Collection Conundrums (CBR9 #61)


collectionsI am preparing to interview for a new position at work, and it will be a change of pace for me from one type of museum work (education) to another (collections). The work shares many attributes, but there are definitely some skills and terminology that I haven’t used day to day in about 7 years that I needed to brush up on, which led me back to my books from graduate school, this one in particular.

Museums, and their running, is a web of crazy. There isn’t a better way to describe it to people on the outside. You’d think everything would be orderly and put together, but there is never enough time, never enough staff, and certainly never enough resources. The department that I am trying to get into? It has 3 people taking care of tens of thousands of objects of all manner. A large component of the work is going back and fixing mistakes and oversights of the past and attempting to get things into one understandable system, best we can.

Which leads me to this book, it is all about what the typical problems of the past are, and ways in which to fix them and prevent them moving forward. It was perfect for my needs, but less than satisfactory in its presentation. While I know most problems stem from two basic points (lack of clear documentation being foremost), it did not prevent the book, at a relatively short 150 pages from being very repetitive and a slog to get through. Which, is as I remember it from my last go around.

This book is useful for us in the field, but of no interest or use to those of you outside of it.


Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (CBR8 #81)

Image result for anarchist's guide to historic house museums

I work in museums. Specifically, I work at historic sites, and one of the main types of historic sites is the Historic House Museum (HHM). There are a lot of ways in which HHMs are interesting and important to our cultural heritage, and tons of ways where the traditional methods of running such institutions are just plain bad ideas at this point. The entire cultural sector is down in visitation/consumers, so there are always conversations being had about how to be better, attract more people, and just what the heck we should be doing in the first place.

Enter Franklin Vagnone, the self-appointed Museum Anarchist. If our field has a loyal critic, its him. He has built his personal brand and his professional career on bringing the HHM out of the previous century and putting the visitor experience first. He has many loyal supporters (houses should be alive!), and many detractors (you’re going to let someone nap on your lawn?).

I’ve been following his writings and work for a few years, as promoting a quality visitor focused experience is one of the most important parts of my job. Whether loved or loathed (and his coauthor and co-researcher Deborah) he has a lot to say and brings up points for reflection. I’m mostly in his camp, we need to loosen up and refocus on what people want to discover and experience, and be less precious about the vase in the corner of our perfectly researched period room (that no one can see anyway because its behind that rope and then four feet away in the dark corner because we can’t add any non-historic lights. You understand, don’t you?).

At work we’re prepping for an overhaul of one of our site’s interpretation, our mission, and even possibly our name. We are also in the prep year for our next phase of long range plans. I needed to get some ammunition to go into these meetings, and this book, which lays out ways in which to research our sites, and make decisions which make us more inclusive and less enslaved to old ideas is going to cause waves. But in any organization waves need to happen. I’m getting ready to suggest this as mandatory reading for everyone in my organization for 2017. We’ll see how that goes.

I don’t know that this book will have interest to anyone outside of the field.  Its broken down into manageable pieces, but it is very dense. I described it to one of my colleagues as being edited with a scalpel, everything in these 200 pages is important and a point of thought, but that means you have to be invested and focused. I spent weeks working slowly through this work flagging ideas which I now need to go back and write notes about to prepare for these upcoming big idea meetings and goals. How do I make people feel welcome? How do we make the experience authentic? What rules can we throw away, which rules can we bend, what new methods do we need to instill? In the best possible way this book is making me think. It’s a very good book.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. Registration for CBR9 is open until January 13th, 2017. Come Join us.

Voices from the Back Stairs (CBR6 #2)

At work I am in the process of crafting several programs for our 2014 season around the servants and staff that formed the backbone of our site. And, from the 6 pages of handwritten notes I have on the topic, I think for the most part Ms. Pustz achieved her goals.  Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums by Jennifer Pustz. This book grew out of Ms. Pustz’s dissertation and seeks to understand when, why and how domestic staff and servants are being interpreted in the Historic House museum field, and how museum professionals can expand their current offerings to offer a wider, and hopefully more accurate, view of the lives lead by all the people associated with our sites.

Voices from the Back Stairs is broken up into several chapters, which really function more as sections. In the first half of the book we are introduced to the state of things now, based on the research done by Ms. Pustz as part of her dissertation. Ms. Pustz sent out highly detailed questionnaires to sites asking seeking to understand where we are as a field in relation to the bringing this aspect of social history to light. Ms. Pustz doesn’t shy away from exploring how Historic House Museums have evolved over the past quarter century, nor does she shy away from the various reasons many staffs are hesitant to discuss servants. What follows are photo essays about the servant problem, a late 19th century and early 20th century term for the difficulty in finding and retaining good help,  and what contemporary interpretation of domestic service looks like today in some of the best exemplars in our field. The second half of the book focuses on using the question of the servant problem to frame interpretation of the site, and providing case studies of sites that are interpreting servants in varying manners to provide inspiration for those of us on the uphill climb.
While this book was at times a bit dry (I found myself counting pages to the wonderful photo essays several times) there are perhaps few people who are more qualified to write a work of this type than Jennifer Pustz. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and has worked as a historian in historic house museums for more than a decade at the time of this book’s publication in 2010 and conducts and presents research as part of her day to day work. She has also spent more than a decade researching the servant problem and domestic service interpretation at Historic House Museums.

Voices from the Back Stairs was an easy read once you got going and I particularly enjoyed her discussions of both the history of servants in the United States and her case studies. But perhaps my favorite part of the book was the way she explained how necessary this type of interpretation is to what we do, and I now have a stack of quotes and resources to take to colleagues who may be less than enthusiastic about changes we need to be making. Perhaps the only change I would make would be to shorten the section on the servant problem. I feel Ms. Pustz did a great job of outlining what the problem was, and how it relates to problems that can arise in trying to interpret servant’s lives, but the explanation of how to build a tour or program around the servant problem seemed to drag on for me.  This is a book I would recommend to others in my field, even if it was less of a history and more of a best practices guide. I do not however think that the average reader outside of the public history field would be as interested in this work.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.