Friday, November 20, 2009

Curators in the 21 Century

It was called "The Romance and the Reality: Curating at Small Museums" and the title drew me right away. The session description in the NEMA conference booklet helped, too:
The romantic view of a curator is often one of a scholar researching and studying his or her collection, organizing exhibitions, publishing catalogs, and presenting all of it to the public in the museum setting—oftentimes, nothing could be further from the truth. Join three Nantucket curators, from three different museums, as they lead a roundtable discussion of the reality of the curator’s role in the 21st century. This discussion will be particularly useful to new curators but all are welcome.
When I first decided to go to grad school and earn my master's in museum studies, I was not sure at all what area on which I wanted to focus. Until I began work at Strawbery Banke in May of 2007, I had never actually been paid to work in a museum, as such. I had worked in my undergraduate college's archives and interned at a national historic park, but I didn't have a strong sense of the different types of jobs available in a museum or what path I wanted to follow.

In the winter of 2008, I began an internship with SBM's curatorial department, which led to a part-time position as a curatorial assistant for close to a year. This was a wonderful experience for me, as the folks in that department are both eminently knowledgeable and extremely approachable. I then went on to intern for about nine months in the curatorial department at the USS Constitution Museum. Again, this was a great opportunity to work with very smart people at a very cool museum.

Now, I work one afternoon a week as the Curator at New Castle Historical Society, manage the Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear houses (which involves some light curatorial work), and, in my unrelated role as Program Coordinator, observe the curatorial activities at Haverhill Historical Society.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I'd like to think that in the last few years, I've gotten a pretty good sense of how curators operate in New England museums. And what that NEMA panel discussion and my own experience have proved is that no two curatorial positions are exactly alike. This is a role that shifts and moves depending on the museum. However, one of the themes of the panel was the definition of the role. It will change as we move more into a world of online exhibits and sensory interactivity and new technology. The important thing, all of the panelists seemed to agree, is that curators take an active part in defining their new roles.

We must embrace the ease of access inherent with online exhibits, while fiercely protecting the idea that there is no substitute for seeing the actual object. We must continue to produce fine scholarship on the artifacts of our past, while acknowledging the breakthroughs of the present and the future. Above all, one panelist pointed out, we must (to some degree at least) break out of our mold as the omniscient experts and learn to learn from visitors and others something about what we hold in our collections.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NEMA 2009

Long day today. I attended the New England Museum Assocation conference in Nashua, NH. Usually, I try to go for at least two days, the Wednesday and Thursday sessions of the conference. This year, however, I had too much going on with two of my jobs to take the time off for more than one day.

The conference today was interesting and it was nice to see people and do some networking. I've gotten some great ideas for posts from some of the sessions I attended, so expect to see some of those soon. However, since I was on the road to Nashua before 8am and just got home an hour or so ago, I'm off to bed for now!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Job/Blog Confidentiality

It's a tricky issue. Because I am no longer in school and the museum-related ideas I have are tied to my paying jobs, the issue of confidentiality has come up. On the one hand, I enjoy tackling challenges and coming up with new ideas at each of my (many) jobs. I'd like to be able to write about those issues here.

On the other hand, there are too many horror stories in the blogging world of people fired for their personal blogs, never mind their professional ones. Would I be taking a risk by writing about the details of my work at various historical organizations?

A few museum professional friends and I were discussing this very thing at lunch this week. It's a hard issue to penetrate, due to the as-yet-unestablished rules regarding blogging in the museum world. Unlike the tech world, where professionals have been utilizing Web 2.0 social technologies in their work for so long that it's passe to even say "Web 2.0," the museum world is still easing into this technological media thing slowly.

So where does that leave those of us who, by chance or design, have ended up slightly ahead of that curve? At last year's NEMA conference, one of the session panels included a gentleman from Connecticut who started a blog about his attempt to visit every single museum in CT. Now - this, I think, is wonderful. And in a way, I'm jealous of his ability to be completely candid in his opinions of the museums he visits. I am not, however, confident that it's entirely wise for me to do the same.

If you look to the right sidebar of the blog, you can read the disclaimer that I set up for myself when I first began in January 2008. I figured this was a way to mention where I worked in the course of writing the blog without assigning any culpability to those organizations when it came to what I posted here. That system seems to have worked until now, but I'm chafing a bit when it comes to really digging into the work that I do day to day in various museums. I'll continue to ponder this issue (and I welcome any feedback) and let you know what I eventually decide to do.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

History Science Theatre 3000

I sat down on October 6th to write a post about the preview performance of "Lamplight Dialogues" at Strawbery Banke. Turns out it is now November 3rd and I have yet to write it, so I thought I'd leave you with some of the press from the museum's website:


When the final curtain fell on "Lamplight Dialogues: The Ghosts of Puddle Dock Come to Life" on Sunday, October 25th, it was clear the second production of Strawbery Banke Museum's History Theatre project was a tremendous success. "Lamplight Dialogues" continued the unique collaboration between Strawbery Banke Museum and Harbor Light Stage, the Kittery, Maine based professional theatre company. In 2008, "Pirates or Patriots? The Private Wars of Capt. John Paul Jones and Col. John Langdon" launched History Theatre at Strawbery Banke Museum to glowing reviews. With "Lamplight Dialogues," playwright and Harbor Light Stage producer Kent Stephens masterfully dramatized the untold tales of the historic port city and gave the ghosts of Puddle Dock's former residents a stage and an audience to share their stories with. In the parlor before the fire or around the dining table by candlelight, stolen secrets, haunted pasts, and family feuds and reconciliations played out on their original stages at Strawbery Banke.

Composed of six short acts in six separate historic properties at the museum, "Lamplight Dialogues" was presented as "promenade theatre" and gave audiences an enchanting experience that combined history, drama, excitement, and entertainment. Rave reviews from arts and entertainment reviewers from Spotlight and Showcase, combined with audience accolades, created a significant buzz about the production from the very first weekend. All 12 performances quickly sold out and well over 500 people were guided by lamplight from one scene to the next across the museum grounds, where they witnessed dramas that spanned the history of Portsmouth from 1789 to World War II.