Thursday, June 26, 2008

Learning in Museums Seminar 2008: Technology, Interpretation and Learning in Museums

Last week I attended AAM's LiM seminar in Minneapolis. The two-day event was well worth it.

Topics explored included but not limited to, audio and cell phone tours, blogs, Web 2.0, interpretive planning, social networking and web-based communities for learning, digital learning games...etc.

I enjoyed the mix of participants, many of whom I've never met (not like I know everyone but when you go to conferences and workshops you end up seeing the usual suspects). I was surprised to see such a diverse age range represented, you could tell the age of participants by their questions and "cyberspace," who uses that anymore? - But more power to them for stepping out of their comfort zone to learn something new.

Listening to where other institutions are with technology and new media provided some perspective. Sometimes it is good to know we all struggle with the idea of giving up control when it comes to user-generated content.

If I could plug one book explored during the seminar it would be, The Digital Museum: A Think Guide, edited by Herminia Din and Phyllis Hecht. Many of the chapters' authors were part of the seminar, the content of the book is totally relevant to museums today.

Anyways, I should end this stream of conscience with questions... Did anyone attend LiM? If so, what are your thoughts? Where is your institution when it comes to technology? Are you meeting advancement with resistance from other colleagues?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Museums: A Hot Bed of Liberalism?

I am biased. I admit it. I voted in the Illinois primary for Obama and will most likely do it again in the general election this fall. While I don't think I fit the cookie cutter mold of a card-carrying liberal, I have to admit that I support most of the things the Democratic party stands for. I know that these points of view inform my decisions in both my personal and professional life. But, I also work for a museum that discusses freedom--an subject important to all people no matter their political persuasion, yet simultaneously fraught with political implications and biases. In everything we do at the museum--exhibits, programs, professional development for teachers--we are extra conscientious to make sure our content is accurate and politically balanced.

But, then today I read this article from the Weekly Standard that was forwarded to me: and I was both disgusted and intrigued by the author's critique of a new exhibit about the Ancient Americas at the Field Museum. The author PJ ORourke lambastes the exhibit and says, "The ancient Americans themselves are not portrayed as savage or barbarous. The savages and barbarians are the museum's curators. They plunder history, ravage archaeology, do violence to intelligence, and lay waste to wisdom, faith, and common sense."

The man clearly has not taken a museum studies course or an anthropology class in the past 30 years.

But, despite his rambling, ill-informed, and often tangential tirade, the message that I take away here is that he--indeed many people--are threatened by the forces of what has been dubbed "revisionism"--school of thought that reexamines past truths, questions the greatness of past leaders, give credence to unheard voices, and retells history itself. It is a force that logically started within universities and has made its way into museums. And while it has uncovered a trove of unrecognized history and elevated the stories of the marginalized, it has itself marginalized the mainstream and devalued or discredited the accomplishments of great leaders by pointing out their humanness and holding them to unachievable standards. Many conservative individuals are angered--perhaps rightly--about the short shrift given by historians and curators to the accomplishments of white people, while simultaneously think that the faults of traditionally the marginalized (indigenous peoples, slaves, etc) are downplayed and their accomplishments over hyped.

Unfortunately for people like me who wish to examine the legitimate concerns about the problems of revisionism, it is frequently difficult, if not impossible, to discern between the actual issue and the cloud of obvious racism, hatred, and ignorance with which the arguments are made. But, if we museum professionals truly wish to practice what we preach and live the lofty ideals of "Excellence and Equity" and other manifestos purporting the inclusiveness and welcoming of diverse viewpoints, should we not also include political affiliation as part of the diversity?

Vituperative attacks on museums such as Mr. O'Rourke's arise from a sense that those who hold conservative points of view are not valued as visitors and that their world views are not only out of style, but simply wrong. When museums don't at least address concerns such as these, it fuels the widely trumpeted notion that universities and museums are places run by the liberal elite. While I don't believe that it is necessary to validate wrongly held views, simply acknowledging points of view can help facilitate productive discussion and debate.

Do you know the political allegiances of the people in your museum? Have you conducted visitor studies asking about political affiliation? Should political balance be something that museums include in diversity initiatives?