CHANGE

This is a blog post I wrote about attending the Western Museums Association conference in September of 2016. It was a requirement for receiving the scholarship I did, but I greatly enjoyed writing it and I hope you enjoy reading it!

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A fourteen month redesign of a 20-year-old museum. The Western Museums Association annual conference. The election of a reality TV demagogue. What do they all have in common? Change.

Phoenix, the city where the annual conference was hosted this year, is the capital of my home state. It’s where I was born, though not entirely where I grew up. Being able to return for my first ever conference—and for a gathering of west coast museums no less—after having left for graduate school in San Francisco and starting my career in Los Angeles, felt calmingly full-circle. The events of the week there left me more connected with Arizona’s cultural institutions than ever before. The welcome dinner at Heritage Square greeted us with an array of local food, drinks and peers. The Shipper’s Party at the Arizona Science Center took me back to a childhood favorite museum I had last been to on a field trip in 6th grade. The Arizona-themed dinner at the Desert Botanical Gardens was a beautiful evening surrounded by the grace of the Sonoran desert, and the night at the Phoenix Art Museum was my first time ever there. These events alone allowed me to know my primary community in a way I never had before, and that is all thanks to the Western Museums Association granting me the Wanda Chin Scholarship!

The 2016 WMA annual conference was themed around ‘change,’ which was fitting both personally and professionally. I’m currently in my fourth role (in a span of nineteen months) within the first museum I was hired at post-grad, and thus I’ve been constantly adapting to an ever-evolving environment and set of responsibilities. The Petersen Automotive Museum underwent a dramatic transformation in 2014, closing its doors for fourteen months and reopening in December of 2015. The design team was wholly collaborative, consisting of the museum’s curatorial, design and marketing teams; a design firm called The Scenic Route; Matt Construction; and architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox. My first role was as a curatorial assistant with The Scenic Route doing research, writing and editing for the museum’s didactics, interpretive literature, and digital interactives.

This A-team took a chronological, singularly focused, static museum and brought it into the 21st century. The redesign added an impossible-to-miss exterior, an entire floor of exhibitions and an expanded scope of mission, content and collection. The process of working with a 20-year-old museum going through a rebranding and reinventing of itself to this scale was a marvel to behold and be a part of. But beyond the physical, the museum also expanded and diversified its program offerings; I’m proud to say I played an integral role in both aspects of the Petersen’s evolution.

When the museum reopened I took on my second role as a gallery facilitator in our main educational space, the Discovery Center. After six months of doing that part-time and staying on as a curatorial assistant for various Scenic Route projects, I was promoted to my third role. Becoming the School Programs Assistant allowed me to join a small but extremely passionate team of museum educators who were tasked with creating and fulfilling an educational mission from scratch. All of them were new to the museum and the industry its content represents, but had done a beautiful and frankly miraculous job shaping the Education department into what it is now.

I came on board as the team was on the cusp of re-launching the school tours program. We were wrapping up our curriculum-based tour content at that point, but were still in the midst of transforming the preexisting program and policies, making it fit (and often creating it entirely anew) for a completely different space. There was a lot to be done: Teacher Preview Days were our way of letting local teachers know that we were back up and running; intradepartmental meetings were necessary to explain what we do and how we do it to an unfamiliar staff; and amongst ourselves and our Getty summer intern, we had planning meetings constantly to think of every possible scenario we might need to be prepared for. It was a lot of work, but it was fun and rewarding to be a steward of educating the future in a city like LA.

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I went to the WMA conference a few weeks after assuming my fourth role: interim manager of the Education department. A change in budget and departmental priorities resulted in my team leaving all at the same time. We went from a department of four to a department of one, so it was fitting that the panels and sessions I attended spoke to a shifting landscape not only in our field but on the West Coast and in North America as a whole. Those changes in our communities, our cities, and our society directly affect the work we do. I left the conference with a renewed passion to make the world a better place through museum education, and with a better sense of the tools at my disposal.

Upon returning to LA from blazing hot Phoenix, I was excited to put my new knowledge into practice. I launched a departmental green initiative, the basis for which I learned during Museums and Race 2016: Transformation and Justice. The community oriented panels I attended such as Picking Up the Slack: How Museum Summer Camps Are Changing Educational Priorities, Museums Collaborate with Homeless and Foster Youth and Trends in Museum Education: Embracing Change, Effecting Change gave me programming and partnership inspiration that directly related to the work I was already doing with our Title I field trip scholarship program.

Our biggest push towards inclusive and diverse programming coincidentally happened the same week that saw Donald Trump elected. Candacy Taylor, an author and cultural historian, was scheduled to give a talk about the history of Green Books, which were travel guides from the Jim Crow era that made it safe for African-American families to travel along major highways. The Petersen, for all its external progress, had never done a program like this before. In an effort to keep the conversation going throughout generations, I organized a youth and family program centered on the same topic which happened the same weekend as Candacy’s talk. We did a reading of Ruth and the Green Book, a fictional account of a family in the 1950s using a Green Book to travel from Chicago to Alabama, followed by a discussion about race, identity, perception and community. The success of both of these programs is undoubtedly due to the skills and confidence I gained at the Western Museums Association conference this year. Receiving the Wanda Chin Scholarship changed my life, irrevocably.

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It is my hope that the Petersen and our society continue to reinvent themselves (especially in the light of our political landscape), and incorporate the ideas of inclusion and community that were so prevalent at the WMA conference. It is natural to be reluctant of change because there’s always a degree of the unknown that accompanies it, but that doesn’t mean we can afford to be daunted by it. As museum professionals we are safeguards of both the past and the future, and as such must always be the ones to embrace change.

 

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It’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

The year was 2013, and I was on the verge of leaving my hometown for graduate school in a city I’d never been to before. The verge of starting my adult life, really. I was fortunate to win The Listserve, a mass e-mail list and lottery where every day one person is randomly selected to write one e-mail to the growing list. That’s the only e-mail allowed to be sent to The Listserve. The submissions range between soul touching personal stories, brilliant advice, well-written opinions on politics, gender, sex, religion, or they ask questions of the group. The winner’s e-mail address isn’t disclosed to the listserv unless they want it to be. I opted to use that function and got lots of thoughtful responses plus I met several people from Tucson! It was such a pleasant experience; no one was creepy or rude and I even made a Facebook friend from it.

I still love The Listserve because it’s a simple and beautiful way to stay connected in this increasingly detached world. A world that can’t trust its neighbors and feels alarmingly under attack, where violence, hatred and fear are commonplace. The daily e-mails are a portal into different world-views, a humbling and completely necessary experience in life. I tried to speak to that and if my piece can inspire just one person with a tiny bit of hope for our future, I’d be grateful. So I’ve preserved “It’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” (where I not only ask for advice, but prescribe it as well) in its entirety here:

“February 20th, 2013

Hello all. Since I’m relatively new to The Listserve, I certainly didn’t expect to win the lottery so soon! It’s a wonderful surprise. I must say I love the concept behind The Listserve- using technology to keep us connected across the world, despite locations, economic status, gender, race. I love getting Listserve messages because I feel like I’m getting to hear bits of wisdom from all kinds of different people who have had many years of experience on me. It’s amazing.

My message is relatively short since I’m still somewhat new to this world myself. I’m graduating from the University of Arizona in May, and I’ll be stepping out into the huge, unknown adult world. I’m planning on entering the field of museums, a pretty unpopular career choice among my peers. My parents tell me I’m gonna have to marry rich just to have a comfortable life, and my friends say I’m gonna end up being a teacher. But none of that matters to me. Museums might seem boring (I know my sister hated getting dragged to them) but they are vital to society and communal growth. Without a place to engage with history, we are doomed to repeat it. And most of human history shouldn’t be repeated (in my humble opinion). So I urge you to go out to the local museum in your town or city and spend just an hour there- reading, listening, learning. It could surprise you how much fun you have.

I know that I’m going to leave this small city and join the broader community. I want to go out and make an impact on the world, and let me say that I am raring to go. I hope that this small message for posterity leaves you with a piqued interest in museums or even just history in a broader sense, whether it be human history or just your own personal history. There’s always something to be learned from past experiences which will enrich our future paths.

My generation is known for the somewhat asinine phrase “YOLO” but if my generation is known for living life to the fullest, then so be it. I’m down with that. Good luck everybody, and I hope to see you all poking around your local museums one day.

You only live once.

Mariah Shevchuk

(I’ve included my email address in case anyone wants to share tips for graduate school or any interesting museums they know of. Thanks in advance, guys!)

hairam812@aol.com
Tucson, Arizona”

If anyone wants to join The Listserve, you can sign up here: http://www.thelistserve.com/

so-cal social justice

-{Here’s the blog I wrote for my MA program’s blog about my summer interning at the Museum of Tolerance in LA. Check their blog while you’re at it!}

So-Cal Social Justice by Mariah Shevchuk

An army vet, a boy preparing for his bar mitzvah, a school teacher, a Puerto Rican immigrant, the child of a Holocaust survivor (among quite a few Holocaust survivors themselves), an actress, a high school student, a writer, a clothing designer. What could all these diverse people possibly have in common? A lot. They all feel the call to better not just their communities, but humankind.

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Museum of Tolerance interns and staff

Volunteers at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles come from every age, religion, profession, gender, nationality and economic status under the sun. But the beauty of a Museum such as this one is that within these walls, none of that matters. Humans are simply humans, and all are treated with the same degree of respect that such a title demands.

Twice a year, Museum of Tolerance holds a class for all new volunteers and interns that aims to introduce the difficult subjects tackled by the Museum’s permanent exhibitions. These subjects include immigration, assimilation, civil rights, American and European history, women’s rights, racism, global terrorism, and of course the Holocaust and perhaps its most famous victim, Anne Frank. The class makes time for each individual to share their experience and contextualize their motivation for joining the Museum. The overarching theme and aptly given name of the course: Social Justice.

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Rene Firestone (above). Museum of Tolerance interns and volunteers with Rene (below).

During my summer 2014 internship at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, I’ve been fortunate to meet a multitude of people and bear witness to hundreds of different experiences. For example, Rene Firestone is a Holocaust survivor. She also is committed to educating future generations on the dangers of intolerance; her vow is manifested in her time spent documenting the stories of Rwandan genocide survivors. And Rene is but one of many—everyone who comes here to share a story or volunteer their time is committed to making the world a better and more tolerant place (and with what’s been going on in the world lately, who couldn’t use more of that?). The motivations of each individual differ, from ensuring that an atrocity like the Holocaust never happens again to wanting to be a better person to feeling obligated by family history. As intern Shoshanna S. said on her last day at the Museum,

“Working at the Museum of Tolerance was one of the most eye-opening and inspiring experiences of my life, not only because of the crucial work that I was part of, but because of the people I did it with. Being the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I used to feel that continuing the legacy of the Holocaust was on my shoulders, and that it was my responsibility to teach and care about what had happened to my family. In the short time I was there, the Museum reminded me that there are many others who, despite being quite different from me, share my values of pursuing social justice and equality and educating the world. I felt inspired and empowered to see that the Museum’s passion really is a universal one, one that draws people of all faiths and denominations to come together and work towards a greater good. Thank you MOT, for restoring my faith in this generation and our ability to rise above adversity and create real change.”

Mariah Shevchuk at Museum of Tolerance Family Day.
Me, with the “Be A Friend Family Sunday” flyer (we interns organized that day for the Museum!)

Stepping through the doors of the Museum of Tolerance doesn’t automatically make you a better person. But absorbing its exhibits, interacting with a Holocaust survivor, chatting with a volunteer—spending just a few minutes engaged in activities like these can instill a sense of responsibility unlike anything else. The Museum excels at making social justice accessible to everyone- as reflected by the diversity of this singular volunteer class. Museums with social justice centered missions go hand in hand with a University of San Francisco education; the USF Museum Studies’ graduate program prepared me well with a course in Museums and Social Justice. And especially in times like today, with all the conflict in the world, it’s really important to strive for social justice for all people: remember, we’re all simply and beautifully human.

Life in the Richmond District

The calm yet constant bustle of the Richmond District is where I have nestled myself since relocating to San Francisco. The move from Southern Arizona was big, both in terms of distance and the amount of culture shock I initially went through. But it has been amongst this jumbled, melting pot of a neighborhood that I’ve found solace and comfort. But first, let me explain the Richmond. Part Little Russia, part Little Chinatown, there is an endless supply of shops and restaurants that reflect the immense diversity of a city like San Francisco. All within a five block radius of my house there’s a Russian bakery, a Polish delicatessen, a well-known San Francisco hamburger establishment, two Italian restaurants, two Japanese restaurants, a German pub, and countless Thai and Vietnamese restaurants (selling everything from a comforting bowl of pho to hot fried noodles to giant fresh sandwiches layered high with pork, cilantro and carrot). There’s also a Buddhist temple, two Russian Orthodox churches, and a Catholic school/church in my neighborhood. It’s normal to sit side by side with priests in full regalia while you eat your bacon and eggs at the local breakfast joint.

My view (if it’s clear) as I walk home from the bus I take to and from school.

My favorite place to sit and watch my world turn is a humble, locally owned coffee shop called Ilana Coffee. This coffee shop is less than a block from my house (honestly, it’s about 70 feet away from my front door and I go there way more than I care to admit). The owners are a middle-aged Chinese couple who are always quick with a smile, a hello, and usually a joke (in addition to having my favorite orders memorized). They also have some seriously adorable kids that run around sometimes, shyly smiling at customers and laughing loudly. Cute kids often run loose around this neighborhood, with parents, grandparents or babysitters dawdling behind. It really contributes to the palpable feelings of safety and community we enjoy in the Richmond. I see them all from my tiny perch on Clement. It’s sitting here that I can eavesdrop on the old Russian folks who smoke enough cigarettes and drink enough espressos that their hearts should stop right there. Though their language is a mystery to me, I am comforted by hearing it—my paternal grandfather and his family also left that cold corner of the world for the American dream. When I leave my seat to walk home, I am passed up by a young Mexican family, whose mother calls out to her children in lulling Spanish as they approach the crosswalk. Again, I am comforted by the language of my family, this time on my mother’s side.

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Baker Beach offers stunning views of the GGB and Marin, and it’s walking distance from my house!

As I sit outside the coffeeshop writing this, soaking up some rare November sunshine, an elderly African-American gentleman (another regular) walks by and comments on how good the sunshine feels. He calls out to Lancy, one of the owners, as she runs to the nearby school to pick up her daughter Natalie. And another regular, an older Native American veteran, also comes through to get his  caffeine fix of choice. This particular man can often be found sitting on this block, either at bus stops or here at my favorite coffeeshop. I love walking by him; when he sits he disconnects his prosthetic leg just below his left knee and seems to enjoy watching passerby gawk at his detached boot (he prefers to wear cowboy boots when he does this, though he can also be found sporting sneakers). Countless people of all ages have walked their dogs past me, including a young boy who stopped to wave while he waited for his grandfather to catch up. A young Jewish family, the elementary-aged brother and sister holding hands, walk by on their way home from school. People walk by speaking languages that I can’t even try to guess. It’s an amazing feeling of connectedness you get after spending just a few hours observing the Richmond. It warms my soul to watch so many different people, from so many different ages, backgrounds, and walks of life interact and engage with each other like racism or sexism was never a thing. Though it’s by no means glamorous, and it isn’t anything like what you might typically imagine when thinking of San Francisco, it’s undeniably my home. And my new home wonderfully represents the diversity and acceptance that a city like San Francisco symbolizes, making it the best possible welcome I could have hoped for when moving here.