Gretchen Jennings is a museum administrator, educator, and exhibition project director. Her B.A. and M.A. are in History from, respectively, St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana and Concordia University, Montreal.
From 2005 to 2007 she served as Director of Education for Interpretation and Visitor Experience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She has been a project director or senior staff member on several major traveling exhibitions, including Invention at Play, Secrets of Aging, and the Psychology exhibition. Both Invention at Play and Psychology received awards of exhibition excellence from the American Association of Museums.
Ms. Jennings has published and spoken widely on topics that include cultural diversity, museums and aging, exhibition development, project management for traveling exhibitions, and the creation of appropriate museum spaces for young children. For the past several years she has taught a course on museum education for the National Council of Science Museums in Kolkata, India. Since May 2007 she has served as Editor of the Exhibitionist, the journal of the National Association of Museum Exhibition (NAME).
Are you ready to learn more about Gretchen? Let’s dive in!
I don’t currently work in a museum. Since 2007 I’ve been the Editor for Exhibitionist, the journal of AAM (American Alliance of Museums)’s professional network on exhibition, NAME (National Association for Museum Exhibition). We publish in spring and fall each year, and include case studies, nuts and bolts advice, exhibit critiques, research on exhibits – all kinds of current information for exhibit developers, designers, educators, curators and directors – anyone interested in exhibitions. A recent development is that you don’t have to join NAME or AAM to subscribe – just go to the AAM website. Before becoming Editor, I worked in museums for about 30 years. I started as an educator, but was very lucky to get involved in exhibition development early on, first as an educator on exhibit teams and later as project director. My last job, as Director of Interpretation and Visitor Experience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, allowed me to combine these two areas: I was part of the Education and Programming Department but was tasked with making sure that all exhibitions being developed had educators on the teams who not only worked on teacher materials but also contributed substantively to the interpretive strategies being developed for the exhibition.
What’s your educational background?
B.A. in Humanities and History with minor in Education from St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN.
M.A. in African and European History from Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.
Certificate in intercultural training from SITAR, Society for Intercultural Training and Research. This training, plus my studies in African history and culture, have led to a lifelong interest in cross cultural teaching and a focus on cultural sensitivity in museums.
What was your ‘sticky’ moment?
Not sure what you mean by this, but if you mean when I decided to start blogging, it was after a national museums conference in 2011. At the conference there seemed to be lots of discussion about important and difficult topics that were not being addressed publically. The discussions were diffuse, and didn’t necessarily include specific topics, but there was an air of dissatisfaction. At the same time, many with whom I spoke were either employed in museums or consultants for museums, and we discussed the difficulties of speaking frankly while trying to remain employed in a tight job market. I thought to myself – I don’t work in or for a museum; I could raise difficult and sensitive issues in the field in a blog. I cleared this with my contacts at NAME, assuring them I would state on my blog that my opinions were my own, and got the go-ahead from them.
What is the name of your blog? How long have you been blogging?
At the museums meeting, I attended a session by cultural critic and essayist Lewis Hyde. He discussed his recent book, Common as Air, in which he outlined the steps we need to take to protect our “cultural commons.” The idea of the “commons” symbolizing something of value that is shared and protected collaboratively, whether it is a common grazing ground in 16th century England, or a common cultural heritage, appeals to me. So I named my blog Museum Commons. I began blogging in summer, 2011. I found access to an image of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, which is a huge dining room table set with plates symbolizing accomplished women from history, and it forms the backdrop to the blog site. I wanted it to suggest a conversation about museums that would be both critical and civil.
What do you blog about? Why?
I try to stick to topics that some might find sticky or difficult to discuss within the field. As said above, I think I have the freedom to raise issues that others cannot. I’ve written a lot on museum educators’ lack of power and influence in museums; on museums and sexual harassment; on the field’s lack of acknowledgement of women artists and LGBT artists and themes. I am continually struck by the field’s lack of connection with current issues through which they might reach out to their communities. I wrote a post asking “Where is Trayvon Martin in our Social Media?” and one on our disconnect with the impact of Superstorm Sandy on museums in the northeast, and on the opportunity for museums in the storm area that were up and running to reach out to local storm victims.
Have you ever regretted a blog post?
I don’t think I’ve ever regretted a post because I do something that I learned long ago about writing anything of substance, and that is to let it sit overnight. This is especially true for something that I feel pretty strongly about. For one thing, when I go back, I often find typos (when I miss one, I really do regret it!), even though I’ve proofed and proofed. When I finish a blog, I’m usually really eager to post, but I’ve found over and over that when I go back in the morning I find things I’m glad I didn’t say, ways of stating an idea better, and just overall I find I’m happier with something that I’ve reflected on a bit.
What’s the nicest comment you’ve ever received?
The nicest comment was from a friend and colleague who told me that she and other colleagues at her museum look forward to my posts and actually discuss them with each other.
What’s your most read blog post? Tell us about it.
My three most popular posts have all been on the role of educators. One of these, called “Confessions of a Formal Education Enabler” discussed my own history of justifying museums by how much they fulfill school standards rather than focusing more on why museums are unique and valuable in themselves. The others, on the theme of “What’s Next for Museum Educators” all looked this question in varying ways and suggested that educators, while not abandoning their longtime relationship with the formal education system, develop skills that make them more effective and influential in the major projects of museums, especially exhibition development and social media outreach. I should say that I get most of my comments on LinkedIn groups related to museum education and design, and many fewer on the blog site itself. The discussions of the education posts continue in these groups for months but this doesn’t show up on the blog.
Do you tweet? Why or why not?
I do tweet and I love it, but am not addicted to it. I don’t go to my account every day, and I follow more than I tweet. I wrote a post called “Twitter for the Rest of Us” in which I tried to explain to museum folks “of a certain age” why Twitter is not a waste of time and in fact can be a great professional development tool. I feel that I’ve learned so much about social media by following the tweets and links of colleagues like you, most of whom are younger than I and so much more knowledgeable about new uses of technology. I save many tweets with links to articles about media or other interesting topics, and then I try to read them once a week or so, especially before I write a new post. I often find ideas there. So I would say, that the suggestions I get for articles, reports, etc. from colleagues on Twitter are my “go-to” online museum resource. Plus, I feel I have a whole new network of museum friends and colleagues through Twitter.
What do you see as the biggest challenge (or opportunity) facing museums today?
I think one of the biggest challenges AND opportunities for museums today is to show more empathy, i.e. demonstrate through programs, social media, exhibitions, etc, a connection with their communities over real life issues that concern them, such as the Trayvon Martin case, or Hurricane Sandy, as I mentioned above. I plan to blog more on this in the coming year.
Thanks for sharing your perspective and expertise on Meet a Museum Blogger, Gretchen! I’m especially interested in empathy as the biggest challenge and opportunity in museums.
In case you missed it, Gretchen blogs at Museum Commons. Do you have any additional questions for Gretchen regarding her profile above? What do you think about empathy being the biggest challenge and opportunity for museums? Feel free to start a conversation in the comments below or reach out to her directly on Twitter. Her Twitter handle is @gretchjenn. I highly encourage you to use the #MuseumBlogger hashtag. TY!
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