Archive for Community Building

LGBTQ Welcoming Guidelines for Museums


Last year, I served as one of nearly forty advisors and contributors to an effort by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) to create guidelines for museums in welcoming LGBTQ visitors and employees. Coordinated by the LGBTQ Alliance of AAM, LGBTQ Welcoming Guidelines for Museums debuted in May 2016. Based on AAM’s Standards of Excellence, the guidelines provide a workbook of concrete steps for museums to take in creating community spaces where people of various sexual and gender identities feel safe and comfortable. The document also provides a glossary of vocabulary that is useful to know when doing outreach to LGBTQ communities, as well as flagging a few problematic and derogatory words that should be avoided.

Cover of the Welcoming Guidelines

Now, the AAM is planning a series of “colleague discussions” about the guidelines. Between November 6 and 9, 2017, in more than twenty locations from Washington State to Florida, museum professionals will gather to discuss the document and brainstorm about how they might put it to work in their home institutions. According to the AAM: “The goal of these local convenings is to help museum colleagues better understand how to use the Welcoming Guidelines and how they can be applied in all types of institutions. Participants will briefly discuss the goals of the Welcoming Guidelines, review the document, and work through an exercise that is relevant to their institution.”

There is no cost to attend a convening, though an RSVP is requested. You can learn more about the events, specific times and locations, and RSVP at the following information page.

Reflecting on the American Alliance of Museums Conference


Image of buttons stating an individual's pronoun preference

Pronoun buttons at AAM, via @exposyourmuseum

In early May, I attended the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), serving as one of eleven designated social media journalists for the event. The theme of this year’s gathering was “Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion,” and the social media journalists were specifically tasked with exploring this theme.

Now, I am no stranger to conferences. I’ve been to scores of them over the course of my career, and in my experience, most annual conferences pay only cursory attention to the conference theme. But this conference was different. From the moment attendees arrived, AAM sent a message of inclusion with signs stating the conference’s open policy on bathroom use (i.e., attendees could choose to use whatever bathrooms best expressed their gender identity, no questions asked) and offering attendees the opportunity to make buttons indicating their preferences for personal pronouns.

I’d estimate that at least half of the sessions and all of the keynote events were focused on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion, exploring the topic from a range of angles including visitor experiences, community outreach, social justice work, hiring and training, leadership practices, and creating a welcoming work environment. My professional work revolves around diversity and inclusion, and yet I still found plenty of new ideas to ponder, debate, and execute.

Picture of the comment board that appeared at the conference

AAM comment board about the slave auction display, from an article at https://blooloop.com/features/aam-2017-american-museums/

About halfway through the conference, our explorations of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion veered beyond the established program when controversy erupted over a vendor display in the Expo hall. A company specializing in creating life-like figures for museum exhibitions had brought a depiction of a slave trader and enslaved person at auction to demonstrate the company’s product. Many attendees found it offensive that such an upsetting event would be displayed in a contemporary marketplace, devoid of historical context. A lively discussion erupted throughout the conference and on Twitter (see #aam2017slaveauction). AAM staff contacted the company about attendees’ concerns and soon added a comment panel related to the slave auction display, soliciting reactions from conference attendees.

On the last morning of the conference, concerned attendees convened at the company’s booth to discuss the issue with the company owner. Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, LLC, stepped in to facilitate a dialogue, which–from my perspective–created a far richer exchange.

I was happy to see a dialogue about the depiction. Hopefully, all sides gained some understanding and empathy through the process, although–judging from the Twitter feed–many were left dissatisfied with the discussion. For me personally, I felt that this issue provided a real-time example of the hard work ahead if we truly hope to build understanding and create a world that honors Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in deed as well as word.

For those who want to engage further with these issues:

  • Check out the Twitter hashtag #aam2017slaveauction to learn more about various reactions to the display
  • Read Seema Rao’s blog post, “Seven Action Steps Post- #AAM2017SlaveAuction #AAM2017
  • Look through the session recordings and handouts from the conference to find materials on various aspects of the conference theme
  • Read some of Dina Bailey’s writings, which appear in larger volumes that are also relevant to the topic:
    • “The Necessity of Community Involvement: Talking about Slavery in the 21st Century,” (co-written with Richard C. Cooper) in Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites, edited by Kristin L. Gallas and James DeWolf Perry (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)
    • “Finding Inspiration Inside: Engaging Empathy to Empower Anyone,” in Fostering Empathy through Museums, edited by Elif M. Gokcigdem (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)

American Alliance of Museums Announces Social Media Journalists for MuseumExpo 2017


On Sunday, May 7, 2017, museum professionals from across the country will convene in St. Louis for MuseumExpo, the largest annual gathering of people working across the spectrum of museums (art, history, science, children’s, etc.). The conference is organized by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and offers various tracks to help attendees hone in on the information they most need; evening events provide an array of networking opportunities; and the expo hall offers a mind-boggling array of goods and services for the museum community.

The organization is piloting a new program at this year’s meeting, and has selected eleven people from across the museum profession to serve as social media journalists. I’m excited to announce that I am part of this select group, whose purpose is to build a bridge between conversations taking place at the conference and those tuning in through social media. The AAM social media journalists will also be creating a series of blog posts reflecting on these conversations once the annual meeting has concluded.

Face of the 2017 social media journalists

The theme of the 2017 conference is “Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museums,” and we social media journalists will each be exploring the ways the theme plays out in the conference presentations and events. We each bring a unique perspective to the task, having worked in a variety of museum positions and representing a range of genders, generations, ethnicities, sexual identities, and interests. For my part, I’ll be paying special attention to the theme’s implications for historical organizations and for LGBTQ and women-focused interpretation and inclusion. I will mostly be reporting via Twitter, with some additional comments via my professional Facebook page and posts on my website blog.

The event runs May 7-10, 2017. You can follow along on social media at #AAM2017 and follow the AAM social media journalists specifically at #AAMSMJ. If you’d like to follow me directly on Twitter, you can do so at @HistorySue (tweeting as myself) and @NCWHS (tweeting items relevant to interpreting women’s history, under the auspices of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites).

Find out more about the other AAM social media journalists here. And see you in St. Louis!

History Exhibit Opens at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater


Picture of exhibit

Exhibit opening at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington, February 3, 2017

Last week, an exhibit I’ve been working on for a number of years opened at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater“A Thing of Beauty and a Joy Forever”: The History of Bloomington’s Community Theater recounts the history of a nearly-century-old venue just off the downtown square in Bloomington, Indiana. Today, the building is known as the Burkirk-Chumley Theater, a six-hundred-seat performing arts venue that has played a significant role in the revitalization of downtown Bloomington over the past fifteen years. Before that, the building housed the Indiana Theatre, an 1,100-seat movie palace built in 1922.

The designer and the researcher in front of an exhibit panel.

Jennifer Hottell (right) and I in front of the opening panel of our exhibit.

 

The roots of the current exhibit go back about ten years, when I conducted preliminary research into the history of the building, which is part of the Bloomington Downtown Square National Register District. From this project came a much more basic exhibit designed to answer some common questions from visitors about the history of the theater, which–after a period of decline–was renovated to reflect its 1930s heyday as part of its conversion into a contemporary performing arts hall.

A few years ago, the theater received funding from Indiana Humanities to conduct further research into two aspects of the Indiana Theatre’s past: the desegregation of the theater in the 1940s and the immigrant history represented by the Indiana Sweet Shop, a candy store housed in one of the building’s storefronts, which operated for over sixty years. The effort involved the expansion of the original history exhibit to include both the new research and more of the original research than made it into the first exhibit.

I was brought on as the project historian, performing documentary research, conducting oral histories, and creating the text for the ultimate exhibit. Jennifer Hottell, a Bloomington-based graphic designer, joined the team to reconceptualize the visual presentation of the information. The final result–incorporating my research, Jenn’s design, and oversight and input from the Buskirk-Chumley’s executive director Danielle McClelland–is a multi-media exploration of this theater, Bloomington history, and the movie palace era in general. It will be on permanent display at the Buskirk-Chumley until the theater’s hundredth anniversary in 2022.

One of the exhibit panels.

The exhibit panel discussing the theater’s desegregation.

The technology panel of the exhibit.

The exhibit panel exploring the changing technology of showing movies.

Special Guests a Priority at Van Abbemuseum


Photo of the Van Abbemseum

The Van Abbemuseum, photo by Maurizio Pesce.

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Van Abbemuseum, a contemporary art museum in Eindhoven, Netherlands. My talk was part of a larger day-long symposium on “Special Guests,” and the audience was comprised of museum professionals from across the Netherlands and northern Belgium.

Explanation of the “Qwearing the Collection” program at the Van Abbemuseum.

It is fitting that the Van Abbemuseum should be the host for this kind of event, as they have made a consistent effort to welcome a range of visitors, who may or may not experience the museum in the usual ways. I first heard about this museum because of their “Unforgettable Van Abbe” program aimed at people with Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, the facility is equipped with a robot that provides access to the museum for visitors who are homebound.

The museum welcomes others as well. Near the entrance desk, there is a “Toolshop” where visitors can select various means “that offer a new perspective on the exhibition.” Tools include “hearable architecture,” “inhaling art,” and “the collection through kids’ eyes.” Another tool is the Van Abbe’s “Qwearing the Collection” program, where guests are invited to wear clothing that provides a queer interpretation of the art under view, as well as a queer glossary of terms that visitors may not already be familiar with.

I fully embraced “Qwearing the Collection,” because it provides a two-fold glimpse into queer experience. The program most obviously does this by interpreting part of the collection with a queer eye, pointing out the subtle critiques of normative gender roles and sexual expression that might normally escape the average visitor’s notice.

Me, sporting my queer interpretive kimono, Van Abbemuseum

The program also queers the visitor experience by allowing folks to encode themselves in queer and flamboyant ways. Although I don’t normally “read” as LGBTQ to strangers, at the Van Abbemuseum I was able to swish around the collection in a “Qwearing the Collection” kimono and bright yellow scarf. Those who did not know about the program just thought I was odd; those who did know about the program understood that, by wearing these accessories, I was signaling my interest in a queer point of view. This led to numerous conversations with strangers and a special-club nod across a gallery from another visitor wearing this program’s accoutrements. In this way, the “Qwearing the Collection” props mimicked the experience of being part of a semi-secret subculture, where members adjust their appearance in ways that may not be understood by mainstream society, but serves as a signal for others who identity with the same subculture that you are friend, not foe. Brilliant!

My time at the Van Abbe, along with the other innovative museums I visited while in the Netherlands, were a breath of fresh air for me, providing so many new ideas on museum practice. I look forward to pondering my experience further and applying what I learned in the Netherlands to my projects here in the states and elsewhere.

 

A Stint as Acting Director of the National Council on Public History


“NCPH INSPIRES PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT WITH THE PAST AND SERVES THE NEEDS OF PRACTITIONERS IN PUTTING HISTORY TO WORK IN THE WORLD BY BUILDING COMMUNITY AMONG HISTORIANS, EXPANDING PROFESSIONAL SKILLS AND TOOLS, FOSTERING CRITICAL REFLECTION ON HISTORICAL PRACTICE, AND PUBLICLY ADVOCATING FOR HISTORY AND HISTORIANS.” – NCPH MISSION STATEMENT –

 

Last week, I wrapped up three months as acting director of the National Council on Public History (NCPH), a professional organization that supports practitioners putting history to work in the world. I’ve been an active member of the NCPH for about fifteen years–regularly presenting at annual meetings and volunteering on numerous committees, most recently on the Local Arrangements Committee for the 2017 NCPH annual meeting, which will take place in Indianapolis in April 2017. The opportunity to further engage with the organization arose when the NCPH Board of Directors and executive director, Stephanie Rowe, approached me about filling in for Stephanie while she was out on maternity leave.

As many of you know, I worked for thirteen years at the Organization of American Historians, the largest professional society devoted to United States history. My recent time on staff at the NCPH allowed me to once again get behind the scenes at a historical organization and support the profession by fostering community among practitioners and providing assistance as they carry out their important work.

The NCPH is an extremely well-run institution, so jumping into such an important role proved to be easier than I was anticipating. In addition to overseeing the day-to-day operations of the non-profit, my projects included collaborating with the NCPH vice-president, Marla Miller, to appoint volunteers to the NCPH’s numerous committees; enhancing the NCPH’s partnership with the International Federation for Public History as the IFPH prepared for its annual meeting in Bogotá; and responding to input and advocacy requests from the organization’s members.

I enjoyed this chance to apply my skills and experience in an executive capacity while also assisting a historical organization with a short-term staffing shortage. I hope to take on similar efforts in the future, so please do let me know if you are aware of such opportunities.

Stephanie Rowe and Sue at the 2016 NCPH annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.

Stephanie Rowe and Sue at the 2016 NCPH annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.

Publications and Press: Summer 2014 Redux


It has been an intense and rewarding summer 2014, and I have been so busy finishing my book, beginning new projects, and talking about history far and wide that I am overdue at posting an update on where you might learn more about my work. So with this post, let me quickly review this summer’s publications and press mentions.

In June, the National Park Service launched an LGBT History Initiative, and as a companion, the Summer 2014 issue of National Parks, a publication of the National Parks Conservation Association, published an article about LGBT history in the programs of the National Park Service. In the course of writing the article, author Rona Marech, and I had a long and inspiring conversation on the topic, and some of my thoughts are quoted in her article, “Untold Stories.”

In July, I made my guest-blogging debut by contributing an article to Public History Commons. This online community, sponsored by the National Council on Public History (NCPH), is a remarkable clearing-house of the latest thinking on the presentation and interpretation of the past to a wide audience. My particular contribution was in response to a call made by Robert Weyeneth, recent NCPH President, for public historians to “lift the veil” on our work and share with museum visitors the actual process by which professional historians learn about the past. My article, “Lifting Our Skirts: Sharing the Sexual Past with Visitors,” argues that LGBT history is a subject that is particularly well-suited to this enterprise.

Screen shot of "Lifting our Skirts" article

In August, as I mentioned in my last blog post, I gave a talk on “Historic Preservation as a Green Alternative,” and, happily, this topic sparked some local interest. WFHB, Bloomington, Indiana’s community radio station, recorded my talk and later aired it on their regional news show, “Standing Room Only.” It’s now available as a podcast. In addition, my local newspaper The Bloomington Herald Times followed up with me and ended up publishing an article on the subject in their weekly environmental column. “Environmental Sustainability Also Applies to Buildings,” by Laura Slavin, offers a local perspective on some of the larger issues I touched on in my talk.

I am so happy that the work I’m doing is being recognized in the press; it is rewarding to share the larger relevance of history with a wide audience, and media outlets help with that effort by spreading the good word. You can keep current on my latest publications and press mentions any time by consulting the “Media” page of this web site.

Historic Preservation as a Green Alternative


Historic light fixtures using energy efficient bulbs

Public Domain photo from the US General Services Administration

History is everywhere. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy this work so much. I have given talks on the Golden Age of Hollywood at a movie-lover’s birthday party. I have sat in a room of wildlife biologists and argued for the need to protect cultural resources, as well as natural ones, from the negative effects of climate change. I have chatted over cocktails with business leaders about the role of local history in maintaining the economic health of small towns. These conversations, which invariably stray outside my comfort zone and bring me into contact with fresh perspectives, offer a chance for me to advocate for history’s relevance and to grow as a professional.

On Wednesday, August 27 (2014), I’ll once again be courting inspiration from different disciplines when I give a talk to Green Drinks Bloomington. Green Drinks is an informal monthly gathering of people from a variety of occupations who share an interest in creating a greener world. In Bloomington, the crowd is usually a boisterous mix of scientists, activists, organic farmers, and politicians. The discussions are always interesting and help bring me up to speed on environmental issues large and small–from national lobbying efforts to innovative programs playing out in my own small corner of south-central Indiana.

Like the rest of the Green Drinkers, I care about crafting a greener future, but unlike many of them, my expertise is culture, and when dreaming of the future, I turn to the past for guidance. I’m curious if others will agree with me that previous generations left us lessons in sustainability that are relevant today. So on August 27, I’ll be speaking to the Green Drinks crowd about “Historic Preservation as a Green Alternative.” We in the historic preservation field are familiar with the idea  that “the greenest building is the one already built.” Much has been written on the energy efficiency of restoring historic buildings rather than building new. I hope to share some of that thinking with an audience who may not have heard this argument before. I also hope to spark a conversation about the benefit historical-mindedness can bring to the environmental movement. I’m inclined to say, people who develop empathy and respect for their ancestors are more likely to make choices that take future generations into consideration. The past and the future work in tandem.

If you happen to be in Bloomington, Indiana, on Wednesday and would like to join in the dialogue, please join me at Green Drinks. Details about time and place can be found here.

Historic Preservation: The Original Green

Image from the blog of the Wichita Orpheum, http://www.wichitaorpheum.com/uncategorized/the-economics-of-historic-preservation/

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