Thursday, March 24, 2011

Legal Issues of Museum Administration

The good folks at ALI-ABA awarded a scholarship to attend Legal Issues in Museum Administration, three days on the ethics, policy, and legal issues facing museum registrars, CEOs, boards, and legal counsels. Of course, lawyers expect the rich intellectual rigor of this presentation style and supporting material, but I am in awe.

It is old school, yeah, but when you get Lawrence Berger, PMA, and Frederick Strober, Saul Ewing, LLP engaging in legal theater over Joint Ownership Agreements of Collections, mesmerizing. Not kidding. Another long tradition are the case studies created by one brilliant lawyer and then dissected by a couple of others -- sometimes funny, sometimes surprising, always real.

There are legislation and litigation updates, presentations on the questions presented to the courts and to the practitioners over the year. One federal registrar was told this year by her overly cautious and misinformed supervisor that she would no longer be allowed to electronically record artists birth date or phone number because of new privacy laws! Now there another one for annals!

The time includes serious consideration about endowment management, healthy tensions between board and management, negotiating artists rights, conflict of interest and other governance policies, special collections, managing problem gifts, and gift acceptance policies.

While at the conference, my twitter feed delivered Historically Hardcore, the latest Smithsonian copyright infringement. The SI lawyers had already sent the cease demands but the funny ad campaign by a student had already gone viral. Check it out.

The image above is of the Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery where a conference reception was held. Second night were were at the Phillips Collection. Both spectacular receptions.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Dragonfly Effect: Driving Social Change

The Dragonfly Effect, said by many the best book on social media for the nonprofit sector in 2010, is that. And you should read it.

But I’m writing here about the dragonfly as a conceptual model for museum organizations that have many independent and connected facets, like the dragonfly’s wings. The wings beat at high rates of speed, in different directions, attached to the body which can fly safely in any direction, carrying the wings along effortlessly. Or is it the other way around?

Library, archive, museum collections, historic house, farm, animal husbandry, archaeology, school and life-long learning programs, all have and require staff expertise, board supporters, and loyal audiences. If any of the components get out of balance, beat too fast, the body may find itself in a tail spin, lopsided, unable to maintain flight. That beautiful, fast dragonfly is also fragile and difficult to control.

To see an astounding TED talk on the resiliance of the dragonfly by Charles Anderson, click here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Civic Reach and the Nonprofit Board

Each issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) brings insight and at least one useful idea. Paul Vendeventer, President of Community Partners, discusses civic reach as a fundamental nonprofit board criteria, along with fundraising and governance skill. Civic reach brings the ability to provide a seat for the weakest among us in the most powerful places, as Vendeventer says: civic reach provides the commercial sector’s profit-driven muscle and the public-driven power to mandate by law and levy taxes. Civic reach consists of three components -- prestige both personal and professional, knowledge of the landscape in which work needs to be accomplished, and strategic relationships that can be delivered on behalf of mission-based work. Prestige. Knowledge. Connect-ability.

Vendeventer opines that people with civic reach exhibit other qualities, as well: shrewd environmental sensing; the ability to advance and defend a nonprofit mission; the ability to reach a broader public by conferring indisputable authenticity and legitimacy; and providing inside access to power. Inside access to power presupposes that the board member can install people at the necessary tables where the deals are done.

So, the three legs to the 21st Century stool of nonprofit sustainability and really great boards: good governance, a culture of philanthropy, and highly attenuated civic reach.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

No Photography Please! Changing Museum Policy

At the 2010 AASLH conference in Oklahoma City I made a point of visiting the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. The Memorial embodies the "power of place." The exhibition stresses the terrifying life changes that took place in the instant that the horrific bombing occurred on April 19, 1995. Segments of the ruins are on display as well as reproductions. These are not fragile objects but sturdy reminders of the explosion and the community's response. Yet photographs were not permitted in any part of the exhibition space.

It's a given that taking pictures of the people affected and impacted by the bombing would be insensitive, but memorials exist to help us all to remember. If there is no danger of damaging objects, couldn't we expect that those who take photographs would later share their photos, their emotions, and their experience with others? And isn't the act of sharing the experience another way to tell the story and extend the impact of the visit?

The second stage of my trip included a visit to Springfield, Illinois, to explore the place where Abraham Lincoln lived, worked, and with Mary raised his children. I was excited to see the lauded new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The crowds were large and well controlled, visitor flow was well conceived, and there was an air of a festival with bus groups, families, and senior citizens throughout--mechanically it worked. Exhibits were polished. There were plenty of reproductions and contrived scenes like a log cabin and an unexpected entire room for the funeral bier.

I watched families try to engage their children, amid horseplay and childhood teasing and realized the kids were bored. The high tech stuff captured their attention in spurts, but not in depth. Unfortunately, I was ready to be impressed but was not.

And no photos were allowed here either.

Across the street from the Museum is the State House where Lincoln served in the state legislature. Nearby is his law office. These were the spaces that Lincoln strode and where he shaped the ideas and ideals that he would carry with him to the Presidency. And then there was our last stop--a visit to Lincoln's home.

A Park Service Ranger welcomed each arriving visitor on our tour. He was especially attentive to a little girl intent on completing her junior ranger worksheet. He guided us through the streets and, as we stepped into the house, he set the tone by conveying his own sense of awe and gratitude to work in such a place. Being in Lincoln's house, holding the handrail Lincoln held every day was something special for him every day. When the little girl asked if she could take a picture, the ranger responded. "Yes, absolutely yes."

He took my breath away when he continued, "We want you to take lots of pictures and look at them often. We hope you will remember everything about being in Mr. Lincoln's house and your visit to his home in Springfield."
The juxtaposition of these experiences got me thinking. Our museums and historic sites hold 501(c)3 IRS designations as nonprofits. In exchange they are expected to provide something of value--something that the public needs and wants. We honor that public trust when we serve up relevance and make the visitor experience memorable.

So, why no photographs? Why not allow people to build on their memories?

There are some good reasons. Object conservation first, then there are issues of intellectual property, donor and lender restrictions and agreements, copyrights, revenue, and reproduction rights. And we've all been in galleries or historic properties where a flashing camera can catapult us back to the present of the 21st century. It's a disturbing interruption to an experience that is meant to transport us to another time and place.

This topic of photography has become part of the debate on the visitor experience, relevance, and accessibility in museums. Some museums are leading the way and now permit photographs including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Arts & Design, and the Rubin Museum of Art, and a growing number of other organizations. So, there is movement on this front. (For more on the debate about allowing photography in museums, read David Rau's HRC post "To Click or Not to Click: How do YOU Answer this Question?") or go to the Seattle Art Museum's post on the subject.

It is time for history museum boards and staff to rethink their policies and consider the best ways to engage visitors as well as to protect their collections. That would be a start.