Sunday, December 21, 2008


Heritance Weekly Member Update (WEMUP)

TWITTER: Follow developments at Open Museum online on the Twitter account “OM_o”

OPEN MUSEUM ONLINE, OM_o: Alpha testing is underway for three pilot exhibits. OM_o is building a fourth exhibit, Sculpturefest 2008. It is possible to view the site, at this time, but not register till 2009. Note the new abbreviation is OM_o, the same as the twitter account name.

BLOG IN-HERITANCE: From now on, the WEMUP news will also appear on the Blog/news page of the Heritance website &

BLOG OM_o: Open Museum online (OM_o) has named its blog “Museums without Borders”. To read the latest post “Won’t OM_o steal my visitors?”

CONFERENCES & DEMOS: OM_o has submitted an application to do an OM_o demo at ‘Museums and the Web 2009’ (MW), April 14-18 in Indianapolis, Indiana. MW is the largest international conference devoted to the exploration of art, science, natural and cultural heritage on-line:

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Changing Faces: Museums & Community

A recent study conducted by Museum Insight Audience finds that only 11% to 21% of core visitors to museums find that the museum adequately reaches out to the community and connects with it. And that is "core visitors"! "Non core visitors", which is a growing segment of the total population, doesn't think museums connect at all.

MIA points to the need for museums to build a strong relationship with their communities: The face of the American population is changing rapidly; as the proportion of Americans who comprise the traditional museum audience will shrink considerably over the next thirty years. Building a strong relationship with the local community is an important method of creating and maintaining relevance to an evolving audience.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sporting events or museums: did you know...?

.. that according to the same NPR article mentioned earlier today, over 6 times as many people attend museums as major-league sporting events? About 140 million people in the U.S. will attend sporting events this year; about 840 million attended museums last year. Of course, many more watch sports online, but that's instead of attending. On the other hand online museums "serve as teasers"', actually inspirintg people to visit real-life exhibits.

npr: 'The Memory of Mankind'

On November 24, National Public Radio launched a series on museums in the 21st century . The first broadcast, which you can hear now tells the story of what the former Director of the Met, Philippe de Montebello, calls "The Memory of Mankind". The story wends its way from the ancient Greeks (who coined the term "mouseion", a temple to the Muses, who kept watch over the arts and sciences) up to the Museum of Online Museums .

A poem on Heritance

Not Alone

For Lewis Hyde

light snow

The capacious is

a heritance
across a land

resembling waves ,


(c) Peter Money
Reprinted with permission of the author.

Peter sent a note saying that he had been inspired to write the poem by a NYT article about Lewis Hyde (author of the Gift Economy)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Open Museum Online RFC

Heritance is currently working on the development of Open Museum Online.

Open Museum Online is a Web 2.0 service that allows any individual or organization, regardless of funding, location, or current technological capabilities, to create dynamic online exhibits of their collections. Exhibits can include text, photo, video and audio contributions, all of which will be automatically aggregated into a global museum. Open Museum Online users can participate as curators (creators of exhibits), or as visitors to the exhibits. Visitors interact with the exhibits on a variety of levels, including commenting, rating, tagging, making guided tours, contributing content, and joining in community-wide discussions. (potentially a screen shot here of the listing of facets in the global museum with a tag cloud?)

A bit dry, but here's the summary report of the Heritance Request for Comments on the concept of Open Museum Online....

Heritance recently created a preliminary market research survey to gauge interest and gain feedback regarding a proposed Open Museum Online project. Heritance sent an email with a Request for Comments to 104 museum industry professionals who subscribed to Heritance's WEMUP (Weekly MEMber UPdate).

The RFC outlined the concept of OMO and asked recipients for feedback on several aspects of the project: proposed product features, cost to participate, enticements to adoption, and stumbling blocks to adoption. The survey also asked recipients for any additional comments they would like to add. Heritance set a deadline for responses of (date).

25 of the 104 total recipients responded to the survey. 22 respondents answered all the questions in the survey; 3 responded to the email but did not answer some or all of the questions.

Many features of the proposed Open Museum Online product appealed to respondents. The most appealing features to respondents in the survey were the perceived ease of use of the product, its accessibility, the idea of OMO as a venue for collaboration and mentorship, the potential for interaction between museums, and the potential opportunities for younger museum employees to get more involved in planning and creating museum exhibits.

Respondents also expressed multiple concerns about some of OMO's proposed features. Recipients listed 18 different concerns they had about potential OMO features. One respondent was concerned about displaying objects out of the context of the museum; another suggested that the project would require extra work for an already overworked staff. Several respondents worried that a rating system of exhibits could lead to overly negative ratings, making it necessary for museum personnel to expend additional time monitoring the exhibits. Other respondents felt that features were missing, including a 360-degree view or different angled view of objects.

Responses about how much museums would be willing to play for a service like OMO were quite mixed. Several respondents were unable to provide a concrete figure, while others suggested figures ranging from a few hundred dollars to a thousand euros. Others suggested it be a percentage of the museums' marketing budgets, or a sliding scale, and some simply responded with $0.

When asked what they envisioned as the biggest stumbling blocks to adoption, respondents indicated they were concerned about busy staff or lack of staff; lack of time, technical ability, and technology (internet); cost; constraints on creativity and collaborative creating; and the risk of trivializing objects by taking them out of context. Respondents also expressed concerns about copyright, multiple languages and lack of digital material.

When asked what they thought would entice museums to implement OMO, respondents offered several suggestions, including a demonstration of effectiveness with other museums and communities; targeting a larger and different audience, such as younger users and users in different countries; using OMO as an education tool or for curriculum development. Some respondents suggested that ease of use, visual attractiveness, and a working online sample would be enticements for museums to try OMO. Other respondents suggested that the possibilities of interaction between research and professional colleagues would be appealing to museums, as would OMO's use as a marketing tool or working tool for co-curating exhibits, and the idea of contributing to global bank of information on objects.

While respondents have some reservations about aspects of OMO, 20 out of 25 indicated that Heritance should pursue development of OMO. 1 respondent indicated that Heritance should not and 4 were undecided. Based on the positive response to the RFC and subsequent conversations with some respondents, Heritance has decided to proceed with the development of OMO in concert with Zirgoflex, a registered Vermont L3C (designated low-profit) social venture specializing in the design, development, and deployment of web-based products supporting public sphere collaborative content production.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Stories from a Wounded Country: South Africa

Philippe Denis and Radikobo Ntsimane, announced the release of their new book: Oral History in A Wounded Country: Interactive Interviewing in South Africa, Philippe Denis is professor of History of Christianity and Radikobo Ntsimane is a researcher in Oral History and Religious History, both at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Philippe and Radikobo are collaborators with Heritance on the Mpophomeni Ecomuseum in the former black Township of KwaZulu-Natal. They are respectively the director and the deputy-director of the Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

They write: With the end of apartheid and the exciting, but elusive, advent of a new nation, South Africa is witness to the emergence of a new generation of oral historians whose aim is to develop a broader, more inclusive and culturally sensitive understanding of the South African past. In a country still wounded by a legacy of racial discrimination, the retrieving of oral memories is a task more urgent than ever.

Oral History in a Wounded Country shows how the cultural, political, socio-economic and intellectual evolutions that gave birth to South Africa as we know it today affect the oral history process. It seeks to help practitioners, whether they use oral history as one technique among others to gain a better knowledge of the past, or envisage oral history as an academic discipline in its own right, to reflect critically on their practice and find better ways of handling the interview process. The challenge is to appreciate the complexity of South Africa’s diverse histories, while being attentive to the dynamics of the interview and their effect on both interviewers’ and interviewees’ sense of identity.

The book can be purchased on-line via and will be available on from the end of October.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Openness in the air

Although some museum curators and directors fear that technolgy poses a threat to the quality of exhibits and the integrity of the institution, many other museum people see the Web, in particular Web 2.0, as an opportunity to make the museum into a public institution that engages with its environment. Open Museum Practices, including Open Museum Online, are the raison d'être for Heritance. Heritance is not alone. This year dozens of annual museum conferences are focused on technology and its democratizing effects. Here's one such conference and a good explanation of the growing interesting in the Open Museum.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Hidden Treasures for Museum People

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the US National Parks Service has created a clear, simple and comprehensive Museum Handbook that is free and available online. Given that the Parks Service is responsible for the stewardship of hundreds of parks (I stopped counting, when I arrived at "C" in the index and already reached 40 parks), I should have realized sooner that museums, as much as parks, are their core business. They maintain an attractive, but limited because it is static, website , that gives you a feel for the scope and value of the collections in their care. The site carries the somewhat uninspiring name, Museum Management Program that points to a web 1.0 creation whose end ought to be near. I'd love to see this site undertake to engage visitors through the Web 2.0 technology that is available.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Looking back at 1988 Yellowstone Fires

NPR did an excellent story this week about the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park and how the media coverage of the fire led to public outrage and misunderstanding.

I'd recommend a listen to anyone who's interested in how public sites of national symbolic significance can be recast depending on the story that gets told and the facts shared.

Listening to the report, I also wondered how the emotionally charged handling of the story at the time created a lasting impression in the American public about the essential meaning of wildfires, and the drama and emotional tone of wildfire stories.

The report is by Liane Hansen and Laura Krantz.

Friday, September 5, 2008


Museum of Online Museums (MoOM), the invention of Coudal Partners, is a hip site that has recently received lots of recognition. As CP recounts on their website:

Tons of new listings and exhibits have been posted for the summer at our Museum of Online Museums. The MoOM was featured on All Things Considered and in the NY Times. It was also selected as one of Time Magazine's 50 Coolest Websites and was discussed on a recent episode of NPR's Hello Beautiful!

MoOM features a variety of exhibits which it groups into three categories "museum campuses" ( linked to "bricks and mortar" institutions), "permanent collection" (of particular interest to design and advertising) and "galleries, exhibitions and shows" (ecclectic and ever-changing). Although a visit to MoOM is worth the detour, it does not permit the full range of visitor participation you might imagine in today's Web 2.0 world where tagging, rating, comments, and reviews are the norm.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Voice Mail Museum, what next?

How far can museums go with interactivity? Voice mail museum is a nifty experiment in content creation by visitors. Is it just a kooky and creative anomaly or a premonition of the way museum's do exhibits? The popularity of the Brooklyn Museum's exhibit, Click, whose collection consists of photos taken and selected by the public suggests that the latter is highly possible. Even probable. We may be living through what historians will later see as seismic shift in what the public expects and gets out of the museum experience.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

NPR Story about Music and Contemporary Art in Houston

NPR All Things Considered story by Wade Goodwyn highlights the pairing of music and artwork.
(Thanks to Kathy for picking this up)

American Museum - Music Part of Human Origins

At the Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, there's a section on the origins of music. I hope to check it out soon.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Music and Museums

One part of culture that I feel that museums struggle to represent is
music. You might say - but music isn't meant for museums! It's meant
for concert halls, stages, cafes and venues of all kinds, but not the
dry silence of a museum. (It is kind of striking how it seems
everywhere you go - the grocery store, old navy, the elevator, the
dentist, Wal-mart, a soundtrack is pumping out, but museums are usually
dead quiet).

Cleveland's Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame tried to find a way to show and
represent music history, with mixed results. It's been criticized for
being overly commercial and vapid, and the building an eyesore.

A couple years ago I visited the Morgan Library and Museum in New
York, and on the top floor was an exhibition of priceless original
musical scores - the original handwritten sheet music by famous composers.
What the curators did was pair these scores with recordings and
headphones of the music performed by orchestras, so you could listen
and follow along. In some cases you could listen to several versions. There's something thrilling about getting inside the mind of a composer by seeing his handwritten notes and hearing the
music simultaneously.

How do you imagine music could be represented in a museum?
Take our poll on the left-handside of the page !

Monday, August 11, 2008

News from the Georgian Daily

A link to news from Georgia.

Petition by Secretariat of the Georgia Symposium on the Arts

The Secretariat of the International Symposium of Georgian Art has sent the following request to sign their petition:

Dear Friends--this is the least we can do to stop the Old Soviet
Monster, the Russian Military Complex, to pour on Georgia its hatred
towards the West, the US and the whole civilized world and its
democratic values.

Please sign this petition and send it to as many people as
possible. It's up to you to support and protect Georgia's

Statement to Russia from ICOM Poland

A copy of the letter to ICOM by the Chair of ICOM Poland:

Dear Allisandra, Ms. President of ICOM,

The Polish Committee of ICOM is terrified by the Georgia war. For the next time we are faced with unreasonable, cold aggression which destroys not only human beings, but many of splendid culture places. I must express my impression that we all - the members of ICOM should immediately react and help Georgian people to secure their museums, culture places, architecture. I think we all ICOM members should claim to both presidents of Russia and Georgia to stop destructions. Please take under consideration our proposition.

With kind regards,

Chair ICOM Poland
+48 22 7330489; +48 696 048 780

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Georgians on their own against the Russians

Georgia, "the darling of the west", has been the recipient of much international aid and investment, as well as special attention from the US administration, most recently by a visit from Condoleezza Rice. And yet no country is likely to respond to the Russian invasion with more than a "tsk tsk".

It's not a question of failing to join NATO either. Even if Georgia had been admitted, as the US administration wanted, it's hard to believe that NATO would have responded with force. Among other concerns, Moscow is a short flight to Berlin, the Russians have a hand on the valve to Europe's natural gas pipeline and everyone knows that US military and public don't have the bandwidth to enter any new arenas. The Russians further sealed Georgia's fate by timing the invasion while the world was distracted by the Beijing Olympics and the final months of the US presidential race.

It seems to me that Georgia is on their own against the Russians.

Here is what some Georgians have to say about the situation in a plea for the world to respond:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sacred and Secret Heritage: The diversity and sensitivities of African cultural traditions: A personal view

by Helene Vollgraaff
Heritance Participating Professional and Secretary of the South Africa ICOM

The South African Museums Association (SAMA) 72nd National Conference took place from 24 – 26 June 2008 in Cape Town and included a special session on Diversity and the Role of Museums organised by ICOM-SA. The conference was well attended by just over 140 delegates. This report is a personal view and does not reflect the full discussion at the conference. The conference proceedings will be published by the South African Museums Associations.

Despite the theme, the discussions at the debate at the conference focused on identity issues, access and power relationships. As Professor Crain Soudien, the facilitator of the wrap-up session put it, the conference dealt with the pressing issues facing South Africa in every sphere today. In some ways, the debate mirrored discussions around xenophobia and the brand of African nationalism associated with the current South African government.

A controversial perspective, but one not without significant support, is the opinion that defines “authentic Africa” as “black Africa”. This definition of African excludes people from European and Asian descent, many of whose roots on the continent date to the 17th century. While not explicitly stated, it also excludes the descendents of the first inhabitants of the country, namely the Khoisan. This view of the “authentic African tradition” considers other influences as a foreign corruption of the “authentic” and sees the museum as having the task of conserving and documenting this “authentic” version in cooperation with the gatekeepers of these traditions. One speaker cautioned the delegates to focus on their own culture as one cannot fully understand the traditions of the “other”.

Though no serious heritage practioner will argue against a process of informed consultation with community members and respect for traditional structures, the above perspective does raise serious concerns. Are traditions static or should one accept that living in a globalised world will influence traditions and that adapting to these influences is as valid as changes in previous centuries? And, how do one deal with discriminatory traditional practices, for example against women? Is respect for traditional practices not sometimes used to continue with these discriminatory practices and to affirm the position of those already in power?

An interesting paper in this regard was that of Paul Tichmann of the Luthuli Museum. The Luthuli Museum honours the life of Chief Albert Luthuli (1898-1967), a former ANC President and South Africa’s first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Luthuli, Chief of the Grooutville Umvoti Mission Reserve, challenged discriminatory traditional systems by allowing women into the kgotla. The kgotla is the centre of political power and decision-making in traditional African societies and women are still excluded from this powerful arena. Luthuli thereby indicated that these traditions may be challenged and adapted to conform to contemporary human rights values. The main thrust of Tichmann’s paper was that the Luthuli Museum uses the value system of Chief Luthuli to address contemporary social problems such as the recent xenophobic attacks.

Paul Tichmann’s paper was also one of the contributions that put a South African twist on the meaning of the sacred. Does sacred imply a religious site or can a site of significant political meaning also considered to be sacred? Another paper in this regard is that of Sabine Marshall of the University of KwaZulu-Natal whose paper dealt with two museums on the site of the Battle of Blood River (1836). The Battle of Blood River between the Voortrekkers and the local Zulus has been a significant symbol within African nationalism for many years. The two museums gave opposing views of the battle and Blood River is a clear example of a site that is sacred (in the political sense) to a section of one ethnic group, but has little relevance to the rest of South Africans. Marshall argued that the existence of two museums, a strategy that has been duplicated elsewhere, does provide a workable solution in respecting diversity in the country as it acknowledges that sites/events may have different meanings to different sections of the South African population.

Another theme that ran through the conference was that of museums as agents of social change (to borrow the phrase from ICOM). The keynotes to the ICOM-SA session, Kurt Dewhurst, Marsha McDowell and Diana N’Diaye urged museums to measure their success not in outputs, but in terms of the impact they have on society. My own paper, Depicting Religions: The Iziko Bo-Kaap Museum as case study, argued that religions are diverse and one always have to make choices of which viewpoint will be emphasised. Though these choices should be informed by thorough research and an understanding of the dynamics of the community, it will also be informed by your own values – in the case of Out and About Muslim Women Today, support for gender equality (a viewpoint that have strong support amongst Muslims in Cape Town).

During the wrap-up session, it was argued that museums should not only reflect cultural traditions, but critically engage with them. It was also argue that people are relational beings – we know ourselves through interaction with the “other”, including people of other cultures. Museums do not only play a role in creating understanding between different cultures, but also by focusing on which values are shared across cultures. In his wrap-up, Prof Crain Soudien urged museums to be bold and to become active participants in public debate.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Traditional Dance in Adjara, Georgia

During our visit to the Gonio Fortress at Batumi (on the Black Sea near the border with Turkey) we were treated to a performance of polyphonic singing and traditional dance.

On the radio

This npr story talks about American museum pioneer Charles Willson Peale is worth a listen.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Georgia as Crucible and Crossroads

During the International Symposium of Georgia Arts, there were constant reminders that Georgia is a crucible and crossroads of European and Asian culture: the haunting choral singing, the churches abuzz with chanting and incense, the dagger throwing dancers, the wines and chivalric toasts, the Bronze Age treasures... The Chavchavadze family estate provides a concise explanation of the historical role of Georgia in the region:

Georgia has emerged as the birthplace of the first Europeans and is often called the "cradle of European civilization." Remains of the earliest hominids, outside of Africa, were unearthed in 1991 at Dmanisi, Georgia. Srveral skulls and a full skeleton were found; they are estimated to be about 1.8 million years old thus representing an evolutionary bridge between man’s ape like forebears and ourselves.

The next major chapter in Georgia’s history is related to a treasure trove of gold and silver objects discovered in Vani, a templar city located in Western Georgia. The items, which date from the 8th to the 1st Century BC, are linked to the prosperous settlement of Colchis which might have been colonized or might have been a trading center. They are also linked to the legendary Greek hero, Jason, and the Argonauts. Vani produced vast arrays of exquisite artifacts including potterykat, gold and silver jewelry, graceful bronze sculptures, and a vast variety of funerary pieces. The pieces are characterized by advanced metallurgical techniques and Greek and Persian influences.

During the last century of pre-Christian Georgia, the Georgian Kingdom was tied to Rome. In 330 AD, King Mariam III adopted Christianity which strengthened Georgia’s ties to the Byzantine Empire. In 645 AD, neighboring Arabs captured Tbilisi. In 813, the Bagradids, a royal family of Armenian descent, ruled a part of Georgia, and in the 11th Century Bagrat V united East and West Georgia.

In 1099-1125, David IV (David the Builder) transformed the country by defeating the Turks and expanded Georgia’s territory Southward into Armenia and Eastward to the Caspian Sea. The golden age that he ushered in concluded when Queen Tamar’s reign ended in 1212. The Mongols invaded Georgia in 1236. The capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 began three centuries of Turkish domination in Georgia.

In the late 1700s, Erekle II united the Eastern provinces of Kartli and Kakheti. He soon turned to Russia to gain protection from the unpopular Turks. In 1801, Tsar Alexander I of Russia abolished the Kingdom of Kartli and Kakhetia and Russian prescence steadily increased. after 1000 years, the Bagradid Dynasty ended its reign. In 1810, Tsar Alexander annexed the Western Kingdom of Imereti. As a result of several Russian wars against Turkey and Persia, other territories were annexed to Georgia, a part of the Russian’s strategic base in the Caucasus.

In 1918 Georgia declared independence and was under British protection from 1918-1920.In 1921, the Red Army invaded Georgia and from 1922-1936, Georgia became a part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Republic. In 1936, the federated republic was split up as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The three countries remained separate Soviet Social Republics of the Soviet Union until the end of 1991.

In 1989, Georgian nationalism again began to resurge. In 1991, Georgia became an independent state. At present, it is the focus of conflicting interests between the U.S. and Russia. It is also facing a challenge from two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have close ties to Russia. Nonetheless, Georgia aspires to join Nthe North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU).

Monday, June 16, 2008

Arguments for Organizational Diversity

Bringing new members into the organization, even if they're less experienced and less capable, actually makes the group smarter simply because what little the new members do know is not redundant with what everybody else knows. As [legendary organizational theorist James G.] March wrote, "The effect does not come from the superior knowledge of the average new recruit. Recruits are, on average, less knowledgeable than the individuals they replace. The gains come from their diversity."
. . .
Ultimately, diversity contributes not just by adding different perspectives to the group but also by making it easier for individuals to say what they really think. [...] Independence of opinion is both a crucial ingredient in collectively wise decisions and one of the hardest things to keep intact. Because diversity helps preserve that independence, it's hard to have a collectively wise group without it.
. . .
To me, that's one of the (and maybe the) great virtues of collective decision making: it doesn't matter when an individual makes a mistake. As long as the group is diverse and independent enough, the errors people make effectively cancel themselves out, leaving you with the knowledge the group has. Now I realize that to some people (who have old me so) this sounds either vaguely mystical or else overly simplified. But it just happens to be the way the world works.
From James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Characteristics of a Democratic Organization

From the WorldBlu blog:

  • Relationships are adult-to-adult, not parent-to-child.
  • Leadership happens at every level of the organization, not just at the top.
  • You're paid for the value you bring to the organization, not your job title.
  • Everyone knows to whom and for what they're accountable.
  • Transparency isn't considered scary.
  • Formality and polices are avoided in favor of informality and principles.
  • Humor and having fun is actually encouraged.
  • You can access real-time financial information about your organization's performance anytime you want.
  • Change = life, not death.
  • The employee manual can be summed up in one sentence: "Use common sense!"
  • You look forward to meetings where you can collaborate and share ideas.
  • There's a spirit of ownership in every project in which you're involved.
  • You either helped create or strongly share in the organization's purpose and vision statements.
  • Incentives aren't used to motivate employees - meaningful work is.
  • You never have to ask to go to the bathroom.
  • Your life outside of work is as valued as your life at work.
  • You receive real-time, ongoing constructive feedback from your co-workers, and you're often publicly acknowledged for excellent work.
  • Failure is seen as a right-of-passage to success.
  • Thinking differently and challenging assumptions is encouraged.
  • Alignment comes from a shared sense of purpose, not automatic agreement.
  • Your job is one of your favorite places to be.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Limits of Open Museography

In fairness, no discussion of Open Museography can avoid acknowledging the potential pitfalls of any public discussion of contentious topics. I am sure we can all think of ‘hot button’ topics on which the differing parties are deeply committed to irreconcilable points of view.  

In Rwanda, the constitution makes it a crime to question the government's version of the genocide. That is, of course, pretty raw history, but then, in the United States, the two words “Enola Gay” are enough to send most curators scurrying for cover. 

Unfortunately, the playground rule that "your right to swing your fist ends where my personal space begins" doesn't translate quite so smoothly into the realm of narrative. We can't simply say "Your right to tell a story ends where my story begins." And yet, silence is not a solution. Peaceful coexistence depends upon dialog and reconciliation. 

Perhaps what Cicero said of advice holds also for exhibitions: they are judged by results, not by intentions.

South Africa, What's Next?

Throughout May, there were violent attacks on immigrants in South Africa. Helene Vollgraaff, a Heritance participating professional who lives in Cape Town and is the Sectretary/Treasurer of the South Africa ICOM, recently sent us these maps from the May 24 Die Burger and the following summary of dates and places that violence took place:
11 May: Alexandria, Johannesburg
16 – 18 May: Attacks spread to East and West Rand of Johannesburg including Diepsloot, Tokoza, Actonville, Tembisa, Primrose, Cleveland, Jeppe, Berea, Hillbrow, Zandspruit
17 May: Attacks in Mpumalanga in Lebohang and Leandra
20 May: KZN: Umbilo (Durban)
21 May: Sebokeng, Vanderbijl Park in Gauteng; Villiers in the Free State
22 May: Knysna (southern Cape); Spread in KZN to Bottlebrush Squatter Camp, Chatsworth and Cato Manor
23 May: KZN: Quarry Heights & Kenville in Durban
23 May: Cape Town: Khayelitsha, Guguletu, Nyanga, Philippi, Strand, Du Noon, Masipumelele

Helene also asked Heritance to distribute the SA ICOM Declaration regarding the xenophobic, ethnic and crimincal violence in South Africa. This declaration

calls on the heritage and museum sectors, national and international, in terms of their mandate to engage with public issues of social change, to support efforts to address the root causes, avoidance and ending of such violence.
Philippe Denis, a member of the Heritance Council of Advisors who lives in Pietermaritzburg, KZN, confirmed that everyone is South Africa is concerned by the violence and that foreigners are afraid, in particular African and Asian immigrants and their descendents.

On the positive side, the public sector, in particular the universities, NGO's and churches, rose up in protest against the violence and the attacks have ceased. The underlying problems fueling the xenophobia, however, have not been resolved and a new crisis has emerged. Immigrants are afraid to return to the Townships. There are approximately 100,000 displaced people, many of them living in unhygienic and overcrowded tent towns, church halls, etc. Furthermore, the country is entering winter, which can be very cold and wet. Although many groups have reacted to the call for the donation of food, clothes, blankets, and so on, the needs are greater than the means and the xenophobia in the townships persists.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Does it make sense to speak of a museum's 'visitor community'?

We Americans are apt to use terms like 'family' and 'community' somewhat loosely as a way of expressing a vaguely but positive sense of good-natured friendliness. We speak approvingly of the 'classroom family' or the 'model railroading community' in ways that can strike observers from other cultures as downright peculiar. 

It came as something of a surprise to me to discover that to many Frenchmen, the term 'community' is practically derogatory, especially when opposed to the notion of 'society'. When Émile Durkheim translated Ferdinand Tönnies' terms 'Gemeinschaft' and 'Gesellschaft' as 'communauté' and 'société,  the French claustrophobic distaste for excessive togetherness can be heard in Durkheim's description of 'communauté': "c'est une masse indistincte et compacte qui n'est capable que de mouvements d'ensemble" (it is an indistinct and compact mass capable only of collective movement). 

No doubt that is why, after living in France for six years, I feel a certain trepidation about speaking of a museum's 'visitor community'.  Do the visitors to a museum constitute a community? Would that even be a good thing?

Or, if we value openness, would we not, perhaps, do better to concentrate, instead, on the universe of potential visitors?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What's good governance?

An interesting document by UNESCAP -- What is Good Governance?

"Governance" is not new. It is as old as human civilization. Simply put "governance" means: the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented)...
Good governance has 8 major characteristics. It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Reading between the lines

Article 8 of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity states that cultural goods and services are commodities of a unique kind:

"In the face of present-day economic and technological change, opening up vast prospects for creation and innovation, particular attention must be paid to the diversity of the supply of creative work, to due recognition of the rights of authors and artists and to the specificity of cultural goods and services which, as vectors of identity, values and meaning, must not be treated as mere commodities or consumer goods."
The casual reader might well be forgiven for wondering what the motivation might have been for this somewhat cryptic statement. The business about the "rights of artists and authors" clearly has something to do with intellectual property and copyright protection - but the article seems to be suggesting that such legal and economic considerations need to be balanced off against something else. But against what and in what way? One has the sense that a certain amount of horse-trading and compromise went into the construction of this document and that clarity may have suffered for the sake of unanimity.

I gained some insight into the underlying issues when I stumbled across the web site of the Canadian-based Coalition for cultural diversity, a coalition of canadian "cultural professionals" from the fields of publishing, film, television, music, performing arts and visual arts. Their primary mission is to defend the principle that cultural policy must not be subject to the constraints of international trade agreements. Their position paper states:
"We all remember the cultural exemption debate that peaked during the final stretch of the Uruguay Round in the Fall of 1993. At the time, the United States had applied tremendous pressure to have culture included in these negotiations, more specifically to have the GATS signatory countries agree to make trade liberalization commitments in the cultural services sector, especially the audio-visual sector (film, television, radio, music), in the same way as in other service sectors. Aware that such commitments would jeopardize many of their cultural policies, and spurred by the remarkable mobilization of the cultural sector, the majority of the member countries -- with France and Canada at the helm -- did not succumb to that pressure. Indeed, as of 1998, only 19 of the 136 WTO member-countries agreed to submit their audio-visual sector, in part or in totality, to the restrictive disciplines of the GATS."
A  useful reminder that vague blanket terms like "cultural diversity" can mean very different things in different contexts.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Muddying the waters

I've been working on an executive summary to introduce Heritance to prospective donors. After writing a paragraph about the importance of promoting cultural diversity, I found myself wondering about the tradeoffs between a community's right to assert it's cultural identity, and the right of the individual to a distinct or different take on that identity. The executive summary may not be the ideal place to tease this nuance out but I suppose I believe something like the following:

Of course, any individual's personal identity is a complex amalgam only partially described by their cultural affiliations. A community's right to assert its cultural identity is properly limited by the individual's right to define their own personal identity as well as by the right to dissenting perspectives on the version concocted by one's own or another cultural or social group. Such differences in perspective and interpretation can be source of tremendous friction. Navigating those differences with tolerance and respect lies at the heart of successful intercultural and interpersonal dialog. These are the skills and practices that the Open Museum seeks to promote.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Black Womanhood at the Hood Museum

Guest post by Kathy J. :
Black Womanhood at the Hood Museum until August 10, 2008 is amazing.

Amongst all its riches I found myself choosing to return to view "Dressed Like Queens", a video and sound installation by Igrid Mwamgi.

The installation is composed of three video screens behind a trinity of cascading translucent curtains: one red, one bronze and one green.

I stood and watched for quite awhile, the piece runs just over twenty minutes, noticing how hard it is for me to really slow down and look and listen. The words became a poem and the video images became a dance. There is so much here that can't be conveyed except by the experience itself. See it if you can.

A few words from the narration that I jotted down: "You don't know." "No shoes." "Rage." "Insecure future", and most affecting for me given that the show details the oppression of black women, "Give them their clothes."

The screens show images of black women with upper torso unclothed. Are all three the same woman? The draperies over the screens provide a sort of covering. The figures are softened and contoured by the folds of the cloth. The woman on the right commands, "Give them their clothes. "The figure on the left contorts her face into frightening shapes and ululates, is it a warrior's countenance? The figure in the center is pregnant and says nothing. She stands, walks away,
approaches, sits, massages her abdomen.

All three use their hands throughout the piece. Their hands sprinkle, pinch, soothe, flow gracefully a language of gesture. After awhile the hands seemed to be speaking as eloquently as the narration reminding me of sign language.

"They should be dressed like queens." is a commanding presence in this remarkable exhibit. My time spent was richly rewarded.

Kathy J

Friday, May 9, 2008

Representing Self and Others

The power of story telling is deceptive. The representations of ourselves in print or image can seem to be "kids stuff" -- a lovely adornment, a harmless pastime or a frivolous diversion form the "serious" business of life. In fact, historically there is nothing further from the truth.

In traditional societies, story telling was ubiquitous and its centrality to the transmission of culture evident. Reflect, for example, on rites of passage the world over -- their mobilization of stories through props, scripts, role plays, costumes, chorus -- for the express goal of transforming the individual's conception of self and their relationship to society. These rituals, as well as the myriad of everyday representations of self and other, are ways in which people have participated in the formation of individual and collective identities.

In contemporary society -- the society dominated by global communications, scientific method and market economies -- the role of stories is somewhat obfuscated. Few people dispute that advertisements affect people's tastes, but the breadth and depth of the question of representation remains mostly unprobed, with some notable exceptions.

Renée Cox is one exception. She has dedicated her professional life to remaking the representation and perception of blackness and black womanhood. In this photo of the Hottentot-Venus , Renée deploys ridiculous plastic breasts and buttocks and her trademark gaze to challenge the traditional representation of the real "Hottentot Venus", the name given to the Saartjie Baartman (1789 - 1816). Saartjie was an orphaned Khoisan servant brought from South Africa to England against her will and enticed into becoming a show girl on the promise of becoming rich. Billed as the Hottentot Venus, Saartjie's dance shows in body-fitting stocking were extremely popular with late-Georgian Londoners and later the Napoleonic French. She became the archetype of African womanhood for many of the epochs artists and upon her death at age 26, her body was dissected and its parts, including her genitalia that were her prime attraction, boiled, bottled and plaster casted to be put on display. In 2002, after 8 years of battle, South Africa secured the return of Saartjie Baartman's remains to her birthplace where they were honored with a state burial.

Today, Saartjie Baartman is modern South Africa's most revered female historical icon of the colonial era. The story of Saartjie Baartman exemplifies the power of image making in identity formation and transformation whether or not the image makers are aware of the power they hold.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Museums and communities?

What's the relationship between a museum and its community? The relationship is at least as messy as the sum of its messy parts. After all, what's a museum and what's a community?

Within a 20-mile radius of my home, institutions as disparate as the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, Billings Farm & Museum, The Main Street Museum, Woodstock Historical Society, Saint-Gaudens Memorial, American Precision Museum and Justin Morrill Homestead all carry the tag line, museum. What do they have in common that makes them a "museum"? I would venture to say "Collections that they make available to the public through a combination of exhibits and educational programs".

Having perused their mission statements, I'd add that they all strive to serve their communities. But what is their community? What is the community of any museum? Is it the people who live locally? If so, is it everyone or only people of certain ages or socio-economic profiles? Or is the community further afield, such as all Dartmouth alumni or scholars of the Cornish Colony? Is it lovers of old documents, houses or machine tools ? Is it people who have contributed money or collections? If so, recently or in the past?

If I hop on the Interstate and drive 2 and 1/4 hours south, I can park at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the "big" museum that is closest to my home in Vermont. Am I part of its community? Or are the residents of Boston? The university students or school children who live nearby? Or is the US or world its community? Or all of the above?

There is no essential answer to the question of which community a museum serves. Likewise, there is no museum which serves all communities. It seems to me that the primary obligation of any museum -- like any institution -- is to define its "target market" (its audience and supporters). Specifying the target market is step one in the mission-writing process.

Harold Skramsted, President Emeritus, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, makes an interesting argument for ithis point in his article Museums and Communities: What Does It All Mean? (page 4) Skramsted suggests that the word "community" is no longer valid, because communities in contemporary America are no longer "communities of need" but rather "communities of choice". Most people today live in a world of overlapping communities. Museums, taking this fact into account, need to shift their focus from serving a community to listening and responding to various communities. Museums need to establish what Skramsted calls their "gyroscope", by writing a mission in which they to set the limits to whom you can listen to and what you can respond to. To set the gyrospope, a museum must the following questions:

1) What is your mission: What is your distinctive and special role and why should anyone care?
2) What is your vision: Where do you want to be at a specific time in the future if you follow your mission?
3) What are your key strategies: How will you get there?

It is only through listening to various communities, that it is possible for museums to connect deeply to the world and thereby serve the people who may become their audience and supporters.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Who Owns the Past?

In this April 21 article on YaleGlobal OnLine, James Cuno makes a compelling argument for the reframing of ownership of antiquities. Rather than being considered the property of nation states -- which come and go over time, sometimes give rise to sectarian violence and often fail to protect the heritage in their trust -- antiquities should be considered the property of all humanity.

Heritance embraces the perspective expressed by Cuno when he wrote: "An understanding that ancient and living cultures belong to all of us could contribute to greater respect for the differences among us and serve as a counterargument to the call for cultural purity that flames sectarian violence."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Elasticity at Moma

It's great when physical collections and their online counterparts play to their own strengths.
Design and the Elastic Mind, an exhibit on the top floor of Museum of Modern Art in New York, shows off trends in design by displaying tools, products and environments you can touch, stand in and around, and follow crowds to what's popular or stray off into a corner that nobody's noticing.
The online part isn't just a rundown of what's at the museum, it lets you check out features or sites that are part of the collection but hard to appreciate without your own computer and browser. The online part is a treat, and includes deep collections of links that bring together innovations in design from products to journalism to the internet.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

What to do about antiquities trafficking? The Community Museum

With the recent police raids on four art museums in California, the trafficking of antiquities has made yet another splash in the news. It’s interesting to note that many of the authorities depicted in this photo from the LA Times are wearing IRS uniforms. Why the IRS? What is the "real" crime at hand? And who are the perpetrators?

The IRS is concerned, because the donation of an object to an art museum constitutes a tax deduction on the US income tax return. As long as the object is valued under $5000 (USD) -- and not surprisingly, most of them are -- the gift does not have to be approved by the IRS. It’s a simple question of a deal between the museum and the donor, much like a receipt for the old fridge dropped off at the Salvation Army. The raided museums are alleged to have granted hundreds of thousands of tax write-offs.

Although there are other legal routes to prosecution, the “real” crime - the one that gets easy traction within the US legal system -- is tax evasion. Tax evasion, which is only subject to US federal and state law, is a more straightforward charge to prosecute than alternatives, such as property theft, violation of international patrimony laws and illegal interstate commerce. It must be stated, however, that as more cases of antiquities theft cases come to trial in the US, a body of law is forming which makes the legal footing firmer, for example The McClain/Schultz Doctrine.

Who are the perpetrators? As explained in books such as The Medici Conspiracy and Stealing History, antiquities trafficking involves a vast network of people from museums, curators, collectors, dealers and auction houses in "market" countries and middle men and looters in "source" countries. 90% of the press and 90% of the resources mobilized by concerned organizations such as S.A.F.E. have been directed at the white collar criminals who are operating in the "market" countries. What about the other part? What about the residents of the "source" country who do the digging, chopping and slashing? What can be done to stop them?

In a nutshell, people dig up and traffick antiquities, because it's lucrative, there are few or no other options for making money and nobody is stopping them. Their activity is morally and often legally wrong but it is perfectly reasonable given the dysfunctional economic, social and political system in which the "looters" exist. The antiquities that end up on the auction tables, display shelves and walls of some of the wealthiest institutions and homes in the West, come from places where people live with endemic poverty, illiteracy, disease and political strife.

The irony and tragedy of the situation is that although vast quantities of money circulates, a relatively small amount goes to the "looter" and none trickles down to the "source" community. Even the discovery and excavation of Sipan, one of the riches finds in MesoAmerica, didn't bring money, jobs, roads or electricity to most of the villagers. They didn't even get the museum. Its collection ended up in a national museum too far away for them to ever see it again. It's not surprising that the chief archeologist who lived and worked with the people of Sipan, Walter Alvero, is afraid to return to this village.

As in the case of most every gold rush in history, a few people strike gold, the treasure disappears and most people are left with little more than a hole in the back yard. At best, the holes are unsightly and at worse, they cause soil erosion, trip and trap animals and people, harbor land mines and guerrillas, and serve as a constant reminder of exploitation and injustice. Holes left by art traffickers can blow up figuratively and literally in people's faces.

Of course, hastily digging up sites to extract the objects also deprives the world of valuable information about the history of humanity. Although it is important to take measures to keep safe archeological sites, it is not sufficient to secure the site strictly for its potential knowledge content. Since knowledge is the equivalent to cash for the archeologist, that would be like letting the art dealer take the objects to sell and keep all the cash. If there is a funded plan to extract treasures, there should also be a funded plan to support the development of the people who live on or around this site.To do otherwise is the moral equivalent of cutting down the forest and leaving with all the wood. The failure to support community development is a lost opportunity at best and a contributing factor to looting and antiquities theft.

The 'community museum" may play an important role in stemming antiquities trafficking by providing "source" country residents with a viable alternative. By "community museum" I mean a public space dedicated to the protection, preservation and promotion of cultural heritage. It serves the local people first: as an engine for economic development, an institution for literacy and life-long learning, a public arena for developing skills in self-determination and governance and place for the formation and transmission of the community's identity. Its interest, however, is not necessarily confined to the local residents. On the contrary, its unique window into the culture it represents, may have an appeal that extends beyond regional, national and even international boundaries.

In addition to thwarting antiquities theft by stemming looting at the source, a "community museum" can have a broader curative effect on the people, as you can see from the outcomes of this Heritance project in the black South African township of Mpophomeni.

This is just part of my pin collection, picked up from New York City sidewalks. I usually find a few every week.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Private Hands - Sensible Hands?

This American Public Media Marketplace report by Andrea Gardner caught my attention. It's about the LA County Museum of Art and its main benefactor, Eli Broad's plans to hold onto his collection, rather than donating it to the museum.
As they discuss in the report, this strategy might actually help museums because they don't have to pay to insure the art, and it makes it more likely that smaller, less well known institutions will have a chance to exhibit the collections through rotating exhibits.

Friday, February 15, 2008

What is a collection? - by Maureen


The concept of a collection calls for scrutiny.

For centuries in South Africa, disenfranchised people, such as the Khomani San depicted in this photo, were nomadic desert dwellers. They didn’t construct great monuments and most of their tools, clothing, accessories, arts were made of degradable materials. Their traditional relationship to the world was such that an individual human (insofar as I know as an outsider to their culture) did not own any parts of the natural world (such as land or trees). Which means apart from rock paintings, it is difficult to speak of San sites or artifacts.

Furthermore, the Khomani San people’s recent history is long on horrific stories (of displacement, deprivation, abuse, genocide) and short on a lifestyle that would lend itself to the collections of objects. Even now, the people living on the Khomani San’s designated land have not yet been able to determine where they will found their principal town. It has been 7-year long process involving various agencies of the national government and the San people themselves who up till now have not been able to reach a decision.

Now the Khomani San working with the South African San Institute based in Upington would like to found their own heritage center. One of the first questions is with what collection?

Given the traditional and historic relationship of the San to the material world, the situation poses an interesting challenge: How do you represent a culture (not your own) which does not own things and (at least historically) does not embrace the dominant concept of ownership?

In the case of the Khomani San, there is a rich array of possibilities, ranging from indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) and desert tracking information to the San language (which is dying out) to traditional tools and crafts. The plan for the venue, like all heritage venues, will have to follow from this basic first decision about what constitutes the collection.

Out of Africa - by Maureen

Here's a photo of Ian Player, a distinguished South African ecology activist, contemplating what fate has served up to him. Look closely at the cream. What do you see? I saw it only after Ian exclaimed, "Why, it's Africa!"

This pudding was the punctuation of our meal together at Phuzamoya ("Wind Spirit" in Zulu) the farm Ian and his wife Ann have lived on for decades. Along with my Heritance ( Jean, Sheila and Claire) I was invited to spend the weekend with them as part of an initiative to preserve, share and promote Ian's life work. The Player house which is filled with a rich and extensive personal library, photos and awards, as well as papers, recorded interviews with Zulu trackers and films is a testimony to Ian's productive career. And Ann's undaunted support for her husband's controversial, at times adversarial, stance vis-a-vis the South African government and society.

Ian, renowned for being a remarkable person, is credited: with the creation of the national park in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa, the founding of the Wilderness School in Durban, the successful initiative to save the white rhino, and the preservation of the Zulu Indigenous Knowlege System transmitted to him by his friend Magqubu Ntombela.

Unfortunately wikipedia doesn't yet have any information about Magqubu, an oversight which I am sure that Ian would want to see corrected. At a pivotal moment in his life, he recognized Magqubu as "the better man" and dedicated the rest of his life to learning what Magqubu could teach him about the ecosytem and the good life and fighting to preserve and promote both.

It seems to me that wikipedia could provide a useful tool and departure point for the Heritance Player project and for that matter for many other museums projects in which there are documents to archive.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Newy Newness

New York City is kind of like a giant curio cabinet, many little cubbies of visual distractions. Even the brand new, modern-till-it-hurts, New Museum of Contemporary Art is hard to pick out from the surroundings. It's not easy to identify it as a special destination, a draw, as a place you'd slap down $12 to tour. There's a lot to compete with. It was designed by architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA with Gensler, New York, and was completed in December, 2007.

My friend Ash and I, dressed in many warm layers, walked to the new New Museum a cold Thursday night to take advantage of the free hours night. We waited in the coat-check drop-off line in the lobby, a glassy floor-to-ceiling area that includes a gift and book shop, a café with uncomfortable chairs and a narrow exhibition area, then with our plastic coat check chips in hand, we took the green elevators upstairs.

The galleries felt a little like a suburban basement where the guests sleep on the pull-out couch: cement floors, clean, but closed off, with only high, narrow windows. It was flatly lit, kind of like a racket ball court. Designing simple, flexible gallery space is a challenge – there is nothing like white to exaggerate corners, edges, shadows, doorways and floors. The New Museum made me appreciate the re-design of the MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, by architect Yoshio Taniguchi that was completed in 2006. This is maybe an unfair comparison considering the MOMA, on 53rd street, reigns over 630,000 square feet (58,529 sq meters) and the New Museum tends a narrow 60,000 sq feet (5,574 sq meters). At the MOMA, moving around the museum there's enough variation that you feel like you're continually discovering, moving between the closed in and the open, down passageways, around corners and up stairways. Navigating around, there are opportunities to overlook other parts of the museum, the courtyard or the surrounding streets. A slice of window will show you a floor of the museum where you were just standing minutes ago and you ou can look across the atrium on the second floor and watch people shuttering by the cut-outs up and down the building, or standing at their own perches looking at you.

Outside at night, the New Museum is a woolly tower of squares that rises over the Bowery, a busy avenue in lower Manhattan. The surface of the building is pinned with a lacey network of industrial steel weaving and tacked onto the façade is a glowing rainbow sign with the words "Hell Yes!" I could probably look this up and find the artist, or the idea behind the sign, but ..yeah, it's a big rainbow glowing sign with the words "Hell Yes!" on an otherwise gray building. "Hell Yes!" is much more noticeable than the museum's own self-ID, a street-level digital sign which glows on a large monitor hoisted up in the lobby.

Museums in New York City use many techniques - flags, signage, outdoor lighting and new architecture - to draw attention to themselves, with varying success. Museums that stand out from their neighbors architecturally probably need less exuberant signs (photos courtesy of Flickr):

MOMA gets by with not-so noticeable vertical flag (I can't tell you how many tourists I've directed to the MOMA from down the block from it)

and its next-door neighbor, the American Folk Art Museum, follows a similar tactic

the MET, has flags to promote special exhibitions, but a main flag, which they might put up at times, I'm not sure, would in any case be sort of like a celebrity wearing nametag

The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, with an addition and renovation by Renzo Piano, has a sign fixed into the ground.

the Rubin Museum of Art (art of the Himalayas) employs all its windows to promote its exhibits, as well as flags, but its main sign is flat against its front, and subtle.

The American Museum of Natural History

The Whitney has a version of vertical signing, also relatively small

MORE about the New Museum of Contemporary Art:

Main website :

You can read about the branding of the New Museum of Contemporary art on the Under Consideration blog, Brand New.

Check out this extraordinary time-lapse video of the construction of the New Museum, lapsing a time period of over a year.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

l'Objet du musée

Lors de mon séjour à San Cristobal au Mexique il m’a été donné de
visiter un petit village nommé Chamoula surtout connu pour son église
et son marché traditionnel. Elle abrite également un musée d’arts et
traditions populaires au détour d’une rue peu passante. Je ne résiste
pas à l’envie de vous le faire découvrir en quelques images

En effet ces photos interrogent un concept auquel je suis
très attaché et que je résumerais de la manière suivante: le bâtiment
musée est un abri et non un support pour les oeuvres qu’il expose. En
d’autres termes, il me semble judicieux, en muséographie, de créer un
dispositif dédié à la présentation d’un objet qui l’affranchisse du
bâti (sol, mur, plafonds). Vous comprendrez d’autant plus ma surprise
en découvrant les images qui suivent. Je vous les livre le sourire
aux lèvres...

Le musée: un abri.

Le musée: un lieu ouvert.

Question: mais quelle est la fonction exacte de cet objet en bambou?

Réponse évidente: étayer le mur

Traduction pour les habitués des visites de musée: "ne touchez pas
aux murs"

On peut s'interroger sur la vocation de ce bout de bois: arme
traditionnelle du gardien de la paix ou poteau dédié à la stabilité
du mur?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Hullaballoo about NPO evaluations

The debate continues on how to evaluate NPO's. Here's a comment I posted on the blog Tactical Philosophy.

As a former public school teacher and administrator and the current Director of an NPO, I have been involved with the challenge of evaluation for a very long time. And I couldn’t agree more with Kevin Jones when he wrote: “It’s (evaluation of NPO’s by fixed metrics) an epistemologically impoverished frame to impose a manufacturing metaphor” and “the first thing metrics have to prove is that their imposition does no harm. stop and think before you stick some crazy metric dashboard into an enterprise”.

Most people are aware of the numerous ways in which schools class children and the role that this sorting plays in the reproduction of society (Bowles and Gintis, Illich, etc). Many smart and dedicated people who are concerned with the problem have spent a lot of time and energy designing and experimenting with alternatives. Although there have been some noteworthy reforms (i.e. the introduction of state-wide standards such as the Vermont Curriculum Standards, the creation of new tools such as rubrics and the student portfolio and the National School Reform’s retraining of teachers as “critical friends”), the general consensus among educators is the following: there is no silver bullet for school reform.

There is no single metric which can be applied to a student, because there is no model person and no given path to any particular end. That is not to say that standardized tests are of no use, but rather that there is no single tool or collection of tools that can tell us everything that is important about an individual. Likewise, there is no standardized collection which tells us all we need to know about an NGO. Because NGO’s are as diverse as people and there a innumerable ways in which they can be effective.

Evaluation is best considered as a process, not a score, a process of give and take between the evaluator and the evaluated. The tools that comprise the process need to be multiple, varied, frequent and responsive in order to accommodate an organization’s difference and growth organizations and the ever-changing values of society.

Furthermore — and Kevin makes this point beautifully — it is critically important that the evaluating process not harm the evaluated. On the contrary, in my mind, a useful test is one that causes the test taker to learn something — a prompt towards self-evaluation and self-directed growth.

NGO’s, like schools, are in the people business, which requires a combination of clarity of mission, rigorous self-evaluation and reporting and constant revision and retelling of the story to garner support. The evaluation process needs to respect the organic nature of the work and support, rather than hinder, its development.

We shouldn’t let pressure (public or market) force us to provide a product that the sector doesn’t call for. Instead, we should try to teach the public how to conduct due diligence and encourage NPO’s to turn the public’s need to know into an opportunity for improved governance.

The Importance of Being Earnest - by Maureen

This week "givewell" went from the limelight on page 1 of the New York Living Business section to the doghouse, when it was uncovered that some of its staff, including its Director were caught "astroturfing"" -- a neologism for formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising that seek to create the impression of being spontaneous, grassroots behavior". Two givewell staff members, one of them the Director, committed the double crime of using their personae to bashing their competitors. Subsequently the virtual swords were unsheathed and battled occurred in the blogosphere, most notably GiftWell and "GiftHub"

Unfortunately for humanity's score card, the debate turned to debacle as an angry mob moved into some spaces clamoring for the demise of Givewell, its CEO and any person who didn't share its point of view. The mob failed to see the irony of the their assumed role as guardians of democracy and representatives of the people. The polite dissenters found themselves faced with the following dilemma: speak up and be decimated or say nothing and hope the angry mob would disperse.

The incident provided fuel for the fire of NPO critics. Over the past year or so, in response to market and public pressure, a number of charity evaluation groups, such as givewell and charitynavigator, have come into existence. The public wants them to do the work of due diligence on their behalf. Some entrepreneurs from the for-profit sector have seized this opportunity to introduce skills gleaned from the for-profit world and a new service to the Non-profit world. Because of the givewell crisis, the response went from mixed to volatile -- leading to debates in the blogosphere.

As the virtual dust settles and the all too real hurt feelings calm after this GiftWell crisis, the question NPO's facing, including Heritance, is who should be the guardian of transparency?

I do not believe in a universal metric for evaluating NPO's as some people have been advocating. Even Google proposes to join the band wagon as this blog explains, "What to measure and why in philanthropy": In my mind, a universal metric smacks of "administrivia" and homogenization of the service sector. It could end up yet another accounting hurdle for struggling non-profits (who've already got a heap of accounting demands) and a further consolidation of power, exposure and money in a small number of chosen NPO's. How does Google or any other NPO evaluator propose to compare the apples, oranges, bananas and pomegranates?

I think that NPO's are as individual as people, and like people, need to be considered as a whole. There needs to be a more holistic approach to evaluating NPO's, one in which the NPO is encouraged to undertake self-evaluation and the public is encouraged and supported in its own due diligence. Likewise the NPO should hold up its end of the deal by setting and reporting goals, devising and reporting metrics, implementing and reporting evaluations. Reporting, reporting, reporting. The equally critical piece is the active solicitation and consideration of the public, to include a wide range of disinterested outsiders. Furthermore, every NPO ought to dedicate a page on their website to presenting the whole kit and kaboodle and this page would link to an on-line discussion forum, where the NPO and the public can talk about how things really work and don't work.

The healthy system of the future may be founded on a "talking cure" -- people in the NPO conducting self-evaluations and people from the outside reviewing their reports and offering feedback. Anything less than a dynamic system strikes me as merely a simulacrum.

At Heritance, in our own humble way, we try to live by this philosophy, as you can see by visiting our Resources Page: