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.

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.

Here We Go Again

Yesterday was a rough day.

One of the fundamental things that I expect from a boss is that s/he will be a leader, a visionary who can guide the organization. But the other is that s/he will be someone to whom I can take my questions and concerns so that we can work towards solutions together. Yesterday I went to the Boss with a major problem — I have to present a program tomorrow to 250 kids and as of this moment, still have nothing to present. Today I’m stuck at the front desk taking admissions all day, so I thought I came prepared — I brought all of my notes and files up to the front desk to work from the computer there all day.

No dice. On an average day, that 386 is so slow it’s ridiculous. But today I can’t even get Word to load, and it can’t make a connection to the network, which is a problem because the files I need are on the server. I called the Boss (who is at home today, leaving me as the only staff person on site) and her response?

“We have to do a better job taking care of the equipment we have. We may not have the nicest computers or projectors or whatever, but we are responsible for taking care of what we have. I can’t help it if you are not taking care of the equipment you are provided. I’m not going to call some computer repair company to come in and tell us that we are not taking care of our stuff. You’ll have to make do with what you have.”

It’s through no fault of my own that the network cable is so frayed that the wires have split and are spilling out of the casing all over the place. And she expects me to man the front desk all day with no resources to do my job, but still holds me accountable at the end of every week for the work that I haven’t been able to accomplish. Guess I can subtract several hours from my sleep tonight so I can type up what I’m going to hand-write at the desk today.

Legal Mumbo Jumbo

I already have two immediate projects on my plate at my new job. One is that in a couple of months, the museum will start major building improvements. The museum is installing better climate control and compact shelving in collections storage, where all of the artifacts are stored. As a result, I will be in charge of managing and coordinating the move of all collections. We have to clear everything out of collections storage before construction and renovation can begin, and then move everything back in to the new shelves & storage furniture once the renovation is complete.

The second project is to research, write, and create a new temporary exhibit. In addition to the museum’s permanent exhibit, the museum opens a new smaller (1200 square feet) year-long exhibit on various topics. While the topic would normally be up to me, this time I’ve been handed the topic that previous curator was working on before she left. And it is

sorry, fell asleep there. The new topic is….yawn…Local legal history.

Just makes you want to jump up and down, doesn’t it!

I’ve spent this afternoon trying to discern what “local legal history” means, but I still have no idea. The way the Boss explained it to me was that the topic was already researched, an exhibit develop committee was in place, ideas had already been formed, the structure and content was being worked out. But all that’s in the files are scribbles and brainstorming notes from a couple of different meetings. There’s no overall theme or concept here. Some of the notes pertain to individuals who played a role in shaping local legal history — a lawyer who worked in water rights, a criminal whose case resulted in Miranda Rights, and a bio of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner. There are print-outs of wikipedia articles on specific crimes that happened here, and a list of books about the Indian wars. I’m not seeing how this all relates. And it’s not a topic I am particularly interested in, nor sold on, which makes it hard for me to get other people excited about it.

It strikes me that this topic was chosen simply because it’s sensationalist and not because of anything particularly significant. Don’t get me wrong, there are juicy episodes here — murder, cases that set national legal precedents, and nefarious characters. But to weave together these unrelated episodes is artificial and contrived. I’m all about using the trees to present the forest — each display and topic relates to another and together, help to convey an overall point. But this? I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing here, and I’m unable to draw any conclusions from these tidbits. I mean what are we trying to say here? That Phoenix is riddled with crime, racist cops, and an unevenly applied justice system?

The bottom line is if I can’t wrap my brain around what the story is here, and I can’t be bothered to summon interest, how can I expect our audiences to do the same?

Still having no clue and no guidance for the museum’s legal history exhibit, I had asked the Boss for clarification on the idea behind the exhibit. As in, what is this supposed to be about? What was the thinking behind this, in terms of the overall concept or point? What she handed me was a one-page writeup that she had submitted as part of a small grant application. The writeup confused me even more. Basically it said that the exhibit would be about the “history of laws, vice and crime.” Okay….

Hoping for more meaningful advice, I turned to a discussion forum for help. I posted a question asking if anyone had any ideas on any themes or patterns I might expect to find? Like, do laws in western cities from the 1800s through today say something about the community, and what should I be looking for?

The responses nearly all started with, “I’m not sure what you mean by the history of laws, vice, and crime.” HA! Yeah, me neither!

Work. Sigh.

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, we had a staff meeting about the fallout from Twitwit’s firing. No juicy details, but this is going to be major. Until the museum hires a new education director, I am to take over that position. All duties, responsibilities, and tasks of the education department. On top of my regular job.  Which is the job of about 6 people. I’m the curator, but I’m also the registrar, collections manager, the exhibit developer, the volunteer coordinator, and the archivist/librarian. And now I’m adding another hat into the pile — that of education director. So here’s a (partial) list of my job duties, all of which are to be completed within my 40 hours per week (yeah, right.)

  • document all donations and loans to the museum
  • research all of the museum’s artifacts and collections
  • develop relationship with potential donors to encourage donations to the museum’s collection by attending meetings, networking, and correspondence
  • meet with donors to collect donations to the museum’s collection
  • data entry and database management for museum’s collections
  • research, develop, write, and present a Collections Policy to the museum’s board for formal approval
  • obtain and manage insurance for collections in preparation for collections move
  • manage ongoing digitization of photographs project and make available online
  • help researchers find the books, archival collections, and photographs they need
  • process photo reproduction orders
  • organize, plan, and closely supervise the upcoming collections move
  • get quotes for and order the new storage furniture for storage of all collections, plan the configuration for the new storage room
  • get dimensions for all items in collection to order storage boxes for all items for upcoming collections move
  • photograph all collections to document appearance and condition before collections move
  • attend weekly meetings for updates on upcoming building construction project
  • train & supervise 5 volunteers
  • grant writing
  • historical research on the region in general, and research on our collections
  • exhibit development for the next major exhibit
  • staff the admissions desk up to 24 hours per week
  • research and production of three 5-minute videos featuring local history
  • reservations and billing for all educational programs
  • deliver all educational programs, on site and off site, for children and adults
  • develop, plan, and run all girl scout programs
  • manage, organize, and staff annual Silent Auction fundraiser

After the meeting, I decided that one of the things I needed to get on top of (and fast) was the upcoming Education programs. So I went to Twitwit’s office to mine her files to find records of upcoming tours, dates, and content for each of the programs the museum offered. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I found almost nothing. I found no “scripts” or documents that covered the content of our educational programs. I found no records of upcoming school tours. I found no receipts or correspondence to indicate any loose threads I could pick up on. It’s not that we don’t have educational programs or upcoming school tours; we do. It’s that she didn’t keep any records of anything whatsoever.

Thanks, Twitwit. I’ve come back from my holiday “break” only to find that on Friday, I have to present an educational trunk show to 3 consecutive classes of over 250 students. But you left me no record of a) where this school is, b) what age group these children are, c) if the school has paid for this program, d) which trunk show they requested, and 3)the CONTENT of any of the educational trunk shows. I opened a document on the server today titled “Trunk Show script” and all that was in it were the words “Good morning boys and girls.” That’s it. That’s all that was there.

So I go to the Boss to let her know of this problem and her response? Consult the manual. Oh! I hadn’t THOUGHT of that yet! What a tool I am! I should just open the manual and there on page 3-34 will be the instructions. Except THERE IS NOTHING IN THE MANUAL. I already checked. I am a resourceful problem-solving person. I used everything I had at my disposal to try and answer my question before I decided to bother you with this to try and problem solve this conundrum. In pointing this out to her, she offered no assistance whatsoever in devising a solution. She simply shooed me out of her office so she could get back to staring at her laptop doing nothing, I guess.

So now I am spending the next 48 hours pulling my own artifacts from collections storage, researching and writing my own content, and developing my own trunk show after having called the teacher myself and sheepishly having to ask the following questions two days before the show: 1) have you paid? 2) what age(s) are these groups? 3) which show did you book? 4) where is your school?

I do NOT appreciate looking like an idiot and looking unprofessional. That really pisses me off about this place. I do my best to get my own work done, even when it means taking it home with me and working til 11 pm most nights and working at my laptop all weekend from my couch, as it usually does. During the week, my time is so fractured between managing volunteers who don’t follow the rules, running educational programs for fourth graders, collecting entrance fees at the front desk, and trying to fix the computers that don’t work so that I can do work that it’s hard for me to get any of my own projects done. It’s hard enough for me to manage the upcoming collections move and the upcoming exhibit, both of which I am ostensibly capable of. But I never asked to be a museum education director, have never done anything like this before, received no training, and continue to receive no support. But since it’s my responsibility now, the presentations and tours are a reflection of the institution and of me, and I don’t appreciate looking like an unprepared, unqualified idiot.

Can I run away? Fake my own death? I’ve already routinely been working well over my 40 hours each week just to get on top of my existing duties. And now I’ve got to figure out how to clone myself just so I can get adequate time off on my days day off. All without any additional compensation. I already work benefits-free — there’s no health insurance, no retirement, no fringe benefits. In a larger, better funded institution, one person would be dedicated full-time to almost each of my tasks and duties. But here, I’ve got to learn to juggle all of these different things and still expected to stay on top of a collection of 25,000 objects I don’t know and can’t track. Sigh. I would say I need an intern or six, but training them would just be more work at this point.

Twitwit: Quitwit?!

Today was possibly my best, and most unfortunate, day at work. I found out Twitwit had done something “for” me, as in taken the initiative a) to determine I wanted it done (by her freakishly inaccurate powers of mind-reading) and b) doing it, followed by c) neglecting to mention to me steps a and b. When I told her I was pissed, she became really defensive. Hit a nerve, did I?

Guess so, because only five hours later I watched Twitwit be escorted by the Boss from the building. Evidently, she had been given notice and decided to take preemptive action. By quitting. Effective as soon as she could pack her stuff in her office. Class act.

For an instant I thought, Oh Shit! I’d rather put up with her than cover her stupid work until we hire someone else. But then I realized that since she had left, I had finally relaxed, too. Bottom line is, I’d rather pick up her slack than put up with her.

So the good news? I no longer have to endure Twitwit’s antics. The bad news? See: good news. Until now, every day work had the promise of revealing a new Twitwism. Sigh. I guess now I’ll just have to mine the mentally unstable transsexual assistant for gems to put a sparkle on my day.

Does This Look Like Goodwill?

One of the major projects I’m tasked with at work is preparation for the move of all artifacts. And since I’m in charge of documenting which box every single object ends up in, I’ve been going through all the catalog records to put together a database to track everything for the move. In normal museums, stuff would already be catalogued in a database. Here in the alterna-universe in which I work, that never happened. Why? Probably because it makes sense to do it that way. By best guesstimates, there are about 25,000 objects in the museum’s collections. But nobody knows for sure because there are only 300 entries in the database. Everything else is recorded only on paper in a file cabinet, making any research awfully time consuming if I’m looking for any specific object. I have to trawl through every single piece of paper in a four-drawer file cabinet until I stumble upon one that may or may not be the exact item I seek. So far, I’ve been hunting for three whole days for one specific artifact in our collection and I still have no idea where it is. Only once I find the paper catalog record will I be able to track it down in the collections storage room.

And oh how informative those records are. I thought I’d share with you some of the catalog cards for the more significant items in our collection.

  • unknown metal object, heavily corroded
  • electric fan
  • lid for pot, has metal handle
  • white cotton tote bag, “Tis a Mark of Distinction to be a Reader of the Reader’s Digest”
  • keychain given to new bank customers, Wells Fargo bank

I’m glad the museum is a repository for such historically significant artifacts junk. It’s as if the museum served as an alternative Goodwill all these years, taking the crap that people wanted to get rid of. God forbid someone actually throw out a precious “trash can lid, broken handle.”

Did Twitwit Set me Up?

Today was the museum’s first special event that I had to work. Special event is code for fundraiser, by the way. And also “special” in that, ahem, special sense.

My sole responsibility was to pull together a mini-exhibit. Just an exhibit case or two with some things that Twitwit had arranged to borrow for the event. Except it was like pulling teeth with her. I couldn’t get a list of what objects were coming, any photos of the loaned items, forms to document the loans, what the objects’ dimensions were, or anything else. She brushed it off every time I asked her, reassuring me that it was just “some stuff, nothing major.” Okay. Kind of makes it hard to write and create exhibit labels and copy, decide what visuals I will need, and which cases I’ll be using. I tried my best to convey to her and to my boss that I really, REALLY would need to know the details. The Boss’ response? Work that out with Twitwit, I don’t know what’s on its way over. Gee, thanks.

The worst part about it was that Twitwit told me the woman who was lending these items had been out of town for weeks and would be returning only on the afternoon of the event. Even though it would be tight, I had to figure out a way to pull this off. This is, after all, my first chance to make an impression on not only The Boss but also the museum board members, volunteers, and guests who were all paying to come to the event. An exhibit, even a small one, is a very tangible and outward expression of my capabilities and skills, and it was really important to me that it be done well.

So I spent the week researching the topic, devouring everything I could get my hands on. I made arrangements to borrow items from folks other than Twitwit’s Batman-esque lender as a Plan B. I wrote the text, printed, mounted, and trimmed all of the labels. I made scans of photographs and reproduced archival items to enrich and contextualize the items that would be displayed. But despite my best efforts and advance preparations, the mini-exhibit could not have been worse.

When I arrived at work early this Saturday morning, I found out that I was expected to somehow magically move all three exhibit cases from storage to the exhibit display area all by myself. Neither The Boss nor Twitwit had arranged for any help, even though I had been led to believe that hefty volunteer manpower would be made available to me. So Twitwit and I heaved all three cases into place. Then I proceeded to spend the next few hours carefully placing the backdrops for the cases, inserting the object mounts and labels and the graphics and text panels. Because I did not want the contents of each case to be disturbed before the arrival of the objects, I went ahead and secured the EXTREMELY HEAVY vitrines to the bases. And then I waited for the lender to arrive. And waited. And waited. As the afternoon was drawing into evening, I ran back to my office and retrieved my Plan B items and began assembling the displays using what I already had on hand. Unfortunately, I only had enough objects to fill out two display cases but with an hour to go until the event’s start, nobody could be bothered to help me remove the final exhibit case, and so it stood empty as I tried to figure out what to do.

Twenty minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, Twitwit called me to say the objects were here. Not wanting to miss this opportunity, I hurriedly tried to place what I could in the cases, but the public began to filter through the exhibit, so I had to abandon my efforts. In the end, the third exhibit case stood all by itself, completely empty. For all I know, no one else noticed the empty display case. But I knew it was there, and I felt humiliated that I had failed to complete my task adequately and furious that the event had such poor advance planning.

At the close of the evening, Twitwit approached me with a woman, the lender of the objects that had arrived with only 20 minutes to spare. I said “Oh, Thank you for lending us your objects. I guess your flight cut it pretty close, huh?” And she looked at me puzzled. “What do you mean?” I said, “I understand you’ve been out of town and didn’t arrive until this afternoon, but I really appreciate you making these items available to us, even amidst your hectic schedule.” Her reply? “Um, I got in a few days ago.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever know if Twitwit knowingly set me up to fail, or, as I suspect is more likely, she’s simply so disorganized and irresponsible that she unintentionally misled me, but lesson learned. I’ll be making my own arrangements as Plan A from now on, rather than relying on my coworkers’ (mis)information and the Boss’ utter lack of support.

The Path Ahead

I have a lot on my plate at my new job already. Working at a local history museum on a very small staff, I have several job duties, one of which is managing, researching, and creating exhibits. This is the most challenging, but also the most exciting for me. The museum has two exhibits. The first is a permanent exhibit whose purpose is to orient visitors to the overall history of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. The second is a space for changing exhibits that examine one aspect of local history in greater depth. Today I wanted to familiarize myself with the information presented in the permanent exhibit.

I took several hours to read every panel, examine every object, scrutinize every caption, and capture the overall themes. Here’s what I learned: Praise be to Jebus that Whitey came to the desert to wrest it from the hands of those savage Indians so that we could get on with the construction of banks, the creation of a fire department and finally, proper civilization, finally delivered via Ta-DAH! the railroad! Which naturally led to the great city we live in today.

Oh, jeez. Lots of issues here.

One. The underlying overt message is that this place was nothing before the arrival of the White Man. White Man came, He built buildings, He created local institutions like schools, and on the 7th day, He brought air conditioning. In actuality, this area has been inhabited for over two thousand years by prehistoric and diverse peoples who created complex societies and managed to thrive in an extremely challenging desert environment. As they now stand, the exhibits promote THE (singular) Local History (That Matters). There’s no room to accommodate multiple cultures and histories. Which is a big problem since the museum wants to grow its brand and audience. First there is no “The” local history. Loads of folks would find nothing they can identify with in these displays. Their predecessors endured discrimination, racism, and exclusion. Everyone took different paths to the present — to suggest otherwise does a disservice to our audiences and to the communities, families, and individuals who experienced things differently. And second, the history told here tells us nothing of how the Phoenix metropolitan area differs from, say, Lincoln, Nebraska or Denver, Colorado. It’s the same old, same old. People came west, they settled, got rid of Indians, and created a lawful society out of nothing. So what makes Phoenix worth knowing anything about? I’m afraid that the museum visitor leaves the exhibits unable to answer that question.

Two. The inevitability of the narrative. That this is just how things happen, Once the White Man arrived, of COURSE we would become a major metropolitan and highly successful city. I mean, how else could it have happened?! Above each section of the exhibits hang banners that reinforce this problem. They are: Orientation, Settlement, Civilizing, Sophistication, Romanticizing, and Modernizing. The narrative is one that reinforces an old school history — that A led to B, which predictably led ultimately to Z, & that’s how it happened — isn’t America great! The problem being that there is no inevitability. Modern historians would instead frame local history in themes, examining the interplay of complex processes like gender, class, ethnicity, American imperialism and hegemony, environmental context and cultural accommodation.

Three. Where’s the 20th century?! The second half of the permanent chronological exhibit spans from the arrival of the railroad to a mural and display that showcase current businesses, sports teams, and attractions. Huh? The valley saw unprecedented 20th century growth and in the span of just 100 years went from a population of 5,554 to about 4 million. Today, the urban land sprawls an area the size of Rhode Island. Since the majority of the metropolitan population here comes here from elsewhere, you would think they’d be interested in the patterns that have drawn so many families just like their own to the valley over the past 100 years. These exhibits don’t even mention any such exponential growth. If anything could be dubbed “the” story of this place, that’s it.

Four. Minorities in a Box. The museum only pays lip service to anyone other than The White Man. The Orientation area is the only one to feature any Native American history and prehistory, but also problematically tosses Mexican Americans in the same spot and collapses prehistoric peoples in with modern-day Native Americans. The city’s multiculturalism isn’t examined again until the Sophistication area, which features a series of five or six small cases that showcase the city’s diversity vis a vis local businesses. A Jewish-owned jewelry store, an African American-owned restaurant. Token cultural diversity lip service at best. News flash: shout outs to ethnic businesses do not make multicultural history. I picture the exhibit developers sat around saying “Now what have we got in our collections that’s, hmmm, y’know, more, uh, exotic? Maybe we can use THAT to talk about, um, black history?” This speaks to a larger problem of collections development. Museums exhibit what they have in their collections, and if the items on display are any indication, this museum’s collections attest to the experiences of only a very small swath of society. In other words, if this is the best of what’s available to display to provide a sense of the diverse peoples and communities that comprised Phoenix’s history, then we’re in trouble.

Five. If I wanted to read, I’d be at a library. The text panels are wordy and try to tell the whole story. By setting up a narrative from “beginning” to “end” you’re reinforcing the narrative’s inevitability and further excluding multiple perspectives. And exhibits are just the tip of the iceberg. You can use a published museum catalog, educational programs, websites, and interactive displays to allow those who are interested to get deeper into the subject material. You don’t have to cover everything in the text. Not to mention that a lot of these stories strike me as unsubstantiated claims and vignettes that are not necessarily representative of any overarching narrative. Again, channeling the exhibit developers: “So, what can we display here? Well, we’ve got a bunch of train lanterns. Let’s do something with that!” And thus, the display of the assemblage of railroad lanterns was born.

Six. What is this stuff? Almost none of the photographs have attributions or captions. And almost none of the objects have labels. I’m wandering around thinking, What the HELL is THAT?! And I work here.

I also used this as an opportunity to spend a little time with my volunteers. After I had taken the time to explore everything on my own, I went through the exhibits with two volunteers to get their point of view. And they just gushed about how “pretty” that lace is and how we could “put more salt cellars up here, we’ve got a bunch of ‘em!” As we wound through the exhibit, we rounded a corner where you’re immediately struck with a display of a real, taxidermied ostrich. I cannot for the life of me figure out why this is here, other than the museum had one and wanted to display it. The volunteers dragged me straight to it. “See! This display just seems so empty now! We used to have [real, taxidermied] baby ostrich chicks around the ostrich and they were all standing in sand. But then sand mites started to attack and destroy the chicks, so we had to get rid of them! PLEASE bring back the chicks!” Um, yeah. Cause that’s exactly the problem. No ostrich chicks.

The long-term plans of the museum include a complete overhaul of the permanent exhibits, which will be my responsibility. I have a ton of ideas rushing through my head about how to transform this place from a yawn-inducing museum of Whitey, but it is going to take a lot of work to get there from here.