Book Reviews

Tim Grove’s A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) deftly sketches historic events in America while placing them in the context of the author’s own history as a successful museum professional. Grove has been chief of museum learning at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum for the past decade, but he began his career as a graduate intern at Colonial Williamsburg in the early 1990s. There he had the opportunity to observe pioneering programs that were informative, engaging, and provocative. It was at Williamsburg that he learned the value of closely watching visitors and how they reacted to museum exhibitions.

As an educator at the National Portrait Gallery, Grove was inspired to investigate the histories of the men and women who gazed out at him from the gallery walls. The militant abolitionist John Brown drew him in. After telling us about the trial and execution of Brown, Grove vividly describes a school program at the gallery, based on Brown’s trial, in which students were put in the jury box. Each jury heard the evidence and rendered its decision. But these students came from a different time than the nineteenth-century case, and each jury had a different make-up. The verdicts they reached changed accordingly, leading Grove to consider the different perspectives that might comprise a museum audience.

A Grizzly in the Mail continues with a blend of historical facts and Grove’s personal and professional experiences. As Grove moved to the National Museum of American History, he became increasingly involved with evaluating the historical record. The museum had a popular display of high wheeler bicycles, but Grove wasn’t satisfied with simply informing volunteers about the history of the vehicles, part of which he repeats to us. Wanting to test the theory about how such an ungainly bike might be mounted and ridden, Grove persuaded the owner of an antique high wheeler to let him have a try. Off he went on a fifty-inch-high big wheel, circling outside the museum building three times. He was now in a position to evaluate the accuracy of Mark Twain’s account of his own ride on a high wheeler and how mounting and dismounting should be done.

Before taking his current position at the National Air and Space Museum, Grove was the Missouri Historical Society’s project educator for the exhibition celebrating the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Grove became heavily involved in the lengthy preparations for the show, which circulated to five venues across the nation in 2004-2006. Building on his personal interest in Lewis and Clark, he conducted extensive research and developed ways to evaluate the evidence and educate museum goers about the explorers themselves, the native peoples they encountered, the ramifications of these encounters, and the lasting results of the expedition. But Grove learned just as much as he taught, motivated by an almost insatiable curiosity about history, how it is recorded, how true the record is, and the ways it can be conveyed to others. (This is where the grizzly comes in.)

 These are just some of the situations Grove describes. It’s clear he absorbed lessons from each one (e.g., Eli Whitney didn’t invent the cotton gin). They all helped shape an impressive museum professional, one with formal training, keen powers of observation, a spirit of inquiry, a joyful enthusiasm for history, a willingness to critically assess the historical record, and the ability to work collaboratively. The fact that he can tell us about history and himself with gentle wit doesn’t hurt, either.

Many people will enjoy this book: anyone with a love of history, but also students currently wondering whether to go into a history-related profession; mid-career staffers who sometimes might question their own decision to do so; and long-established seniors who can look back at their own careers with a sense of recognition––and satisfaction––as they read about Grove’s. Members of the Illinois Heritage Association may borrow A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History from the IHA circulating library for a period of four weeks. The only charge is for return postage. Contact the IHA office for details.

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Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World

The Internet, digital media, and community-based programming are just a few of the sources of information that staff members in museums and other history-related institutions can consult as they mount exhibits and carry out research. But can these new forms of expertise be trusted, as scholarly books, published catalogs, and refereed articles have been? Must they be “authorized” by some established body? Do these novel ways of approaching public history merely challenge authority, or do they enlarge it? These and other questions are addressed in Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (Philadelphia: Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, 2011), a collection of thought-provoking essays and case studies edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski.  The contributors are museum educators, exhibition designers, public-history specialists, artists, cultural activists, and others who present or evaluate new ways of thinking about public history and how knowledge is acquired.

In the book’s introduction, the three editors discuss the challenges to museums that are posed by “public curation.” They note that the book’s contributors do not all agree on the ways museums should accommodate public input, and that “the book is intended to mark a particular moment in the field, not to advocate or proselytize” (12). They point out that the question mark in the book’s title reflects “the uncertainty of the moment we face” (15).

The book is divided into five sections, each of which includes a “thought piece,” a conversation, one or more case studies, and illustrations, many in color. One section also presents an art piece commissioned for the book. The various chapters address topics such as participatory design and the future of museums; the role of objects in the digital age; the community as curator; issues of evaluation; artists and historical authority; and sharing authority through oral history. The 335-page paperback book is indexed.

Members of the Illinois Heritage Association may borrow Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World from the IHA circulating library for a period of four weeks. The only charge is for return postage. Contact the IHA office for details.

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Museum Careers: A Practical Guide for Students and Novices

People are attracted to careers in museums for various reasons: they had a childhood encounter with dinosaur bones, took a school trip to a major art collection, or completed a college course in art history, botany, ecology, or zoology. But do they know what a museum is and what it would be like to work in one? N. Elizabeth Schlatter considers these issues in her book Museum Careers: A Practical Guide for Students and Novices (Walnut Creek,Calif.: Left Coast Press, 2008). The emphasis is on “practical.” Schlatter, who is deputy director and curator of exhibitions at the University of Richmond Museums inVirginia, presents a clear-eyed view of the attractions of museum work––the stimulating environment, the daily contact with fascinating artifacts––but also of the field’s drawbacks, especially for the beginner. These include relatively modest salaries and long hours; the need to go where the work is; and the competitive scramble to the top of the profession as a senior curator or director.

Schlatter’s book is divided into three parts. In part 1 the author considers why people might want to work in a museum, and she helpfully defines what constitutes a museum. Most important, she examines trends in today’s museums that have a big impact on employment, including the rise of the museum educator and the marketer and the subordination of the curator; the growing use of technology; the increasing emphasis on collections care and management; and the outsourcing of some tasks that once were carried out within the museum walls.

Part 2 focuses on jobs that are essential in museums and outlines the career ladders and salary ranges (as of 2008) for each. Schlatter writes first about jobs focused on objects and/or exhibitions, such as curator, conservator, designer, preparator, and registrar, and she then describes jobs with a public focus, including development officer, information officer, educator, retail manager, security chief, and visitor services manager. Schlatter also considers the administrative duties undertaken by financial officers, facility managers, human resources managers, and technology specialists. In the last chapter of part 2 the author goes right to the top: the position of director. She ends with a nod to the trustees and volunteers who help museums survive.

Once decided on a museum career, students must learn how to prepare for the job and then how to get one. In part 3 Schlatter points out that almost any undergraduate major can lead to a museum career. What is important is that a student be “a responsible person, a critical thinker, and a good writer and communicator” (p. 123). Schlatter lists college majors common among museum workers, such as English, education, art or architecture, business, and information technology. While these fields offer a solid foundation, the specialized graduate degree usually provides the springboard for a museum position. Schlatter lists the preeminent graduate programs and advises about choosing one based on tuition and expenses, location, and the applicant’s dedication to the field.

An age-old complaint among job applicants is that they can’t get a position without experience, but they can’t get experience without a job. One solution? Internships and volunteering. In a chapter devoted to this subject, Schlatter describes how internships work and how students can profit from them. She tells how internships can be found via professional groups’ job centers, museum resource centers, and listserves such as Museum-L. Schlatter says that although prospective employers believe internships are more valuable than volunteering, the latter can be just as rewarding and educational as the former.

Once students are ready to seek a job, they need to write clear, typo-free applications, résumés, and cover letters––good advice even for persons who are looking for advanced positions. Schlatter offers help with sharpening the focus of these documents. She gives practical tips about preparing for a job interview, covering everything from researching the museum to assembling talking points to dressing and behaving appropriately. Not every interview ends with a job offer, and Schlatter shares ideas about plan B. Once hired, Schlatter writes, the new museum worker as well as the mid-career staffer should seek ongoing professional development and career growth––and never burn bridges.

Museum Careers is a 183-page paperback that includes appendixes listing salaries for common museum positions and giving names and websites of numerous organizations that can help both students and mid-career museum professionals. The volume has a selected bibliography and an index. Members of the Illinois Heritage Association may borrow the book from the IHA circulating library for a period of four weeks. The only charge is for return postage. Contact the IHA office for more information.

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Cultivating Communities of Practice

A book intended for use by large corporations has much to offer smaller organizations in the nonprofit world. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge (Harvard Business Review Press, 2002), by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder, describes how communities of practice form around common interests and expertise. They may be small or big, long-lived or short-lived, collocated or distributed, homogeneous or heterogeneous; they may exist inside and across boundaries within businesses, across business units, and across organizational boundaries.

The authors, who are noted authorities on knowledge management, describe three elements common to communities of practice: a domain of knowledge (area of expertise or interest); a community of people interested in the topic; and a shared practice relating to the domain. The domain is what brings the group together. It evolves as issues are addressed, goals are set, and problems are solved. The community is composed of people who interact regularly on identified issues. A shared practice requires that the community draw upon a common body of basic knowledge. The practice supports evolving standards. A common goal is to contribute to the knowledge of the community.

Effective communities of practice do not spring forth without some structure concerning basic principles and guidelines for growth, including ideas about size, location, shared values, and building trust. The authors note that designating a community coordinator is a key step. These guidelines have been developed through trial and error as companies have explored this means of communication and interaction.

There are some downsides to communities of practice. They can resemble medieval guilds and have tendencies to become ingrown. The intimacy developed among members can create a barrier to newcomers and a reluctance to critique each other. A community can become a gripe group. It can be averse to risk taking and resistant to change. Overdocumentation can create a junkyard of information.

What can nonprofits learn from the communities of practice that large corporations have found so valuable? The descriptions of communities above could apply to disciplines in the nonprofit sector, including libraries and museums. Communities of practice might be created for registrars, curators, archivists, or managers of special collections. They might be applicable to state or regional museum associations and to organizations that offer outreach services. The key position of community coordinator could be assumed by a qualified staff member or even a well-versed volunteer in a nonprofit organization. While communities of practice might be called glorified interest groups or roundtables, they differ from both of these in that they have more structure, tend to set goals, and offer opportunities for building capacity and expanding knowledge. This is not to say that interest groups and roundtables could not do these things; but by looking at the makeup of communities of practice, such groups might adopt techniques that would give them more direction. It’s worth considering.

Cultivating Communities of Practice is a 284-page hardback book and includes an index, extensive notes, and a comprehensive bibliography. It is available for IHA members to borrow from the IHA circulating library. The only cost for borrowing is for return postage. The loan period is four weeks. Contact the IHA office by phone or email for details.

 

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A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections

One of the most useful books in any museum library is Marie C. Malaro’s Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. A long-awaited third edition is just out, this time with a coauthor, Ildiko Pogány DeAngelis, associate professor emerita at George Washington University. Malaro is professor emerita at the same institution. The question many people will ask is, Should I buy the new edition? Is the information updated or sufficiently expanded from the second edition (1998)?

The new book is about thirty pages longer than the previous edition, but it follows the same outline of chapters and topics, with a few additions. In some places, there are now brief sections headed “What the Future Might Hold.” A new section addresses the topic “Collecting Cultural Property of Foreign Origin: Issues Ahead” and mentions new ways to resolve cultural property disputes. The authors spend some time in the new edition on specific issues concerning objects displaced during the Nazi era. The copyright section is expanded and includes information on digital use and fair use in the digital environment, including consideration of orphan works. In the chapter on loans, the authors caution about individual donor support and refer to the American Association of Museums (recently renamed American Alliance of Museums) publication Guidelines for Museums on Developing and Managing Individual Donor Support, which is available to all AAM members as a free download on the AAM website (www.aam-us.org). The section on unclaimed loans offers new practical information under the heading “How to Avoid Unclaimed Loans in the Future.” The chapter on tax considerations has been expanded and is now in two parts: “Tax Considerations Relevant to Gifts” and the new “Tax Considerations Relative to Audit Purposes.” Much of the wording and many citations are identical to those in the earlier version of this chapter. However, some pertinent additions have been made in recognition that there have been new court cases and relevant articles since the 1998 edition.

During this time of extremely tight budgets, one might be tempted to try to get by for a while with the second edition, which is really quite similar. However, it is likely that something will come up in day-to-day operations that will make the third edition just the thing to shed light on any legal problem a museum might face. The book is published by Smithsonian Books. Members of the Illinois Heritage Association may borrow it from the IHA circulating library. Contact the IHA office for details.

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Judging Exhibitions: A Framework for Assessing Excellence

Who’s to judge? That question is sometimes asked by people who view and evaluate exhibitions in museums, historical societies, libraries, schools, and elsewhere. The question might be followed by other queries. How do we judge? Is the exhibit meaningful? Is it engaging? Are there methods that would allow us to develop general criteria for judging excellence among all exhibitions? These and other questions were tackled by Beverly Serrell, a well-regarded museum consultant, and she discusses them in her book Judging Exhibitions: A Framework for Assessing Excellence (Left Coast Press, 2006). Recognizing that the American Association of Museums had established its Standards for Museum Exhibitions, which represents the viewpoint of museums that mount exhibitions, Serrell and others with whom she conferred chose to put themselves in the position of visitors to an exhibition. This viewpoint would assist people who view and judge exhibitions, and it would also help museum professionals to ensure that their exhibitions were meaningful and effective.

After viewing and evaluating museum exhibitions in the Chicago area over several years, and after much thought and discussion, Serrell and her colleagues developed the Framework for Assessing Exhibitions from a Visitor-Centered Perspective. This framework is presented as a five-part, multipage form in Judging Exhibitions. Potential users of the framework may copy the form from the book or download it in two larger formats from a CD that accompanies the volume. The bulk of Judging Exhibitions discusses how to use the framework and analyzes its design and intent. One section talks about the theoretical underpinnings of the framework and compares it to other ways of reviewing exhibitions. The final section of the book ponders the future of the framework and how the framework can be used more broadly. This section includes a valuable discussion of ways to bring staff members together “for better communication, efficiency, and outcomes” as they work on an exhibition. The book concludes with a helpful glossary, a bibliography, and notes about the participants in the project that resulted in this book. The volume is indexed. Members of IHA may borrow Judging Exhibitions from the circulating library. Call the IHA office for more information.

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Building Museums: A Handbook for Small and Midsize Organizations

The IHA circulating library contains a new book that offers practical guidance for museum staff and volunteers involved in museum construction or renovation. Building Museums: A Handbook for Small and Midsize Organizations, by Robert Herskovitz, Timothy Glines, and David Grabitske (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012), is an invaluable resource. Like a true guidebook, the 8 ½” x 11” paperback volume takes you step-by-step through the journey, from imagining your project to moving in to the new structure and adjusting to new surroundings. Every aspect of the process is covered in 179 pages, including assembling a building committee; listing spatial requirements; paying for the project; developing the design and addressing regulatory codes; gathering construction documents and going through the bid process; and constructing, evaluating, and documenting the building. The finished structure is not the end of the line, however; the book details how to orchestrate the move into the new or newly renovated museum and how to celebrate with a grand opening.

Two appendixes follow the eight chapters in the book. One appendix outlines museum spaces organized by function. The other tells how to read blueprints and how to understand specifications and schedules; it includes examples of plans, section drawings, architectural and electrical symbols, and symbols for piping and piping fittings, valves, and electrical systems. Toward the end of the volume there are lists of abbreviations used in mechanical and electrical drawings. Building Museums concludes with a glossary of terms one might encounter as the building or renovation project progresses, along with suggestions for further reading. The volume is indexed and generously illustrated.

People who are neither architects nor involved in the building trades may find the prospect of serving on a building committee to be a daunting task. Building Museums might have been titled Building Confidence, because this is exactly what the book accomplishes. It provides a solid foundation on which to build—literally.

Members of IHA may borrow Building Museums from the circulating library. Contact the IHA office to learn details.

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Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies

A clear, well-thought-out collections management policy is among the most important documents a museum can have. But where to start in developing a policy? One book in particular, John E. Simmons’s Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 2006), offers much guidance to museum staff members charged with this task.

It begins with a basic discussion of what constitutes a museum collection and why collections management policies are important. In ensuing chapters the author details how to write such policies, discusses topics that should be covered in them, and outlines ways the theoretical underpinnings of policies can be put into action. Each chapter includes numerous sample policies drawn from American museums of all types. Simmons helps the reader to evaluate various policies by discussing their pros and cons. He covers legal requirements as well as standards that are essential in the museum field. The book is filled with helpful bibliographical references and Internet resources.

There are four valuable appendixes, including a glossary of terms that appear in the book, and which museum staff should know. The volume concludes with a helpful index. This is a very rich book, and it may be borrowed from the IHA circulating library. Contact the IHA office for more information.