a little bit more about me

My name is Beth and I accidentally have found myself living in Arizona but I'm originally from Tennessee. My education is in history and anthropology, which means that I know a little about a lot of things and can hold my own at a cocktail party in mixed company. I work in museums, doing all sorts of things ranging from researching and writing exhibits to cataloguing absolute wickety wak. I love comedy, baking, photography, my daughter, dogs, and above all else, napping.*

* 2013 edit: Oh yeah, and my new son too.

This form does not yet contain any fields.

    Entries in museums (12)

    Tuesday
    Apr292014

    reason #712 i'll never be a brain surgeon

    Last weekend, I took the kids to the Science Center, which is a little above their age. Well, only a hair, in the case of the 7 month old. But I went anyway since it's age appropriate for our friends' kids, and it was pretty cool. Except by midday, my Dawdler decided she had to eat a snack right away. Because, toddlers, ugh! Requiring food every 6 or so hours, am I right? SO high maintenance.

    When we couldn't find anywhere to eat except their pricey proprietary on-site cafe, Dawdler struck out on her own seeking a spot where she could sit down and inhale the stash of Toddler Chow we'd brought from home. She found a great little secluded spot where she could eat undisturbed.

    Except it was highly disturbing to me. I found her seated in a dark little corner theater where there was a looping video of brain surgery. 

    I mean, I get it. She had no idea what she was watching, and the Science Center is noisy and crowded, which can be a difficult environment for her, as she's shy in temperament. 

    But I would have strongly preferred the other corner theater. The one with a looping video of a birth. Either way, I guess it solved the problem of I hadn't brought any Mommy Chow.

    Wednesday
    Nov072012

    Unfiltered Thoughts: Artist Statements

    I was listening to an old episode of one of my all-time favorite podcasts today - Wiretap, to be specific - and it included an interview with an artist whose project was living inside a plexiglass apartment in the Boston Museum of Contemporary Art for a month. Like absolutely every moment of her life on display for any wandering museum-goer. And she talked about how she did this as an exploration of transparency. The idea that was at the crux of her project was "Where there are walls, there are lies." She said she wanted to "have the public think about what it would be like if their life was equally transparent and everyone could see what they did and would they judge their friends and neighbors" as harshly as they do now.

    Fine. Good. But here's the thing: is that what the viewing public got out of it? In the interview, the artist mentioned her artist's statement and it made me think about how it may have colored people's reading of the art. (You know those panels that get included in art exhibits where the artist gets to explain the driving force behind their art?) I guess I've always read them. (Well, that's probably because I worked in museums for a long time, and much of that time wrote exhibit panels, so I'm a bit of a special case). But that aside, I have always read them before I viewed the art. Of course, that's also because they're often placed at the beginning of a gallery - a biographical statement or something to help guide the viewer's reading of the pieces. (Actually I really hope that second part rarely plays a role, because how insulting is THAT?! That the reader, the non-artist, must require a guide to how to "see" things). 

    And that got me thinking "Did the public really think about the 'walls and lies' thing when viewing the plexiglass apartment? And did it make them reevaluate their judgments of others and reconsider their attitudes towards harsh judgmental tendencies?" Because if so, I'd hazard a bet that those ideas were colored by having read the artist statement. If they didn't read the artist's statement did they come away thinking something else? Like how everyday life itself is beautiful, for instance. Or how we structure our public selves differently from our private selves. And wouldn't those readings be just as legitimate as what the artist intended the audience to think about? When you're an artist (whether a performance artist, a sculptor, a playwright, a musician, or hey, even a writer), is the only thing you have control over the idea that you want to explore in your medium of choice, and not the audience's reaction to that? There's always a gap between what you think you've communicated and what your audience gets from it - and that gap itself is well worth some  exploration (but I'll save that for another post).

    It made me think more about avoiding reading the artist's statement when I go to another exhibition until after I've viewed the art, and then perhaps revisiting each piece after having read it to see if it changes how I think about the art. It also made me think about the presentation of art in online exhibitions. Many times the artist's statement is presented either in the copy that introduces the exhibition, or comes up first in the gallery, or is used as a means of a caption for each image displayed. What comes to mind is the most recent one I've explored the "Artists and their Monsters" gallery on NYTimes. What if instead of having the artist mediate for me what their monster is as it does in each caption, let me work out its meaning for me on my own if I wish. I'd be curious to find unmediated exhibitions online. Ones where there is no artist's statement provided. And no, I'm not talking about online catalogues where you can curate your own collection, but I mean ones where the works have been selected to be displayed together but where you can "opt out" of the artist's statement if you wish. I'd be more inclined to seek those out to see if they somehow allow you to be more thoughtful about assigning your own meaning to the art and the viewing experience. If you know of any, please let me know.

    Friday
    Jan202012

    All This Thinking is Counter-Productive

    Yesterday's work day was simultaneously one of the best and worst work days ever. Our network was completely down (and remains largely down today), giving me a very limited subset of tasks I could work on. Simple tasks that I blew through in just a few minutes. So I basically goofed off on the web all day.

    I feel guilty about that in the sense that I know I'm not getting paid to just goof off. But I also feel guilty about it in some other, more profound way. That I don't give a sh*t that that's how I spent my day.

    After months of un- and under-employment in 2010 and 2011, I finally landed this job. And I was, and continue to be, grateful for that. Even more grateful for the fact that I was more than 6 months pregnant when I started here. And that my workplace is so accommodating and understanding of the new rhythm of my life. Like needing some time to adjust to the schedule of getting to work with pants on. I have a lot to be thankful for: I have an amazing boss. I make a decent living. I have benefits. But I don't love my job. I don't love the line of work I'm in. It just doesn't excite me or inspire me. If it's too much to ask to do work that you're really designed to do, that you are enthusiastic about, that provides the work environment and work style you desire, and at which you are driven to excel, then honestly? I'd rather just be home with my baby.

    Having nothing to do but idle time to pass away in my cubicle yesterday was not a good thing because it sent me down a path of re-examining my career and life path yet again. I sat there in my cubicle thinking. And while thinking may be dangerous, it's all I could do. Well, I mean, besides watch youtube videos of dogs.  Or babies. Or dogs and babies.

    The result of all that thinking was a deafening cry inside my head: I want to be productive. I want to work hard. But I want to work for myself. If nothing else, if I worked for myself, woke up one morning, and the network was completely down? I wouldn't sit there and stare at a blank screen all day like an automaton. I'd go out and live life. Read, nap, go for a hike, take a scenic drive. The possibilities are endless. Bonus: a little break would have reinvigorated me for when it was time to work again.

    Coincidentally, I happened to read a blog post last night by someone who talked about losing his job suddenly and needing new work ASAP, who wrote "All I need is to be working with smart passionate people, flexible hours and the ability to work from anywhere. A cubicle is my death. I’ll take it if it’s all I can find, but I’d prefer to work from home and fly anywhere for meetings/face to face time." Well said, my friend. I work in a cubicle, though that, in and of itself is not the problem. The last museum I worked for, I worked in a cubicle and worked with some of the most talented, funny, amazing coworkers friends ever. If we could have run away to found our own creative firm offering our services as a web designer, writer, graphics/visual artist, and editor, I totally would have. Except that we would have needed insta-clients, and lots of them, because all of us have piles of bills to pay.

    Some of it has to do with the stupidity of playing working by the rules. Whether it's that I have to show up & sit here in a cube for 8 hours even though none of us can get to a single work file, or that I can't install Flash because I don't have Admin user privileges even though I produce Flash videos for my job, or that I can't listen to music on my computer even though I work at a music museum, whatever the workplace is, it has inane, inexplicably dumb rules. I want to live life by my own terms and work by my own rules. Work when I'm ready to work, rather than staring at a blank screen trying to get motivated because I haven't yet had my coffee and had to be at work at 8:30 even though I've been up with a baby since 3:30. Or that I didn't get to bed with the baby til 3:30. Cuz everyone knows, if you work from 11-7, your quality of work is just total sh*t compared to the quality of work you produce on no sleep between 8:30-4:30! Write about topics that I'm interested in, rather than digesting & regurgitating the most boring information to a general audience. And produce deliverables that match my expectations of high quality rather than pass off "meh, it's ok, but at least it's on time" stuff because of someone else's constraints.

    That could be the biggest thing. There's nothing more frustrating at work than having to compromise, or even abandon your vision. That's been one of my frustrations with everywhere that I have worked since grad school: not being in control over the quality of the work products I deliver. In grad school, I was in total control over the quality of my research sources, the level of my analysis, and the craftsmanship of my writing. But working for someone else is a whole different story. It's awful to have a product "represent" you that you don't feel is the type or quality of work you do best. Because I have worked only for nonprofits, I'm always on a shoestring budget, but I don't always know the external constraints. Like when your boss tells you you've got a $25,000 budget for an exhibit, and you spend $4,000 only to be hauled into her office and told that you've "gone over budget." How? Because she was working on the assumption that $22,000 of that "budget" was for your own salary. (And you were working on the assumption that budget = money one can spend. Because that's what the word means). Or how you get "voluntold" at work to produce a professional instructional video in 3 months but you get told by the videographers that they can't work you into their schedule in that time frame, so the best they can do is hand off some B-roll footage and let you work your own magic. When you're in control of your own product, you know what's within your abilities and limits and don't overextend that by taking on projects and agreeing to ideas that compromise your vision. And you're clear on the rules of engagement. 

    Here's the thing: I feel like I finally deserve to find work that works for me. Until this job, I spent my work life trying to make a career out of museum work, and it's just not there to be made. Museum work is tireless, thankless, and undervalued. It demands a lot of your time, your efforts, your patience, and your resources, but does not deliver equivalent opportunities for personal and professional growth, upward mobility, and, most importantly, work-life balance. Sure, you can rise through the ranks. Either incrementally and over a long period of time, working your way up in a large institution where you must summon the patience to spend years doing menial work that inexplicably demands a Master's degree waiting for a vacancy for which you have been groomed over time to materialize. Or you may rise through the ranks at a tiny institution well before you are equipped with the skils, abilities, leadership, and network to tackle the frequently insurmountable problems of a small and increasingly irrelevant institution. I gave both a shot, and neither path worked out for me.

    Then, when I was laid off by the last museum, I spent my time scrambling, trying to find any job that fit my existing skill set, hoping things would work out for the best. And the side effects aren't shabby: a steady job that uses the skills that I learned used in museums - research, writing, editing, teaching, and a little design  - a decent paycheck with benefits, and the best boss I've had since 2006.

    But I want more. I don't want to try to squeeze myself into a new career that doesn't fit me exactly right. All that thinking time yesterday reaffirmed that I've got to figure out how to make my next work move be to work for myself.

    Friday
    Dec152006

    How do we Get There?

    My inquiry into the museum’s past helped me understand where the museum was and where I think it should be. Over the past couple of days, that distance has grown exponentially as I mentally list all of the steps that have to take place on my end to make that happen. 

    Museum exhibits and educational programs are the public face of the institution. They are, in effect, the museum’s identity. The most any average visitor interacts with a museum is typically a visit to the website and a brief tour of the exhibits. If the museum’s website is static and uninviting, what makes the person want to come see more? And then once they get here, if the exhibits are dated, boring, and racist Whitey-centric, then what does that say about the institution? Since that’s not the message I want to get across, the museum desperately needs new exhibits.

    Exhibits are typically based on what the museum has in its collections. So in order to revamp the exhibits, I need to get to know the collections. Since only 300 of the 25,000 or so objects we have are catalogued, that’s a tall order. For several reasons. One, the items that have been catalogued might be nice to look at, but they aren’t necessarily significant or illustrative of any particular historical period or theme. That box full of 30 wedding veils has some nice examples of lacework, but unless I’m talking about women’s fashion through the ages or even domestic gender roles, I’m not sure I’m going to need them. Two, the items that are significant don’t necessarily meet our current mission. We have an amazing collection of contemporary Hopi decorated pottery. But the museum’s mission is to interpret the history of the local metropolitan area, and Hopi live about 250 miles away. Three, the documentation that we have is often problematic when it comes to provenance.  Just because someone said on their donation form that this is the quilt that Abraham Lincoln slept under doesn’t make it so. I’m a historian -- I need proof. Four, the stuff that the museum has consists of unsolicited donations. So while we have some nice things, there are enormous gaps for which we have virtually nothing to exhibit. I’m glad that we have thousands of textiles, kitchen wares, and jewelry from the Victorian era. But most of the area’s history lies in the 20th century, and so far I’ve come across virtually nothing from the 20th century. (Could be because a lot of families are still passing down their 20th century stuff and aren’t ready to let it go yet. Could be that a lot of the 20th century hasn’t gotten to an age where it’s considered “historic” yet. And it probably has a lot to do with the urban influx of people from other places -- most people who live here aren’t from here. But none of that solves the problem of having virtually nothing to “show” for the 20th century.) And five, how am I supposed to exhibit the stuff that lies so far beyond the museum’s purview that it verges on ridiculous? Why in God’s name, for instance, do we have a whale bone? Or a rare mineral from Michigan’s upper peninsula? 

    As you can see, improving our understanding of the collection takes time. There’s a learning curve for the information we do have, and then there’s thousands of items for which I’ll have to generate new information through research. And when my time is divvied up among giving tours to second graders 4 to 16 hours per week, staffing the front desk 8 to 16 hours a week, writing grants, endlessly frustrating meetings with the Boss, working as a bartender at fundraisers, and recruiting new volunteers, how the hell can I carve out the time necessary for brainstorming, research, and writing? Not to mention sleep.

    One of the ways that I’ve proposed to make progress is to work on our website. Our website is pathetic. Static, dated, and whatever is the opposite of interactive. It is an embarrassment. Even in trying to promote us, it fails miserably. For the content on the museum’s collections, someone (my predecessor?) wrote the following: “All cultures and ethnic groups that have been instrumental in shaping the economic, social, and political development of Phoenix both prehistoric and historic, are considered part of Phoenix history and related materials are sought for the collection.” The fact that you feel the need to point out that diverse people are, in fact, part of the area’s history means that you’re officially old school. That’s a given! Saying it is like saying “I’m not racist. I’m aware that there are other kinds of people. Even the ones with brown skin.” If you really want to represent diverse cultural history, you wouldn’t talk about it, you would be doing it. And by the way, “economic, social, and political” are exactly the kinds of history I don’t do. I am a cultural historian and anthropologist -- I look at things like food, music, religious practices, clothing, and cultural and community traditions. Economic, social, and political history are also officially old school. It’s the kind of history that makes people fall asleep. You want them to get excited about coming in as a result of stumbling across our site. You want them to feel like there’s going to be something fun and interesting to see once they get here. You don’t want museum visitors to feel like they can come in to take a nap.

    I am by no means a web designer, but I have put together web exhibits and I’m really into the online environment. I’m good at research and content development. It’s a way to reach new customers 24/7, it’s a way to brand ourselves on the cheap until we can revamp our exhibits in real life, and it’s a way to delve into topics that we don’t go into in our static, boring, snooze-inducing exhibits. It’s a salvo, if you will. A beginning, not an end. A way to start dialogue, to attract new audiences, and to begin to be taken seriously. You can’t actually think that this web phenomenon is a passing fad. Which is why I taught myself stuff like Dreamweaver, CSS, & html as part of my skill set for museums. Not enough to do web design and development professionally, but enough to enhance the delivery of my subject knowledge. And enough to talk with web designers semi-intelligently about things like rollover effects, clean layout, RSS feeds,  limiting the use of distracting and unnecessary plug-ins, and mastheads. It’s not enough to be doing traditional in-person exhibits or writing articles anymore, you must have a decent understanding of the web’s potential, web 2.0 concepts, and a working knowledge of how to put these technologies and media to use for the benefit of your museum. When I talk to the Boss about it, I can see that these things sail over her head. She doesn’t value the importance of a professionally designed and regularly updated website. She sees this as an opportunity to save money on an “unnecessary” expenditure. She doesn’t understand that this is a missed opportunity. I brought her the idea of revamping our website, and was taken aback when she chided me for getting “off track” and straying from the “tasks at hand.” Yes, I’ve got a lot on my plate. But web development goes hand in hand with the other tasks ahead of me and the strategic planning for the institution. It’s already bad enough that the place I work is the laughing stock museum in the local museum circles. But ignoring our website only makes it worse. 

    Thursday
    Nov302006

    Here We Go Again

    Yesterday was a rough day. 

    One of the fundamental things that I expect from a boss is that s/he will be a leader, a visionary who can guide the organization. But the other is that s/he will be someone to whom I can take my questions and concerns so that we can work towards solutions together. Yesterday I went to the Boss with a major problem -- I have to present a program tomorrow to 250 kids and as of this moment, still have nothing to present. Today I’m stuck at the front desk taking admissions all day, so I thought I came prepared -- I brought all of my notes and files up to the front desk to work from the computer there all day. 

    No dice. On an average day, that 386 is so slow it’s ridiculous. But today I can’t even get Word to load, and it can’t make a connection to the network, which is a problem because the files I need are on the server. I called the Boss (who is at home today, leaving me as the only staff person on site) and her response?

    “We have to do a better job taking care of the equipment we have. We may not have the nicest computers or projectors or whatever, but we are responsible for taking care of what we have. I can’t help it if you are not taking care of the equipment you are provided. I’m not going to call some computer repair company to come in and tell us that we are not taking care of our stuff. You’ll have to make do with what you have.”

    It’s through no fault of my own that the network cable is so frayed that the wires have split and are spilling out of the casing all over the place. And she expects me to man the front desk all day with no resources to do my job, but still holds me accountable at the end of every week for the work that I haven’t been able to accomplish. Guess I can subtract several hours from my sleep tonight so I can type up what I’m going to hand-write at the desk today.