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.