The Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center

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Blog posts by Nina

Sharing the AfterGLOW

Posted October 21, 2013


Photo by Justin William, MAH intern

It’s Monday morning and my ears are no longer ringing. What an AMAZING weekend of GLOW. Over 100 artists and about 4,000 community members came together over two nights to celebrate the unique creativity of Santa Cruz County–cutting-edge innovation with a healthy dose of propane.

We hope that GLOW will continue to grow as an annual event for the MAH and downtown, and I wanted to open up this post as a forum for your ideas and suggestions to make it even better next year.

Here are a few of the questions and comments we’ve already received (with my responses below):

Why aren’t the exhibition galleries open during the festival? 

It would be terrific to introduce GLOW participants to our wonderful exhibitions, but we just don’t feel like it’s entirely safe during such a wild event. We have every one of our staff members and volunteers outside managing the safety around the fire sculptures, and we don’t feel like we have the capacity to spare anyone to ensure the safety of exhibitions at the same time.

Why isn’t there a kids’ price for GLOW?

We priced the tickets for GLOW this year based on concerns about safety and capacity. Last year, tickets were cheaper, and we had to shut down admissions a few times to wait for the crowd to die down. This year, while it was packed, we never went over capacity or had to turn people away. We will think about this for next year, but we’re still going to put safety first when thinking about pricing and capacity.

The dancers on Friday night were not family-friendly (or, as a brave nine year old put it on our comment wall: “Don’t hire dancers for their willingness to dance around in bikinis!”).

I agree that hyper-sexualized attire and moves don’t belong at a museum event. Because we co-produce all our events with so many partners, it’s hard to know what they will bring to the table exactly (and what they will wear doing it). While some artists do work with sexuality, the art should come first. I promise that we will be more attentive to this in the future and more willing to ask the probing questions to ensure that our programmatic partners’ values are in alignment with our mission. We won’t always be perfect–but with input from smart members and participants, we’ll keep striving for better.


What questions or ideas do you have for the future of GLOW? Snap any good photos or video? Share them all here.


Learn More about the Past Year at the MAH

Posted October 14, 2013

We have just published our annual report for the fiscal year that goes from July 2012 to June 2013. It is full of the people, stories, projects, and numbers that defined an exciting year of growth at the MAH. You can explore the annual report online (yes, it’s interactive). I am especially proud of our wide-ranging community partnerships, our new mission statement, and the commitment of staff, trustees, and members to the museum’s future. If you have any questions or would like to discuss any aspect of the report, please let me know.

Vance Landis-Carey, our Board President, introduces the annual report this way:

On behalf of the MAH Board of Trustees, I am proud to present the museum’s annual report for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. This was an incredible year for us, marked by continued increases in attendance and membership, strong financial performance, and powerful exhibitions and educational programs. Our board is excited about the innovative programs that have brought inspiration and energy to our community and have had an impact on museums worldwide. We are grateful to everyone who has made this work possible with your ideas, your donations, your creativity, and most of all, your participation. Thank you for being part of our community. These stories and successes belong to all of us.

I want to share my own thoughts about our new mission statement “to ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections.” Some people have expressed concern that this mission statement does not refer specifically to content (art and history) or methodology (exhibitions and educational programs). In crafting this mission statement, our board and staff focused on finding a short, motivating phrase that could give us the “why” that underpins the “what” of our longer vision statement and strategic plan. Our vision is to be a “thriving, central gathering place where local residents and visitors can experience art, history, ideas, and culture.” We wanted to redevelop our mission statement to drive us towards that vision.

We were inspired by mission statements at organizations like the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County (“Promote. Connect. Invest.”), the Monterey Bay Aquarium (“to inspire conservation of the oceans”) and the American Visionary Art Museum (“to expand the definition of a worthwhile life”). Each of these mission statements is short, motivating, and powerful. It does not describe what each organizations does but why they do it. Our new mission statement–to ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections–helps us focus every day on bringing people and ideas together through dynamic art and history exhibitions and educational programs. We remain committed to our core art and history content, even as we explore new ways to help people share experiences and enjoy unexpected connections around it.

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Reflections on Hack the Museum Camp

Posted August 10, 2013

We did it. Last month, we hosted Hack the Museum Camp, a 2.5 day adventure in which teams of adults–75 people, of whom about half are museum professionals, half creative folks of various stripes–developed an experimental exhibition around our permanent collection in the Solari Gallery on the second floor. Please come check out the exhibition anytime until August 18 (Sunday) to check it out.

We now have a painting hanging from the ceiling that you can lie under and experience in 3D. We have a gravestone with a Ouija board in front of it so you can commune with its owner. We have a sculpture in its crate/prison cell, unwrapped and unexhibited since its acquisition thirty years ago.

We also have 75 new friends, slightly bleary from the experience, which felt like one part intense work project, one part marathon, one part hallucinogenic love-in.

I’m not going to write too much about the process here–please check out Paul Orselli’s blog post for his perspective as a counselor, Sarah Margusen’s Pinterest board for her perspective as a camper, or Georgia Perry’s article for the Santa Cruz Weekly, which provides an outsider’s view on the process. You can also see a ton of photos on Instagram, and I highly recommend the Confessional Tent videos for sheer silliness (more on those below). Instead, this post is about my reflections as the “Camp Director” of the whole experience.

Here’s what I got out of Hack the Museum Camp.

It is amazing to actually DO things with colleagues in professional development situations instead of just talking. In 2009, after we hosted the Creativity and Collaboration retreat, I wrote a post about ditching “conferences” for “camp” experiences. Four years later, my appetite for these kinds of experiences hasn’t changed. It felt great to once again be working with people–brainstorming exhibit challenges, editing label text, even just messing around on the player piano together. As a floating camp director, I got the best of this (interaction with all the campers) and the worst (no intense team time). I felt lucky to be able to dip into the various project teams, though that also gave me a completely aberrant perspective on camp. I was impressed by the extent to which the teams seemed to gel and people appeared, for the most part, to be happy spending the majority of their time here with a small group of teammates. There’s always a balancing act between team project time and everybody time. If we do this again, I think we will swing towards a bit more everybody time so people could learn from more of the diverse and fabulous campers who were here.

I was surprised by the extent to which reality TV culture imprinted on the experience. People talked about the camp as Project Runway for museums. I’d give a team feedback and they said it was like Tim Gunn had blessed their project. As a forest-dwelling hippie, I know very little about reality TV, but it’s clear that the model of “do an ambitious, wacky project really fast” is now tied closely to a slew of shows about everything from cooking to art-making. There were some ways we deliberately played with this–staff member Elise Granata created an ingenious Confessional Tent where campers could make hilarious first-person videos about their experience–but there were other ways it really surprised me. Teams were more intense than I anticipated. Every team completed an exhibit in the time allotted. I assumed that at least one team would fizzle out, erupt, or just decide not to fully engage. Instead, everyone was focused and intent on creating something fabulous. I’m not sure how much reality TV affected this, but it was clear that people had internalized the “rules” of camp and were ready to play, and play hard. This mindset also impacted perception of everyone’s roles in the camp. While it was completely hilarious to hear that “this is not Nina Simon best friend camp,” it was also a little sad to realize that in the framework of something like reality TV, the camp director doesn’t get to really jump in in an authentic, casual way with campers–I was expected to play the host role.

Diversity isn’t just nice to have–it’s fabulous. We selected our campers from a fairly large pool of applicants; about 1/3 of those who applied were invited to attend. During the selection process, we prioritized diversity–of experience, of geography, of gender, of perspective. Then, when we put together teams, we again tried to break people up such that every team would have a blend of individuals across several axes. Several campers commented to me that their favorite part of camp was the diversity of the campers’ backgrounds and frameworks. If we were to do this again, I would ask one additional question of applicants: age. We had a good mix of people in their 20s-50s with a smattering of outliers, but it was clear that the most effective teams had age diversity within a team itself. Many of the oldest campers were “counselors”–seasoned exhibit designers I’ve known and respected for a long time–and we didn’t have enough counselors for every team to have one. I’m not sure how important it is for every team to have a designated counselor–interestingly, in early feedback, many campers wanted leadership whereas counselors wished there had been a more even playing field. I do think that no matter what, it is valuable for every team to have a mix of ages and experiences.

The idea of “risk” is often a red herring. This was probably the biggest surprise for me – yet it shouldn’t have been. We framed this entire experience around “creative risk-taking.” Throughout the camp, I pushed teams to make sure that their projects truly challenged traditional museum practice. While this probably did inspire some teams to do some weird and wonderful things, it was also problematic for two reasons:

  • For campers who are not in the museum field, it was confusing. Everyone’s definition of risk is different, and while museum professionals may share a common language around the topic, that commonality breaks down when you involve artists and technologists and game designers and performers. The whole point of bringing in non-museum professionals was to expand the dialogue around what is possible, and in some ways, the “risk” framing limited those possibilities.
  • More importantly, I’ve discovered again and again that when you are actually doing what others categorize as risky, it doesn’t feel like risk at all. When I hosted a panel on risk-taking at AAM in 2011, all of the panelists agreed that we don’t see our work as “risky”–we just see it as the work we are compelled to do (scroll down to the second part of this post). Once each team got into their projects, they were just cranking to make it happen. Sure, they might have decided to present an art object in a confrontational and opinionated way. Or they might have chosen to make up a fictitious narrative around history artifacts. Those are risky decisions in the broader museum context. But in the context of Hack the Museum Camp, they were just the starting points for projects. I wish we had focused more on a theme like “make an exhibit that is completely delightful and surprising” and less on “make an exhibit that takes a risk.”

On the other hand, it was also empowering for some campers to experience how doing things that are “against the rules” can generate really wonderful levels of creative output. I know that our staff and members are really excited and energized by the exhibition that this camp created. Yes, the exhibition is chaotic. But it is also full of surprises and vitality, and it showcases a very wide palate of approaches to collection objects. There are opportunities throughout the exhibition for you to weigh in on the experiments you like, the ones you hate, the ones that confuse you–and so far, visitor responses have been fascinating and wide-ranging.

In closing, a quote from one camper’s evaluation of the experience:

I like to say that if I am not afraid every day, then it is time to move on to another job. There were several moments during camp when I was felt a surge of anxiety, trepidiation, self-doubt. What is amazing about being with such a great group of people, is that they carry you through it. … By the end of this week I will probably forget the sound of the player piano, the feel of the hard floor, or the carpal tunnel setting in my fingers. But I won’t forget the many individuals who were so generous and tenacious; so honest and proud.

Thanks for all the memories.

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