The WestMuse Blog is Moving!

Stay connected with interesting topics throughout the museum community. Sign up to receive notifications here: www.westmuse.org/blog

Articles will no longer be posted to the WestMuse Blog at this web address. All future articles will be posted here: www.westmuse.org/blog. Please sign up for notifications to stay connected with museum thought leaders.

So, You’re Attending WMA2014 in Las Vegas…Don’t Hesitate, Speed Date!

By Anne Rowe

Professional conferences are peculiar gatherings. It took me two conferences to figure out that it’s not important whether your next session is in the Tango or Tierra room. What’s really important is this: once you find the right conference room, whom are you sitting next to? Nobody prepared me for this reality so I will try to save you some time with one tip as you prepare for the Western Museums Association (WMA) 2014 Annual Meeting in Las Vegas.

Here’s the tip: throw out your normal boundaries of social introduction when attending a conference.

WMA2014_GeneralBanner

It’s easier than you think. Here’s why: similar to speed dating, the hard part usually associated with meeting someone new is already behind you as your fellow attendees have similar interests to your own. The space you occupy has been artificially populated with people who are, relative to the general public, just like you. This almost never happens in real life. This high-frequency opportunity to intersect with similar people is actually at the core, as opposed to a by-product, of why we organize conferences. Take advantage of it.

When you attend a session (and having been on the 2014 Program Committee, I must say there are some great sessions at this year’s meeting!), do something you don’t normally do in a restaurant or at the movies: introduce yourself to the person next to you. Open up about why you chose that session. Share your museum’s or department’s challenges. I promise that the other person will be able to relate to what you are saying. Even if you speak to that person for a mere two minutes prior to the start of the session, I encourage you to ask for that person’s business card and give them yours. This is important. I guarantee you will be glad you have it when you get back to your desk. At the very least, you might have a follow-up question about the session you attended. Just keep in mind that the people next to and around you in sessions are not random people. You are all in the same industry and chose to attend the same session. The particular session has something to do with your jobs and therefore your careers, and therefore, your lives. You have a lot in common.

I very much regret being slow to recognize the acceleration of collegial courtship inherent to professional conferences. I missed a lot of opportunities. For instance, while on a bus during the American Alliance of Museums 2011 Meeting in Houston on the way to an evening museum gathering I sat next to a brilliant millennial who created smart phone apps. He knew things like how long people engaged with apps in museums, how many layers they should have, and when an app was too involved and actually detracted from the visitor experience. He knew everything about the subject. At that time I wasn’t professionally interested. I didn’t ask for his card and I still regret that today. I didn’t think that apps were a part of my universe. Now I know better. There have been a couple of times I could have won a cookie in a meeting if I only had his council in my toolbox.

Once I understood the rules, though, I began to make incredible connections. At a lunch at the WMA 2013 Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, I met a woman from Santa Barbara and another woman from San Francisco. I introduced myself to both and immediately discussed some ideas I had been thinking about for future exhibitions. Both conversations resulted in direct links to works in their or other collections that could conceivably be included in a future exhibition at Sunnylands. I now enjoy many relationships that originated at WMA Annual Meetings. These connections have enriched my experience in my job, in my field, and therefore my life.

WMA Annual Meetings are intentionally constructed to provide a safe and fun space where the foundation for social interactions is well advanced of where you typically begin when meeting new people. In speed-dating rounds it’s okay to cut to the chase. It’s okay to cut to the chase at conferences as well. Don’t make the mistake I made. Try not to think of your fellow attendees as random people. They have chosen to be in the same space as you for reasons similar to your own. Collect cards. Talk to people while you stand in line for coffee. When you see people walking down the street in Las Vegas with the WMA Annual Meeting badge, cross the street to connect.

Anne Rowe is currently the Director of Collections and Exhibitions for The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage California. She currently serves as a Board Member of the Western Museums Association, as well as as a City of Palm Springs Art Commissioner. Prior to joining Sunnylands in 2009 Rowe was the President of the Board of Trustees for the Copley Society of Boston, America’s oldest nonprofit art association. Anne has also worked at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.

Program Perspective: How to Successfully Teach for the 21st Century Museum

By Adrienne McGraw

What skills and attributes do museum professionals need to possess to successfully work in the 21st Century museum?

A question like this is always on the minds of museum studies university faculty. We want provide the best education for students so that they contribute to relevant, adaptive, and sustainable museums, which in turn best serve and collaborate with communities. To do this, we as faculty have to be relevant ourselves, provide evolving curriculum, and consistently evaluate our work. The basis of our curriculum should be guided by the needs of the museum field, and so we need to ask this question with start of every new school year.

As part of our current curriculum assessment, John F. Kennedy University Museum Studies Program partnered with a colleague on campus with expertise in Concept Mapping to find answers to the complex question of what skills and attributes are needed in today’s museums. Concept Mapping as a research methodology pulls together the perspectives of multiple stakeholders, presents data visually, and shows how individual data sets relate to each other and the larger concept. Here, the stakeholders were museum professionals from across the nation and the data included distinct skills and attributes they feel are needed to work in today’s museums.

Dr. Sean Fitzpatrick, as the primary investigator, designed the research protocol and guided us through the process, which ultimately resulted in enhanced learning outcomes for our program. An online survey of museum professionals nationwide was conducted between April 6–March 16, 2014 and we received 78 responses, with 358 individual answers that were sorted out to about 100 unique skills and attributes statements.

The fun part included a convening of 16 colleagues who joined us to sort the statements into categories or concepts as they saw fit. These esteemed sorters ranged from recent museum studies graduates to seasoned professionals with three decades of experience. They included people working in all departments, at all levels, and in a variety of institutional settings and disciplines. Honestly, we were astounded by the brainpower, expertise, and passion in the room.

Following the sorting activity, Dr. Fitzpatrick went off and crunched all the data from the individual sorters’ categories and developed concept clusters for us to review. As a faculty we met, had deep discussions about all the concepts, and finally determined that there were five groups of statements that made the most sense to us in terms of concept cohesion.

Directly from the museum field, we heard that the answer to “What skills and attributes do museum professionals need to possess to successfully work in the 21st Century museum?” boils down to, not surprisingly to these categories:

  • Community awareness & engagement
  • Communicating content
  • Business literacy
  • Tech & media literacy
  • Personal traits (This finding showed that these are “soft skills” ranging from the ability to be good communicators to possession of high emotional intelligence.)
Results from the concept mapping research project showing the clusters of responses to the question: What skills and attributes do museum professionals need to possess to successfully work in the 21st Century museum?

Results from the concept mapping research project showing the clusters of responses to the question: What skills and attributes do museum professionals need to possess to successfully work in the 21st Century museum?

During our sorting session, we also asked colleagues to look at the results of the survey—the 100 statements—and determine if the skills and attributes museum professionals need to posses are teachable, and how important they are to our work. Here’s where it gets tricky. The concepts that are seen as the least “teachable” are also ranked the most important.

MuseumStudies_2It is not surprising, that “personal traits” were seen as most important, yet least teachable. So what then does this mean for museum studies curriculum? How can we model soft skills? What are the tools to help students develop in areas where they may not naturally be inclined?

Another interesting finding was that the very work done by museums—communicating content—ranked lower in importance. Perhaps respondents simply take for granted that museums just do this, and recognize it is more important to stress the importance of community engagement.

None of us working in museum settings should find any of these surprising, but for all museum studies faculty, these concepts should be reassuring (yes, we know what we need to teach) and provide an assessment opportunity (but are we doing it and doing it well?). Further, we should also ask if museum studies programs are the best and only places for this learning to occur. Are curriculum and training standards needed? What can learned through other degrees, internships, apprenticeships, mentoring, and good old-fashioned on-the-job training?

At the upcoming WMA 2014 Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, a session will delve deeper into these issues and more. Our overarching question will be:

What is the role of Museum Studies in the field and how are we still needed and relevant?

University faculty, a recent graduate, and an HR recruiter will engage in a critical discussion about Museum Studies from the practical to the philosophical. We invite you to join our Session on Wednesday, October 8, 2014.

Presenters:
Richard Toon, PhD, Associate Research Professor, Director Museums and Museum Studies, Arizona State University
Adrienne McGraw, Museum Studies Program Chair, John F. Kennedy University
Adrien Mooney, Registrar, Utah Museum of Fine Arts
Terri Leong, Staffing Administrator, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Moderator: Keni Sturgeon, Director, Science & Education, Pacific Science Center

Adrienne McGraw joined the faculty of JFK University Museum Studies in 2010 and was appointed Program Chair. Previously, she was the executive director for Exhibit Envoy, a statewide nonprofit that develops traveling exhibitions and has served as director of education for several history museums and historic sites in California. She has authored educational curriculum, curated exhibitions, and is a founding and current committee member of the Green Museums Initiative for the California Association of Museums.

Program Perspective: Top Ten Reasons Poster Sessions are Great

By Lorie Millward

The Western Museums Association (WMA) 2014 Annual Meeting Poster Session is the second edition of, in what we hope, will be an ongoing program opportunity for years to come. I love me some poster session, and here’s why:

10. Posters are a great way to introduce a project or case study that may not be ready for a for a full-fledged conference session.

9. If you’re looking for feedback about an aspect of your work, the mighty poster is an ideal way to kick-start that conversation.

8. Posters allow students with an eye to museum work the opportunity to share the great things they are learning and working on.

7. The session happens during a food break so there is a guarantee of snacks and a decent chance of coffee appearing.

6. Emerging museum professional that present posters have the chance to meet and talk with other museum people and make important connections.

5. Posters are full of nice pictures and graphs. Who doesn’t love a good graph?

4. It is an excellent time to meet new colleagues and practice the networking tips that Wendy Meluch gave you in her Networking 101 pre-conference session (FREE on Sunday, October 5 immediately before the FREE Opening Reception).

3. Presenting a poster is good for your CV/resume/scrapbook.

2. Having discussions with cool people about new ideas and interesting work is a pretty great way to spend some time.

 And the number one, numero uno reason I love the poster session is…

1. It’s like going to a museum! The room is literally filled with cool graphics, informative text, new or challenging ideas, and amazing people who have dedicated their time to making museums essential community places and spaces.

poster

A lot of work goes into boiling down an important project to the most essential parts and then fitting it all onto a 3×4 piece of poster board. The Program Committee has selected a group of posters that should provide for an engaging and thought-provoking session at the Las Vegas 2014 Annual Meeting in October. We are happy to announce the 2014 Annual Meeting Poster Session presentations:

Breaking the Mold: Exploring Exhibit Genres Allison Inkley, Collections Technician, Museum of Peoples and Cultures, Brigham Young University

Collection Mapping: Organize Your Collection for a New Facility Michael Fiegenschuh, Student, University of Washington and Architect, Mithun

Common Core Standards: Many Paths to Museum Educational Competency Alexa Beaman, Museum Studies Graduate Student, University of San Francisco

Creating Successful Social, Online Communities Lauren Valone, Program Coordinator, Western Museums Association and Web Content Manager, MD Conference Express and Libby Vieira da Cunha, Online Community Consultant, Joan Mitchell Foundation

Establishing a Base: Documenting the Collections and Archives at the Neon Museum Maggie Zakri, Docent/Archivist, Neon Museum

Exploring Collections Advocacy in Natural History Museum Exhibits Katharine Baldwin-Corriveau, Student, John F. Kennedy University

Inviting the Unexpected: Making Space for Community Expression Lisa Soccio, Gallery Director, Marks Art Center at College of the Desert and Krystal Glasman, Gallery Assistant, Marks Art Center at College of the Desert

Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well: The Journey of Reuniting Objects and Stories Jessica Simpson, Student, Brigham Young University

Museums’ Training Programs for Seasonal Educators in Alberta, Canada Shannon Kraichy, Masters Candidate, University of British Columbia

The Museum Financial Donation and Its Ethical Spectrum Jessica Horowitz, Student, John F. Kennedy University

The “Watch Us Move” Exhibit: CHM’s First Foray into the Meta-Museum Movement Michelle Nash, Assistant Collections Manager, Coos Historical & Maritime Museum

The Unmanaged Collection: Solving Big Problems with Little Resources Melinda McCrary, Executive Director, Richmond Museum of History and Patricia McCloy, Student, John F. Kennedy University

Whatever you do, don’t skip the 2014 Poster Session (did I mention the coffee?) to be held the morning of Tuesday, October 7.

See you there!

Lorie Millward is the Curator of Curiosity at Thanksgiving Point Institute in Lehi, Utah. She was on the 2013 and 2014 WMA Program Committee, as well as on the 2014 WMA Poster Review Committee.

MOA’s Native Youth Program: Perspectives on touring Claiming Space: Voices of Urban Aboriginal Youth

By Nicole Brabant

This summer at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA), public tours commenced for a bold new exhibition called Claiming Space: Voices of Urban Aboriginal Youth. Curated by Pam Brown, Claiming Space features contemporary art by young Indigenous artists from around the world. It opened on June 1, 2014. This summer, museum visitors had opportunities to tour the exhibition with six urban Aboriginal youth in the Native Youth Program (NYP), a seven-week program in its 35th year at MOA.

Each year, six youth from the Greater Vancouver area are selected to participate in the NYP and learn various aspects of working within a museum environment. They give public tours, do research projects, and participate in presentations and workshops by MOA staff. Indigenous guest speakers and artists also work with the interns to help them complete arts- and media-related projects. Most importantly, the youth have an opportunity to connect with each other in a supportive environment as they develop new skills. Brown’s work as Director of NYP inspired her to develop the Claiming Space exhibition, along with artist/filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Curatorial Assistant.

Claiming Space provided a new focus for this summer’s NYP interns as they developed programming around this exhibition. Museum visitors were able to hear Aboriginal youth present and respond to artwork produced by other Aboriginal youth.

"Claiming Space: Voices of Urban Aboriginal Youth" continues at MOA until January 4, 2015

“Claiming Space: Voices of Urban Aboriginal Youth” continues at MOA until January 4, 2015

In the first two weeks of the internship, NYP program staff assisted or trained the interns to give tours by fostering engagement with contemporary art, and helping them develop an arts vocabulary along with presentation strategies. Just as the artists in Claiming Space created works in response to their lived experiences as urban Aboriginal youth, so tour preparation included learning about such issues as the missing and murdered Aboriginal women and the Idle No More movement, to ensure they would have a general understanding of the context. Another crucial aspect of their orientation was providing the youth with tools that would enable them to discuss challenging subject matter, such as racism and alcoholism, in a way that would be safe for themselves as well as museum visitors.

The youth began delivering public tours of Claiming Space in the third week of their internship. It’s been exciting to watch them develop insight into the artwork, and to witness their growth as they become more and more confident to engage with museum visitors.

NYP intern Tyler Sabbas explains Harry Brown’s “Media Machine” to museum visitors.

NYP intern Tyler Sabbas explains Harry Brown’s “Media Machine” to museum visitors.

There have also been instances where NYP interns have made personal connections with specific works in Claiming Space.

The first thematic grouping in the exhibit is “The Indigenous Sprawl.” In this section, the artists present urban spaces as sites of ongoing colonization. NYP intern Tyson Hall chose an untitled poem by Anna McKenzie that addresses the issue of alcoholism within Aboriginal communities. He believes that it is important that this issue be addressed and communicated to the general public because of the impact and legacy of Indian residential schools on Aboriginal people.

MOA-NYP_Fig3

NYP intern Tyson Hall presents Taleetha Tait’s “Sun Eagles” drum.

The third thematic grouping, “Adapting Our Traditions,” examines the way that traditions are morphing and adapting today. Carmen Lockhart, a returning NYP intern, relates to the frustrations expressed by Sámi artist Marja Bål Nango in her installation, Giesan Giesan. In the video, a young Sámi woman is trying to wrap traditional Sámi ties around her boots, and as she does so, a computer-generated female voice criticizes her actions, saying that she is doing it incorrectly, as though she were a non- Sámi woman, and that she is stupid. Lockhart explains that some urban Aboriginal youth know very little about their specific cultural heritage, and it can be difficult to find sources or people to teach you.

The final section of Claiming Space, “We Are The Keepers,” illustrates the impact of modern consumer culture on traditional values, as seen through the eyes of a generation whose daily reality is informed by globalization. NYP intern Sarah Wilson chose to remix an animation by Raymond Caplin, Traditional Healing, into a photograph. In Caplin’s animation, a young woman walks into a polluted black-and-white forest. She begins to dance, and as she moves, colour begins to seep into the frame as the plants begin to heal in response to her dance. Wilson likes this depiction of how traditional dancing made the pollution recede and the land come alive again—she says Caplin’s work made her realize that the singing and dancing that took place during the Idle No More protests were an attempt to heal the environment by stopping the pipeline expansion.

Video still from Raymond Caplin’s animation Traditional Healing; Sarah Wilson.

Video still from Raymond Caplin’s animation Traditional Healing; Sarah Wilson.

Although the young emerging artists in Claiming Space address many difficult issues in navigating their worlds, Pam Brown and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers believe it is important to also acknowledge and celebrate their bold insights and exciting visions for the future. Just as many of these artists focus on themes of resurgence and revitalization of Indigenous culture, so too have the NYP interns during their summer at MOA.

This year’s NYP program comes to an end on August 22, 2014. However, Claiming Space continues at MOA until January 4, 2015.

Nicole Brabant is Cree Métis from Saskatchewan. Having more than a decade of experience working as a post-secondary Art, Art History, and English instructor, she is presently the NYP Program Manager at the UBC Museum of Anthropology.

Eight Questions to Consider Before Launching Your Museum’s Crowdfunding Campaign

By Maren Dougherty

Earlier this year, our team at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles launched an online crowdfunding campaign for our exhibition about Route 66. In 60 days, we raised more than $60,000 for the exhibition, including more than $40,000 through the Indiegogo platform and $20,000 in offline donations.

We were pleased with the results of the campaign, but we also learned a lot about the process and the amount of effort required. It’s similar to a Route 66 journey: there are highs and lows, landmarks and long stretches of nothing—and every trip is different. That said, we’re happy to share our experiences with the Western Museums Association community, and we’ve structured our advice in the form of questions to ask your team before embarking on a journey like ours.

Inside the finished Route 66 exhibition

Inside the finished Route 66 exhibition

Eight Questions to Ask

1. What are your goals? We launched our online crowdfunding campaign to raise additional funds for the exhibition and related programs and to generate buzz about the exhibition before the public opening. We felt the Route 66 theme was a perfect opportunity as the Mother Road has fans worldwide.

2. Are you prepared to collaborate? If you also have a two-fold goal to raise awareness and funds, your Marketing and Development departments will need to work very closely on the campaign’s messaging and execution. We divided the work fairly evenly between the departments. Marketing oversaw video production, set up the campaign, sent mass e-mails, managed press relations, and posted social media updates. Development approached individual donors, processed donor information, and fulfilled perks.

3. Are you ready to work hard? Because of the success of campaigns for projects such as the Veronica Mars movie, the Reading Rainbow app, and yes, the $50,000 potato salad, some people seem to think that you can just set up a crowdfunding campaign site, offer a few perks, and money will appear. It’s rarely that easy. According to Kickstarter, fewer than half of its projects (44%) are fully funded by their deadline. Whether you are trying to raise $10,000 or $100,000, to be successful, you have to hustle just like you would with any other fundraising effort.

Like most campaigners, we also underestimated the time it took to fulfill perks. Collecting T-shirt sizes, responding to questions from donors, compiling RSVPs for events—the time is significant, and it’s important to identify a staff member who can dedicate the hours needed to make sure the campaign is a positive experience for everyone involved.

4. How can you start this thing with a bang? As Indiegogo has noted, campaigns with momentum are far more likely to reach and exceed their goals. Prior to launching our Route 66 campaign, we discussed it with our board of trustees and presented it at an all-staff meeting. The morning of the campaign’s launch, we sent e-mails to our database (about 20,000 subscribers); sent press releases and pitches to individual reporters; posted about it to social media; and messaged various companies and associations related to Route 66. We received a lot of media attention that week. The catchy target amount of $66,000 for a Route 66 exhibition seemed to help, as did the fact that few other museums in Los Angeles have launched major crowdfunding campaigns.

Screenshot of a newspaper article about the campaign

Screenshot of a newspaper article about the campaign

5. Which platform is right for you? A lot of people ask us why we decided to use Indiegogo instead of Kickstarter or other platforms. With Kickstarter, you must raise the full goal amount in order to receive the money. We weren’t comfortable taking that risk.

6. How will you maintain the momentum? Even if you raise a quarter of the funds in your first week, you’ll still have a long way to go. What tactics will you deploy to continue to collect donations—send periodic e-mails, add new perks, add on-site signage, post funny videos? It’s also important to identify existing donors who may be able to contribute mid-campaign to give it an additional boost.

Indiegogo reports that 22% of funds are raised as a result of traffic from social media posts, that people give 20% more money when clicking through e-mails than from any other source, and that 239% more money is raised by groups who provide updates at least three times during the campaign.

Design of table tents we placed in our museum cafe

Design of table tents we placed in our museum cafe

7. Do you have a plan for accepting offline donations? Even though Indiegogo and Kickstarter make it easy for people to give online, many of our donors said they would prefer to send checks. If we had required gifts to be made online, we might have lost about $20,000. Instead, we accepted the offline donations and simply noted on our campaign page that we had received additional offline funds. It’s fun to see the online progress bar move closer to the target, but we needed to keep our primary goals in mind.

8. Is your organization ready to be bold and creative? There will only be one $50,000 potato salad, but who knows what’s next!

Some related news articles and resources are listed below. If you have any questions about our Route 66 campaign, feel free to give me a shout on Twitter @MarenReport.

News and Resources

Maren Dougherty is the Director of Communications and Marketing for the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles. Prior to joining the Autry, Maren was the Director of External Affairs for the Balboa Park Online Collaborative in San Diego.

 

What’s Happening California? An Ongoing Museum-University Co-Curation Project

By Suzanne Fischer

What does cosplay have to do with training the next generation of museum professionals? In the Oakland Museum of California’s (OMCA) What’s Happening California series college students become the heroes of the exhibit development process.

The What’s Happening California series is an ongoing collaboration between OMCA and California State University (CSU) campuses across the state. The project goal is to develop an on-going community co-curated presence in OMCA’s Gallery of California History, involve university students in exhibition and collections development, and increase the diversity of stories and artifacts from across the state that are represented in the museum. Over the course of two semesters, OMCA staff work with students to develop a 300 sq. ft. exhibit about contemporary issues in their community. Students choose the topic, conduct research, identify objects for the show, work on labels, develop multimedia, and help guide exhibit design. With the support of the Institute for Museum and Library services, the partnership has so far produced three exhibits in collaboration with public history students in Sacramento, Fullerton, and San Diego.

When OMCA engaged in a major reorganization and reinstallation project, we wanted to make sure that the history we told in the Gallery of California History went right up to yesterday, and we wanted to make sure that co-creation work would be ongoing and visible. The CSU system was a natural partner: with a diverse student body, 23 campuses across the state, and a variety of history and social science programs with exhibit practice components, we found great collaborators in the students and teachers who enthusiastically pitched in, despite some growing pains as the project developed.

The first show, What’s Happening Sacramento?, was co-curated by a public history class taught by Lee Simpson at Sacramento State. Told mainly through first-person labels from the perspective of students and community members, the show presented a selection of diverse stories related to Sacramento’s rivers. It was anchored by exceptional artifacts with compelling personal stories: frogging poles used to hunt frogs on the Sacramento River, bandanas created by women farmworkers who are survivors of abuse in the fields, a kayak owned by the founder of a famous Sacramento kayak triathlon. This show received a Leadership in History Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History.

The What's Happening Sacramento exhibit.

The “What’s Happening Sacramento?” exhibit.

The CSU Fullerton students in Benjamin Cawthra’s public history classes developed a timely, broadly relevant theme for their exhibit, Hard Times in the OC: the 2008 recession in Orange County. In cooperation with the Center for Oral and Public History at CSU Fullerton, they conducted oral histories with community members affected by the recession. They interviewed pink-slipped teachers, anti-austerity Occupy activists, short sale specialists, people who went into debt to keep up with the “OC image,” the director of a group that kept a state park open despite a non-existent state parks budget, people who kept their Disneyland memberships no matter what their financial situations, the director of a Latino/a theater group thriving despite the recession, people who were unemployed and looking for work: in short, a diverse cross-section of the Southland in the 21st century.

Fullerton student Carolina Zataray visiting "Hard Times in the OC"

Fullerton student Carolina Zataray visiting “Hard Times in the OC”

This year, graduate and undergraduate students in Sarah Elkind’s public history classes at San Diego State University developed Sunshine and Superheroes: San Diego Comic-Con, an exhibit on an important contemporary issue in their community: the enormous annual comics convention in their town. The show is about fantasies: personal and cultural fantasies of being a superhero, as well as civic fantasies of the power of a tourist economy. It explores the role of Comic-Con in the way San Diego sees itself; during the con, the city replaces trolley signs with signs in Klingon and other invented languages. We have a Klingon trolley sign in the show. Two costumes help us think about the way Comic-Con and comics represent gender: a fierce Batwoman costume and a more sexualized Harley Quinn costume. The show also explores how comics culture has become mainstream popular culture. The students also developed an interactive experience where visitors can try on costumes and take photos against different backgrounds.

SDSU students and OMCA staff pose in the "Sunshine and Superheroes" exhibit.

SDSU students and OMCA staff pose in the “Sunshine and Superheroes” exhibit.

With each collaborative project with CSU students and their local communities, OMCA learns more. We look forward to learning even more while working with our new partners, an anthropology class at San Jose State University, on a new exhibit this fall. Each project has introduced students to museum work and to the practice of contemporary history. Each project has helped the museum become the “museum of California,” a place where diverse visitors from across the state can see themselves represented in exhibits and programs. Each project is a laboratory for deepening our practice of collaborative work. In this year’s show, it was a laboratory with capes and masks.

Suzanne Fischer is Associate Curator of Contemporary History and Trends at the Oakland Museum of California.