Katie Bowell spent the first day of her first museum job being “peed” on by butterflies. She then went on to develop exhibits, launch new museums, and co-author books and interpretive guides. And then she spent time being sneezed on by bison, so not that much changed.
Katie works with museums to find the spaces where stories, objects, visitors, and communities combine to create incredible experiences. She specializes in developing interdisciplinary content, and knows that when it comes to finding new ways to tell stories and excite visitors, her talent for dissecting a 19th century novel is just as important as her skill in dissecting a 9-banded armadillo. To her continued delight, she’s had the pleasure of working with museums for a decade.
I’m an independent museum professional based in Freiburg, Germany. I specialize in helping museums explore and improve their visitor engagement, which means I do everything from exhibit design and audience evaluation to writing and editing English-language resources. I have a blast collaborating with so many diverse organizations, and I’m always excited for new professional opportunities.
Before moving to Germany I spent 10 years working in Canada and the United States as a curator, collections manager, audience researcher, and entomologist in museums and zoos.
What’s your educational background?
I have a graduate degree in Museum & Field Studies from the University of Colorado and undergraduate degrees in Zoology and English Literature from the University of Guelph. I wasn’t sure how I was going to combine my interdisciplinary interests until I discovered that working in museums was a thing people could do, but it really is a perfect fit.
What was your ‘sticky’ moment?
So much of my childhood was spent in museums that I’m not sure I was ever “un-sticky.” But the moment that stands out the most was when I was five and I had a very up-close and personal encounter with a beluga whale at the Mystic Aquarium. The way the whale and I interacted with each other has become the stuff of family legend, but I still remember the feeling that something really special was happening. From that moment on, museums, zoos, and aquariums were all magical.
What is the name of your blog? How long have you been blogging?
My blog’s called Museums Askew, and I’ve been blogging for a little over two years.
What do you blog about? Why?
I blog about working in museums, visiting museums, things I find inspiring, questions I’m asking, and ideas that are percolating.
I began blogging as a way to record my thoughts and ideas about the museum world, and it quickly became a way for me to participate in current discussions within the field. Because I’m a consultant and not engaged in the day-to-day life of any one museum, I appreciate how blogging helps me maintain a voice within the community and connects me with my peers.
I also blog for the freedom it gives me to explore and experiment with topics I’m passionate about. For example, my “Why Don’t You…?” series lets me brainstorm and play with new visitor engagement ideas, even if I don’t have a way to test them out (yet).
Have you ever regretted a blog post?
The only blog posts I’ve regretted are the ones I haven’t finished. Juggling consulting and teaching means that sometimes I’ll get an idea for a post and begin to flesh it out, and then get distracted by life and forget to complete it. My goal for the end of the year is to dust of some of those drafts and actually finish them.
What’s your most read blog post? Tell us about it.
My most read blog post is “Emotional Safety in Museums.” I wrote the piece when I was working on an exhibit that included stories of racism, war, xenophobia, and violence. Spending each day working with those stories and the objects associated with them took a toll on me emotionally. I realized that for all my museum health and safety training, I hadn’t anticipated what I might need to do to support my emotional wellbeing.
I wrote the post to share the tricks and tools that help me process and engage with those emotions, and I’m happy it resonated with others.
My second most read post is about dinosaur erotica set in museums so, again, it takes all kinds.
What’s your “go-to” blog/online museum resource?
Oh, the list is long. For the latest museum news, Twitter is a great starting point. For general museum awesomeness, some of my favorites include Museum 2.0, The Uncataloged Museum, Interactivate, make it BETTER, Intentional Museum, Design Thinking for Museums and Museum Commons.
What’s the last exhibit you saw?
I spent two weeks in Iceland at the end of the summer, and one of the highlights was my visit to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. I can’t remember if there were individual exhibits – the…um…specimens all blurred together after a while. But it was a really fun and interesting museum. Did you know that some barnacles have a penis with an exoskeleton that expands like an accordion? You do now!
If you didn’t work in a museum, what would you be doing?
If I didn’t work with museums, I hope I’d still be involved in some part of science communication. Lately I’ve become especially enamored with science radio programs –you’re really challenged to rethink how you approach science storytelling when your audience can’t see what you’re talking about. I’m a huge fan of programs like Radiolab and The Infinite Monkey Cage, but I’ve noticed they’re all missing a smart, witty female cohost. Robert Krulwich – call me.
Night at the Museum: love it or hate it?
c) Slightly terrified by it. The day after I saw Night at the Museum I ended up accidentally locked inside a dark storage room full of giant taxidermied specimens – including a wolf, a panther, a tiger, and a polar bear. With the movie fresh in my mind, my overactive imagination got the better of me and I was absolutely convinced I’d heard the tiger growl by the time someone came to rescue me. I never went into that room without a flashlight again, I definitely didn’t see Night at the Museum 2, and I still have my suspicions about that tiger…
Share one piece of advice for those interested in working in the museum field.
The most exciting things about museums are the speed and directions in which they’re evolving. Things are changing in new and interesting and brave and (sometimes) scary ways. And if you really want to participate in what museums are going to become, you need to be one of the agents of change. So take risks.
They don’t have to be huge risks. You don’t always need to reinvent the museum wheel. But look for the places where you can try something different. Where you can shake things up, get messy, make mistakes, fail, try again, and challenge yourself, your coworkers, and your visitors.
Find other risk takers and support one another. Ask yourselves what can’t be done in museums, start thinking about how you could do it, and see where it leads you.
Thanks for participating in Meet a Museum Blogger, Katie!
In case you missed it, Katie blogs at Museums Askew.
Do you have additional questions for Katie regarding her profile above? Feel free to start a conversation in the comments below or reach out to her directly on Twitter at @museumsaskew. Please use the #MuseumBlogger hashtag. TY!
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