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Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail

Strategic planning has been on my mind a lot in the past few weeks.

I’ve been finding strategic planning in the usual places – the Laurel Historical Society is in the middle of a multi-year strategic planning effort, for example, and anyone familiar with museums, academia, and/or the nonprofit world should always have some level of awareness about strategic plans – and in unusual places as well.

The concept of strategic planning, I’ve realized, crops up quite frequently during walking seminars I lead along the National Mall from time to time. Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for Washington is the launching point for an historical overview of the Mall, juxtaposed in the ensuing three hours with its reinterpretation in the 1902 McMillan Plan and the still-ongoing 21st century re-reinterpretation (have no fear, Andrew Jackson Downing’s 1851 Mall redesign also makes a few appearances).

For me, the most striking aspects of both the L’Enfant and McMillan plans aren’t their immediate transformations of the Mall, but the long-term vision they also encouraged. When L’Enfant was designing the capital city, it had to have been tempting to name all of the circles and squares created through the implementation of his grid street system. Instead, he left them empty, preferring to allow future Americans to celebrate their own heroes. Similarly, when the McMillan Plan imagined the Mall and the heart of D.C. as a “monumental core” they did so knowing that it would be up to future residents, those not even born yet, to determine the location, subject, and appearance of those monuments, memorials, and museums.

What always strikes me isn’t the idea of explicitly accounting for the future in strategic planning, since I was the one who designed the walking seminar after all, but rather the responses of my clients. Their appreciation, amazement, even shock at the notion of designing with the future in mind speaks volumes to the popularization of immediacy and the true difficulty in taking the long view. Even when a museum or university undertakes a strategic planning process, oftentimes it’s for 5 or 10 years. That L’Enfant and the McMillan Commission were looking 50 years, 100 years, indefinitely into the future speaks to the adventurous vision and the value of their contribution to the physical and psychological landscape of the U.S.

The notion of strategic planning also comes up in a favorite pastime of mine, comic books. There’s the short-term planning – a single writer thinking about the next few story arcs of the book she writes – and long-term planning, on the scale of a grouping of books or even the entirety of a publisher’s line.

At the moment the big two of comic book publishing, Marvel and DC, are both in the middle of a company-wide reboot, Secret Wars in the case of the former and Convergence for the latter. While the need for either company to reboot their line is a topic for another day (hint: it’s unnecessary) there is a distinct difference in the levels of planning put into each, or at least the perception thereof. Secret Wars was spearheaded by writer Jonathan Hickman and his editing team as the culmination of a storyline that was introduced in Avengers (vol. 5) #1 and New Avengers (vol. 3) #1 back in December 2012/January 2013, and is rebooting decades of continuity (although the Marvel NOW! initiative in 2011/12 resulted in renumbering of books and new team compositions, it didn’t affect continuity). Meanwhile Convergence is rebooting a continuity that had just been rebooted in 2011 as the “New 52,” in part in response to Marvel’s major changes, to lagging sales for New 52 books, and also because they needed a respite from ongoing monthly book publishing for a few months while moving their offices from New York City to Los Angeles.

Even before the first books from Secret Wars and Convergence were released, and especially now that the first issues have hit the newsstands, there’s a distinct difference in public responses to the two crossovers. Criticism of Convergence is somewhat negative and at the very least cynical, while that of Secret Wars is a fair bit more open-minded. Critics aren’t quite sure what to make of the Marvel story, but knowing that it was meticulously planned and executed strategically, there’s more willingness to trust the creative staff and let things play out.

That trust comes not just from company goodwill, but from the public acknowledgement by Marvel of their strategic plan, tying it to future company goals and demonstrating to the public the connections between the current storylines and actions in the comics over the past few years. Obviously the nature of a publisher’s strategic plan is different than a cultural institution – the publisher only assures us that a plan exists, while a public entity makes (or at least should make) the entirety of its strategic plan available for public consumption.

And at the end of the day, “strategic planning” is an apt way of describing the way we plan our own lives – our tomorrow, our next week, five years down the road, fifty years down the road. Things don’t always go according to plan, but planning provides a framework for future actions, and serves as an exercise to develop a better sense of what’s meaningful and how best to achieve it, both the end goal and the process of getting there.

Note: Due to a technical hiccup, a draft version of this post appeared yesterday evening. All fixed now!


THATCamp CAA Reflections – Day 2

After some fascinating discussion about theoretical subjects of digital scholarship and rights and reproductions on Day 1, Day 2 of THATCamp CAA was far more about specific application of digital tools, and actual use thereof.

After a breakfast at my new favorite New York breakfast spot, Natureworks, I arrived at THATCamp CAA toward the tail end of a project demo session held in one of the conference rooms. While I didn’t have the chance to really look at many of the projects on display, some of them, namely “Simple Non-Secret Cryptography for the Humanities,” had real promise as creative approaches to humanities content. Also, Micah Walter’s demonstration of the Cooper Hewitt API was something I didn’t view at the time, but learned a great deal about in a later session. At the very least, it was encouraging to see so many creators demoing projects still in the development phase, an aspect of the process which is valuable to view, so as to help improve similar projects, but from which we are so often denied access (or creators are too afraid of sharing the inside of their efforts).

My first session was on U/X (User Experience) design, and participants were largely people like me – interested in learning more about design, with little to no practical experience in the field. After viewing the slick interfaces presented by Lev Manovich in his keynote the previous day, and thinking about reader interaction with a project I’m currently working on with a former classmate, the discussion was beneficial, providing an introduction to concepts and foundational texts to inform my work.

When it came to action, the most interesting session of my day was a two hour session on creative coding. Chris Coleman from the University of Denver led a workshop on how to create basic interactive programming using the Processing programming language, itself designed to teach coding through the use of a visual medium. While I’ve spent some time around programmers, and actually had the opportunity a few days before the THATCamp to work with some programmers and view the coding process over their shoulders, I never really understood the fundamentals of the actual process of coding, how information was input into a computer program and then transformed into something else. Fitting that Processing then is about that process, and in an extremely user friendly way. Commands written in Processing are executed on a virtual whiteboard, creating interactive shapes and designs constantly updated as the code is changed. I was able to create circles bouncing across the screen, changing colors and flickering in and out of existence. The experience gave me far greater insight into the work of programming than I had held before, and is certainly something I’d recommend anyone else curious about how computer programs are created without wanting to undergo training in C++ or R or any other major language.

The day wrapped up with a related session (at least, to me) on APIs led by Micah Walter of the Cooper Hewitt. As Diane Zorich, who proposed the session, put it, there is growing awareness among scholars that APIs are crucial to sharing and interpreting museum data, but few people actually know what they are or how they work. That was true of me, and I’d spent the preceding weekend staring directly at the Walters Art Museum’s API while attending their annual Art Bytes hackathon. Having someone who knew his institution’s API inside and out, and was in fact responsible for its creation, was invaluable. I wish I’d had the chance to learn about APIs before the hackathon, because they contain so much more accessible information than I’d thought, which could have led to a great expansion of my (already award-winning) team’s project.

The productiveness of the afternoon, with its programming practice and demonstration, was a rewarding cap to a positive two-day experience. THATCamp’s end marked my the end of my time in NYC, and it was an intriguing juxtaposition to walk through the hotel lobby past a number of art historians, some of whom I recognized as stars in the field, just arriving for the proper conference beginning the following day. There were certainly rock stars at THATCamp CAA as well, no disrespect to them. Art history, like most humanities discipline, still needs to work on fully incorporating digital scholarship into its disciplinary mainstream. THATCamp CAA continues to be a great start. If anything, THATCamp CAA needs to more fully embrace the idea of an unconference. Too many scheduled speakers, product pitches, and conference papers thinly disguised as discussion session proposals managed to creep into THATCamp (although, it should be said, there were far fewer scheduled speakers than THATCamp CAA 2013). Nonetheless, THATCamp CAA remains an important part of the conversation about the future of art history, and it was a wonderful experience to once again be able to attend.

THATCamp CAA 2015 Reflections – Day 1

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend THATCamp CAA 2015, the third annual THATCamp organized in conjunction with, and during the lead up to, the annual College Art Association Conference. This was my fourth overall THATCamp, and second THATCamp CAA; my attendance this year, just as it was in 2013, was supported with a generous travel fellowship offered by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation for graduate students and early career professionals.

My approach to this year’s unconference was a bit different than when I attended in 2013. Rather than seeking out sessions largely related to the teaching-track and basic digital pedagogy (of which there were fewer this year anyway), I found myself gravitating to broader theoretical subjects, on the use and potential abuse of digital tools in scholarly pursuit. In general, sessions were far more geared toward fine-grained data analysis and visualization techniques. I’m not sure the ideas of APIs and U/X design even came up at THATCamp CAA 2013, yet they were buzzwords throughout both days this year. Granted, the session on APIs was a basic “here’s what an API is” discussion, but that’s the level I was on so I was glad to see it nonetheless.

During the first day of THATCamp 2015 another buzz topic was that morning’s publication of the long-awaited Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts. The Code has been in the works for a long time, and a year ago at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference I heard non-art historians excitedly discussing the Code and saying they expected it to serve as a model for other humanities disciplines.

Although I didn’t get a chance to actually read the Code until Monday night in my hotel room, I still attended a session that afternoon on “Public Domain Reproduction and its Metadata: Access, Dissemination, and Use” led by Ann Goodyear Collins and Christine Sundt, both of whom were involved in the creation of the Code. A publicly-available Google Doc covers the course of the discussion during the session, which explained some of the process behind the Code, discussed some of the finer point details which didn’t make it in the document, and addressed some ideal next steps and ways other organizations might respond to the Code in positive fashion.

I came to the discussion from two perspectives. As a recent graduate student who has grappled with permissions for publications, I’ve been forced to tweak projects in their early stages to avoid potential image access issues, worked with publishers who required detailed permission statements for images 18th century paintings and others who were entirely on board with fair use for material published in the 21st century, and even purchased art objects (in this case, c. 1920 postcards) just so that I could offer full reproduction rights to myself.

In the other instance, I’ve looked at the issue of copyright and fair use from the perspective of the Laurel Historical Society/Laurel Museum where I volunteer, which recently digitized 100+ years of local newspapers and is looking to digitize a collection of hundreds of 1900s amateur photography. There was an interesting negotiation between the desire to make images and files available, and the uncertainty of relinquishing full control of material so important to the institution (not to mention the not-inconsequential cost of scanning, storage space, etc.). It’s one thing for CAA, or an institution with massive resources and other revenue like the National Gallery of Art or Rijksmuseum to put their public domain material out there for free, and a different story for a local institution with little resources and an understandable reticence at losing control over the material they feel truly makes them special.

[Author’s note 3/19/15: I’ve cut out a paragraph here that describes a policy at the Laurel Historical Society, as it had only been tentatively approved as of posting date and has since had to undergo some additional revisions. The point of the rest of the post still remains, even without this description.]

The release of the Code of Best Practices and subsequent discussion was an exciting part of the day, and something I had been looking forward to for some time now. I only hope that it spreads quickly through the discipline of art history and the museum world, and really sees some changes for the working methods of our field.

Eyeballs on Writing

Many a doctoral candidate is told, by way of a reminder that perfection is too lofty a goal for a dissertation, that chances are high that the only people who will read the dissertation are the five members of the dissertation committee…if that.

Quite the solace.

It is true that the dissertation is primarily a display of the author’s scholarly bona fides, not intended for public readership, particularly in the present day. The thinly-updated dissertations masquerading as books from the 1960s and 70s I encountered during my own research, some simply just reproductions of the actual dissertation with a disclaimer tacked at the front, would certainly not sniff publication in that format had they been completed in 2014.

I’m at peace with the notion that my dissertation, the culmination of over eight years of study including two years of dedicated research and a third of intense writing,  won’t be seen by the public at large, and perhaps infrequently consulted by future doctoral candidates at best (I should note here that some of the most useful sources in my own research were prior dissertations). It’s proof of an ability to engage with existing literature, and an information dump of everything I’ve found related to my subject, written in a dry, but hopefully not too dry, academic style.

A respite from longform academic writing, which truly provided a positive change-of-pace during the dissertation process, was the chance to author a series of essays for Smarthistory at Khan Academy. To date, I’ve written three essays for Smarthistory: Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, and Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.

If you search for the Gainsborough work on Google, my essay is the 2nd result. If you search for the Wright of Derby painting, it’s 1st. If you search for Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, a painting which was voted “the Greatest Painting in Britain” in 2009, my 1300-word essay is the 3rd result.*

*And not just on, it’s 3rd on as well.

Let that sink in. Tens of people might read my dissertation, but thousands upon thousands have read what a then-ABD American art historian has to say on this iconic image of British history. A serious scholar will absolutely turn to a scholar like Andrew Wilton, but frankly, I find public dialog about art to be more rewarding than deep-yet-obtuse scholastic minutiae…exactly the form taken by a dissertation.

It must be said, this admission doesn’t mean that I can’t do research and can’t engage in deep-yet-obtuse scholastic minutiae. I can, and as my PhD attests, I’m damn good at it. However, that type of inquiry doesn’t interest me as much as teaching to the public, and using my knowledge as a springboard for the growth of someone else’s understanding of a work of art, or of themselves.

Writing for the general public is also far more comfortable, and in turn far easier, than academic prose. Jargon, important but overwrought in most places, is replaced with more conversational phrasing. Ideas are far simpler to generate and explain. Language is used as a tool to encourage understanding, rather than a crutch to prop up weak ideas or as a shield to defend against opposing ideas.

In all of this discussion, my intention is not to slam academic writing or the importance of presenting one’s complex research to a scholarly audience. Rather, it is to acknowledge that I find more personal satisfaction in writing for an audience that includes students, lifelong learners, and casual fans of art. I enjoy being that gateway, the one who inspires an idle Google search to continue into deeper research on Turner, Gainsborough, Wright, or anything else art-related which strikes the searcher’s fancy. It’s the same reason I’ve been known to correct or otherwise tweak the Wikipedia pages for artists I’ve studied or whom I’m interested in. Better to meet an audience on their grounds rather than hope and pray they stumble into yours.

Educating to an Audience

Recently I received some of the highest praise an educator can receive after a lesson. Toward the end of a family walking seminar of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, I announced to the group that our seminar was coming to a close, and the two children in the group both made audible sounds of disappointment.

For just over 18 months I’ve been leading seminars for Context Travel at various sites in Washington, D.C., namely SAAM/NPG, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Mall. Only recently, within the current calendar year, have I felt like I was actually getting good at leading these seminars.

That’s not to say that for my first year the seminars I led were bad, just that only in the past several months, as I’ve gained more experience and delivered numerous iterations of each tour, have I really began to get into a groove.

This lag time corresponds with comments from other Context docents about their experiences in becoming comfortable with leading tours, and with the working world in general and how long it takes employees to fully integrate in their position and become skilled at their responsibilities.

What I attribute most to my increasing skill at delivering walking seminars isn’t a stronger recall of factual knowledge related to the seminars (although that leads into it) but rather a much better job of “reading” the clients, and adapting on the fly to meet their needs and to meet them in a place somewhere between my knowledge base and their intellectual interests.

Last week this point was hammered home by my attendance at a public lecture offered by a local historical society on whose board I sit, on the topic of editing and using Wikipedia. The speaker obviously possessed deep structural knowledge about Wikipedia and could edit it in his sleep, but was either unable or unwilling to take stock of his audience as his talk progressed, failing to realize that he was talking to a room of novices who had never heard of the concept of mark-up language, let alone what it looks like in practice and the ways in which Wikipedia’s mark-up language differs from HTML. His audience was lost, and while he did acknowledge that fact at one point, he never diverged from his presentation, so focused was he on delivering the content he had prepared to deliver.

Focusing on content delivery rather than engagement is a major issue for educators across the board, whether they are a college professor, K-12 teacher, gallery educator or public speaker. As experts, we look at the subject matter and pick out all of its nuances, the great stories and interesting facts that put it in the greater context of the world’s knowledge. However, we can become so enthralled with covering content that we don’t pay heed to what our students are getting out of the lesson, and what they will take away from it.

That tunnel vision is something I struggled with when starting to lead seminars, just as I did when starting to serve as a teaching assistant and then as a lecturer at the University of Maryland. It wasn’t until the freeing experience of participating in the University Teaching and Learning Program offered by the then-Center for Teaching Excellence at UMD that my pedagogy was jump-started, so to speak, and I began to put the learner first rather than my own ego and desire to just strictly deliver content.

Which, omitting a number of steps, got me to that high praise from 10- and 11-year-old learners at the NPG. Early on in the seminar it became clear that both of the kids had strong grasps of Revolutionary-era history, and of the role of antiquity in serving as a model through which early Americans understood the leading figures in their own nation. It meant that instead of ending the seminar on the third floor of the American Art Museum looking at a portraits of Eisenhower and Churchill, we spent time discussing the role Henry Knox played in pushing the British out of Boston in 1775 (and by that, I mean one of the kids recognized his name on the label and proceeded to tell me stories about this person whose portrait I had previously only talked about in terms of its formal characteristics). It meant rather than looking at video art by Nam June Paik, we spent more time talking about the early iconography in images of George Washington. The older child was able to recite the story of the Roman leader Cincinnatus by heart, so we took the extra time to talk about how Washington was considered a modern-day Cincinnatus and the way artists tried to reference this symbolism in their portraits of the man.

It meant that when the family was entranced by Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada, we spent extra time talking about its interpretation of the untapped American wilderness and how the experience of viewing that painting mapped onto their experiences of having traveled through Yosemite and many places elsewhere in the American West. Rather than look at John Singer Sargent’s The Spanish Dancer, I instead discussed the similarities and differences in the Impressionistic approach to landscape versus the influences of the Hudson River School and luminism on Bierstadt’s work, completed just four years before Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.

“But wait!” you say, “Sargent is crucially important to understanding the history of Americans working abroad in the late 19th century, and in the intersection of Grand Manner portraiture with the stylistic innovations of the Impressionists!”

Well, yeah.

Then again, is it more important that student gets a drive-by viewing of The Spanish Dancer just to say he covered Sargent, or is it better that he cultivates deeper understanding of material he already knows, that he realizes that at age 11 he can already utilize his prior knowledge to enhance and make greater meaning of new material, that he thinks back fondly about his learning experience at the National Portrait Gallery because it built on previously-scaffolded understandings of American history rather than because it had pretty pictures?

Sure, I didn’t get to talk about one of my favorite works currently on display, but this educational experience was never about me in the first place. Recognizing that has greatly improved my seminars, and far more importantly, has greatly improved the educational experiences of the clients spending three hours in a museum with me. And that’s the truly rewarding thing.

That Annoying Little Question

“So, what are you going to do with that?”

It’s a question anyone studying or working in the humanities is well-acquainted with. I get it all the time, especially now that my Ph.D. is all but completed. Friends and acquaintances use it to launch conversations we’ve most certainly had in the recent and distant past.

Sometimes it’s followed up with a few more questions: “Do you want to teach? Work in a museum?”

Well, yes, those are the two most likely professional destinations for individuals with advanced degrees in art history. I won’t begrudge the interlocutor – those are fair questions to ask. What bothers me is the tone. There’s a difference between asking questions for the sake of starting a conversation, and asking questions in the search for knowledge. The question of what an art historian does with an art history degree is almost always asked because the questioner truly doesn’t know what can be done with that degree. If they mention academia and museums, its often because those are the only possible fields they can muster.

(As an aside, it’s been over a decade since I’ve not been earning a degree in history, but in conversations with colleagues it’s quite obvious that my experience is not unique.)

It strikes me that these are largely monetary questions. I respond that, yes, I want to work in a museum or in some sort of field related to public arts education. Come on though, that’s really that’s not what I want to do with my degree. I want to tell stories, reach new audiences, inspire others the same way that art and museums have inspired me, and sure, I’d like to find someone to pay me to do so. That’s not an appropriate answer though, or at least it’s not the type of answer the questioner had in mind.

It can be difficult to respond that way, not in the least because it can devalue others – ‘I want to inspire future generations…what do you want to do with your accounting degree’ – and because it can be a difficult metric to measure.


That’s a handy segue into this article by Robert Stein of the Dallas Museum of Art on Medium, “Museums… So What?” which is a call for the development of tools and metrics which can clarify the impact museums have on their communities in non-monetary way.

As I’m applying for museum positions, many of which have financials at the forefront, Stein’s article is weighing on my mind. In particular, how other museums approach the justification their own existence, and how best to present a different set of values to stakeholders in the community.

Often museums either focus on their financial impact on the community – how many people walk through the doors, how much money that tourism encourages, or at the very least whether or not the museum breaks even – or argue that non-monetary social impact is immeasurable and thus we should just be taken on our word that we make a difference.*

*It seems true that some museums make this argument because they understand that, while financially self-sufficient, they truly don’t make a difference. We’ve all visited museums that inspire us, and museums which feel as tough they’re just existing as a vanity project. The goal is to avoid the latter.

Social impact is tricky to measure, and I’m not sure the best way to do it (nor does anyone else, hence Stein’s article), but it will be crucial going forward to allow museums to justify their existence. It will also be crucial in order to change the tenor of that pesky “What are you going to do with that?” question asked of art history majors worldwide.

Hopefully we can get to a place where the implicit value of the humanities to society is understood, and that question becomes one simply asked out of interest rather than confusion. The road to that place will be made easier through effective measurement of impact, as suggested by Stein, and may also be a function of time. The better museums are able to not only identify their impact, but use that data to better improve their offering and inculcate themselves more into the community  as a truly valuable resource, then the implicit value of the humanities will become a shared cultural value.

Luckily, I know that by that day I won’t ever have to worry about the dreaded question, because I’ll be living it.


A stray thought while taking a break from prepping for my dissertation defense… Over the past few Sunday nights I’ve found myself an exicted passenger on the Ship of Imagination, the gimmick used by Neil DeGrasse Tyson to explore the … Continue reading