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Welcome to the Haffenreffer Museum blog, a place for museum staff and guests to reflect on the work of the museum. Visit the museum web site to learn more about us.

The Blog is dead; long live the Blog!

The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology Director’s Blog is, with this post, reborn as the HMA Blog, a collaborative project of the Haffenreffer’s extended community. Over the next several months, you’ll hear from staff members, postdocs, students, faculty, and others using the HMA in their research and teaching. We begin with a brief message from Bill Simmons, Professor of Anthropology and Acting Director of the HMA (as well as long-term denizen of the Haffenreffer realm, about which more in another post):

First of all, our thanks to Steve Lubar for his leadership as Director of the Haffenreffer Museum following Shep Krech’s retirement. Through an excellent series of very-well attended presentations by museum leaders from near and far, Steve provided Brown with remarkable opportunities to meet and hear from experienced individuals who are active in museum innovation at other colleges and universities. The Culture Lab that Steve envisioned for Manning Hall has quickly become an invaluable resource for museum teaching at Brown. With the lively assistance of Emily Stokes-Rees, Postdoctoral Fellow in Museum Anthropology, Steve also was very effective in broadening the on-campus base of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates who are discovering the value of the Haffenreffer for teaching and research. Steve is now working hard on a well-deserved sabbatical, and we wish him well.

I am delighted to serve for this academic year as Acting Director, with the expectation that the new permanent Director will begin on July 1, 2013. You should hear from us shortly with the announcement of who the new Director will be. My primary goal is to continue building the student, faculty, and community base of the Haffenreffer as an asset to the academic quality and cultural distinction of Brown University.

A university museum has a different genius than other kinds of museums. It both shines the light of the university out to the world, and is an opening through which visitors and guests can directly visit the source of this light. The genius loci reflects the collaboration of museum staff, faculty, and students who through research, teaching, and exhibit planning express their ideas–whether anthropological, historical, archaeological, art historical, ethnomusicological, or of many other possible disciplines–through the medium of its collections. Whether the objects are exciting new discoveries being viewed for the first time, or earlier collections being interpreted in new ways, they express what is new as knowledge is created. The uniqueness of the university museum is in this umbilical proximity to the creation of knowledge. It serves internal teaching and research functions of the residential campus in numerous ways that range from career interests in museum-related professions, to new ways of deepening learning through the use of objects, to the broader goal of enriching a liberal education. It also fulfills the powerful obligation felt by this university to open up its educational and cultural value to those beyond the campus community. Being a more tangible than virtual institution, its residential community can build numerous connections to its neighboring communities through real human networks.

The Manning Hall Gallery and its Culture Lab are humming with start of the semester activities, as is the beautifully refurbished storage and conservation facility in Bristol. The Museum staff is a highly talented, dedicated, and professional group working hard to bring collections to the classroom and to overseeing the complex tasks of collections management, exhibition planning, and generous service to the campus community and wider public. They will be blogging here, along with faculty, students, and others, to introduce themselves and to engage you in the important and interesting work we are doing together.

I welcome any ideas about innovative ways that the Haffenreffer can shine its light within Brown and outward to the public.  Please comment here or contact me at

~ Bill

A note from the editor:  We welcome guest bloggers!  If you are interested in writing about your experience with the Haffenreffer, please contact

Two final blog entries

June 30 marks the final day of my two-year term as director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. TIme for a sabbatical, and time for writing a book.

I’ve posted two blog entries, to finish things off.

One on the thrill of being director: what makes museum work so much fun?

One on my thoughts, two years later, on Michael Kaiser’s 10 rules of the turnaround.

And that is the end of this blog. I’ll turn it over to the new director.

My new blog is here:

On the thrill of museum work

June 30 marks the final day of my two-year term as director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

I’ve mixed feelings about giving it up. On the positive side: I’ve learned a lot. I think I’ve done some good work there. Most importantly, I think the museum has made a good case for its value to the university, which is what I set out to prove.

On the other hand: running a museum is all-consuming, even if it’s only supposed to be a part-time job. Other things I should have been doing have not been done as well. The book I had planned to write has not been written. And I’m tired: I’ve been running an academic center, a museum, and an MA program all at the same time. It has been a long two years.

The great appeal of museum work, I think, especially compared to academic work, is this: things happen. New objects appear. Exhibits open. Deadline loom. Decisions need to be made, and when they’re made, they have an effect. A physical effect, because museums are about things.

Part of this sense that “things happen” comes from the centrality of artifacts to museum work. The physicality of artifacts shapes not only museums products – storage and exhibits – but also the nature of the work in museums. Objects are demanding in a way that ideas are not. Neglect climate control and mold appears, overnight, or inexorably, over years. Neglect security and artifacts are stolen. Neglect cataloging and catalog updating and objects disappear into storage. Slight accessibility, and you can’t make a case for having artifacts at all, and without artifacts, it’s hard for an academic museum to make a case for itself.

Another, equally important part, comes from the public work of the museum, the “let’s put on a show” aspect. You announce a new exhibit. Suddenly a dozen or more “to do” items appear on your calendar, connected by strings of “must be done befores” and “must be done bys.” Museum workers have new work to do – not that the old work went away. Management becomes more than ever a balancing of the short and long term (both of the time of museum staff, and the life history of the artifacts).

And it’s not just that things happen: things happen publicly. The appeal of “let’s put on a show” is not just about the rush of activity, from the careful planning at the start to the –how to put this? – the controlled panic – of the day before opening.

And the third part of museum work: ideas. Especially in anthropology and history museums

It’s the many ways that things, ideas, and the public interact that make museum work so interesting, so all-consuming. Museum artifacts, on the one hand, and the public, on the other, are so very different, in every way. They have different time frames. They demand different physical conditions. The museum visitor demands things from artifacts that the artifact provides only reluctantly. The museum worker stands between these two opposites, trying to satisfy both. Interest, all-consuming, work; but also difficult, and almost impossible to succeed. Museum educators are much taken with the Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow,” the idea that people are happy when their work is challenging, pushing their limits. Maybe that’s because flow, pushing the limits of our capabilities, is what we do all day.

Thrilling, but as I said at the beginning, tiring.

So I’m looking forward to taking some time off. I’m planning to write about museums – not about museum directing, but about museum curating. I will be switching blogs, and writing about that as I go.

The Art of the Turnaround, Revisited

When I started as director of the Haffenreffer Museum, two years ago, Michael Gerhardt, a professional interim director who was then interim director of Mt. Hope Farm, suggested I read Michael Kaiser’s Art of the Turnaround. It was good advice.Image

Kaiser gives ten rules for turning around an arts organization. You can find versions of them on many websites: here’s the version from a useful interview with Kaiser at Minnesota Public Radio

  • 1. Someone must lead.
  • 2. That someone must have a plan.
  • 3. You can’t save your way to health.
  • 4. Focus on today and tomorrow, not the past.
  • 5. Extend your program calendar.
  • 6. Use both institutional and programmatic marketing.
  • 7. Have only one spokesman.
  • 8. Focus fund-raising on large donors, but don’t aim too high.
  • 9. Restructure the board if needed.
  • 10. Have the discipline to follow the rules.

Reviewers of the book have noted that much of Kaiser’s advice is not as useful for small organizations as for large. It might seem to have even less applicability to a small university museum, with its restricted fundraising and governance.

But I found Kaiser’s advice valuable. Here’s how, and what I wish I had paid more attention to, looking back.

Rules 1 and 2: “There has to be a leader and the leader needs a plan.” I should have taken this to heart more quickly. The challenge in coming into a new organization is that what’s most obvious is how much you don’t know about it. You don’t even know the right questions to ask. How to lead, and make a plan, when you’re trying to figure out how the place works? It took me six month to figure this out. I spent too much time doing what was easy for me to do – what I had done as a curator – and not enough time planning and leading. (I have tried to help the next director by giving him some clear sense of the museum’s open questions, ongoing challenges, and hard-to-find resources.)

The answer to that lies in what I think is the most important of Kaiser’s rules, number 4: Focus on today and tomorrow, not the past. It’s a waste of energy to spend time rehashing the past, Kaiser says. But much more than that: institutions need to look forward. This is especially the case with museums. Museums have a great deal of inertia. It’s hard to overstate that: Museums are defined by their inertia. There is good reason for this. Museum collections don’t change easily, and serve (on the one hand) to anchor the institution, to keep it focused, to keep it centered. Or (on the other hand) to keep it from changing. Museum staff, their expertise built over many years, is loyal to the collections, sometimes more so than to the organization, or to new ideas.

Museum don’t move quickly, and so they are defined, more than many organizations, by decisions made in their past. Museum employees spend a great deal of time rehashing the past. Rule 4 can help overcome that.

Rule 6 applies especially well to a university museum: Use both institutional and programmatic marketing. Kaiser urges us to think beyond marketing programs and to market the entire institution. A university museum is about a wide range of services. You can sell individual programs, but it’s more important to also sell the whole idea of the museum. Institutional marketing takes many forms at a university, but a lot of it is just getting the word out and being open to ideas from students, staff and faculty. Universities are full of ideas!

Rule 3, “You can’t save your way to health,” applies in a special way to university museums. I take it to mean: get out and do things. Show the university that you’re an exciting place. Spend money on projects and programs that make a splash. One of the most difficult challenges for a museum director is to balance the competing needs of taking care of the endless needs of the collection and the costs of more ephemeral public programs. There are museums that have succeeded by going either way. I took from Kaiser’s Rule 3: do things that makes splash.

The other rules seem less immediately useful to my work, because of the way that university museums are structured. But perhaps that just means that I should have taken them more seriously: About those big donors, and restructuring the board… advice for the next director!

New Museum Brochure: Services for the University

Our new brochure, part of our marketing the museum to the university. Thanks to Erin Wells Design for the design. (It’s a trifold brochure, a bit difficult to understand unfolded. Happy to send one to anyone who would like to see the actual thing.)


Essay (almost) published

MuseumsEtc. has announced the publication of A Handbook for Academic Museums: Beyond Exhibitions and EducationIt includes an essay on the transformation of the Haffenreffer Museum, co-authored by Emily Stokes-Rees and me: “From Collections to Curriculum: New Approaches to Teaching and Learning at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University.

Some of the material first appeared on this blog.

Coming soon to an internet near you.

“Teaching and Learning with Art and Artifact” presentation

Museum Data

My presentation for Brown’s Day of Data:

I want to talk about museum data.

Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum has about 1 million objects. Each of them has a description, a story, a location, several histories. That makes for not only a lot of data, but, I’d suggest, a particularly interesting kind of data.

Why interesting? It’s like library data, but more diverse and harder to describe. No two objects are exactly the same. Museum artifacts are complex three dimensional things with complicated histories and meanings. Museums have spent decades creating complex thesauri to name and describe objects, but it’s like trying to describe the entire world. Frankly, it hasn’t worked very well.

We use museum data to keep track of things – where things are –  but more importantly, to accomplish what we call intellectual control. What are these things? For these Cashinaua artifacts, we have extensive interviews with the makers. We have the field notes of the anthropologist who collected them. We have photographs, and descriptions.

The reason for this, of course, is to be able to locate artifacts – not just physically, in the museum, but just as important, to be able to locate them in the multidimensional space of culture. We want to be able to search for them, view them, find information about them, make interesting links between them, tell stories with them.

More than that, we want to be able connect them – reconnect them, really – to the rest of the world. Other museums have similar, or related, collections. How can we use our data to make connections with those collections? How can we virtually repatriate Native American artifacts like these moccasins with the communities that made them? There a long and not very successful history of sharing data between museums – Brown’s Museum Loan Network built a shared database in the earl 1990s, for example. Today, linked open data suggests ways to make interchange easier. That’s the frontier for museum data.

The goal of the Haffenreffer Museum is to make our artifacts available for research, teaching, and learning. We’ve set up CultureLab in Manning Hall to do that. But a key to making artifacts available is making information about those artifacts available. We’re still a long way from that, but we know that it’s what we need to do next. We’ve got a lot that’s worth sharing. We want the world to use our collections, and to make that possible, we need to address the challenges of museum data.

Thank you.

An Invitation to CultureLab’s Grand Opening

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The grand opening of CultureLab is Wednesday, February 15th at 5:00. You’re invited! We’re just about done. The details of establishing policies and procedures are here.

“Facing the Museum,” Completed!

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I’ve written about Faces – now called “Facing the Museum” several times on this blog. It started with the discover of several century-old “ethnographic busts” in the attic of the museum’s Collection Research Center, became more interesting as we teased out the stories of the busts, and then expanded into an overview of the history, challenges, and potentials of the anthropology museum.

You can see the script of the show here.

And here’s the blurb we’re using for PR:

 “Facing the Museum” mines the collections of the Haffenreffer to consider research, collecting, and display in the anthropology museum. A set of “ethnographic busts” created by the American Museum of Natural History around 1900 raises questions about the historical role of anthropology in constructing hierarchies of humanity. (Here, they are presented not as “racial types” but as individuals.) A grouping of masks from around the world lets cultural groups speak for themselves, and suggests some of the ways that the museum documents the diversity of humanity today.

And here’s the twitter version:

#tweetyourexhibit  “Facing the Museum” mines the collections of the Haffenreffer to consider research, collecting, and display in the anthropology museum.

A slightly longer synopsis:

FIve ethnographic busts, suggesting some of the ways that anthropologists and others thought about the peoples of the world in the earliest days of the modern anthropology museum. The staff of the American Museum of Natural History created some of these busts based on ethnographic research (the Yakut); others were created at the 1904 St. Louis exposition (Pigmy, and FIlipino), on Indian reservations (Seneca), and at a wild west show (Sioux). We’ve reinterpreted these, based on research in the AMNH archives (thanks, Lyra!) to highlight the actual people; to treat them as individuals, not examples of racial types.

Four masks. Masks are ways that groups perform their identities, a good contrast to the busts, where outside scientists put groups into hierarchies. We’ve used masks as part of our logo, for just this reason. We chose masks to tell the story of how artifacts enter the museum. We have examples of archaeology (Mayan), ethnographic field collecting (Cashinaua), purchase from contemporary artists (Haida), and purchase on the open market (Kom). We’re considering adding one more, to feature Brown student collecting.

Two quotes:

The story that the museum could tell, and whose telling would make its present function so much more powerful, is the story of the representational practice exercised in this museum and in most museums of its kind. This is the story of the changing but still vital collusion between privilege and knowledge, possession and display, stereotyping and realism.”

—Mieke Bal, Double Exposures: The Subject of Cultural Analysis, 1996

Reading museum collections consists, in part, of re-collecting and rearranging these fragments of lived experience into a meaningful order. The collection tells a story, but its narrative possibilities are open-ended… The museum is a vast repository of the shards of history, fragments of a whole whose reconstruction is an interpretive gesture.

—Thomas Ross Miller and Barbara Mathe, “Drawing Shadows to   Stone,” 1997

Some thoughts on the exhibition, now that it’s done:

High concept. I like high concept exhibitions. A lot; they’re my specialty. Big ideas: the history and meaning of the museum in 20 square feet! It’s probably asking for failure, really. But worth a try, especially at a university museums.

Explaining the museum. Anthropology museums need to explain themselves. Anthropology as a field spends a lot of time explaining itself, and considering its roots, and anthropology museums needs to do the same. The basic idea – us collecting them – requires nuance to be acceptable. This many not be the perfect exhibit to do that – perhaps it’s trying to do too many other things at the same time – but there needs to be some kind of explanation of the nature of the museum, of what we do.

Too many objects, too many stories. Always my weakness. And perhaps especially so, in a pet project of the director; no one can say no. Perhaps one mask and one ethnographic bust would have been enough? That would give us the big picture, get folks thinking. It would leave out the secondary stories, of anthropological work and collecting. Would have been easier, too. Leave out the personal stories, and the collecting stories? Important, but perhaps in another show. But I was impatient to get this out on the floor, and there’s no easy place for another introduction.

Design. Working with designers is important. Here the limited space available pushed us to a narrow bit of design – we weren’t able to take the designers’ advice as much as we should have. But the notion of setting off the bust and face at either end in an oval, and putting the main label outside the case, where it can’t be missed – that’s design thinking that I would never have imagined.