Whether digitizing collections, developing conservation techniques, or discovering previously unknown astral bodies, folks here at the Smithsonian are always on the cusp of the next big thing. SITES' head registrar Christina Schwartz is no exception.
Leading the American Association of Museum's (AAM) registrars' committee, Chris recently finished updating the "standard facility report," the often-maligned document so crucial for museums wanting to borrow objects. The report is a technical look at your building from the ground up: How safe is it? Is the HVAC system working properly? Does the site have a secure loading dock? Are the galleries flooded with afternoon light? Indeed, 95% of lenders won't give you that much-desired painting or sculpture if you DON'T have a current facilities report (within the last three years).
Because of limited resources or aging facilities, small museums (and even some mid-sized museums) may have difficulty with some of the questions in the report. Fear not. Local fire departments, security companies, and HVAC operators will have answers. If you're in the market for free services, peruse your rolodex for colleagues at larger museums who might be willing to offer advice and/or unused equipment (hygrothermometers, for example, to measure temperature and humidity). No matter what your situation, you should strive to complete the report. (Don't forget, having a current and complete document is also necessary for museum accreditation.)
Chris acknowledges that first-timers may find the questions a bit intimidating, and that's okay. What most lenders want to see is that an institution took the report seriously and worked diligently to fill in the gaps. Transparency is important. This is not the place where "I don't recall" is an appropriate response. If you're truly unable to come up with answers, there is help out there. The AAM hosts a great list-serv, where folks can ask just about any question and receive a number of varied, erudite solutions from registrar's who know what's what. Chris also cites a fantastic AAM-sponsored mentoring program that matches museum neophytes with seasoned professionals willing to lend a hand.
For larger institutions that have already completed a standard facilities report, you'll notice a few additional questions in the new version, helping to increase the level of understanding between lenders and borrowers. Don't roll your eyes. The minutia is important. The ultimate goal is to raise the level of professionalism and provide the best care for our treasured objects. When all the gray areas become black-and-white, there's much less room for errors and misunderstandings.
Want to get a copy of the new "General Facility Report"? Visit Chris at her AAM session this Sunday in Denver at 2:15 p.m. The report will also be available from the AAM's bookstore.
I'm just off the plane from snowy Montreal, where this year's Museums and the Web conference was held and where discussions centered on the use of Web 2.0. Chances are if you're reading SITES' blog, you're already quite familiar with the uses (and misuses) of this newish technology. Blogs, wikis, Flickr, social networking, YouTube--these are the buzz words for the Web 2.0 generation. But how do we use these platforms (wisely)? Should museums/cultural institutions care? Should we be afraid of losing control of vetted, academic content?
Yes, we should care. Non-profits are often are the last to jump on the technology bandwagon, yet this is one case where we should embrace what's out there. Web 2.0 has great potential for museums, encouraging more active, more meaningful visitor participation--a tangible means of getting visitors hooked and thinking after they walk out the museum's doors. Still, it's not entirely self-serving. People get something out of contributing, whether a photo on Flickr or content that's been shared on a museum wiki, there's a satisfaction in making connections with like-minded individuals, in knowing that curators may be shaking their heads and saying, "Well, I never thought of it that way."
A handful of folks admitted that you just have to change your plan-everything-years-in-advance attitude and see what happens. You don't know where the content/commentary will go until it's up there. Gail Durbin of the Victoria & Albert Museum in the UK was a big advocate for this kind of "learning by experiment" as were others who admitted you just have to wait, watch, and wonder how your project will evolve.It's a very organic process.You have to let it flower and just continue to trim back the dead blooms.
That leads us to the second question. Should we be afraid of losing control? I heard this particular comment from all the leading museums. "We want to use x,y,z technology, but we're apprehensive about blurring the line between our well-researched materials and unsubstantiated 'facts' from the public." Some participants insisted that you should visually establish a clear distinction. Perhaps there's obvious "official" information in one area and more dynamic, user-generated content in another. Remember, you can moderate commentary. You can offer a policy that indicates what is legitimate and what will be removed.
What about not-so-complimentary feedback? Don't worry about Negative Nancy, who tells you that your exhibition brochure wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. The great thing about a loyal social network is that the group will often come to your defense. It's all about strong building relationships--whether real or virtual.
John Blaustein, a veteran photographer from Berkeley, California, is just one of 26 artists featured in the upcoming SITES exhibition Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography. Run the river with John as he talks about getting one of his most compelling shots:
"As a river guide, I made dozens of trips through the Grand Canyon. On a cool, stormy day, we had stopped for lunch on a little beach at the mouth of 140-Mile Canyon, the halfway point through the Grand Canyon. Munching on a sandwich and waiting for the inevitable afternoon thundershower, someone glanced up the talus slope and noticed this bighorn sheep perched on a rock surveying the boats and all the people.
While I'd seen dozens of bighorn over the years, this was the closest I'd ever been to one. I ran to my boat, grabbed my camera with a 200mm lens and started climbing the slope toward the sheep. When he noticed me approaching, he took a few steps up the slope and then hopped onto a big boulder, putting himself in a silhouette from my point of view. Not only that, his pose was a perfect profile, and then he had the courtesy to turn his head right toward me. I shot two or three frames before he turned and vanished up the slope. Lots of luck is involved with this kind of photography--the perfect pose, the perfect steel gray sky, and being there to shoot it!"