Friday, December 14, 2007

Question de Peau par Jean Bermon

J’ai fait la connaissance de Sergio sur le pas de la porte du musée qu’il a fondé à San Cristobal de Las Casas au Mexique. Heritance et l’Association Maya Solidarité participent actuellement au projet de restructuration de ce musée du costume dans le Chiapas. Je savais fort peu de choses de Sergio sinon que depuis plus de trente ans, cet ingénieur agronome de formation, dédiait sa vie aux Indiens descendant du peuple Maya. Notre présentation fut des plus brèves, Sergio finissait de soigner un de ses patients sous la véranda et m’invitait à le suivre dans ses visites à domicile. J’ignorais encore la nature de sa spécialité : le traitement des grands brûlés.

Après une bonne demi-heure de route dans le silence, nous sommes rentrés dans une petite maison bien modeste. Le jeune homme de 24 ans qu’il avait pris en charge quotidiennement depuis 4 semaines était tombé d’un toit et avait par réflexe tenté de s’accrocher à une ligne de haute tension. Outre sa chute sur le béton qui l’avait paralysé à vie des deux jambes, il avait subi de terribles brûlures. Ce patient n’était que l’un des premiers de sa longue journée qui s’achève six jours par semaines par une consultation au musée et la visite proposée du lieu à des groupes de touristes qui contribuent de façon modeste au financement de sa mission.

En effet, si Sergio ne demande rien pour les soins qu’il propose aux plus défavorisés, ceux-ci, en retour, l’ont gratifié, au cours des années, de nombreux cadeaux principalement sous la forme de costumes traditionnels qui sont pour certains des pièces d’exception que même le musée Anthropologique de Mexico lui empreinte à l’occasion. Cette première journée au cours de laquelle nous nous sommes rencontrés m’a fait découvrir un homme hors du commun ; elle m’a permis également de comprendre peut-être l’origine d’une telle collection.

Certes ces Indiens démunis ont offert leurs plus beaux vêtements, mais n’est-ce pas plutôt leur parure qu’ils ont donnée en échange d’une peau neuve…

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Forces for Good - by Maureen

As pointed out by Phil Cubata at Gift Hub, the new book Forces for Good by Lelie Crutchfield and Heather Grant has some good lessons for those of us committed to affecting social change.

Here are the six main findings in the book:

1. Work with government and advocate for policy change
2. Harness market forces and see business as a powerful partner
3. Convert individual supporters into evangelists for the cause
4. Build and nurture nonprofit networks, treating other groups as allies
5. Adapt to the changing environment
6. Share leadership, empowering others to be forces for good

Reviewers of the book claim that Crutchfield and Grant have an important idea:
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and coauthor of Built to Last, wrote: “Crutchfield and McLeod Grant have made a significant contribution with a Very Big Idea–the shift in focus from building an organization to building a movement. Inspired and inspiring, this book can change the way the world works by changing how leaders think.”

David Gergen, professor of public service and director, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government echoed Collins' praise: “The [nonprofits] having the greatest impact these days are those that have moved beyond old traditions. They are entrepreneurial, adaptive, externally-oriented, and sometimes a little messy. Working together, they are not only trying to fix problems, but also reform whole systems. For people who want to change the world—and who doesn’t?—this book provides an invaluable road map. Bravo!”

Ditto from Larry Brilliant, executive director, and Sheryl Sandberg, board member,, and vice president, “Global problems like abject poverty and climate change require innovative, scaleable solutions. We have so much to learn from these six practices because they’re what lead to wide-scale social change.”--

Everyone seems to agree that Forces for Good outlines the characteristics of today's non-profit ideal. So how does Heritance measure up? Uh humm, to be perfectly honest, not very favorably, at least not yet.

Here's how the Heritance report card to date:

1. Work with government and advocate for policy change = F

(We have not yet worked with government agencies -- in part due to the fact that in the world of museums, especially in the US, the government and policy -- except in absentia -- do not play a role. Perhaps our role will be in part to point to this absence. )

2. Harness market forces and see business as a powerful partner = F

(We are talking with a start-up LLC about a joint venture and have applied for foundation money from an established business guru, but we have not formed any partnerships with corporations -- not even for money -- nor used market forces to our advantage.)

3. Convert individual supporters into evangelists for the cause = D

(Those of us who support Heritance are evangelists and have a respectable pitch, but there aren't many of us. We should recruit supporters with the goal of training them to be evangelists. Sounds creepy, but I think that is in part because many of us have become quite passive in our giving. In society at large, it is acceptable -- in fact preferable -- to quietly give money and do nothing that resembles a "sale". Society is sales averse, except in the realm of the object, where sales pitches abound.)

4. Build and nurture nonprofit networks, treating other groups as allies = C

(Given its year of existence, Heritance has done a respectable job. We have built an extensive network of museum professionals, where there was no network before. We have dozens of partner museums and have good working relations with a number of different kinds of organizations. Or course, we could do more to network and make our networks know.)

5. Adapt to the changing environment = C

(Again, given our youth, a C not a bad score. Our mere existence is due to a process of environmental call & response. Heritance is the product of an on-going conversation between partners, participating museum professionals, board members, advisors, funders, etc. and our process a cycle of planning-implementation-evaluation. But we don't deserve an A. There is soooo much we are not yet doing when you compare Heritance to an organization like -- which also is a young org. We need to recruit more people and and become people who look, listen, learn and experiment with the multiple media available to us.)

6. Share leadership, empowering others to be forces for good = A

(I would give us an unmitigated A. As far as I can see -- which may not be far, since I'm the Director -- Heritance has acted upon its commitment to empower people in the internal, as well as, external aspects of our organization's work. We teach museum stakeholders how to optimize the resources of their own museums in order to best serve their communities. We have broken down the traditionally thick walls between museums through our international network of museum professionals. Internally, again insofar as I can see, we practice transparent and inclusive processes of decision-making.)

So, what do I make this report card. Not bad for a beginner but could -- and should -- be better with continued efforts in the areas we're doing well and more attention to the areas that don't yet exist for us.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Open Collections: Quai de Branley, Paris - by Maureen


The photo "Open Collections: Quai de Branley, Paris" shows an example of a display which is after the fashion of, but not quite, an open collection.

The photo shows a collection of musical instruments in the Musée Quai de Branley in Paris. It is an open collection in so far as a large number of objects are made available to the visitor library-style (in stacks with extensive information attached). Proponents of the "open collection" argue that the museum, like a library, should serve as a resource to visitors which promotes and supports active exploration and interpretation on the part of the individual visitor.

The open collection is one way in which to conteract the dominant trend in today's museums towards the theme park, window shop and box office hit. As in many contemporary public spaces, more and more frequently the museum visitor assumes -- and is encouraged to assume -- the role of passive consumer. They consume information and trinkets (displays, interpretations, experiences and gift shop souvenirs) which other people have constructed for the sole purpose of their consumption.

Although some museum professionals exploit the passive consumerism of their visitors, others -- such as the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum -- are disturbed by it and encourage active and conscious visitor involvement.

To take a virtual tour of LETM

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

How do museums "own" the past? - by Maureen

Museums own the past in at least two ways: 1) as guardians of the physical objects and 2) as tellers of the objects’ stories. And thank goodness!

Although I am critical of some aspects of how museums realize their missions, I think that there are good reasons why museums should not (if it were even a question on the table!) stop possessing collections in the way.

First of all, the public can’t be trusted. People have rarely proven reliable agents in the protection and public sharing of treasures. (Look at the destruction of the Bagdad Museum. Look at the thousands of priceless treasures that have disappeared underground, often illegally into private collections.) The museum, like the library, is an institution founded on with dual purpose of safekeeping and sharing humanity’s collective past.

Furthermore, not just anybody can unlock some of the most interesting stories which objects hold. Some stories can be told with the help of special skills and training, such as scientific technology for dating pottery and curatorial methods for establishing the authenticity of a painting. Many museums provide the infrastructure necessary to conduct this research. Most museums privilege these stories, because they contribute to the collective wisdom of humanity.

You might find fault with a museum’s preference for the specialist’s story (and many museums try to counter this tendency), but there is no denying that an archeologist of classical Greece will read a Grecian urn in a different way than a 14-year old first-time visitor. To me, this difference is worth preserving.

I do not meant to say that the 14-year-old’s story is devoid of interest to the museum or public, but it would be a shame to assume the two stories were interchangeable. This treatment would inflate the value of the teenager’s story and devalue the stories of the specialist who has invested time in acquiring the training and base of knowledge from which to pursue a clearer understanding of the past.

In my mind, Museums are important in so far as they probe (and lead us to probe) the questions: “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?”

Having spoken in defense of the museum, I would like to emphasize that it is wrong-headed for anyone, including a museum professional, to assert that there is one true story about an object and that specialists hold the key. Many museum professionals would be the first to agree and some have worked hard to modify their museum’s philosophy concerning board composition, accessions, exhibits, labeling, and programming.

Insofar as a museum fails to behave consistently with a belief in the object as vehicle to many, diverse, perhaps irreconciliable stories, it fails to conduct Gauguin’s inquiry and, in my mind, it fails to fulfill the museum’s dual mission as steward and story teller.