But it’s on CD

August 19, 2006

Forget a diamond. The next time I find myself in a relationship and I want to show her how much I love her, I’m picking up a pencil and writing her an epic poem. For the price of some good archival paper and a number two pencil, my love will be forever inscribed. It’ll be cheaper than any diamond, and will last just as long.

Okay, maybe my graphite scribbles won’t last quite as long as a diamond, but it will sure outlast both of us. Sometimes the simplest, seemingly fragile things are the ones that last the longest. See, two friends of mine just got married. Like many married couples today, all of their wedding photography was digital. They recently invited people over for the traditional viewing of the wedding album. And, like the good curator I am, I asked them if the album was made with acid free materials. They said they didn’t know, and then they said, “It’s okay. We have them on CD.”

Compact discs may seem like a strong, reliable way to archive your most precious memories, but really, they’re just not that good. Of the billions of little bits of data stored on its rigid surface, only one wrong bit can ruin a wedding day photo. Forever.

And it’s not just CD’s. The strongest photo album can ruin your prints if it’s not made out of acid free material, the names and dates you write in ball point pen will fade, and seemingly impenetrable storage locations (like attics or basements) can cause mold growth.

So to all the blushing brides of this wedding season, I have two things to say. Use pencils. And take a bit of time to learn how to properly save the documentation of your special day. That means using pencils, buying good photo albums, keeping them away from the attic or basement, and a few other really simple things. One website, an email to a friend, or a class at your library, local museum or historical society could make the difference between showing photos to the grandkids or cleaning mold off the wedding album. Worse yet, you may not have photos to show at all.

I would hate for this to happen to my friends. You see, I met each of them shortly before they met each other. I had the privilege of watching them grow closer to each other, from friends, to lovers, to husband and wife. Their relationship, the way they interact, all seems so natural, so simple to me. And the simplest things are the ones that last the longest.


Pop the bubble

August 7, 2006

A few weeks ago, I sat on a friend’s porch, beer in my hand, enjoying good company. The porch’s owner also invited an old college friend. He’s an architect, my friend is a transportation planner. And as any two people in similar fields would when you get them together, they talked shop. A lot. They were in their own little bubble, separate from the rest of us, solving all of the problems of road and building construction for our whole region.

The rest of us tried to pop into the bubble, to listen to the conversation, maybe even ask questions. It was clear that we were out of our league. The two inside the bubble talked a completely different language, foreign to anyone outside it.

Museum people have a bubble too. And ours is really tough to pop. At my most recent job, and very much inside the bubble, I had a hard time figuring out why we weren’t more integrated with our community. Why most people I met had barely heard of us. Why the small minority who had actually heard of our existence had no idea what we had inside.

I don’t work there anymore. I’m out of the bubble now. And the view is different out here. And you know, I understand now.

I recently came across an article about an event at a different museum. I have friends at that museum, and they do some good work. I could always appreciate how they find solutions to their unique challenges, how they work to interpret a subject to different audiences. But that was before the bubble popped. Now, as a visitor, I read the article and I felt nothing. The event didn’t excite me, it didn’t motivate me enough to get me off my couch and go there.

You see, just like my friends on the porch, the view inside the bubble is very different than the view outside. And if I’ve learned one thing since leaving my last job, it’s that museum people need to pop the bubble. We need to remember that the world outside cares more about gas prices today than, say, cars of yesterday.

Until we learn what motivates our visitors, what will get them off the couch and come visit, we’ll be stuck inside our little bubble.

Share and share alike

July 31, 2006

I’ve decided not to share anything anymore. Too much of a hassle, really. I have to trust the person not to mess my stuff up, then I have to trust them to give it back. And really, what’s in it for me? I don’t make any money off sharing. I don’t get any satisfaction from it. Why should I give my hard earned stuff away to some stranger?

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But this type of logic has hit the museum world. Let’s take the Smithsonian, for example. They recently signed an exclusive deal with Showtime, the pay cable service, which gives Showtime first dibs to the Smithsonian’s collection and any documentary projects around that collection.

Even a small museum I worked at forgot about sharing. An effort to digitize and provide access to the collection online was hampered to the point of uselessness by thick watermarks across every tiny, grainy jpeg photo. Why? Because we made money selling prints. And the risk of a few people turning them into mugs or t-shirts or mouse pads meant we wouldn’t share with anyone.

The last time I decided not to share was in kindergarten. It was Mrs. Lukrek’s class, and I refused to share a banana for snack. I learned two valuable lessons since then. One, never eat paste. It just doesn’t taste good. And two, we all benefit from sharing. Those I’m willing to share with are much more likely to share something with me, and it might be something I really need. Closing myself off to this river of items flowing freely from person to person is like cutting myself off from the internet. Sure, I could do it, but think about what I’d miss.

Museums too learned the benefit of sharing. By providing access to collections online, museums opened their doors to new audiences. Loaning artifacts for special exhibitions broadens a museum’s name recognition way beyond its traditional boundaries. Email forums, message boards, and seminars share information about museum work, and they’re invaluable tools for thousands of museum professionals.

I guess a few museum professionals skipped kindergarten. For example, fundraising people see sharing artifacts as a potential for income. Stodgy curators stand in front of the storage building with a shotgun forbidding anyone from removing artifacts from their dark, safe haven. Directors worry people will take the jpegs posted online and turn them into a poster, then sell them for profit.

Sure, I run risks when I share my stuff. The person might mess up my stuff, or forget to give it back. I’ve lost a book or a movie or two, and frankly, I guiltily harbor a few from others. But just like we’re seeing with the Smithsonian, cutting off the flow of sharing is a surefire way to make people mad at you.

We all know people who refuse to share, who greedily hoard everything they own. Maybe they needed a better kindergarten teacher.

The Museum of Me

July 27, 2006

I want to work in the perfect museum. And I’m telling you, this museum would be perfect! Everything exactly the way I want it. Man, wouldn’t that be the perfect museum?

Well, perfect for me maybe. But what about the 299 million other Americans? Why would I be so brash as to assume my perfect museum would also be theirs? If I build it, would people actually come? And if they do, would they come back?

This type of logic happens all the time in the museum field. See, I was listening to an NPR piece the other day about virtual museums. And each “curator” spoke about their particular obsession, be it skateboard park IDs, antique mousetraps, toothpicks, or whatever. When asked why they chose to share their particular obsession, each response was the same: “I just think they’re wonderful.” One gentleman in particular went off about skate park IDs, desperately trying to impart upon the reporter why skate park IDs is the most supremely wonderful thing ever.

The weird thing is, people like this talk about their particular obsession with such devotion, such passion. I can’t understand it. Part of me thinks they’re subconsciously justifying the countless hours a week they spend on their particular obsession. Another wonders if they find their obsession lonely, and are desperately looking for a compatriot. But I also hear a desperation laced in their devotion. It’s as if they’re saying, “What do you mean you don’t like toothpicks?!? They’re the most supremely wonderful things EVER!”

I used to work with an obsessed curator. Every exhibition meeting he shared his ideas on what we should exhibit, and they were always collections that he had a particular fondness for. Victorian postcards. Silver. China. And every time, I had to be a wet blanket. What theme would we use? What the message should the visitor get? Why do you assume our visitors would enjoy the collection as much as you? It was quite frustrating.

See, museums shouldn’t exhibit what they want to because they can. It’s about the audience. What do your visitors want to see? What do people who aren’t yet visitors want to see? How do you connect with the people in your community? These are much harder questions to answer. But those who try often succeed. And by connecting to an audience, they build that audience. They become ingrained in their community. And with that comes new revenue, the potential to reach newer audiences, and ensures your long term health and stability.

But it’s really easy not to care. To just concentrate on what I like, what makes me happy. To throw the proverbial spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks. The museum of me would, in my eyes, be the best museum ever.

You know what, though? I enjoy connecting with my audience too much. Whether I’m showing antique mouse traps or toothpicks, turning a collection into a message and connecting that message with the visitor is why I got into this field in the first place. So my perfect museum, the museum of me, wouldn’t really be about me at all. It would be about you.

Have you ever met a mime artist? Is that even what you’re supposed to call them? Mime artist. It sounds odd. Mimeist? Mimeographer? Non-verbal actor?

I’ve never met a – let’s call them a mime artist – so I have no idea what they prefer to be called. Or what they do. Or the schooling they have to receive, the issues that face their careers, the triumphs, the tribulations. Sure, there’s probably a conference once a year, but does anybody talk at a mime conference?

I often think non-museum people view my career the same way. See, a friend of mine was house sitting recently. This house sat on eighty-six acres of beautiful farmland. But more importantly it had food, beer, and a hot tub. Naturally, a lot of my friends came to visit. One of them had been telling me about how his office has yearly “clean up days.” Now, he works for a government agency and the county historian stored some documents at his office. But after years of sitting there, seemingly unused, wasting space, his office was ready to get rid of them. They called the historian, but nobody came. So his office threw the documents away. Threw them out. Forever. Never to be seen again.

I was outraged. And when he told me which documents were on their way to a landfill, I was even more outraged. Once again, history was relegated to a dumpster. But as I launched into my usual speech about preserving history, how it affects current and future generations, ya-da ya-da, something interesting happened. All of my friends just laughed at me. I tried to show I was serious, that this was a tragedy, a catastrophe! Nothing. They laughed, and they changed topics. I was the only person within eighty-six acres who felt any emotion about this holocaust of history.

See, people outside the museum field just don’t understand what it’s like inside of it. The issues we face, the decisions we make, the training we receive, the triumphs, or the tribulations. There was a point in my museum training when I crossed a line, and things change when you cross it. There’s a language you start to understand, a behavior you start to follow. Museum people are in a small and selective bubble, and we can understand each other in a way no one else can.

That night, on the farm with my friends, I was on the inside shouting out against the wind. Maybe mimes feel the same way. But if so, could they even talk about it?

My inner nerd

July 17, 2006

I recently read an article that vindicated my years of bad clothes, glasses, reading history books and watching Star Trek movies. According to New York’s Daily News, nerds make the best lovers.

Thank God I have something. See, being a museum/history nerd used to be quite the hindrance to a prospective relationship. When I was in college, my two best friends were anthropology majors. We’d go out to the bar and chat up some cute coeds. Inevitably they’d ask, “So what’s your major?” Now, when my friends replied with anthropology, the cute coed’s face would always light up. “Wow, that’s SO cool. Do you get to dig up stuff? You must be like Indiana Jones!” are just some of the gushing responses. When I replied with history, the cute coed’s face would turn blank. Then it would turn to disgust as she replied, “Oh, I had professor so-and-so, and that guy was AWFUL! He was so boring! He gave me a ‘D’!” Cute young coed would quickly find a way out of the conversation, and then search for some young anthropology student.

Needless to say, I didn’t date much in college. But something weird happened after I entered the working world. Suddenly, being a history nerd – and working for a museum – was sexy. “You work for a museum? That must be SO interesting! What do you do every day? It must be great to work somewhere you love!” I spent my days dusting off old artifacts or researching obscure historical topics, and yet cute women were into me even though I’m a museum nerd.

Lately, it’s been different. I’m currently “in between jobs.” And you know, unemployed nerds just don’t seem as appealing. Oh sure, I still meet people and they still seem interested. But the ones I really want to date, the ones I really like, don’t seem to know I’m here.

That’s the story of my life, really. See, the inner nerd always speaks strong. He’s the one who danced alone in eighth grade because he was too afraid to dance with somebody. He’s the one who pined over his prom date because he didn’t think she would be interested. Sure, he grew up. He dresses well, has a better pair of glasses, and can talk in a crowd. He isn’t that bad looking either, if I do say. But he still thinks of himself as a nerd.

Maybe I’ll get over it. Perhaps, some day, that inner nerd will no longer speak. But in a way, I sure hope not. After all, nerds do make the best lovers.

Museum nerds: share your stories about dating and whether working in a museum helps or hurts. Are you another kind of nerd? Share your story too. Click on the “Comments” button below. Real names or email address are not necessary.

What I meant to say

July 12, 2006

My city council recently debated an amendment to their human rights code that would add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the usual array of race, sex, and religion.

I went to the meeting, and I watched. I watched as people lined up to comment. I watched the crowd as some silently cheered the speakers and others silently moaned. I watched the reporters as the cameras rolled. And suddenly I realized I should do more than just watch. I should speak.

I have to be honest. This amendment had little impact on my life. I’m straight. Whether it passed or failed, the only thing personally at stake was my sense of justice. But that was important enough. In every struggle for equality through history there are some who resist change, some who sit idly by, and some who boldly make a stand. There are a lot of people in my life I cherish who are gay. I would do them all a disservice if I sat idly by. So I timidly made my way to the line of commenters and mentally prepared an impromptu speech.

It was a perfect speech. I was going to single out a member of my family, but then say how singling out one person isn’t fair to the dozens of others who have come into my life. I was going to talk about my experiences in history and museums, and how the debate on gay rights eerily echoes the debate about gender and race of decades past. I was even going to talk about my most recent job, where staff thought it was okay to share gay jokes and make homophobic remarks.

I didn’t do any of that. See, in the museum field I became really good at public speaking. Curators give public presentations, marketing people speak before cameras, docents lead groups through historic sites. At some point in my career, I’ve worn each of those hats. But I’ve always had time to prepare. When I finally reached the podium to address the council, no notes there to guide me, cameras rolling, council members in front of me, a half angry crowd behind me, I completely forgot what I wanted to say.

I felt awful. I let down all the leaders of history I studied so much about. Oh sure, I can do research, write a paper, or curate an exhibition. But when it came time to speaking as confidently as those leaders, I was too scared. Did you know that Martin Luther King’s original draft for the “I Have A Dream” speech does not contain those words? He made them up on the spot. And Monday night, this little city council meeting was too much for me to make up a quick speech.

It’s a moot point now. The amendment failed to pass by one vote. But to the leaders of the past and the people of the present who influenced my life, I’m sorry. I promise I’ll be more prepared next time.