Isabel Singer’s writer roundtable, on the topic of subverting museums’ perfectionist control-freak tendencies, prompted lively discussion. Break-out groups centered on these three questions:
How might you ‘clown around’ at your museum?
How might you show visitors how the sausage is made at your institution?
What’s a ‘do not cross this line’ at your institution that is a little stuck up or silly?
From impromptu dance parties to hiding easter eggs in exhibit galleries (think ‘Where’s Waldo’ lurking among an artifact display), participants shared lots of fun ideas for clowning around in museums. Special hours for roller-skating through a museum? Labels that break the standard museum-voice-of-authority mold (written by kids; inspired by Grimms’ Fairy Tales)? Yes, please.
When we moved on to opportunities to embrace vulnerability and transparency, the conversation covered some interesting ground. Break-out groups discussed ways to share behind-the-scenes activities:
Participants want to see museums more transparently discuss why they do what they’re doing and their goals ー WHY they’re making the sausage.
Cleaning and maintaining: Pull back the curtain on how aquariums clean the water (aka “how do you remove the poop?”). Show how you clean a giant whale skeleton hanging high overhead. Share the process of conservation work ー “did you lick Rembrandt?”
Take visitors on tours of collections storage facilities, where minds are routinely blown by just HOW MUCH STUFF is in museum collections, and the eclectic items you’ll see. Give visitors a space to watch specimen prep, which is often very popular.
Weird procurement and shipping challenges... can you drive a tractor trailer up a narrow, winding road and then back it up to our loading dock that sits at a weird angle at the top of a hill?
Share the experimentation and chaos that goes into making exhibitions: Invite people to join staff while they’re working on prototypes, installing objects, writing labels, etc.
How it works vs. how people think it works ー ask visitors to describe the process and compare the insider’s version. Another version in meme terms: What the board thinks I do/what the directors think I do/ what I actually do.
There’s plenty of tedium ... how much tedium are people outside of museum staff really interested in? (With the right sports announcers describing the process, even that could be entertaining!)
Here’s where some ideas began to bring out the aforementioned control-freak habits:
Transparency about finances ー how much do different functions and activities really cost, and why? That potentially opens up a lot of (valid) questions about how much things cost...things that our profession should be grappling with. What happens when you share both what things cost and when things fail?
What about sharing failures with the public? The discussion turned to how to fail gracefully... and what about spectacularly ungraceful failures like Newfields’ recent job advertisement and rocky path in their DEI work? What about when people are really harmed?
And should we embrace transparency about disagreement amongst staff? Is it productive to reveal that museum staff often don’t agree on things that matter to them?
One person proposed that, while museums are often nervous that showing the sausage-making could threaten their gravitas and authority, it’s often telling the truth, being real, and revealing vulnerability that builds trust. Another participant gently pointed out the irony—in an event about how museums could loosen up—of discussing all the things that could go wrong from embracing vulnerability!
The final discussion prompt, about ‘do-not-cross lines’ that perhaps should be removed, got a lighting round in the waning minutes of the roundtable. A few of the items mentioned:
• For US museums, talking about race and white supremacy is a line most are afraid to cross ー we’re too afraid to fail and offend.
• Who is allowed to speak to the public ー should only marketing or curators have that opportunity?
• Education is the only department that deals with children.
• A “fun is frivolous” mindset.
What do you think? Does this inspire you to pursue something new to get your museum to loosen up?
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