Tuesday, June 30, 2015

June 2015 Update

CMAP Evaluation Project
After spending only a month on the road, I've learned that this is at the forefront of people's minds. So, let's get it out of the way shall we? As some of you will have read in our Beacon e-newsletter, today we wrapped up the CMAP project. The past 8 months have just flown by, but as we discovered while writing the final report, we have done a lot of work and learned A TON in the process. We have incorporated all of the lessons learned into the final report as a series of recommendations on moving forward. Special thanks to the CMAP advisory committee for being so fantastic - thoughtful and determined to develop a great evaluation tool and process.
For anyone concerned about the new evaluation, you will be notified as soon as it is released and can then start working through the new questions in preparation for your next evaluation. So as we've said before, stay tuned and be at the ready.

Site Visits
In addition to the CMAP work, I've also been on the road a lot this month, crossing off 12 sites from my travel list. I've been really impressed by how many museums have settled into a really good work flow and are making steady progress with the database, digitization, and research. I'm really glad to see that the customized game plans we worked out last year are proving to be a big help, and that more sites are asking for game plans this year. They are designed to address existing documentation issues, ensure that the database has a solid foundation, and then build on that foundation in a logical way. Some of the tasks are a little tedious, but once they are done you can just focus on the fun stuff and looking ahead.

Halifax County Council, 1916
Cole Harbour Heritage Museum
Our focus on First World War-era digitization is slowly progressing and has already uncovered some very cool stuff. I'm seeing some really fantastic soldier portraits, a nice variety of certificates, books, postcards, uniforms, and all sorts of other odds and ends. I've also discovered a few issues during the process - that some people are having trouble finding the requested items in storage, and that a number of military items have been misidentified as WWI when they are in fact connected with the Second World War. And I've encountered a few people who thought I was only interested in military objects and so didn't pull out the non-military stuff. Let me assure you, I'm very interested in anything that dates between 1914-1918, and that's why I have included these items on your list. Please do your best to pull these objects for my visit so that we can get a few more things digitized.

Collections Database & NovaMuse Info
As I've already mentioned, we're seeing some great progress in database work. This doesn't necessarily translate into huge numbers of new records or images, but it means that a whole lot of stuff is getting cleaned up and improved. And we are still seeing steady increases in numbers. This month 965 new records were entered and 1,308 new images were attached. That means we've collectively got 220,216 artifacts and 94,787 images. Just like the customized museum game plans, we've established a really solid foundation and are now gearing up for bigger and better things.

Southwest - 119,681 artifacts, 41,807 images
Central - 41,681 artifacts, 22,384 images
Northeast - 30,742 artifacts, 20,567 images
Cape Breton - 28,112 artifacts, 10,029 images

Congrats to the Southwest region for adding the most records and images this month!

Remember that our goal for this year is to digitize artifacts that were made between 1914-1918, with a special focus on 2-dimensional items that can be scanned (hence the Year of the Scan). So once again, remember that you should be scanning books and other 2-d items. Do not treat them like 3-dimensional objects like this book has been treated. Think about online booksellers and how they present a nice cover image. That is what you should have attached to your database. In thinking about our WWI-era theme, all those discharge papers, certificates, postcards, books, photographs...they should all be scanned. Yes I know I sound like a broken record, but this is still a problem and it is making our collective collection look bad. This summer I am traveling with a portable scanner and my camera equipment so that we can review digitization standards. We've got to step it up a notch.

In general database reminder news, please remember to take advantage of the data dictionary and "problems browse" features. There is really no excuse for making mistakes about the different fields or not following professional standards. These are built into the system. You should be checking your students' work, and telling them to use the "i" for info button or hover over the field names for every record. Just because someone can use a computer doesn't mean they understand professional museological standards.

That's all for now. Sorry for getting a little ranty there, but it had to be said. I'm on the road a lot right now, but am checking email, have my cell with me, and as usual am slowly working my way through site visit homework. See you on the road!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Book Review - Small Museum Toolkit 5: Interpretation: Education, Programs, and Exhibits

from aaslh.org
I can't say that I was really excited for this book. I'm a collections kid, so while I appreciate a good program or exhibit when I encounter them, my creative juices don't often get flowing at the idea of developing a new educational offering. Having said that, I learned a bit from this one, and can definitely appreciate it as a resource for museum workers whose job it is to tackle this subject. This book consists of 5 chapters and lots of check lists and case studies - it's easy to see how you can apply the lessons on interpretation to any museum setting. I like that.

The first chapter uses the analogy of a concert to talk through interpretive planning. A big piece of this is the museum tour. So let's talk tours. When I was a summer student, I worked with someone who liked to compete over the length of a tour, their idea being the longer the better. Was this person reading his audience and engaging in meaningful conversation with visitors? If so, at some point did the tour of the museum stop being a tour and become a visit between people? Don't scoff; it happens. To bring this back to the book, the first chapter talks about conducting audience-centred interpretation that aligns with your interpretive plan and adjusts to the situation. "A good interpretive plan should offer multiple options and vehicles for the visitor and the tour guide alike". The author doesn't pull any punches, and even says not to do a three, two, or even one-hour tour. Yes! Let's quit the cookie-cutter tour game. Let's be more flexible, ask our visitors more questions about their interests, and pay attention to body language and other clues about how much they are enjoying their museum experience.

The second chapter is on interpreting difficult issues. It talks about the old method of single perspectives being described with artifacts tucked safely behind plexiglas cabinets, and how museums have been very gradually breaking down those physical & invisible barriers. Different viewpoints are being shared - culture, gender, age, philosophy - and as a result we are providing the public with a more holistic view of history. This is obviously a very difficult area to navigate, but as the author puts it: "to ignore or even sidestep these types of local issues is inauthentic and will undermine the interpretive goals you have set."  I've heard a few museum people say that their community doesn't have any difficult issues or shady history, but trust me, it's there. Every community has it. The author acknowledges this as well, and remarks that in some cases the public is well aware of the sketchy history, basically saying "it's about time you caught up" when the museum starts to incorporate this information in its interpretation. She has also dug up some great case studies to show how museums can dip their toe or dive right into this world. She makes some great statements in talking about opportunities and gathering input from your community, and how this can become an avenue for the museum to assist in addressing serious, long-standing societal issues.

Chapter three talks about researching historical exhibits. If you've never developed an exhibit, this chapter really walks you through the steps, from potential resources to organizing ideas to what kinds of questions to ask about the artifacts you're including. If you've never analyzed an artifact, it can be a very enlightening process. From this we roll into a broader chapter on developing exhibits as a whole. The author walks you through identifying the topic, defining the audience, determining the main message, developing the content, and then organizing the exhibit. Extra time is spent on the nitty gritty of exhibit label writing and installing the exhibit. One of my favourite pages in this chapter is on exhibit materials. We get questions about this regularly - what is safe to use and where you can buy it. A list like this can be especially helpful when you have some local volunteers who want to build stuff for you and need some guidance. My other favourite page in this chapter is when the author wraps it up all by advising readers to remember these 5 guidelines:
1. Exhibits are a medium for communication with special characteristics.
2. Every exhibit tells a story, but just one. Don't overdo it. There will be other exhibits to tell other stories.
3. Be green. Reduce, reuse, recycle. You don't have to break the bank when constructing a new exhibit.
4. Be sure to provide adequate protection of artifacts.
5. Make sure the exhibit is both fun and informative. Never sacrifice one for the other.
(I paraphrased here. Each point goes into more detail in the book).

The final chapter is on the nuts and bolts of program management. There's a lot of talk about logistics and sourcing supplies and resources, marketing...basically this goes over all the pieces of the plan. And as we've seen elsewhere in this book series, the question of assessments is raised. You've got to evaluate your programs - how many people are coming, did they learn what you hoped they would learn, did the venue work the way it was supposed to logistically, how would you change things if you did it again, etc etc. I think at this point we can all just say that the moral of the story is regularly evaluating our work. Maybe it's a casual assessment and maybe it's really formal, but we've got to stop and ask questions instead of just working away with our heads down. To bring this point home, the author wraps up this chapter (and therefore also the book) with a program management checklist. It's general enough that you should be able to see any program within the list, but specific enough to help you tighten up your planning, execution, and assessment tasks.

Other posts in this series:
Book 1: Leadership, Mission and Governance
Book 2: Financial Resource Development and Management
Book 3: Organizational Management
Book 4: Reaching and Responding to the Audience
Book 6: Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation

Monday, June 1, 2015

May 2015 Update

Jake & Vanessa in Malagash
CMAP Pilot Evaluation
Well, we survived the pilot and we learned a lot. I now have copious notes to sort through and more adjustments to make to the evaluation. I'm happy to say that the timing seems to work, museums were able to pull together their homework pieces without too much difficulty, and by talking through the process with evaluators and museum workers, we were able to clarify a number of questions and areas. A few points of interest:
1. Museums are ready and eager to be evaluated again and feel this is a crucial component to self-improvement.
2. Giving museums 30 minutes of orientation & "show-off" time means evaluators can be much more effective and accurate in their evaluation.
3. When conducting the artifact inventory check evaluators expected decent descriptions and digital images to leave no doubt that the items & records matched.
4. Evaluators are watching and noticing the smallest details even when you don't think they are (how creepy is that?!).
Teamwork test at MOI
Thanks to the Colchester Historeum, Cole Harbour Heritage Farm, Creamery Square Heritage Centre, Malagash Salt Mine Museum, and the NS Museum of Industry for being our guinea pigs. Everyone was very professional and honest as we poked and prodded around their museums, and gave us some great feedback on the evaluation process.
Thanks to Jake, Valerie, and Vanessa for joining Anita and I on this crazy adventure, for taking it so seriously and yet always maintaining a sense of humour, and for making great travel companions. We couldn't have done it without you.

Site Visits
That's right. It is time to hit the road again. I don't feel like a year has passed, but I guess it has. What's on the agenda for this year? First World War-era artifacts are this year's focus. And it's the year of the scan, so this means we will be taking a look at your collection and reviewing digitization techniques for these early 20th century items. We will look at the new features of NovaMuse, how your records appear online, and talk about how you can improve your online presence. For anyone in CMAP, we will also chat about the new evaluation tool and how you can prepare for your next evaluation. It's a full agenda, but please feel free to add items to the list.
Please keep in mind it is not my job to train your summer students or new staff members. The museum board and senior staff are responsible for this task. I get grumpy when I have to repeat the same basic instructions year after year after year and don't see any forward momentum at a museum. Please don't make me grumpy.

Collections Database & NovaMuse Info
A funny thing happened this month. We went down in record numbers. This has happened before but it is extremely rare. Apparently a few museums have been cleaning up duplicates and sorting stuff out, and as a result, we went down by 68 records and now have 219,251 records. But 413 new images were added so we're creeping closer to the 100k mark - sitting pretty at 93,479.

Regionally, this is how we're kicking things off for the 2015 season:
Southwest - 119,192 artifacts, 41,214 images
Central - 41,497 artifacts, 22,037 images
Northeast - 30,522 artifacts, 20,306 images
Cape Breton - 28,040 artifacts, 9,922 images

Congrats to the Central region for adding the most records this month, and to Southwest region for adding the most images!

We recently updated NovaMuse to the new version of Whirl-i-gig software. Basically we have added more flexibility to the site; we've linked to our social media pages, the site automatically adjusts itself to whatever people are viewing it from (tablet, phone, laptop, desktop, etc), and we finally have the ability to see search results on a timeline or map. As with previous system updates and our migration to CollectiveAccess in general, seeing our data in a new/different way has enabled us to identify holes and issues. The timeline especially shows just how bad it looks to not have an image of the artifact, and how crucial it is that we have accurate begin/end dates in our records. It's super cool, but would be a lot cooler if we put in some more work. Since my go-to example of this feature has been a researcher looking up wedding dresses, here is a little snapshot of how this appears on the timeline:

The section of the timeline without any images was just too depressing for me to include as an image here. So I want you to imagine how bad this would look if none of these dresses had photographs. Just a date, object name, accession number and brief description (this particular dress is missing a description - not good). On the right hand side you will notice that you can refine your search results, but when you do that you aren't getting full results any more. Sure it's great if you only want to check out wedding dresses in Cape Breton museums, but you will still have the issue of missing images and spotty descriptions. This is why I've been helping museums develop game plans for accomplishing database work and why we've declared it the Year of the Scan. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, people expect high quality images of your collection to be in your database and available online. We know the reality of how time- and resource-consuming this work is, so it's important that we keep on eating that elephant one bite at a time.

All for now. I am hitting the road this week and look forward to some one-on-one time at our lovely community museums across the province. It's gonna be a good summer!