Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Throwing Open The Doors




Recently, I was in Maine on a research trip/ quick family getaway. My children were fairly patient, partly as they don’t know there are families that don’t drag their children with them for work trips. As many a museum parent, I also assume I am dragging my children with me, often forgetting that they like museums. One afternoon we were wandering back from somewhere hoping to find something indoors to do, and we drove by this building. One of my children asked if we could go into the museum.

Prior to this, my children had stopped at every odd junk-shop-cum-museum off of Interstate 90. We had seen the oddest and least museumy sorts of museums on this trip. I was surprised they wanted to go into yet another non-traditional museum. I mean it had its doors open.

Walking in, I couldn’t help but ask the staff member about the doors being open. She said well, we wanted to show we’re open and our installations don’t have temperature control issues. We went in to find well-written labels, solid engagement strategies, and a kind, open staff member. I went much better funded museums and more well-published ones on this recent trip, and yet in my mind, I kept coming back to the Great Harbor Maritime Museum. This small museum summarized for me wonderful experience. People who worked there were happy and happy to see visitors. The ideas were conveyed in many different ways, and included engagement. The space included seating and felt comfortable. Most importantly, it felt accessible from the staff smiles to the big open doors.
Even now in my office, looking out over my rainy Ohio street, I keep thinking about that little museum. Sometimes, I wonder what types of unspoken norms and field-based myths are keeping me from throwing open the doors (climate control is keeping me, rightly, from actually throwing open the doors). We talk accessibility. But what are the things keeping us from making accessibility more than a buzzword? The list is long in my mind, but I’d love to hear what you think.

Why? Because, I’m hoping this space feels to you like that museum, a repository with the doors thrown open. Each month we will deal with a topic. I’m start the month, a bit like this with some musings, and a big question. The next week (or two depending on the month), I’ll tackle a part of this topic. Sometimes I’ll ask a friend or colleague to write a post. Then at the end of the month, I’ll summarize all the responses people gave to my questions. Ideally, throughout the month, you will be sharing ideas here in the comments or on social. If you share the post, please tag me (@artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB) just so I can see people’s comments. I hope that we find is a big space with so many ideas, answers, and surprises. This sort of dialogic model to me is an essential way to be more accessible.

Back to this month’s question…tell me—what is keeping museums from emotionally (and figuratively) throwing open their doors?   

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Rowboats and Magic Feathers: Reflections on 13 Years of Museum 2.0

Woman reading a book on a beached rowboat,
1925. Image via State Library of Queensland
(an institution I love).
Dear friends,

This is my last post as the author of Museum 2.0. I'm thrilled that Seema Rao is taking this blog and museum community into its next chapter. You can find all my archived Museum 2.0 posts here, and you can follow me going forward at www.ofbyforall.org and www.ninaksimon.com.

Today, I want to share a bit about what Museum 2.0 has meant to me.

Counselors talk about marriage being something you recommit to every day. When I think of Museum 2.0, I think about the commitments I made to myself, to it, and to you--and how those changed over time.

I started the Museum 2.0 blog in 2006 for three reasons:
  • I'm a self-directed learner. 
  • I love to write. 
  • I wanted to build a bigger professional network, and this felt like a safe (and nerdy) way to start.
At the start, the blog was an experiment. A way for me to learn out loud. A way for me to call up a hero and ask, "can I interview you?" My only commitment was to myself and my own learning. I blogged three times a week. I explored things that made me curious. I was nobody, rowing into the dark with my pen, sharing thoughts about the glinting fish and ships on the horizon.

2006 was a good year to start a museum blog. Within a few months, I was having rich conversations in the comments section with new friends around the world. I'm still close with some of the very first people to read the blog--strangers whose comments, encouragement, and advice have guided me for more than a decade. I felt like I'd rowed into a friendly harbor of creative, nerdy museum misfits who were eager to share and learn together.

But within a year, the dynamic started to shift. Suddenly and disconcertingly, I wasn't nobody anymore. I became a kind of "it girl" for museum participation. Thousands of people started reading the blog. Approaching me at conferences. Asking me if I could consult. I'll never forget when one of my heroes, Elaine Heumann Gurian, cold-emailed me to ask if I would consider reviewing a paper she was writing. It was like the God calling to ask if I would give my opinion on a new planet.

I felt like I'd written my way into a winning lottery ticket. The response to this blog changed my life. I spent 2007-2011 traveling the world, doing participatory projects and consulting gigs, and writing my first book. I became a little bit famous--in a small niche of a small field--but famous nonetheless. None of that would have happened without Museum 2.0.

I am incredibly grateful to Museum 2.0 readers giving me this lottery ticket. For believing in me. For wanting more from me. You pushed me to accomplish more than I ever imagined. You helped me interrogate my ideas deeply. You gave me confidence, guidance, and stories for my books. You gave me support as I struggled to lead a museum through a participatory rebirth. You gave me confidence to grow and share.

But the increase in readership and attention had a dark side, too. By 2009, the blog I'd started as a place to learn out loud had become the engine of my career. Now, I was writing Museum 2.0 for the old reasons, but also some new ones:
  • it established and built my credibility. 
  • it opened doors to new professional opportunities.
As you might imagine, this led me to approach the blog with a different attitude. I still loved writing and learning, but I became more externally motivated-for good and ill.

On the good side, I made deep connections with people who became treasured mentors, colleagues, and editors. I met perfect strangers through Museum 2.0 who enriched my thinking, invited me to far-off countries, and helped shape my books. At the same time, the pressure shifted. I started to slide from valuing external guidance to valuing external validation. I wanted your approval. I started to think of readers less as friends and more as clients who were counting on me to deliver. I kept to a rigorous schedule and never took a week off. Even weeks when I was giving birth, on vacation, or exhausted from challenges at work, I blogged. My attitude was, "readers don't care what's going on with me. They want the content."

This blog became like Dumbo's feather. I loved it, but I also let it overpower my sense of self. As long as I was holding it - as long as I was pumping out content - I could soar. But I was terrified to let it drop. Without the blog, I presumed I could not fly.

Through the hard years - the years of books and babies and being a new museum director - I thought about quitting. But I always came back to two reasons to blog:
  • I learn so much from writing. If I stopped blogging, I suspected I wouldn't reclaim that time for some other beneficial pursuit. I'd probably just answer more emails. Blogging is precious because it is an opportunity to reflect in writing. 
  • I love the Museum 2.0 community, and I felt responsible to you. The love felt good. The responsibility felt daunting.
In 2015, as I was writing my second book, The Art of Relevance, my grip on that magic feather loosened. I started to realize that my credibility and capability are not tied to hitting "publish" every week without fail. I started to realize I would still feel motivated to write without a deadline. For the first time in nine years, I gave myself permission to write when I wanted. It felt liberating, and scary, and good.

From 2015-2019, the blog continued to be my go-to tool for reflection and learning. Readership went down a bit, and I was OK with that. I was proud of what I wrote, and I still loved the opportunity to share and grow with others. But I also started to notice two big challenges that ultimately led to the change I'm making now.

1. Museum 2.0 is about participation, but I never fully succeeded in making it participatory. Because I'd built the blog originally to do my own writing and learning, I rarely invited guest writers. I never experimented here with models for collective writing. As I got more "famous," I got even more stuck in feeling like I had to deliver the voice and content readers expected. While MuseumCamp and other in-person events built amazing community space, I never figured out how to bring that collective energy online. I wished Museum 2.0 could break free of me and become more dialogic, led by a strong writer AND online convenor. I believe Seema Rao is this person and I hope you'll join me in reading and participating as Museum 2.0 grows. There will be new experiments and approaches - alongside the archive of what we’ve built thus far.

2. I'm transitioning to a new phase of personal freedom and professional exploration. I need to let go of some things to make room. I'm trying to let go of the magic feathers of external validation I used to clutch to legitimize my existence. I'm trying to let go of the illusion that someone else has their hand on the throttle of my potential impact. I want to build some new boats, row to new places, and not worry that I'm letting someone down by following my own curiosity. You're welcome to come along. I'll keep writing and sharing and learning, both through my new work with OF/BY/FOR ALL and on my own. I’d love to keep talking and learning from you. I treasure your perspective, even as I try to lessen my need for your approval.

I believe in the spirit and vitality of everyone who has contributed to Museum 2.0. Your attention, comments, care, and challenges have meant the world to me. You are the reason it was so hard for me to make this change. But I see it as a gift. For myself, a gift of freedom. For Seema, a gift of a platform. And for all of us, the gift to keep growing and sharing together.

Museum 2.0 is a place where we dream together about a more inclusive, vibrant, democratic cultural sphere. A place where we imagine a world where every voice, every story, every creative expression matters. I will always feel proud and grateful to have rowed alongside you in this place, towards that dream, together.