State of the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture with Executive Director Brenda Tindal

SPEAKERS

Jennifer Berglund, Brenda Tindal

Jennifer Berglund
Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host!

 

Jennifer Berglund

Today, I'm speaking with Brenda Tindal, HMSC's wonderful new Executive Director. She's had a whirlwind six months with us during what has been perhaps the most complex, dynamic time in our history; a time when the pandemic has transformed all of our lives. So for this first episode of 2022, I thought it would be a perfect time for Brenda to give us an informal "state of the museum's" to reflect on her time so far: where we've been, where we are now, and where we're going. Here she is. Brenda Tindal, welcome to the show!

 

Brenda Tindal

Thank you so much for having me again, Jenny, this is always a delight to be in conversation with you.

 

Jennifer Berglund

A lot has happened here in the six months that you've been a wonderful part of HMSC. What has been most exciting to you in the six months you've been in this job?

 

Brenda Tindal

You know, I think coming into a community and an organization amid a pandemic is unusual circumstances. But, I think the thing that has been so exciting is the innovation and the creativity that I've had the opportunity to witness both at Harvard, but also in particular, within our museums. So I find great inspiration in the innovative practices that were developed over the last 18 months by the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture team. And so in that regard, I would say that has been probably the most fascinating, interesting and exciting part of, you know, navigating this unusual moment in the life of our organization, but in the world, frankly.

 

Jennifer Berglund

And it's probably been pretty hard to focus on much else to, you know, it's been so all consuming. But that does lead me to my next question, which is how have we, at HMSC, changed and adapted as we've gone through this pandemic?

 

Brenda Tindal

I think one of the things that HMSC as well as many museums and organizations that are public facing, that are visitor serving if you will, have had to do was to sort of reinvent who they are and how they serve their audiences. And in that regard, I think in the effort to continue to engage with our audience segments, going remote, delivering digital products, digital programs, such as this podcast, and the many digital programs that we've delivered on, has been an important part of keeping our mission alive and well among our longtime visitors and community members. But also, connecting with a much more global audience who otherwise may not be visiting our museums on site, but are able to connect with our resources, with our team, with our incredible community of scholars and practitioners through our digital offerings. So in that regard, I think it goes back to that essence of creativity and innovation has been an important part of how HMSC has pivoted, if you will, over the last 18 months. It's been such a fascinating transition. And of course, looking at ways to, as we reopened our museums, thinking about how we continue to maximize engagement with those digital audiences while also being able to serve our community members on site. And so thinking about sort of that hybrid or blended model has been very much part of the HMSC ecosystem over the last few months as we entered into our phased reopening. In terms of our phased reopening, we had three phases essentially that defined the fall semester. In September, we reopened to the Harvard community. We wanted to give students, faculty and staff an opportunity to reorient themselves to the campus and thus the museums. And so, for that first month, we really devoted much of that time to catering to our Harvard audiences. Then, in October, we opened to what we call sort of "Harvard plus". Friends of the museum, our volunteers, our members, as well as continuing to expand offerings to the Harvard community and to their families. And then finally, in November, we open to the general public and throughout all three of those phases that included enhanced protocols to make sure that we were safeguarding both our staff and visitors as we reopened the museums. And so in that regard, that sort of a logistical articulation of you know, our phase reopening approach. With regards to phased reopening while we we opened our galleries, our public galleries, to visitors, we continued to deliver on digital school programs as well as public programs. And so our signature lecture series, which feature Harvard scholars as well as scholars throughout our global community that really spoke to a diversity of topics that are in alignment with our mission. And so we continue to offer those scholarly lectures digitally. We also some of our signature festivals, we offered summer solstice, for instance, during the summer months, we did offer a digital iteration of that. And of course, nothing can replace a festival in person that is as signature and as lively as summer solstice is for our community, we were delighted to be able to offer a digital analogue, if you will, a way to continue to connect with HMSC in that way. I would also say in terms of school programs, I mean, if you've ever had an opportunity to sit at the feet of our museum educators, the way that they activated the digital classroom through digital walkthroughs of our exhibitions, it's amazing the ways in which we were still able to share our on site experience through those, sort of, those virtual classroom experiences. And so it was just delightful to know that we were still connecting with young people, with teachers and with schools, as they also sought to navigate to the new normal.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Yeah, it's interesting, this new normal, you know, we've all become so used to this digital universe and communicating with each other through this digital universe. I mean, I think it's arguable that because of that, that has opened so many doors to us as a museum. And it's enabled us to reach so many more audiences. And I mean, that, to me, is extremely exciting.

 

Brenda Tindal

Oh, it absolutely is. Often during after our digital programs, our inimitable Director of Public Programs sends a sort of an outline and a report, if you will, of the people that we reach of our audience segments that connected to our programs. And more often than not, what was made very clear is that we would on one digital program might have people from 20 different countries represented, which is something that you can't necessarily replicate in person all the time. So we know that our reach is not simply local. It's not simply regional, it's not simply national, it is absolutely global. And so we want to continue to connect with our global audience segments. And so I certainly see our digital footprint continuing even as we expand our on site experiences

 

Jennifer Berglund

That in mind, what do you think we've learned about ourselves and our visitors during this time?

 

Brenda Tindal

That we have an incredible and loyal audience in our volunteers, in our Harvard community. That there is still an appetite and an eagerness to connect to those scholarly resources that are unique to Harvard and are in deep alignment with HMSC. I think that we've learned so much about how we build capacity through cross institutional collaboration, the opportunity to collaborate across our museums, across HMSC,highlighted the incredible talent that exists across our ecosystem. And it also presented a really amazing opportunity for innovation and creativity to really be in sharp focus, right, as we thought about how we can more innovatively and more thoughtfully connect with our audiences, and most of all, how we leverage our cultural and scientific assets. And so again, I've just been an absolute awe of the products that we've created, of the programs that we've developed. I'm especially impressed with this podcast. I hear about it all the time from our scholarly community and from our volunteers and others who have tuned in and this has become one of the conduits through which they connect with HMSC. And so I think we've learned that not only are we able to deliver excellence in our on site visitor experience, but we have developed quite a repertoire, and engaging in other technologies, including podcasts and digital programs and virtual classrooms. So in that regard, I think that we have a tapped into, you know, what I'll call a boundless creativity. And we're in competition with ourselves at this point to continue that momentum as we seek to offer a blended experience.

 

Jennifer Berglund

I think it's been so nice to just find other ways to think about connecting with our audiences, I think, and to just realize there's such an appetite for the things that we do at the museum, that it's not just about the things that you can see in person, it's about finding different ways to personally connect with the museum's, the scholarship, and the collections. And so I totally agree with you that it's just been this amazing opportunity for us to, for our incredibly creative staff to really exercise that muscle. It's been really fun, I think.

 

Brenda Tindal

Absolutely. You know, I'll also add this, and I may have shared this with you before, but you know, one of my mantras that I live by, as a historian and as a museum practitioner is something I learned from Alice Walker when I was working on her collection, and that mantra is "People are known by the records they keep. If it isn't, in the record, it will be said that it did not happen." That is what history is, a keeping of records. And the record that HMSC has kept and stewarded over the last two years has been a force and an example of how the power of museums, the innovation and creativity that exists among museum practitioners, and most of all, the importance of interdisciplinary engagement. We have such a wealth of resources, you know, in our museums represent an interdisciplinary body of scholarship and cultural capital. And so to be able to leverage that in a digital space, in a podcast space, in a way that our digital audiences can connect both, you know, in real time, as well as connect whenever they have time by going to our website, for instance, and looking at recordings that way. To me that that record is profound. And it's a pathway to thinking about how we continue to deliver in such an excellent fashion in the next phase.

 

Jennifer Berglund

I think there's also something that's significant about our specific institution within the institution, in that we serve a public. And we don't serve just the scholars, and just the Harvard community, we serve the greater Cambridge, Boston, Massachusetts, US, global community. And there are all kinds of people that are interested in what's going on at Harvard, what's going on at the museums, and because our very nature is to be accessible and to think about accessibility, it sort of allows us to reach a broader audience.

 

Brenda Tindal

Absolutely. And you know, as I'm thinking about my, my vision for HMSC, which is already so profoundly, I think, connected to the foundation that has already been built. So I see HMSC as being, you know, Harvard's front porch, as being a place of welcome to the wider community that includes obviously, the academic community. But it also as you so eloquently pointed out, it serves a larger community, and both in Cambridge and Boston and Somerville and, and other places. And so, you know, the idea of continuing to figure out what does community engagement look like in the 21st century in what I hope we can officially call a post-pandemic America, crossing fingers, post-pandemic world. The other thing that we've learned is the humanity of people. There is incredible beauty and integrity and rigor in our humanity, right? I mean, this has been one of the most human moments, we've literally connected with each other as we sat in our homes and delivered on our public serving mission. And so I really appreciate the humanity that I've seen alongside the creativity and innovation in our team.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And I feel like I've gotten to know my colleagues better than I ever did seeing everyone in person because having zoom conferences all the time, you get to sort of glimpse into everyone's lives.

 

Brenda Tindal

Absolutely, you know, you see everyones cats and dogs.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Yes! Case in point, mine is right here at my feet now.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So tell me a little bit about the challenges. And I mean, I know there were so many challenges figuring out when to open and how exactly to open. And what kind of thinking went into addressing those challenges and what did you learn?

 

Brenda Tindal

I think that's a great question. You know, in many ways, my number one priority was always and continues to be the health and safety and morale of our staff, and certainly of the Harvard community, and of course, our visitors. And so we really wanted to shore up confidence in the Harvard community and and obviously, our staff and in our visitors by putting in place what we thought were approaches that would safeguard all. We made sure that we put in place a system of checking vaccinations and or a negative COVID test for admissions, you know, we continue to mask and be in accordance with Harvard University, and FAS guidance. And so we always put the health and safety of the team and of our visitors first. And so even though it added different steps and a different level of logistical planning to our admissions process, I don't think that it compromise the visitor experience. In fact, what I heard, I actually spent a lot of time on the front lines, because I wanted to understand what were the questions that our visitors had, what were the nuances in the visitor experience in light of our reopening after 18 months? And also, I wanted to figure out, how do we best support our visitor facing team as they navigate the new normal? And most of all, I wanted to be sure that we all sort of understood the unique environment that we find ourselves in. And so one of the things that we did, and that I really was a particular proponent of is doing an all hands or more hands on deck approach, where we invited staff from across HMSC to actually serve on the front lines, in part because we wanted to make sure or at least, I was particularly invested in ensuring that we had a literacy of the visitor experience and the ways in which the new normal, these new sort of protocols and enhanced measures, provided context for understanding of our visitors. But also, it would provide insight in terms of how we better serve our visitors during this time. And I don't think that, you know, it's just the visitor facing team that is responsible for the visitor experience. I lead by another mantra is that while you know all of us aren't visitor facing, we are all visitor serving. So the opportunity for all of our team members to actually interface with our visitors was really important, as we, you know, segue into the spring semester.

 

Jennifer Berglund

I'm sure we have a number of future visitors listening. Would you mind just providing a little bit of an overview of what that experience is like? What is the experience now? Because it's not just a matter of showing up to the museum and getting a ticket? Right?

 

Brenda Tindal

It's absolutely more than that. Absolutely. We actually require a reservation before coming. When you get to our website, that reservation provides one, an opportunity for you to reserve your ticket prior to arrival. But two, there's a lot of information there to help guide our visitors and the best practices for visiting the Harvard museums of science and culture. So we established a "Know. Show. Go." sort of page that really provides-

 

Jennifer Berglund

-and that is that is know as in Know. Show. Go. So that three step process-

 

Brenda Tindal

Exactly. And the goal there is to make sure that all of our visitors are clear on what our expectations are, but also to ensure that they have a more seamless experience when they arrive. And so we've done a lot of work wanting to make sure that our visitors have a literacy of our expectations as we seek to safeguard both visitors as well as our staff.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Next summer HMSC is reaching a very important milestone. It's our 10 year anniversary. What do you think this means for us as an institution and where do you envision us going as we venture into the future?

 

Brenda Tindal

Wow, I think that's an excellent question. One, that is such an important milestone. 10 years is a youthful number but it's also an important milestone in terms of HMSC defining itself as a stakeholder in the Harvard community. But most importantly, as a complex of museums that invite interdisciplinary inquiry and discovery and engagement with the scientific world. To be clear, I think it's really important to highlight the fact that our four museums, they really do create this interdisciplinary complexity. So we have the Harvard Museum of Natural History, we have the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East, we also have the Peabody Museum and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. And as a result of that complexity of our collection, the interdisciplinarity of the experience, the 10 years is an opportunity to celebrate that wide array of opportunities for our visitors to explore the full breadth of our visitor experience. For so many, they come for a very particular museum. My hope is that our 10 year anniversary is an opportunity to highlight the full scope of our complex, all four of our public facing museums, and create opportunities that better connect our visitors to all of our museums even if they're coming for a singular experience. I also think that it's important, I have arrived in this role, and at this institution at a very interesting moment, and the 10 year anniversary is an opportunity to pay homage to the many path breakers, trailblazers, you know, Jane Pickering, for instance, Peter Galison, who has been part of CHSI for 30 years, right. I mean, there have been some long tenured scholars and museum practitioners and university stakeholders that I owe a great deal of credit to for creating a foundation for which we can build upon, a very strong foundation. And so I'm excited about this anniversary being a launchpad for the next 10 years of innovation, of creativity, of scientific inquiry of, you know, cultural exploration. I think we're on the cusp of really being a destination. And by that I mean, people are going to come to Harvard, to come to the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. I know that they do that now, but I want visitors to explore all of our museums as they pilgrimage to our campus. And so I'm just really excited about elevating the diversity of our museum experiences and celebrating the tremendous work of our university and museum stakeholders.

 

Brenda Tindal

You had to summarize, what act one of HMSC, what the first 10 years accomplished, and what you hope act to accomplishes in the story of our collective museums at HMSC, what would you say?

 

Brenda Tindal

Wow, I think that's such a brilliant question. I would say Act One-

 

Jennifer Berglund

And I know that's hard, because you're new. So it's probably not a fair question, honestly.

 

Brenda Tindal

You know, I think it's foundational. You know, that that's not the most clever or the most poetic, or even the most creative way to define the first 10 years. But if you have a soggy or a unstable foundation, it's really difficult to build on. So when I use that term, foundational, I really mean that it is solid, it has been well stewarded by former museum directors, by our research museum directors, by our staff. And most importantly, it has been bookended in some ways by, you know, building and in some ways rebuilding, right? Building in terms of that foundation, but over the last two years, really redefining what museums can do to continue to engage with their publics when their publics can't engage with them in person. And so in that regard, I would say, you know, we we really have a very interesting journey ahead to build on that foundation, but to also continue to reinvent ourselves as we look to the next 10 years of HMSC. Act Two is about us reaching new heights in our engagement with diverse audience segments. Again, that idea of HMSC being Harvard's front porch, being a point of destination, a place that welcomes, and that helps break down the town gown dynamics that often are part of communities where there are large universities. I think we really have the opportunity to make Harvard, in some ways, more approachable, more accessible, so that our resources reach audiences who would benefit a great deal from the work of our museums. So I see us being both a museum with and without walls. By that, I mean, I believe we can mobilize our asset in new ways building on what we've learned during the pandemic, we know that there's an appetite for digital engagement and virtual engagement. But I hope, eventually, we're able to socialize our work in the community in an even more robust manner. And we're already doing some of that. I think about the incredible work that my colleague, Polly Hubbard is leading. She's our Director of Education in the Peabody Museum engaging with young people and teens, Latinx teens, in Somerville, and among other places, to really incorporate their perspective and voice in our on site experience. So you know, that that kind of innovation where people make our museums theirs, and that were essential to the communities that we serve. And so I really want to work hard at diversifying our audience, of extending our reach, and of shoring up that essential quality. And by that, I mean, I would love for every eighth grader to have as part of their experience having come to HMSC. Or every third grader, or I want that to be a universal experience, if you will. And so there's work to be done to cultivate relationships, to build alliances across and within our communities. And I'm looking forward to doing that important work as we look ahead. I think it's important that we engage with descendent communities, as we think about the wealth of information and knowledge that many of our museums bear as a result of long histories, both complicated and diverse. And so the opportunity to really begin to think in more nuanced ways about our collections about our visitor experience, through those kinds of engagements, is deeply important to my craft as a museum practitioner, but most importantly, to extending the reach of our incredible suite of museums.

 

Jennifer Berglund

What kinds of things do we have to look forward to in the new year? It's 2022. We're just a couple of days in now, what do we have to look forward to?

 

Brenda Tindal

Well, you know, there, there's a little bit of 2020, a little bit of 2021, still sort of sort of influencing 2022, as we continue to be cautious and thoughtful about continuing to offer on site experiences, as well as digital offerings. And so there will be a bit of navigating Omicron obviously, that variant, and so we will continue to to make sense of the new normal. But what will also be, I think, deeply important is figuring out how do we actually celebrate our 10 year reunion in a hybrid fashion. I would love for that celebration to be your long, I would love for that celebration and that milestone to be recognized within our digital footprint. And I also want to welcome our visitors back on site in a celebratory fashion as well. And so while while there is a bit of tentativeness as we navigate the first few weeks of the semester and understand the impacts of Omicron on our community, I can assure you that we are in deep thought about how we continue to deliver on both our mission but also the opportunity to celebrate our many accomplishments including the 10 year anniversary. So stay tuned for more more updates on that front.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Speaking of where can visitors get updates about what our policies are and upcoming events?

 

Brenda Tindal

Absolutely, there is a, I would call it a one stop shop. Although we have multiple platforms, I highly recommend visiting our website for the most up to date information regarding our visitor policies and expectations, any openings and closings, as well as information about all of our museums. Our website would be the best place. But also, you know, I recognize that you have a huge listener base, that you have just done such a brilliant job of cultivating over the last few years,

 

Jennifer Berglund

PR and marketing gets all the credit for that.

 

Brenda Tindal

And they are amazing, right. But I think continuing to connect to our podcast, continue to check out our social media, continuing to obviously check out our website, I think that is a trio a troika, if you will, of our sort of public face right now.

 

Jennifer Berglund

And our website, by the way, is www.hmsc.harvard.edu.

 

Brenda Tindal

That's right!

 

Jennifer Berglund

I think I know the answer to this, but what are you most excited about in 2022?

 

Brenda Tindal

Oh, my goodness, I am excited about the possibility of COVID-19 no longer being part of our dialogue. Amen. Really I am looking forward to, at some point, being able to see the team in person unmasked. You know, like, you know, it's interesting, because being new, I've had to really rely on different social cues, understanding the emotions of the team. I, frankly, you know, and it's a very interesting occurrence, right to think about this, but I don't know that I've seen anyone's face. You know, their full face!

 

Jennifer Berglund

That is really interesting. You know, there's a, there's a study in there somewhere, right? You know, I feel like I gesticulate a lot more now. And I use my eyebrows and you know, I see someone on the street rather than smile, I'll nod my head.

 

Brenda Tindal

Absolutely. And, you know, I, I'm interested in seeing the science, the psychology of what our new normal is, and how HMSC may one day help our visitors understand the impact on our personality as human beings during and after the pandemic. I think it's going to be a very fascinating time and science and culture couldn't be more important avenues through which we might engage that topic in the future. So HMSC is, to me, great territory for that kind of commentary. But I'm looking forward to everything. Our programs, I think we have an amazing lineup as we look ahead. I am so richly looking forward to connecting with students and faculty and helping to deliver on the academic mission of Harvard University. We recently hosted a listening session for undergraduate students who are just brilliant and thoughtful and rigorous and were so present in exploring our museums and getting their insight and perspective as we continue to refine our offerings for students and faculty. I'm so deeply excited about that. I'm also excited about getting proximate to our community, both within and beyond Harvard's campus. It's important as a newcomer to the university, but to the city, that I understand who I live with. And one of the ways that museums have this incredible way of connecting to communities and I'm just looking forward to really being able to connect HMSC to the broader community. There's a lot more to hear and learn in the coming weeks, but I think this has been a great launchpad for what is sure to be a exciting and interesting semester and march toward our 10 year anniversary.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Brenda Tindall thank you so much for being here! This has been really fun.

 

Brenda Tindal

Jennie, thank you so much for having me. As usual, you are just a wonderful curator of dialogue and always offered thought provoking questions. So thank you for having me. And most of all, thanks for giving HMSC this platform and new and innovative ways to connect to the Harvard community to our museum community. So thank you so very much.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Thank you Brenda!

 

Jennifer Berglund

Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was edited by Emma Knudsen, and produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to HMSC and to Brenda Tindal for her wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, PodBean or wherever you get your podcasts. !ee in a couple of weeks!