Conference Overview: Helen Alten

This article was written by 2017 Donna Matthews Professional Development Fund conference scholarship recipient Helen Alten.

Alten conference photo 1

On the way to Anchorage on the big jet out of Juneau – Helen Alten, Regi Johanos and Aly Zeiger.

The Museums Alaska conference is an opportunity to learn in so many different ways. Peer interaction is one of the most important ways that I learn. But also experiencing other spaces and places. In this case, the most interesting moments for me were:

(1) The Ray Troll show at the Anchorage Museum. I have been wanting to ask Ray to do a show for our museum, ever since I heard about his show in Washington state. I thought it wouldn’t be possible, but now I see it is eminently possible – possibly by borrowing some of the graphics used in Anchorage.

(2) The Native Heritage Center was a new place for me to see. I loved the outdoor structures and the walking trail that show how each culture lived traditionally. I also enjoyed the light of the interior space. In particular, I enjoyed seeing a Wayne Price canoe and a Terri Rofkar Ravenstail blanket, both of them some of my favorite people.

(3) I enjoyed seeing the new expansion spaces and the new history exhibit at the Anchorage Museum. I’m not sure I agree with the design choices that were made in those spaces. For example, I am not a big proponent of matching a number to a key chart to figure out what you are seeing. I much prefer one label with each item. Just a lot cleaner and clearer. The history space was dark and spare, compared to its predecessor. I think one of the problems is that lighting is uneven between spaces in the museum, so one goes from daylit areas to dark areas, and the eyes don’t adjust well to those changes. The museum as a whole would appear brighter if all the spaces were lit at the same level. I also feel that pathways should be lit, not dark. Objects will have the same amount of low light, but people aren’t tripping over their feet. I did like the donor wall between the newest galleries and the new history exhibit.

(4) Listening to my collections staff and intern give their first professional presentation at the conference. Their talk on the Collections Inventory project, funded by Museums Alaska’s Collections Management grant, clearly transmitted how they approached starting an inventory (with education and training), and how they completed the project using volunteers, staff, and careful organization. They pointed out the necessity of having unique location labels for storage and exhibit furniture, using paper forms during the inventory, and then reconciling the paper information with the database. They explained how two people work together, one reading off the number, description and condition while the other acts as scribe.

(5) The pre-conference workshop by Laurie Stuart, “Connecting to Your Audience,” reminded me that we should be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.” Of course, I went on and gave two talks during the conference where I was that “sage on the stage.” I just didn’t have the time to be creative and inclusive, approaching the information in a way that it could be self-learned rather than expounded. She did a nice didactic about our audiences – letting us walk around the room and generalize about the characteristics of each of our visitor categories, such as “cruise ship passenger.” What I found fascinating was how much science and research has gone into the art of interpretation. I hadn’t realized. She gave us a workbook from the National Association for Interpretation. She stated that Interpretation is POETRY (Purposeful, Organized, Enjoyable, Thematic, Relevant, and You). We learned about Cable and Beck’s 15 Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture, published in The Gifts of Interpretation (2011). This is based on six principles published in 1957 by Freeman Tilden in Interpreting Our Heritage. We came up with six words to explain each of Tilden’s principles: Relate, Revelatory, Teachable, Inspirational, Comprehensive, and Audience. Then she moved us into a formula (KA) + (KR) * AT = IO . In plain English this is: Knowledge of your Audience (KA) and Knowledge of your Resources (KR) apply Appropriate Techniques (AT) to get Interpretive Opportunities (IO). Which led us to stereotyping our audiences. How are Canadians, Cruise Ship Passengers, School Groups, and Cannery Workers similar or different from each other? Then we learned about universal values and applied that to tangibles and intangibles. We then listed the tangibles and intangibles of an object. Maslow’s Hierarchy was applied to how we approach our visitors. What needs are being served by our facility and staff? “Interpreters can help people spend less time concerned over their basic needs so that there is a better chance to achieve higher-level thinking or self-actualization.” Ms. Stuart’s normal workshop is 2 days long. She skipped around in the workbook, hitting the highlights. We discussed the difference between themes and topics. Although she applied it to interpretation and education programs, I found it directly applicable to exhibit labels as well. We discussed how to build presentations combining what we had learned about tangibles and intangibles, themes and topics. We did three little skits that helped us understand why these concepts are important if we want to provide a stellar experience. We finished the conference workshop with a focus on ourselves – figuring out what type of presenter we are and what that means. I came out of the conference session feeling overwhelmed. I, who thought I knew a fair bit about museums, realized this was an area about which I knew nothing. I felt this was important training for my staff and volunteers, as well as myself. It was a struggle to wrap my mind around new terminology and concepts, but I found it thrilling that they existed and that I had a new area of museum lore to learn. Although interpretation is often relegated to an educator or volunteers, I saw that the concepts and ideas relate to the museum as a whole. We are trying to give a good visitor experience through our exhibits, our research areas and our publications as well as our programs. Remembering some of the key concepts, such as Maslow’s Hierarchy, would help us look at those tangible presentations in a new way. For example, if the gallery is so dark that I fear tripping, then I have a basic need – the need for safety and security – that isn’t being met. And I will be thinking about that need while in the gallery, rather than enjoying the aesthetics of the museum exhibit.

(6) I spent time in the Historical Society conference sessions, learning more about parts of Alaska History that might relate to our region. I especially liked the life story of a young man who died on the Princess Sophia – which was a surprise ending to the story for me. I had entered the talk with an interest in his experiences with schools and the local preacher, since I am researching the impact of Haines House on our community.

(7) I spent time talking with people, but not enough time. We spoke of social interactions, community involvement, exhibit pros and cons…and, of course, museum gossip. Which is, in the end, part of the joy of the conference meeting and the process. One breakfast meeting, which I was late for, discussed how to improve our daily work through taking care of ourselves physically and mentally. For me, one of the highlights, was meeting with some of the other directors and learning that my year was not unusual. We all have hard times, difficult boards, problematic staff, and attempted coups. Sometimes. Just being able to talk about it makes it easier to soldier forth and keep up a vision for a better future. And that concept of being good to yourself, so you are a better person for others, was one that I heard over and over among the directors as well as at the conference breakfast roundtable.

Alten conference photo 2

While in the big City, after gaping at all the cars and being thrilled by elevators, malls and escalators, we had dinner at a nice restaurant and acted like tourists.