Tag Archives: new paradigm of museums

The Gardiner’s Moneymaker

GardinerIn the wake of researching a new exhibit, I couldn’t help but evaluate the Gardiner Museum’s latest renovations on my latest visit to the Third Thursday event.

Conclusion: “This is a money maker”.


I’ll be able to say “I knew it when”. The small tiny museum always carried itself with the importance of “old money”, but looked like the cute, sweet, little, under appreciated treasure it was. In the last few years, the Gardiner reinvented itself as a posh hotspot with stimulating community spaces, increasing its events and activities, and creating more space for artifacts and staff. This new vision has a price, however, and it will be a long time before purists will forgive the destruction of Gardiner’s (DESIGNED BY?) carriage house. (Gardiner left strict instructions that everything in the museum must remain as she left it, but she also left some legal loopholes.)

Purist or not, what’s done is done and the result is… pleasing. Inside the building it’s the old Gardiner with treasures waiting to be discovered around every corner. In the new addition it’s a destination. You can dine, shop, read a book, see theater, or do an art project.


I was hardly able to enjoy the evening; I was too busy evaluating the impact of the new changes on my visitor experience. Museums are seeking relevance. Did the Gardiner hit the mark? I’d be very interested in studying the data that made this particular design seem like the right thing to do.

Book Review: The Non-Profit Strategy Revolution


The Non-Profit Strategy Revolution by David La Piana essentially boils down to the title of the last chapter “Real Time Strategy in a rapid response world”. La Piana asserts that the problem with strategic plans is that they rarely engage people in the process of strategy, and as a result, strategy fails to become action.

This is a book with a purpose. The author suggests developing an in depth understanding of mission and an environment focused on continuous evaluation. By empowering board and staff to evaluate the cause and effect of their actions against the goals of the strategic plan, the strategic planning document ceases to be the end goal and becomes a living component of the organization.

…and I really like one of the quotes: “leaders don’t make followers, they make more leaders.”

Find more information at http://www.fieldstonealliance.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=152

Hiking Pilot Program

The IVDM is recognized for its advocation of hiking. What we are known as is the “museum that  does the hiking”, and ironically enough, we don’t actually lead hikes, just provide a resource from our website that points people in the right direction.

Screen shot 2013-10-15 at 10.57.45 PM

Except I do a lot of hiking.

This summer seemed long. I’d gotten used to being in the desert every week and the 120 degree days and our Museum assessments didn’t agree with that schedule. As soon as the weather turned I was testing my new hiking boots, arranged a CPR/First Aid training day, and planning once a week hikes on our days off.

It’s been great.


Valley of the Moon, Jacumba Mtns.


Bow Willow to Rock House Canyon, Anza Borrego State Park


History on the Go!, Algodones Dunes


Article Review: The Art and Science of Engagement

AAM-Magnetic-Cover-FINALAn excerpt of The Art and Science of Engagement in the September/October 2013 issue of AAM’s Museum is a crystal clear explanation of the habits of “magnetic museums”. The authors define magnetic museums as “those that have developed an energized core centered on people, vision, and service, which enables them to attract and retain critical resources, such as talented and committed employees, loyal audiences, engaged donors, powerful goodwill from the community at large, and the financial capital required to sustain programmatic excellence and growth.” The themes the authors outline will be familiar to professionals who work on board and/or staff development, or community engagement.

The authors share examples of successful organizations that:

1)   Have a shared vision of staff and board

2)   Empower others through “people first, service first” philosophy

3)   Build community partnerships to “widen the circle of engagement”

4)   Become essential. (I love this one. I often tell a story of how in Imperial County, our new museum is a non-profit in a region where the Food Bank partners with schools to provide a lunch room that accepts food stamps. It brings into stark relief that a non-profit must make an impact that compares to feeding our students.)

5)   Perform with excellence (Another great one. Someone once said “the number one thing we do at this museum is engage the visitor.” Everyone we encounter has to have an experience that makes them want to come back. Every. Time.

As soon as I saw it, I immediately wanted to print a large format copy of the diagram of 360 degrees engagement and post it on the IVDM lab wall. The linked target symbol is a perfect, simple visual aid to grasp how engagement at all levels ties into the success of our organization. Judging a book by its excerpt, Bergeron and Tuttle book’s a perfect reference for museum professionals seeking to vocalize the elements that make museums relevant and essential to stakeholders.

Find more about Magnetic Museums on the book’s website: http://magneticmuseums.com/

Madrecitas: Exposicion de Pequeno Formato

Screen shot 2013-09-10 at 12.57.36 PMThe Museum has hosted it’s first all-Spanish exhibit, an art exhibit from Mexicali, Mexico. This is the first ever United States exhibition, making it now an international exhibit. The organizers of the exhibit are artists themselves and drivers of the artist community. They started this small format exhibit to provide an opportunity for their students to gain exhibit experience. Now, five years later, the blossoming students of CETYS Universidad are joined by artists ranging from Southern California to Mexico City and as far as Spain.

Based in a hallway of CETYS Universidad, the inaugural exhibit had 60 pieces. In 2013 the exhibit boasts 300 pieces (which I hung with an student curator – took 3 days) from artists ranging from Southern California to Mexico City and includes 2D, 3D and video format. The exhibit represents the vibrant artistic community just across the border.

This is one of the best events we have done at the museum. It engaged a new audience, had an amazing energy level, and epitomized the type of dialogue I want to encourage at this museum. I’m very proud of this one.


Adapting a Traveling Exhibit

At the Imperial Valley Desert Museum, we promise something new at every event. This promise has kept us hopping. The most visible change we’ve made is the installation of a temporary exhibit from Exhibit Envoy.

Exhibit Envoy is a California based non-profit organization that develops traveling exhibits available to museums for a nominal fee.  They provide the research, text panels, hands-on materials, and educational curriculum. For small museums like the IVDM having all these materials arrive in three neat little boxes is worth a couple thousand dollars. Our job was half done… but only half.

The broad challenge of this project was to take the stories in Gold Fever! and make them relevant to our desert community. Gold Fever! Untold Stories of the California Gold Rush focuses on northern California where the Gold Rush was at its peak. It was also developed in 1998 by the California Council for the Humanities in collaboration with the Oakland Museum of California. Now fifteen years later, visitor expectations lean towards the dynamic, particularly the IVDM’s audience of energetic desert adventurers. As we unpacked the materials we recognized an opportunity to enhance the standard exhibit. In the end, we added 43 supplementary panels, a miner’s cabin complete with early Imperial Valley newspaper wallpaper, and developed two interactive scale exhibits: at one you can calculate the price of a pound of coffee in 1850, at the other you can calculate your weight in gold.




The most important aspect of this project is that it focused a Californian story to an Imperial County story. Sometimes we are forgotten in this outskirt community, but that only means that this is a place where people can discover. The adapted Gold Fever! exhibit reveals secrets of the desert that you visit and in which we live. Supplementing the exhibit with local information supports our preservation strategy by encouraging pride of place to promote preservation of our landscape and cultural resources. The more people that learn about Imperial County the more conscious they become of our unique environment and the mysteries it holds.

We added to the exhibit in four key ways:

1)   highlighting facts and quotes in the provided text

2)   using existing online resources to supplement the exhibit

3)   incorporating local stories and players

4)   incorporating present day interaction with historic sites


1)   Highlighting facts and quotes in the provided text

The text developed by the Oakland Museum is incredibly interesting and the panels contain a wealth of research, but when we unpacked the 24 panels and lined them up, I was conscious of only one thing: a wall of text. Without a visual break in the information you have a foreboding that reading about the Gold Rush is going to take a lot of energy and focus. As a curator, it is my job to learn the history we interpret, but visitors don’t want to work. They are on vacation, or just trying to get the kids out of the house, or having a leisure day. We needed to facilitate the learning experience and help them pinpoint the most interesting bits. As the staff read through the text, we highlighted our favorite facts. The best one was that the first millionaire in CA wasn’t a miner, he was the guy selling the shovels. We used the flagged information as inspiration to develop meaningful stories for our audience.


2)  Using existing online resources to supplement the exhibit

One of the panels reference William Swain’s surviving journal. A little online research turned up a digitization project by Yale’s Beinecke Library making Swain’s journal accessible. An old desk and a printer allows visitor’s to read Swain’s first hand accounts in detail.


We are trying to make this relevant to Imperial County, so why stop with an out of town-er like Swain? The US census shows miners in Imperial County from 1850 through 1900 and the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project has Imperial County newspapers back to 1901. Cited appropriately, these make for some really easy, useful resources.


3)   incorporating local stories and players

Inspired by Swain’s journal, we sought loans from the local Bureau of Land Management office. The additional artifacts and photographs create a fuller picture of mining in Imperial County. Coupled with the census material, we could now compare Swain’s experience with early pioneer life in Imperial County.


4)   incorporating present day interaction with historic sites

This leads us directly to incorporating present day life. Our 1930’s historic collection includes images of visitors having a picnic at the American Girl Mine, our field books describe archeology work at Picaho Mine, and two weeks before the opening of the exhibit I was hiking at Elliot Mine. The Valley’s residents and visitors have always moved in and around this history. Exhibit Envoy and the Oakland Museum sent us the facts of the Gold Rush and with a little time and effort and a large format printer, we used that baseline to develop an exhibit relevant to our local history, our mission, and our modern visitor.



Taking the time to adapt the exhibit had far reaching implications. Strategically, it was a fund raising tool that met our mission, met the expectations of our visitors, and furthered our strategic plan. It was also a community resource. One of the first comments a student made to me about the museum was “when is it opening? I’ve never been to a museum.” Now we have an exhibit in which our community is a main player. Imperial County may be geographically isolated, but these days that is a boundary easily transcended. Supplementing the exhibit turned a statewide story into a local story and it has the potential to show our community their role in a broader world and spark the idea that they have a place in it.

AASLH 2012 Small Museums Scholarship

Before I headed to the conference I saw a comment on the AASLH list serv. Someone asked about admission fees and a responder mentioned that a she had to do a 36$ tour for 6 people on her day off and it wasn’t worth her time. Then make it worth your while, I thought. Develop a 50 dollar tour instead of a $6 tour.

At the conference, I learned that we at the IVDM are living in the new paradigm of museum. Institutions that just do it. Just do the event. Just host the art. Just have a sense of humor. Just ask for money. Just let people help. Just be fun. If the risk assessment is small, what is there to be afraid of?


Film Forward sparks dialogue…again

Earlier this year the Imperial County Film Commissioner’s Office brought the Sundance Institute’sFilm Forward Program to the Valley. We were invited to participate in a continuation of that program through a Google Hangout.

Last Saturday at the 3,000 artifacts event, we screened “Somewhere Between” a film about several young woman who were adopted from China into American families and their struggle for identity. This morning, we joined participants from across the country and internationally to compare and discuss the reaction of our communities with each other and the film’s director.
I watched the film apart from our group of participants, and I have to say I’m glad I did. I almost the exact opposite reaction as this group of college-aged students raised in a border culture. I thought of my very good friend who was adopted into a white family in a white dominated area and mourned. But even my friend’s experiences were different than those in the documentary – that is to say, American families aren’t in the habit of flying to China yearly. In the film, one of the girls’ families flew 4 people over to meet her birth family – as completely unthinkable in Imperial County as it is in middle Pennsylvania.
And Imperial County had no sympathy. The IVC student participants, one can generalize, are accustomed to differences. Even within their small group one person was the only Columbian in the room, another was the only white person. These young adopted Chinese women should not be so worried about their differences to from the world around them. They should find their self-worth in themselves and the people who love them. Thus concluded the group who are accustomed to being “different”.
The hangout discussion lead by the Film Forward monitors focused less on the film and more on the personal stories of the girls. The participants from Arizona State University included an adopted student who was born in China and was willing to share her experiences. Our group was extremely engaged in the discussion with her and her personal comments on whether her own journey to find identity was found inside or outside her physical appearance.
I absolutely love the Film Forward program and I love holding it at the museum. The students were enthusiastic and engaged with other students who were enthusiastic and engaged. It sparks conversations and broadens viewpoints for all involved. It was fantastic to watch; and to be a part of. After the discussion digitally concluded, we screened the film a second time and the lively conversation continued into the afternoon.

3,000 Artifacts in a Day event

Twenty-four volunteers helped curate 1,908 artifacts.

Saturday the museum held a 14-hour, 3,000 Artifacts in a Day event: 10am – midnight. Twenty four volunteers made good headway toward the ambitious goal, contributing over a hundred hours combined.  People actually started working around 9:00am and came throughout the day. At the end of the day, around 8pm, a  group of IVC students arrived and gave the event a second wind. We worked through the night.

Normally our volunteers complete 600 artifacts in a week, so trying to re-curate 3,000 in one day was a large goal. In the end about 1,900 artifacts were moved from temporary storage into permanent storage.

Imperial Valley College students curated through the night.

Some of the archaeologists who originally collected the artifacts were on hand to talk about the significance of the collections and their experience in the field. Volunteers were also invited on tours of the collection rooms, where they received a behind the scenes look at the process of starting a new museum. 

One of our volunteers, a new curator, saw a sign posted on the wall that the most someone had curated in a day was 161 artifacts. Intending to stay from 10:30am-2pm, he actually worked until 7pm to beat that number. “I was late,” he said, “I came at 10:30. I had to put in my time.” When he left, we tallied up his total: 181 artifacts.

At the very end of the evening, we screened the movie “Somewhere Between” as part of the Sundance Institute, and their partners, Film Forward program. The documentary records the life experience of 7 young girls who were adopted into American families from Asia. I continued to lead the curation, but I heard some stimulating conversation going on during the movie. Curation and movie = success.