Canadian Geography Conference Highlights

Exhibition hall at IGU/NCGE/CGA meeting in Quebec, August 2018.

I’ve just returned from Quebec where I attended an international geography conference that was a combination of the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG), the annual conference of the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), and the regional conference for the International Geography Union (IGU).  Despite the combination of organizations, I’d guess it would be comparable to a regional museum association meeting of about 500 people with the usual sessions, plenary speakers, and exhibition hall.

The big difference from museum and history conferences is that the geography associations seem to accept all presentation proposals. Each presentation is assigned a 15-minute slot in a 60 to 90-minute session according to their committees or study groups (e.g., health care, tourism, indigenous peoples, islands). Presenters in the same session usually have not met each other and there’s no moderator, so it’s just one presentation after another with no introductions or transitions. The result is that a session can be a mixed bag, so a session on “teaching geographic content” included Continue reading

Video: Virtual researchers at work at Huntington Library

This 1:30 video features a video projected on a table showing scholars at work behind-the-scenes as part of a small exhibition on research and conservation at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. It was installed a few years ago in the former board room of the historic library building and is another example of the expanded ways that video is being used in exhibitions (it’s not just a tv monitor anymore).

You may notice that there’s no one in the exhibition. I do deliberately take photos of exhibitions without people so that the entire design can be seen, however, I also take them with people to show how they interact with the content. In this instance, it was a busy day but very few people wandered in and when they did, it was a quick glance and then back out–despite the cleverness of the video projection.  I can perhaps guess at the reasons—located off to the side, uninteresting topic, and passive experience—but it could also be a lost opportunity to do something more intriguing and distinctive.

Look again at the video. What’s distinctive about the exhibition? Continue reading

What Can Historic Sites Learn From Geography?

You’d think historic sites and geography would be an obvious combination because they both focus on place, and yet, I didn’t really see the connection until a few years ago when I started teaching at George Washington University. Joe Downer, an archaeologist at Mount Vernon who was participating in my historic house museum class, inspired me with his work using ArcGIS and their annual conference. By coincidence, I was conducting research for my anthology on interpreting African American history and culture and encountered useful articles in the Journal of Historical GeographySoutheastern Geographer, and Geographical Review. Finally, my wife became the Executive Director of the Society of Woman Geographers, which introduced me to lots of geographers across the United States (you mean they don’t just create maps?). As a result, I’ve increasingly used geographical along with historical approaches in my courses and in the business and interpretive plans I develop for my clients.

Next month, I’m diving in deeper by attending a conference of geography conferences: 2018 International Geographical Union (IGU) Regional Conference; Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) Annual Meeting; and the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE) Annual Conference (or as they say in Quebec, Congrès régional de l’UGI – Congrès annuel de l’ACG – Congrès annuel du NCGE). Yes, it’ll be in Quebec, so I’m a bit nervous that the language and content will be foreign to me. Nevertheless, I’m encouraged by the preliminary program, which lists dozens of presentations that immediately appealed to me (and they’re in English!): Continue reading

Looking to Get Started with an IMLS Application?

This fall I’ll be teaching a project management class in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University (GW) and the final project will be writing a grant application to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The final project gives graduate students a real-life experience and provides museums with a foundation for an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant application.

If you’ve been thinking about applying for IMLS grant to improve the care of your collections, better engage your community, or improve learning through your museum but have been too busy or unsure where to begin, GW graduate students may be able to help. It’s part of our effort to serve the museum field, especially smaller institutions that are often juggling too many responsibilities without sufficient resources.

IMLS’ Museums for America (MFA) is one of the best federal grant programs available because it supports “projects that strengthen the ability of an individual museum to serve its public.”  That’s pretty flexible but projects do need to focus on one of three areas: Continue reading

Are We Confusing Problems with Solutions?

AASLH workshop on historic house museums at the Homestead Museum in June 2018.

On June 11-12, George McDaniel and I led the AASLH workshop, “Historic House Museum Issues and Operations” at the Homestead Museum in California.  This was our 18th workshop and we open every one by asking the participants to share the biggest challenge facing their museum, which we revisit at the end to ensure we adequately addressed their issue.

In the latest workshop, a dozen participants provided this list:

  1. Irresponsible stewardship by the city despite local community support.
  2. Lost connection to the local community and parent organization.
  3. Relationship with the parent organization. Aging volunteer base.
  4. Shifting priorities, finding overarching vision with changing leadership and multiple stakeholders.
  5. Managing growth and change; coordinating mission and vision of the site. Relevance to people 20-35 years.
  6. Prioritizing a lot of maintenance and repair issues. Should the site become a house museum?
  7. Prioritizing issues and engaging volunteers to help (one person trying to do it all).
  8. Connecting to interests and needs of the local communities; being a service to the community.
  9. Increase recognition of the site’s significance and value to the community and open site to the public as a museum; ensure the preservation of site if sold to a developer (e.g., easements).
  10. How to grow volunteer program (older volunteers moving out; younger volunteers have different interests and needs; engaging new or different cultures in the local community)
  11. How to drive traffic into the museum.
  12. Outreach to new audiences (currently “oldtimers”; want to add underprivileged communities who don’t know the history of the area; make relevant to all residents, have ownership).
  13. Overcoming preconceptions of historic house museum and negative perceptions of history.
  14. Connecting to the needs and interests to the community through the collection (e.g., hot issues); get people excited about history and empowering them to care for their own collections (tangible pieces of history).

I’ve anonymized and reorganized the list so the participants aren’t identified and on further reflection, I’ve come to a few conclusions: Continue reading

Local Museums Connect GW and NSDCA

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Museum studies students learning QGIS in GW’s Museums and Community Engagement course.

Closing out my first semester as a professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University was inspirational.  Graduation was perhaps the culmination of the students’ achievements, but it was also seen in their final products in the three courses I taught.  I always aim to give them a major project that provides a real-world experience, such as completing an Organizational Assessment report from AAM’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP). In the “Museums and Community Engagement” class, the final assignment is a community engagement plan but it was done in partnership with several local museums, creating a mutually-beneficial relationship.

Because The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA) has the largest alliance of museums and historic sites in the nation (except for the National Park Service), I prepared for the course by reaching out to my colleagues at Dumbarton House in Washington, DC, which is the headquarters for the Dames. Karen Daly and Catherine Nuzum welcomed the partnership between this course and their sites, providing advice along the way and helping me identify Continue reading

Exhibition: Unseen: Our Past in a New Light

UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light at National Portrait Gallery (2018)

Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar are exhibiting a series of their contemporary paintings and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery that explore how American history could be interpreted, using the perspective of African American history and Native American history.  The works are large and dramatic, clearly conveying counter-narratives or stories that often overlooked or ignored. As a historian, much of it resonated with me but I did wonder if others found it puzzling or undecipherable. But surprisingly, many people read the labels and it may be because there was enough of an image that was familiar but the rest of it was mysterious, so they sought answers in the labels.

In case you can’t visit Unseen this year at the National Portrait Gallery, here are a few photos of the exhibition and excerpts from the labels to give you a taste (boy, they write exemplary labels at NPG!). Continue reading

Advice for Future Consultants and Freelancers

Because I have a successful consulting practice, friends and colleagues occasionally ask for guidance on starting their own business. Working for yourself is thrilling, which can be both joyous and scary. We can all imagine that running your own business is very different than being an employee, and that consulting is much more than being paid for your advice.

We are witnessing a growth in the number of freelancers in the United States, both in response to the 2008 economic downturn but also to meet the demand of businesses and organizations who are looking to build capacity without the ongoing cost of more staff (which is typically the largest expense in a nonprofit organization). Free Agent Nation by Daniel Pink (2001) is a helpful introduction to the major changes occurring in the workplace and will help you decide if freelancing suitable for you (it’s not for everyone).

My best advice to those who are contemplating the move to independence is: Continue reading

Strengthen Your Interpretive Themes with these Tools

I didn’t realize it at the time, but twenty years ago I began working with interpretive themes when I was refreshing the tours at the Homestead Museum in California. The tours were organized and based on recent research, however, they seemed to lack cohesiveness and structure. Armed with a freshly minted M.A. in history, I applied the idea of a thesis to the tour.  It wasn’t until I was introduced to Great Tours by Barbara Levy, Sandra Lloyd, and Susan Schreiber and worked on the interpretive plan for President Lincoln’s Cottage that I developed a much better understanding of how to develop interpretive themes.

Unlike topics, which are simply subjects like colonial life or the Civil War, themes are a complete idea with a message. I often explain them with an analogy to music, where topics are notes and themes are melodies. Since then I’ve been on the hunt for excellent themes, ones that provide a memorable, hummable melody for historic sites that stays with people long after they’ve visited (like the song in the Disneyland ride, “It’s a Small World”). In the years that followed, I’ve treated it like fine art: I’ll know it when I see it.

Thankfully, Sam Ham, the interpretation guru from the West, wrote Continue reading

Indiana Historical Society blending Conservation with Comic-Com

San Diego’s Comic-Con, the international conference “dedicated to creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular artforms,” has morphed into one of the biggest events in the nation with attendance topping 130,000 people. It’s also spawned local versions around the country, including Indianapolis at the end of this month.

The Indiana Historical Society has cleverly combined its mission to connect “people to the past by collecting, preserving and sharing the state’s history” with the interests of the Comic Con audience by creating “Comic CONservation.” Participants will “learn how professionals use science and technology to restore and care for comic books” plus they get to play vintage arcade games and see original Ray Bradbury cover art from the nearby Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI. Wow!  IHS collections consists primarily of documents and photographs, plus they have a team of conservators working in a state-of-the-art paper conservation lab (The forceps are strong with this one), so they are drawing on their strengths to reach a new audience. Can’t wait to hear how this turns out (especially if people can dress as their favorite comic book character!).

Do you have a clever idea for using conservation or preservation to reach a new audience? Please share it in the comments below.