Rants & Raves of the Year (2006 edition)

It’s tempting at this time of every year to look back and reflect on what has passed in the previous 360 or so days. So why resist temptation? In no particular order…

Raves to you, Slate Ad Report Card. I often think that if I could dream up a job, it would be ad critic. That way I could still apply all of my analytical skills & intelligence but to something I really care about: TV. Still I have to say (albeit humbly), you missed a few on your worst of the year-list. What about the Cingular Stop the Catbox piece? Even when I didn’t know what a casbah was, I still knew the name of the song! Not to mention, last I checked you gotta know the name of a song to download it, you retards. And don’t even get me started on that Gap ad featuring Common.

Rants to you, Fergie. You drive me all the way from the C to the R to the A to the Z-E-Y.

Rants to you, Twitwit. I’m still putting out fires started as a result of your staggering incompetencies.

Rants to you, Time magazine. I assure you, they were not thinking of me when they chose You as 2006 Person of the Year.

Raves to you, vacation time. June spared me barely two weeks between the day I landed a job and the day I had to start work. Knowing I might never know this “vacation” again, I immediately took flight. Visiting friends and family accompanied my long stints of doing absolutely nothing and relishing every moment of it. Good thing, too, because with all of my job duties, I may never see you again, Vaca.

Am I in the Wrong Field?

Since my post yesterday about the importance of websites to museums, I’ve been thinking. A dangerous thing, I know.

But it’s made me wonder: should I be doing web development instead of history and anthropology?

As I said yesterday, it’s become evident that I know far more about the online environment and computers in general than anyone I work with. I asked my boss this morning about an error I was getting on the server when I went to back-up my database, and her response? She came back to show me how to click on “Help” on a Windows-based PC to look up my question.

I’d already tried that, Genius, or I WOULDN’T HAVE ASKED. I’m not retarded, but thanks.

I end up being the one who figures out a SQL command to update our database. I have had to help my boss map network drives because she didn’t know how and seemed impressed that I knew how to do this. I’m the one that my coworker (singular) comes to when she can’t print to a network printer or figure out our ancient membership database. And I’ve added ports to my computer at work, even though my boss strictly forbade it because she thought I would break it. Just because you have no idea how to do something doesn’t mean the rest of us are equally unskilled. She thought it was a waste of my time and efforts to try to figure out why our networked copier can’t be our shared office printer, even though she refuses to replace my empty printer cartridges because it costs too much money. (I’ve been printing on another office machine that hasn’t run out of toner. Yet.) And she doesn’t understand why we need software like Adobe Creative Suite to do stuff like exhibit design, the creation of text panels, and layout of brochures and newsletters. She’s astonished that I know “complex” databases designed specifically for managing museum collections and has no idea why she should care that I know some HTML or what open source software is. She can’t make heads or tails out of the Google Sketchup I did of the museum’s exhibit layouts. She doesn’t know the difference between a GIF and a JPEG and couldn’t care less about why it matters in archiving digital information.

Yet I feel completely out of it and behind the times when it comes to technology. I try to keep up, thumbing through Wired, sifting through stuff online, or hitting the bookstore when I need to know something more in-depth and complicated, like how to work with Layers in Illustrator. My brother definitely knows way more about this stuff than I do, and my mom knows more about several applications than I could ever learn. But maybe it’s all relative. Among geniuses and trained IT professionals, I’m simply a moron. But among these rubes, I’m Super Techno-Geek Supreme. Makes me think a lot about switching fields, getting a little more training to certify my skill set and jumping from museums into stuff that pays something other than Monopoly Money. If nothing else, it’s tempting to consider that all of this hard work and long hours that seem to go unnoticed here by the Boss could be put to use where I might actually get recognition for all of the skillsets I bring to the table. And even more tempting when you consider that steep terrain that lies ahead not just in this woefully underfunded and understaffed museum but in the nonprofit world in general. I’m seriously considering making a big switch…

Go-to IT

Once again, I tried to get my boss to wrap her brain around the series of tubes. And again, I got nowhere with it. Disgusted by our website, I suggested that we could start with rebranding our museum exhibits in the least expensive medium available — our website.

To me, traditional and online exhibits are equally necessary. In today’s world, you cannot have a static, crappy museum website. At museum association meetings, museums continually raise the issue that potential audiences are increasingly fractured and it’s going to get harder and harder to attract and retain audiences. People have a lot of options when it comes to their free time — movies, sports, video games, recreational drug use — and folks often choose something other than museums. Well, y’know, if we spent a quarter of the time developing rich and engaging websites, and just playing with the many technologies and ideas available to us — we wouldn’t be 40 years behind the times, we’ll only be 15 and closing the gap. It is unrealistic to think that people will use a museum website only to figure out your hours and phone number. Yes, people want to know your hours and location. But they also want to get a sense for your brand, what you’re all about to make an informed decision about whether or not to spend their time (and money) in your museum.

The web is a 24-hour environment. People could want to know about your collections, the local history, your current exhibits, and your special events at any moment. And every time someone clicks on our website only to find a 1995-designed site (think geocities) with craptastic content is an opportunity lost. I have tried fruitlessly to convince my boss of the importance of this. I came into this position with far more experience in web exhibit development than “regular” exhibit development, but she just doesn’t seem to get it. The fact that our website is a portal back to the days of Gopher and Telnet both implicitly and explicitly reinforces our backasswards interpretation and indicates to potential visitors that if they want current, cutting-edge, and modern, we are not the place. She just does NOT get this. She thinks that we should stick to “being historians.” I may be a historian, but I’m also aware that the web is for content-delivery, not just bells and whistles of cool special effects and flash. And as a content creator, I am willing to put any delivery method to use, and the web is the easiest and most effective way to reach the greatest audiences.

One thing was clear from our conversation. I know far more about technology than anyone else with whom I work. Which is scary because I know only enough to be dangerous. I think sometimes people confuse my understanding of these words and concepts with having the skills to make it happen. I know exhibit development, and I have a good eye for what makes good design. But that doesn’t mean I know web design. It doesn’t mean I know CSS & HTML backwards and forwards. If I did, I assure you, I’d be making a helluva lot more money and working many fewer hours.

Par-tay!

Today we’re having a party at our place. In a previous life, that would have been a good thing. But the adult me dreads the party. Now the word party invokes exhaustion. Between the planning, cooking, and pre- and post-party house cleanings, I could care less about whether these people have a good time. What I care about is that they all leave so I can go to sleep. Tomorrow I’d like to get up at the normal time and resume my life in the morning without the aid of Advil.

I still love throwing a good party, but I think that a change is in order. From here on out, parties shall be limited to brunch and barbecue based events. Looking for an all-night rager? Find a 25-year old or head to the bars, because closing time here is at 7 PM.

little-sip-cocktail

How do we Get There?

My inquiry into the museum’s past helped me understand where the museum was and where I think it should be. Over the past couple of days, that distance has grown exponentially as I mentally list all of the steps that have to take place on my end to make that happen.

Museum exhibits and educational programs are the public face of the institution. They are, in effect, the museum’s identity. The most any average visitor interacts with a museum is typically a visit to the website and a brief tour of the exhibits. If the museum’s website is static and uninviting, what makes the person want to come see more? And then once they get here, if the exhibits are dated, boring, and racist Whitey-centric, then what does that say about the institution? Since that’s not the message I want to get across, the museum desperately needs new exhibits.

Exhibits are typically based on what the museum has in its collections. So in order to revamp the exhibits, I need to get to know the collections. Since only 300 of the 25,000 or so objects we have are catalogued, that’s a tall order. For several reasons. One, the items that have been catalogued might be nice to look at, but they aren’t necessarily significant or illustrative of any particular historical period or theme. That box full of 30 wedding veils has some nice examples of lacework, but unless I’m talking about women’s fashion through the ages or even domestic gender roles, I’m not sure I’m going to need them. Two, the items that are significant don’t necessarily meet our current mission. We have an amazing collection of contemporary Hopi decorated pottery. But the museum’s mission is to interpret the history of the local metropolitan area, and Hopi live about 250 miles away. Three, the documentation that we have is often problematic when it comes to provenance.  Just because someone said on their donation form that this is the quilt that Abraham Lincoln slept under doesn’t make it so. I’m a historian — I need proof. Four, the stuff that the museum has consists of unsolicited donations. So while we have some nice things, there are enormous gaps for which we have virtually nothing to exhibit. I’m glad that we have thousands of textiles, kitchen wares, and jewelry from the Victorian era. But most of the area’s history lies in the 20th century, and so far I’ve come across virtually nothing from the 20th century. (Could be because a lot of families are still passing down their 20th century stuff and aren’t ready to let it go yet. Could be that a lot of the 20th century hasn’t gotten to an age where it’s considered “historic” yet. And it probably has a lot to do with the urban influx of people from other places — most people who live here aren’t from here. But none of that solves the problem of having virtually nothing to “show” for the 20th century.) And five, how am I supposed to exhibit the stuff that lies so far beyond the museum’s purview that it verges on ridiculous? Why in God’s name, for instance, do we have a whale bone? Or a rare mineral from Michigan’s upper peninsula?

As you can see, improving our understanding of the collection takes time. There’s a learning curve for the information we do have, and then there’s thousands of items for which I’ll have to generate new information through research. And when my time is divvied up among giving tours to second graders 4 to 16 hours per week, staffing the front desk 8 to 16 hours a week, writing grants, endlessly frustrating meetings with the Boss, working as a bartender at fundraisers, and recruiting new volunteers, how the hell can I carve out the time necessary for brainstorming, research, and writing? Not to mention sleep.

One of the ways that I’ve proposed to make progress is to work on our website. Our website is pathetic. Static, dated, and whatever is the opposite of interactive. It is an embarrassment. Even in trying to promote us, it fails miserably. For the content on the museum’s collections, someone (my predecessor?) wrote the following: “All cultures and ethnic groups that have been instrumental in shaping the economic, social, and political development of Phoenix both prehistoric and historic, are considered part of Phoenix history and related materials are sought for the collection.” The fact that you feel the need to point out that diverse people are, in fact, part of the area’s history means that you’re officially old school. That’s a given! Saying it is like saying “I’m not racist. I’m aware that there are other kinds of people. Even the ones with brown skin.” If you really want to represent diverse cultural history, you wouldn’t talk about it, you would be doing it. And by the way, “economic, social, and political” are exactly the kinds of history I don’t do. I am a cultural historian and anthropologist — I look at things like food, music, religious practices, clothing, and cultural and community traditions. Economic, social, and political history are also officially old school. It’s the kind of history that makes people fall asleep. You want them to get excited about coming in as a result of stumbling across our site. You want them to feel like there’s going to be something fun and interesting to see once they get here. You don’t want museum visitors to feel like they can come in to take a nap.

I am by no means a web designer, but I have put together web exhibits and I’m really into the online environment. I’m good at research and content development. It’s a way to reach new customers 24/7, it’s a way to brand ourselves on the cheap until we can revamp our exhibits in real life, and it’s a way to delve into topics that we don’t go into in our static, boring, snooze-inducing exhibits. It’s a salvo, if you will. A beginning, not an end. A way to start dialogue, to attract new audiences, and to begin to be taken seriously. You can’t actually think that this web phenomenon is a passing fad. Which is why I taught myself stuff like Dreamweaver, CSS, & html as part of my skill set for museums. Not enough to do web design and development professionally, but enough to enhance the delivery of my subject knowledge. And enough to talk with web designers semi-intelligently about things like rollover effects, clean layout, RSS feeds,  limiting the use of distracting and unnecessary plug-ins, and mastheads. It’s not enough to be doing traditional in-person exhibits or writing articles anymore, you must have a decent understanding of the web’s potential, web 2.0 concepts, and a working knowledge of how to put these technologies and media to use for the benefit of your museum. When I talk to the Boss about it, I can see that these things sail over her head. She doesn’t value the importance of a professionally designed and regularly updated website. She sees this as an opportunity to save money on an “unnecessary” expenditure. She doesn’t understand that this is a missed opportunity. I brought her the idea of revamping our website, and was taken aback when she chided me for getting “off track” and straying from the “tasks at hand.” Yes, I’ve got a lot on my plate. But web development goes hand in hand with the other tasks ahead of me and the strategic planning for the institution. It’s already bad enough that the place I work is the laughing stock museum in the local museum circles. But ignoring our website only makes it worse.

A Tale of Two Museums

Now that I’ve been here at my museum job a couple of months, I’ve started to realize just how much work lies ahead. I was lured here to a small local history museum with the promise of what’s to come, the vision that strategic planning was well underway and that plans were being laid to get us from Point A to Point B – from a museum that presents outdated (and just plain inaccurate) history to one that will become a place for people to explore this region’s diverse peoples, cultures, stories, and communities. But now that I’m here, it’s clear that I stand on the edge of a vast chasm between where we are now and where we want to be. It’s hard to see how we can manage to raise the funds needed to completely overhaul all of the exhibits, expand our building with new construction, and become a “top tourist destination” (truly, that is an official strategic planning goal) when we rely on volunteers to kindly donate basic office supplies like pens and paper.

I wondered if the museum’s past could shed any light on this. Had the institution successfully overcome such daunting challenges in its past? The short answer: hell no!

I started my investigation by listening to volunteers. Some have been with the museum for over a decade and I learned a lot from talking with them. The biggest theme running through all of my conversations with them has been that they all long for the good ole days, the way the museum used to be. The way they described it, it was like where I stood was the site of a bomb blast and all I saw were charred remnants of what once was. It became clear that the museum they cherished had somehow changed dramatically, and they were skeptical of where the museum was going. While no one articulated exactly what had changed, or in what ways, I sensed that they felt that the museum had lost its way.

I wanted another point of view, so I went to the Boss. Her take helped shed light on specific events that rocked the institution. The museum always faced enormous financial hardship, but in the 1990s, things went from bad to worse. The museum’s then executive director wanted to spend his way out of irrelevancy. He took on a mountain of debt to finance a staff that grew to dozens, hired professional consultants for (incomplete) exhibit development and (poor) design, and boosted morale with extravagant staff happy hours, with the museum footing the bill. By the time of the executive director’s sudden death, all staff had been let go, and the museum was taken over full-time by unpaid volunteers. For years, these unpaid volunteers ran the museum and made enough headway on keeping collections agencies at bay that the board was finally able to hire a full time executive director (the Boss) in the mid-2000s. Since her start, the Boss has worked tirelessly to reduce the museum’s debt load, halting all purchases and expenditures save those deemed absolutely necessary. Which explains why we kept a wish list for basic office needs so that volunteers could provide our supplies, like paper for the copier and pens. And why the museum went 18 months as a staff of three before I was hired.

Things were getting clearer for me. The volunteers resented their loss of authority and power and felt displaced by paid staff after they had spent years running every aspect of the museum. The staff struggled to establish professionalism in a museum that had relied on well-meaning volunteers who, in reality, had no business running a museum. In an effort to re-draw boundary lines around responsibilities, tasks and duties that the volunteers had handled became staff-only and the staff began to exclude volunteers in strategic planning, branding, and institutional goals.

But things finally became clear to me after I stumbled on an institutional history of the museum. The museum was founded 80 years ago as a pet project by a woman who started a local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter. Her thinking was that any “real” American city should have a museum. While she meant well, she had no business running a museum. She ran off early supporters of the museum (who went on to found the Heard Museum) and struggled to garner financial and community support. She failed to establish a mission for the museum, and as a result, the museum never developed any identity or brand. At the same time, she wrote a museum charter that requires (to this day) that the museum maintain formal affiliation with the local DAR chapter. She failed to steer the museum in the right direction and ran it into the ground for 60 years before her daughter took over for the next 20 years, until the museum finally hired its first museum professional. It was run by professionals for only a few years before volunteers again had to pick up and dust off the flailing organization.

Is it any wonder that today the museum faces such enormous challenges? Today we want to escape the DAR image of celebratory Whitey history, a move that will alienate the very constituency that currently supports the museum. At the same time, the museum must escape this Whitey-centrist interpretation to gain any semblance of professional respect and to expand its base of support, increase its audiences, and be taken seriously. The stories that the volunteers hold dear are the very ones that construct this mythic narrative of conquering and “civilizing” the west. The museum that the staff envisions is miles away from the one that is, and the museum that the volunteers value is one whose time has passed.

Why Do Today…

Better Half: “You could wrap the Christmas gifts.”

Me: “Yeah, but we still haven’t gotten all of them yet.”

Better Half: “So?”

Me: “So I want to wait til they all come before I wrap them”

Better Half: “But that’s like saying that we shouldn’t do any dishes now because we’ll have more dirty dishes again.”

Me: “Exactly. I’m glad you understand this concept.”