On March 19, the Berlin Museum of Natural History launched a series of eleven questions for museum bloggers on Museum Blogger Day, which is slowly making its way around the blogosphere. I received the list of questions from Gretchen Jennings of Museum Commons, who received it from Linda Norris at the Uncatalogued Museum, who received it from Jamie Glavic at Museum Minute, who received it from Jenni at Museum Diary, who received it from the Museum Things blog at Natureskundemuseum. I suppose this might be a new version of the old “chain letter,” but more fun and with no dire consequences if you fail to participate (and of course, the questions were modified along the way, just like a telephone tree). It’s also introduced me to another neighborhood of bloggers!
1. Who are you and what do you like about blogging?
I’m the president of Engaging Places, LLC, a design and strategy firm that connects people to historic places. I love visiting and working with museums and historic sites, so the blog allows me to easily share what I’ve discovered and acknowledge the good work they do.
2. What search terms lead people to your blog?
Looking back over the past year, six of the top ten search terms are variants of personal names: Curtis Viebranz (president of Mt. Vernon), Laurie Ossman (VP of Museum Affairs at the Preservation Society of Newport County), Anthea Hartig (ED of the California Historical Society), and me. I’m not sure what this means, so let’s look at the other popular terms: community engagement, trends in mobile computing, teaching or relevance of history, exterior banners, and SWOT. It looks like a good mix of theoretical and practical issues, which is exactly what I’m seeking for this blog. Indeed, SWOT (the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats matrix often used in strategic planning) is by far the most frequently searched term for the entire life of the blog. My sense is that those queries are coming outside of the museum and historic site fields as management in general is becoming more skeptical of the value of SWOT exercises.
3. How long have you been blogging, and has your blog changed in any way since you began it? How?
I started blogging in fall 2007 with HistoricSites.WordPress.com. I was producing a monthly e-newsletter for the National Trust’s Historic Sites and wanted something more timely and convenient–and had a bigger impact. All that work didn’t seem worthwhile for just 29 Sites. Although the blog focused on news for and about the National Trust’s Historic Sites, it was available to everyone. It was also a bit rogue and never an official blog of the National Trust. Social media was still in its infancy and there were lots of concerns (there were many debates about who was authorized to read, write, and comment on social media and the IT department initially blocked Facebook and YouTube). When I left the National Trust four years later, I started EngagingPlaces.net because house museums and historic sites valued news, ideas, and opinions about the field (well, maybe not all the opinions).
4. Which post on your blog is your personal favorite?
I’d rather not say, but as a hint, it includes IMHO in the title.
5. If you had a whole week just to blog: which subject would you like to thoroughly research and write about?
Planning and strategy. It sounds boring, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the sustainability of historic sites and museums can be significantly improved by changing the nature and practice of planning and strategy.
6. If you could ask anyone to be a guest blogger, who would that be?
Alton Brown, the star, producer, and author of “Good Eats.” I enjoy watching his shows and reading his books as a foodie but I’m entranced by his teaching techniques. I know he likes museums so I’d love to discuss how museums and historic sites could be more engaging. If you follow his podcast, you know that he thinks as much about the process as the product, and he’d find a way to make it fun and interesting.
7. Share your favorite photo that you took at a museum or historic site.
I’ll cheat a bit here and show two photos, because one doesn’t make sense without the other. They’re both of a tour at the Philip Johnson Glass House, an internationally famous architectural icon in Connecticut. I helped plan the tours of the Glass House for its initial opening in 2007. A year later I came back on site to see how things were going and snapped these two photos. One shows an ideal tour: everyone in the group is listening attentively to the guide and admiring the architecture. The second photo was taken a minute later and shows what also happens on a tour: everyone is looking everywhere (what is so fascinating about the ground?). It’s a reminder to me that good interpretation is an on-going dialogue among everyone in the group, the collections, and the site. Our job is to facilitate the dialogue. That second photo may look like the guide lost control but he hasn’t. Peter is particularly skilled at interpretation and he encourages everyone to look not just at the architecture but also the landscape–and then he’ll have a conversation about what they noticed.
8. What was the last museum you visited and what was the experience like?
In the course of my work, I get paid to visit lots of museums. On my own, however, the last museum I visited was the Huntington Library in California a couple weeks ago. For the last forty years, it’s been a regular place for me to enjoy extraordinary artifacts that connect to big ideas in a contemplative setting (as long as you arrive before noon when the crowds swell).
9. If time and money were no object, what museum would you most like to visit?
If we’re talking museums, it’s Berlin. Never been but the city has a half dozen museums on my bucket list. If we’re talking historic sites, it’s probably Hadrian’s Villa, Machu Picchu, Cichen Itza, or Neuschwanstein (it could be the names, though). If money were no object, I’d pay for a private tour without any other visitors. It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that I’ve developed a habit of observing visitors as much as exhibits in museums. If time were no object, I’d love to go back to the Renaissance and see the famous cabinets of curiosity.
10. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned from a failure?
I can’t identify a single big lesson, only many many small ones. One lesson from all those failures is that you want to get through them as soon as possible so you can improve as quickly as possible. Failure is an essential part of learning.
11. If you could work anywhere, what museum would you like to work in?
This may sound strange, but I don’t think there’s one single museum. I love working in museums because of the variety, and now that I’m working with lots of museums, there’s even more variety. I’m that way with books, too–I tend to read several at one time.