Monday, January 30, 2017

Thou Shall Not Paint the Concrete: Guest Revelations by Don Hughes

I started my museum career as an exhibit designer. There are many heroes I look up to in that field. But I reserve for Don Hughes that particular blend of admiration and fear that comes when encountering uncompromised brilliance. Don has been the head of exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for thirty years. He is a genius designer out of central casting: an artist, mercurial, funny, emphatic, honest, unflinching, with a disarming weakness for babies.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a giant in our field, just as Don himself is a giant in the world of museum design. While I don't always agree with the Aquarium team's work, I always learn from them. Don is leaving the Aquarium, and he wrote this list of revelations on design to pass on to the next generation at that organization. He shared it with me, and he agreed that I could share it with you.

Thou Shall Not Paint the Concrete 
The Monterey Gray Revelations, as revealed to Don Hughes over three decades

One: Thou shall protect the original architectural design. 
The building and the exhibitions have a unique and historically successful relationship. Maintain this success by replacing worn or failing elements with materials as similar to the original as possible. Uphold the Aquarium’s overall industrial vernacular aesthetic.

Two: Thou shall provide negative space to rest the eye. 
Well-meaning staff want to fill empty walls with important and meaningful messages. Prevent this. Our enduring design is simple and clean. It embraces the modernist philosophies of Less Is More and Form Follows Function.

Three: Thou shall not restrict views of the bay. 
The building’s exterior is understated Cannery Row. The interior is polished industrial with rich appointments and allows for many views of Monterey Bay. Our building does not compete with the bay; it complements its natural beauty and power.

Four: Thou shall keep the regional focus. 
The greatest stories ever told are always about place. The Aquarium is the most recent tenant of a location that humankind has used for thousands of years. Visitors flock to us to see live plants and animals from this place. Departing from this holy vision leads to damnation.

Five: Thou shall have no greater god than visitors. 
Thou shall treat visitors like royalty, but thou shall not overestimate their interest or attention span. Visitors are not as interested as we like to think they are. Like life, communications with visitors is short, but staff’s list of meaningful, critically important topics to share is long—too long. Edit them. 

Six: Thou shall look like a museum and behave like an attraction. 
The Aquarium is confident. It doesn’t need to shout or brag. Our visitor experience is subtle, elegant and understated, not bold and in-your-face. We look more museum-like than Disney-like, and that makes us unique in a world of attractions. Like Disney in the world of theme parks, we set the standard for the world of public aquariums. Here, every visitor deserves a perfect visit, without out-of-order signs or beta-test experiences in the public space. We learn from our visitors, but not at the expense of their onsite experience.

Seven: Thou shall beware of tacky idolatry. 
No penny crushers, flashy sales signs in the bookstores or cafe, no anthropomorphism or theme park-like costumed characters, no photo booths or other fads posing as content. Cast out those who want to squeeze more and more money from visitors. Dwell in the straightforward and honest presentation of nature. But don’t take thyself too seriously—use humor, and do not preach.

Eight: Thou shall heed the words of the prophets. 
The Aquarium is on a peninsula not an island. Embrace the wisdom of Mickey’s Ten Commandments and Judy’s Visitors’ Bill of Rights.

Nine: Thou shall remember the words of our father. 
“The objective is not to maximize attendance and revenue, but to do the best possible exhibits. Have the highest quality program you can have; spend the money it takes to do that; everything else will follow.” —David Packard, September 25, 1989

Ten: Thou shall know all rules and revelations are created to be broken. 
The garden will change; it must. But resist the temptation of self-esteem. You are but a caretaker. Amen.

p.s. from Nina: Do check out Judy Rand's Visitors' Bill of Rights and the accompanying speech that goes with it. Judy is a tremendous exhibit developer, writer, comedian, teacher, and champion for museum visitors everywhere.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Two Opportunities at the MAH: MuseumCamp and an Incredible Job

Dear Museum 2.0 friends,

I want to share two great opportunities to get involved at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in 2017.


Each summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History hosts MuseumCamp, a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part adult summer camp.

MuseumCamp will be August 9-11, 2017. This year's theme is CHANGEMAKERS. We will host 100 diverse people who are making change in the world, our communities, and our institutions for 2.5 days of fun, fellowship, and active learning. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have faded battle scars to share, we want you here this year.

The 2.5 days include lightning talks from campers, team design bursts, movement and meditation, delicious food, and late-night conversations. There will also be a deep dive into the MAH's new issue-driven exhibition pilot, Lost Childhoods. You can sleep at the museum. You can swim with sea lions. You can--and will--learn things about yourself and your work that surprise and enrich you.

We're proud that MuseumCamp brings together a very diverse group by design--campers are 50% people of color, and 50% people from outside museums/visual arts institutions. You do NOT need to work in a museum to attend... and we especially want you to apply if you are making creative change in the civic, social, political, environmental, or economic sphere.

We will accept applications through March 15 and inform people of selections in April. Space is extremely limited and the process is competitive. I encourage you to apply soon. And please, spread the word - especially to friends who identify as a gender other than female, people of color, people over 50, and people who DON'T work in arts/museums.

While MuseumCamp has a registration cost (sliding scale $150-$250), we work with sponsors to underwrite scholarship requests. Most sponsors are amazing companies serving museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, and grassroots community organizations. Do you want to help provide financial aid for this amazing event? If so, you'll be in good company. Thanks in advance for considering it.


We are thrilled to announce a one-year contract position at the MAH for someone to help us transform the way we involve community partners in creating and activating exhibitions to address social issues.

The Dialogue Catalyst will be part of a new exhibition model that connects art to social action. You’ll lead the activation, documentation and evaluation of the issue-driven exhibition Lost Childhoods about challenges facing transition-age foster youth. You'll work with our amazing group of community advisors (C3) to extend the exhibition throughout our community during its run.

Based on the Dialogue Catalyst's work, the MAH intends to implement this model in future issue-driven exhibitions. The Dialogue Catalyst will make a toolkit that documents the project--and we want to share it with cultural and community organizations around the world so they can create issue-driven exhibitions, too.

The right person is a great event manager, creative collaborator, open communicator, clear writer, and possibilitarian thinker.

We're looking for someone immediately. It could be you. Apply now

Monday, January 09, 2017

Against Participation

At first, I thought it was a joke.

A colleague at UC Santa Cruz asked me to participate in a social practice symposium called Against Participation. Hosted by a sound art collective, Ultra-red, the 2015 event promised "to investigate listening as a political activity and to interrogate the stakes of participation in neoliberalism."

I read this sentence many times without comprehension. Because I really respect the person who invited me--with apprehension--I said yes.

I walked into Against Participation with my hackles up. I assumed the event would fly in the face of my deep value for community participation. I imagined an academic conversation stuffed with arcane, impenetrable vocabulary. I feared I would be laughed at and not understand why.

Instead, I had a powerful learning experience--one I'm still grappling with over a year later.

When should you choose not to participate in an experience? When should you turn down the invitation to share your voice? How should you make these decisions in an imperfect world where every host is using you for something, and every voice is in danger of being manipulated, misunderstood, or subverted?

I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't really thought about these questions before the Against Participation symposium. I thought a lot about where to participate--where I can have the most impact. But I didn't think about whether to participate.

I'd always thought that participating disproportionately benefited the participant. I'd always assumed that more representation is better than less representation, more press is better than less press, more sharing and engaging is better than the alternative. I'd assumed it was my responsibility to represent myself well, and if I failed, it was a matter of my communication, not a system set up to disempower or distort my words.

But Ultra-red reminded me that many environments function as distortion machines. There are many ways for voices to get chopped and twisted. Sometimes, choosing NOT to participate is a powerful statement that protects ownership of your voice and story as your own.

The problem, of course, is when you choose not to participate, most people don't see it as a noble protest. Most people don't notice at all. The absence of your voice doesn't take up as much space as its presence. And so we have to choose: to be distorted or to be overlooked.

I hear about these tensions often from colleagues struggling to participate in hostile workplaces. I've met too many young, talented people of color who want to work in museums but feel belittled, tokenized, or unsupported in their careers. Should they keep fighting to engage and transform the systems that knock them down? Or should they opt out, find friendlier environments, and stop participating in discriminatory spaces?

I grapple with these questions personally when I decide what invitations to take, where to spend my time, where to share my voice. For example, I get frequent media requests, including about museum-related news items that I know little about. Should I comment on whether museums should acquire artifacts related to police violence against African-Americans? In that case I said yes--even as I felt unsure of whether I was the right participant in that space. In other cases--like when I was asked to write a "fun" etiquette guide on how to visit museums--I said no. I knew it wasn't a piece that invited me to participate in a meaningful way.

And yet, someone else will write that breezy etiquette guide. Someone else will say yes to the invitations we reject. Someone else will take that job. Someone else's writing will be on the wall. Were those opportunities missed?

When do you participate, knowing your participation may serve others for reasons different from your own? When do you refuse, knowing your non-participation may be overlooked entirely?

The 2016 US election dredged up these questions for me once again. It reenergized me about focusing my limited time, energy, and creativity on the participatory opportunities that fuel me and my dreams. It pushes me to block out certain participatory forums that distract, exhaust, or limit me. I'm reminded now of how non-participation can be a source of fuel as well as a lack.

Sometimes transformative participation is possible. Sometimes not. How do you choose?