Gas station without pumps

2016 September 3

MAH’s MuseumCamp 2016

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In my preparation for retirement, I’ve been exploring possibilities for what to do after I’m no longer a professor. As part of this prep, I applied for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s “MuseumCamp“. I’ve been following Nina Simon’s blog Museum 2.0 and Santa Cruz MAH blog for some time, and I was interested to see more about how things worked at MAH and how they influenced other, much larger institutions.

One line in the announcement of MuseumCamp particularly caught my interest:

We especially encourage people of color, non-female people, people over 50, and/or people working outside of traditional museums/visual arts to apply.

Three out of four of those apply to me (only the “of color” is not applicable), so I applied for the camp, though making it clear that this was more of a casual interest for me than a burning need, and that they should give the slot to someone else if they were full.  Back in April, they sent me a response

I really appreciate you applying to MuseumCamp (and being honest about your level of interest). We ended up having 3x as many applicants as spots, so you are not on the list for 2016.

Later on, though, there were some cancellations, and they offered me the slot at the beginning of August:

If you’re still interested and available, I wanted to extend an invitation to MuseumCamp this summer. I know you applied with the caveat of not wanting to occupy someone else’s space, but we have the room and would love to have you.

So I decided to go and see whether MAH and museums in general would be a good place for me to direct my attention once I’m no longer spending almost all my time being a professor.  I’m not an “art and history” person, but I’ve enjoyed some of the exhibitions and events at MAH, and I have a lot of respect for how Nina Simon has turned the MAH from being an almost-dead local museum that only a few people cared about to being a major cultural institution in Santa Cruz in a very short time.

The theme of the camp this year was Change Making, which is pretty broad, as they were including social change, institutional change, and personal change. The structure of MuseumCamp was intermediate between a conference and an unconference—things were highly scheduled in order to pack in a lot of activities, with some time slots highly structured (workshop times, lightning talks, …) and some very open times (work on zines).

The “unlearning workshops” the first day were intended to stretch people a little outside their comfort zones and get people to “shift gears and be fully present for camp”. I chose to attend Activist Puppet-making with Grant Wilson and Paper Pop-Ups with Jason Alderman.  Since both of these involved art projects using my hands, they were a little outside my comfort zone, but not as far as ones like Ballet and Modern Dance Play, Changemaking Yoga, or Icebreaking Icebreakers.

Grant Wilson is known locally for the large body puppets that appear in various Santa Cruz parades, which he explained the use and construction of. It was interesting to see the construction details (like how the approximated 25-lb (12kg) frames were attached to backpack frames), and to learn about “creature staplers”, which are more formally referred to as sword-point stapler pliers or spear-point stapler pliers. The main models seem to be the Arrow P35S, the Rapid HD31SP, the Markwell MPL3CSand the Bostitch P6C-8P, though there is also a generic ST103 model that comes with many different retailer names and costs more than the better known stapler names. They cost about $30–$60 and provide a strong join for corrugated cardboard that does not require access from the edge of the cardboard (if you are willing to have a stab hole from inserting the anvil through the cardboard).  Another useful resource was the book Wise Fool Basicswhich discusses (among many other things) how to build the large puppets. It would have been nice to have more hands-on construction (building a generic face, for example), but the workshop was worth the time anyway.

Jason Alderman’s paper pop-ups workshop was much more directed in getting us to learn one particular (but very versatile) paper-engineering technique.  The result I produced was only suitable for putting on the fridge (which is where my wife puts the art given to her by the elementary-school students in her library), but I think that I understand the technique well enough now that I could design a greeting card using it, and could even teach it to middle school children if I practiced it a few more times.

I found the workshops rewarding, but I was not as thrilled with the next activity “Change speed dating”, which was a fairly standard sort of ice-breaker.  The lightning talks after that were quite good, giving examples of change accomplished or in progress by four of the campers. Dinner by India Joze was excellent, and I had some good conversations with the people around me.  The Power Hour of Fun was probably the least comfortable activity of the day for me, and I had to step out of it several times to control my irritation.  It was clearly focussed on raising group energy for extroverts and may have been successful at that—I’d be curious to find out what the reactions were of the other introverts, though.  I don’t know if I was the only one who found it mentally exhausting rather than stimulating.

The second day started with a whole-group activity to try to choose topics for zines, which worked ok, but could have been a bit smoother if they had let people vote with stickers for their top 3 choices on all the proposed topics rather than trying to whittle down the number by vocal responses first.  I felt that the whittling down was based more on the feelings of the organizers or the loudness of a small number of people, rather than making sure that everyone had something they were interested in.

The zine topic generation was followed by a choice of one of four workshops.  None of the topics were particularly aimed at me (as an engineering professor, I was a bit outside the mainstream attendees, who seemed to be mainly museum or library professionals, with a few random others mixed in—mostly from social science, art, or humanities backgrounds), so I chose to go to Nina Simon’s workshop. I chose her workshop mainly because I have found her blogs to be thought-provoking, so I figured I would get something out of her talk, even if I wasn’t the target audience.  The topic was somewhat different from what was described in the printed schedule, and was both more and less relevant than I had anticipated.  She talked about making change from the role of an institutional head, and focussed less on community relevance than the title had suggested.  I have some roles in which I am in charge (like Program Chair and Undergraduate Director), but I’m never the person in charge of the budget or hiring and firing, so some parts resonated with me and some not so much.  It was a thought-provoking talk, and it did include some good conversations with the people at the same table.

The rest of the day was spent working on our zines.  There were 17 groups of about 4–5 people, and I ended up on a team whose topic was “a dictionary of activism for non-activists”, though one of the first things our group did was reject the dictionary approach and just go for an introduction.  Our group were almost all introverts, so we agreed on a working method where we would get together at intervals to divide up the work, share what we had done, and get feedback, but do most of our work independently.  It turned out that two of the group were vegans, so we went to Cafe Gratitude (I’m not sure whether this restaurant is part of the Los Angeles chain with the same name or not) for our first meeting over lunch.  We decided on what articles we would include and who would do what, then split up to do the work. We got back together every couple of hours, including dinner provided by Taquitos Nayarit (a Watsonville taqueria that I was not familiar with), until we finished at about 9:30pm (after the deadline, but not the last group to finish).  The results were not as bad as I had feared, but it is still clearly a one-day effort.

I think that one of the biggest take-home messages for people is that it takes a long time to put together even a tiny 8-page zine. I already knew that from having laid out and printed art newsletters for my son’s kindergarten or first-grade classes, about 14 years ago, but I think that it was news to a lot of the campers.

On Friday, we had more lightning talks in the auditorium, from five more campers.  This group was a mixed bag, with some really inspiring talks and some that I would rather not have been present for (I won’t embarrass people by identifying which are which).  That was followed by two unconference sessions, where any one could propose topics for conversation, but they had to attend the session they proposed.  I did not propose any, so I was free to choose.

The first session was on car-free living, but only three of us showed up (all of us already car-free for several years), so while we had an ok conversation, it was not as stimulating as a larger group, nor useful in conveying advice to people interested in becoming car-free.

The second session was on design thinking for social work (a follow-up on one of the lightning talks).  The conversation there was interesting and gave me some things to think about how the processes used in engineering and design could be applied in other fields.

After the unconference sessions, we folded and stapled our zines (100 copies of each). Here is where I made my biggest contribution to the Museum Camp—I brought in my saddle stapler from home:

A saddle stapler, or booklet stapler, is an indispensable aid to producing neatly stapled booklets quickly.

A saddle stapler, or booklet stapler, is an indispensable aid to producing neatly stapled booklets quickly.

It seemed that no one at the conference had heard of a saddle stapler before, though some had used long-arm staplers. The approach that the MAH staff had planned on used ordinary office staplers and rolling up half the zine to get it to fit within the short arm—a very tedious and sloppy method, though one that most of the zines still had to use, because there wasn’t enough time to staple 1700 zines with only one saddle stapler. Three might have been enough and five certainly would have been, but at $40 each, I’m not sure that MAH would have wanted to buy that many, even if they had known they wanted them.

I also considered introducing people to the “bone folder” for making sharp creases, but decided that it was not as important, so didn’t mention it, though I did use it for about 150 zines. I showed a few people the trick of reversing the staple side of a pile of zines every 10 zines, both for easier counting and to keep the stack level so the zines don’t slide everywhere, but again, this was a small point that was not worth pushing out to everyone.

I ended up with one copy of each of the 17 zines, which I still have to read:

The zines look very colorful as a stack, but I've no idea yet what the contents are like.

The zines look very colorful as a stack, but I’ve no idea yet what the contents are like.

MuseumCamp ended at the beach, with presentations by each group about their zine. The presentations were mostly amusing, and at one minute each, none were long enough to get boring. I had a couple of good conversations, both at the beach and on the walk back to the museum.

Overall, I had a pretty good experience at MuseumCamp, even though it was aimed at a different target audience, but I don’t think I would get much out of repeating the experience. (If MAH want’s to borrow my saddle stapler, though, I’d be glad to lend it to them, as I rarely use it.)

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