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  • Monday, November 06, 2017 2:37 AM | Della Hall (Administrator)

    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.

  • Tuesday, October 24, 2017 3:29 PM | Della Hall (Administrator)

    This article was written by 2017 Donna Matthews Professional Development Fund conference scholarship recipient Michael Bach.

    Wednesday morning, the 27th of September, was windy and wet in Kodiak. I boarded the plane through a curtain of rain, and a four-inch deep puddle as I made my way to Anchorage. Heading to the 2017 Museums Alaska conference hosted at the Anchorage Museum was exciting, but tinged with apprehension. Since I am new to my position as the Collections Manager at the Kodiak Historical Society and Baranov Museum, I felt ill prepared to meet with other museum professionals and historians from across the region.

    The plane touched down smoothly in the Anchorage bowl, filled with the bright colors of leaves turning in the crisp fall air. I disembarked and sped to a full-day pre-conference workshop with Laurie Stuart, Executive Director at the Pratt Museum in Homer. I sloshed into the auditorium with feet still wet from Kodiak, and a bit tardy, but I had arrived just as the group was moving around the space and writing on large Post-it notes. Across the tops of the Post-it notes were handwritten categories of museum patrons that included school groups, international visitors, cannery workers, cruise ship passengers, amongst others. Conference workshop participants were moving around the room writing perceptions of the groups listed at the top of the paper. I quickly grabbed a marker and recorded my thoughts at the bottom of each list. My tardiness proved beneficial, I was able to see what other conference participants had written before I recorded my thoughts and settle in before we reconvened as a large group.

    Once gathered as a large group again, we moved around the room together and discussed the many ways we perceived the guests that walked into our institutions. We discussed how the perceptions we had with these groups informed the way we interacted with, and served them. Discussions about how to respond to offensive questions emerged, and we were able to share ways of responding calmly, tactfully, and with respect. I was humbled and excited by the realization that an hour and a half prior, I was shuffling through a puddle on the Kodiak tarmac, and was now engaged in the discussions I was hoping to work up to over the course of the conference. Instead of building-up to this sort of candid discussion at the conference, I walked right into it!

    In hindsight, the stereotyping exercise helped me better identify the stereotypes that I bring into my interactions with the public through interpretation and sharing of our region’s history. More importantly, the exercise helped me recognize that stereotypes influence how I interact with other museums, collections, and communities around the state. Before I boarded my plane in Kodiak I thought that I was too new in my position to bring anything of value to this conference, I thought that other museums had “it all figured out” (perfect catalogs, perfect collections, and perfect staff). I viewed the professional community, of which I am part of, through a lens of various, stacked stereotypes that “other-ized” them in ways that isolated me, and placed my professional peers on untouchable pedestals. However, through facilitated conversation at the conference I was able to observe how other institutions dealt with similar obstacles, others who worked with collections had similar struggles with mystery objects, or unclear paperwork; I was able to see that we were all human and doing our best to carefully care for our community’s histories and resources.


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