Take the summer off? Not at the internationally acclaimed School of Design at Altos de Chavón in La Romana, D.R. An ambitious program of five intensive workshops and classes took place from July 10 to July 14 and more are slated right into August.
Arlene Alvarez, Director, Altos de Chavón Regional Archeological Museum and Carmen Lorente, Director of Special Programs organized the summer intensive classes. Both could function well in a small Fortune 500 company.
Students from all over the Dominican Republic signed up for July’s classes taught by teachers from Santo Domingo, Spain, New York City, and Boston.
• Commercial Photography led by Diana Baldera of Santo Domingo
• Introduction to Music Videos led by Pablo Lozano of Santo Domingo
• Anatomical Drawing led by Anna Wakitch of NYC Academy of Drawing
• Travel and Adventure Photography led by Juan Carlos Vélaz of Spain
• Introduction to Museum Studies led by Katherine Jones of Boston, MA
With skilled focus and pace, Katherine Jones, Director of the Graduate Program in Museum Studies at Harvard Extension School, distilled aspects of her extensive career experience including collections management, media specialist, board member, registrar and museum administrator into one week! As an invited guest, I realized how much more there is to the museum experience aside from looking at the artwork on the walls or on pedestals.
Many in the class were affiliated with Dominican museums in administration or operations or sometimes both. Others enrolled to get a deeper grasp organizational structures that would support their work. Topics they wanted to learn about included use of technology and social media to widen their audiences, techniques for fund raising, developing earned income from gift shops and rental of space, matters of governance regarding board development and staffing policies.
The class was a perfect fit.
The first day was a doozy: an overview of all a museum’s functional areas: Administration, Collections Care, Exhibitions, Education, Fundraising and Membership, Governance, Communications and Marketing, and Operations (Technology, Facilities), and Collections Care.
As the week progressed, her Power Point slides were translated into Spanish. Jones spoke in English. Most of the participants were bilingual. Arlene Alvarez translated for two who were less fluent and for Jones when necessary.
A Power Point presentation has no impact unless it is backed up by cogent, appropriate information and active engagement with an audience. Jones’s was all of that. Her students ate it up.
The creative energy was as thick in the classroom as the tropical heat and humidity outside their walls. We’re in the heart of the Caribbean but make no mistake - their curiosity and thirst for knowledge began to thrive in those first six hours under the terracotta tile roof of the classroom.
“How would you define a museum?” Jones’ first question gave her a sense of her audience and set the tone for a week of engagement. Rich responses ranged from educating via online museums, pop up museums, traveling museums, brick and mortar museums and reasons each contribute to enhancing or maintaining culture and history.
When Jones noted that a museum’s mission must be clearly understood by everyone from board members to the greeter at the door, a woman who administers a museum in Higuey said that the cleaning lady had the best grasp of the mission of anyone she surveyed, including the higher up administrators! That’s a big aha moment for an administrator of a museum of any size.
The two complementary components of a museum are programmatic (mission driven) and operations (sustainability driven). The programmatic includes collections and their care, research, exhibitions, programs including tours, school groups, lectures, and courses. The operations component includes fund raising, marketing, technology, janitorial and security.
Each has a range of employees who, except for docents, volunteers, security, and gift shop workers, are not often encountered by the typical museum-goer. Flow charts showing the differences between staffing of large, medium and small sized museums set the stage for participants to assess and refine their organizations.
Jones's first morning overview got conversations going right out of the gate. Questions about security and theft, a museum’s values, how to preserve objects in the humid Caribbean climate, how to make a museum’s audience more diverse, how to measure success, preparing children and teachers for a museum visit, what makes a museum financially sustainable, contingency plans in the event of a hurricane - all this in the first 6 hours!
The topic citing the importance of having in place a clearly stated policy of accession (accepting a piece of art) was a hot issue. Several participants reported that donors were upset when their offers to donate an item were politely refused. If they had a specific policy in place that explained the reason they could not accept the gift, they maintained good relationships; if not, they risked offending important supporters or donors to their museums.
On subsequent days, hands-on experience and field trips were illuminating experiences. Jones demonstrated how to use archival paper to wrap items in the museum’s collection and showed a tool for making cradles for delicate objects using EthaFoam.
The five day course was enriched by offers from the participants who invited the class to visit museums with which they are affiliated. The class piled into vans to take a field trip to the Museo Altagracia operated by a participant and visit the amazing basilica it represents in Higuey.
After class another afternoon, a participant invited the class to tour a small museum incorporated into a jewelry store operated by her family. Located in the heart of the Altos de Chavón village, it features jewelry made with Larimar, a semi-precious stone found only in the Dominican Republic. It's a satellite museum of the original museum in Santo Domingo.
Alex Martinez Suarez, a Santo Domingo architect and former student of Jones, engaged students with the story of how he oversaw construction of the Fernando Peña DeFilló Museum in the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo, and described his experience of designing and constructing an addition to this museum. His slides illustrated best practices in exhibition planning, design, ways visitors flow through a museum's exhibits and examples of how to hang art in the exhibitions.
Monday’s homework - Jones asked participants to tell about their most memorable museum exhibit. One student talked about The Museum of Impossible Conversations, an exhibit that imagined a conversation between a current and past fashion designer.
Thursday’s homework assignment was a brilliant way to evaluate how much information the students had absorbed and how to apply it - present a concept for a museum using what they had learned about all aspects of a museum from the programmatic side and the operations side. The programmatic (creative) side had to determine the theme and coordinate with the Operations team to formulate a vision… and present it at the end of the last day of class Friday.
Archeological Museum Director Arlene Alvarez made two teams using the good ‘ol count off by twos method and they went to work. They must have worked on it all night because they came up with a beaut. Museo de la Gastronomía Dominicana!
A one-week intensive course at the world-class School of Design was perfect for working professionals. By the time the week ended, participants got deep into the weeds of what makes a museum click and found ways to apply them to their own organizations or businesses.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.