provided inspiration for thinking about the concept of core exhibits as did a related session held that afternoon, “Getting to the Core: Options and Models”. The Museum’s executive director, Lori Fogarty, talked about the history of the project as well as its development process that actively included feedback from a wide range of community members.

A display exploring the gold rush from the new core exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California

A display exploring the gold rush from the new core exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California

One of my favorite labels ever marked the entrance to the art gallery explaining to visitors the symbols on works of art and asking that they refrain from licking the paintings!

One of my favorite labels ever marked the entrance to the art gallery explaining to visitors the symbols on works of art and asking that they refrain from licking the paintings!

By the end of the conference on Tuesday afternoon, I was simultaneously exhausted and energized and looking forward to sharing what I learned with my JMM colleagues.

Learn more about the conference HERE.

deborahA blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.

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